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Explaining 'the enthusiasm gap'


Joshua Tucker wonders how parties that took power atop excited majorities in one year go on to lose power because their voters don't turn out the next year:

Maybe it is easier for opposition parties to “rally the faithful” because the faithful don’t have to be distracted by what party leaders actually do once in power, and therefore can read anything they want into what the party is likely to do when it gets into power. So for example, Obama’s “Yes, We Can!” might have meant single-payer health care to some, a public option to others, and a more modified version of the status quo to still others. Now, however, some of those prior supporters are bound to be disappointed. They may still prefer Obama (Democrats) to the alternative, but perhaps this can explain the enthusiasm gap.

Here’s a little bit of evidence to perhaps related to this final proposition. In a conference paper we presented at 2010 APSA meeting, Ted Brader, Dominik Duell and I reported on the results of experiments on the effects of party cues on public opinion formation in Hungary, Poland, and Great Britain. Interested readers can download the paper here, but to greatly summarize, the point [of] the experiments was to test whether or not hearing that your preferred party supported a particular policy made you more likely to support that policy as well. When we broke down our findings by party, an interesting finding quickly became apparent: across all three countries, we were more likely to find cues affecting the opinions of supporters of opposition parties than incumbent parties.

Another way to put this is that the number of voters who didn't like George W. Bush plus the number of voters who understood and were excited about Obama's agenda was a lot larger than the number of voters who understood and were excited about Obama's agenda. Add in that passing that agenda was a pretty crummy experience for lots of Democrats -- they lost the public option, the stimulus was bargained down, and they generally feel that Obama hasn't picked enough fights on their behalf -- and the number of ardent supporters Democrats have going into November is a lot lower than the number they had in 2008.

If there's a bright side for Democrats, it's that this goes both ways: 2010 is adding voters who don't like the economy and don't think the president has been particularly effectual at improving it to voters who would like to be ruled by a "tea party"-dominated GOP. That mass is a lot larger than the number of voters who want their laws made by a tea party-dominated GOP. But that bright side won't manifest itself for a few years yet, particularly if Republicans don't take both chambers in November.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 14, 2010; 4:37 PM ET
Categories:  2010 Midterms  
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Next: Reconciliation


It's not even that complicated.

The issue is simple. Life stinks and your legislation hasn't visibly made it better.

He passed all his policies, and they didn't work as well as he said they would. And now, all Obama does is yak on the television.

Posted by: krazen1211 | September 14, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse

Young people don't expect the world and they're aren't a whole lot of people who will refuse to vote because Obama didn't get a public option or a climate bill. However, there ARE a lot of young people who won't vote because Obama's said nothing about his intention to get a public option or climate bill in the future. We can forgive him for not fighting hard enough, but if it seems like those fights are over, voila - enthusiasm gap. Problem is, Obama doesn't think he needs to motivate young people with any substance other than "this election really is important!", and anyway he's too scared of conventional wisdom now to say much of anything. F'n Edwards probably would've been better!

Posted by: michaelh81 | September 14, 2010 6:35 PM | Report abuse

It IS simple: The R's are fighting over their party and lots of R's who feel that the party has been ignoring them for years (with reason)have decided that now is the time to take over the party and run it their way.

Of course, one of the reasons that the R's have been ignoring them is that they haven't any business running a birthday party for more than five people, but they will soon enough own the GOP and run it off the road in all directions.

The D's have little reason to be enthused, but that doesn't mean they have reason to stay home in November.

Now that all those enthusiastic t-People have stuffed their bozo on the Republican Ballot in a number of states, and cowed more competent Rs to sing in their discordant chorus, watch some of the enthusiasm drain out of hard core R-s who have been marginalized by the T-s. When you are definitely not wanted, maybe you DON'T have a reason to get up on the 2nd of November.

Posted by: ceflynline | September 14, 2010 7:54 PM | Report abuse

"there ARE a lot of young people who won't vote because Obama's said nothing about his intention to get a public option or climate bill in the future."

Those "young people" are not smart. What did they not like about Bush and the GOP before 2008? They were pretty fired up about putting an end to it, weren't they? Would they like it to happen again? If you stay home when the disappointingly pragmatic, not progressive enough Democrat needs your vote, then truly evil, unspeakable people get elected. How bad do the Republicans have to be to keep our side "enthusiastic" -- forever -- about defeating them? I voted for Nader in '96 because Clinton had drifted too far right, but I wasn't stupid enough to do it in 2000.

Posted by: commercestreet | September 15, 2010 7:38 AM | Report abuse

I can explain my lack of enthusiasm for the senate race in Louisiana.
David Vitter, a Republican and the current senator, is running against Charles Melancon, a Democrat who used to be a Republican. They are both supporters of the current "Republican Line." I really have no choice but to vote for a Republican.

Posted by: janye1 | September 15, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

One has to have an extremely attenuated view of history to blame Obama for everything that ails the country, including legislation that has yet to take full effect. This Democrat thanks the tea party and its enablers for putting on such an ugly display of ignorance, bigotry, distorted rhetoric and unachievable ambitions that any disappointment I might have felt over the last two years pales in comparison to the thought of a Congress peppered with inexperienced, dogmatic, know-nothing clowns. That thought alone sent me scurrying to the polls for a midterm vote in a safe district and inspired me to send what little money I can afford to candidates facing fanatic opponents . Count me in as belonging to the group of voters who will never forget what eight years of GOP rule did to this country, will never succumb to the illusion that my participation is unnecessary and will continue to do whatever I can to stem the reactionary flood threatening to drown the possibility of responsible governance.

Posted by: Koko3 | September 15, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

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