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Why the Democrats will lose the midterm election

It's the enthusiasm, stupid.

A few weeks ago, the political world was stunned to see Republicans leading Democrats by 10 points on Gallup's generic ballot. The august polling company had been asking that question for 70 years, and Republicans had never pulled so far ahead of the Democrats. But since August, their numbers have sunk, and in Gallup's latest release, Democrats hold a one-point lead over the Republicans.


But Democrats are still likely to lose big in November. You can see why on Gallup's second question, which turns from measuring who voters want to vote for and instead looks at which voters want to vote at all:


The Democratic base has been unmoved by both the Democrats' and the Republicans' attempts to turn them around. In early September, President Obama gave a series of harshly partisan, turn-out-the-troops speeches. Liberal writers and news hosts cheered. The White House announced a series of new stimulus ideas, including an infrastructure investment plan. Republicans nominated Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Carl Paladino in New York. All in all, the last month seemed like one long effort to get Democrats interested in the election.

And yet you'd never know it from Gallup's polling. The Democratic base is holding at a solid "meh." And that's a bad sign for their leadership. Consider that in both 2008 and 2004, the party whose voters were most enthusiastic right before the election won easily -- and the enthusiasm gap was much smaller in both those years than it is this year.

By Ezra Klein  | September 21, 2010; 9:10 AM ET
Categories:  2010 Midterms, Polls  
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it is depressingly mystifying, that the democratic base is not completely energized, looking at the republican candidates who could get into office.
if every single democrat doesnt wake up in the morning, and feel that their vote is absolutely necessary this time, because the stakes are so high, then i think they have taken leave of their senses.
this is no time to withdraw.
(especially out here, in california.)
and i honestly, for the life of me, cant imagine what more barack obama could have tried to accomplish in this administration.
how he continues along courageously, with self-restraint and hopefulness, and without a bitter heart, is what i would like to know. he is a remarkable human being.
some analysts said last week, that the administration needs to energize the base.
if any democrat can read or turn on the television, they shouldnt need a "pep talk."

this is not the time to put down our bundles, and sit on the side of the road, and watch this slate of republican candidates march forward into our future.

Posted by: jkaren | September 21, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

And unmotivated person's vote counts just the same as a motivated voter.

Posted by: gonzosnose | September 21, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Rather than good speeches and Hooverite policies (unemployment's at 10%, so lets get 0.1-0.2% of those people back to work -- sure it's not much, but hey, at least it's budget neutral!) Democrats might want to offer marked contrasts in policy with Republicans. Take on corporations and the rich rather than mocking and ignoring the Democratic base. Propose big solutions for big problems rather than gradual, incremental changes. Fight for something positive, rather than preparing premature excuses for November.

Posted by: stonedone | September 21, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

A PPP poll recently found that only 22% of Democrats expect that we might lose the House, and only 17% the Senate. Republicans feel almost the exact opposite.

This helps explain the enthusiasm gap, in terms other than "Obama is teh suck and a great disappointment to all people." Democrats feel like they can't lose, and Republicans feel like there's everything to win. Probably has a lot to do with the fact that Republicans are disproportionately older and more political, while Democrats are younger and have busier lives and are less engaged in politics.

Which moves me to the totally weird August polling. More and more, I just don't trust broad-based polls taken in August. I remember seeing crazy numbers for Obama in the election, then again last August, now this 10 point swing towards Republicans is another data point. There is a very weird August phenomenon that I don't think pollsters understand or are accounting for. I don't know if it's "Democrats are too busy with the kids to talk to pollsters in August," or if it's a "no real news means FOX sets the national agenda with fake outrages (mosque, black panthers, death panels)" or if it's some other artifact. But the closer to labor day you get, the more these broad kinds of polls start to lean very, very Republican.

It's definitely not all polling that's messed up in August. I've seen a lot of local primary polls (especially ones commissioned by campaigns with long-term specialists in their local area) that are still very reliable throughout August. But it does seem like there's something VERY odd about August that's messing up these broad national polls.

Posted by: theorajones1 | September 21, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

jkaren : "i honestly, for the life of me, cant imagine what more barack obama could have tried to accomplish in this administration"

Assuming jkaren is a liberal or progressive (etc), then I am stunned to see that comment.

Now, I intend to vote Democratic this November, but that's only because the other choice is evil.

That said, Obama and the Dems are incompetent politically and in many cases they have betreyed their base. If I have to explain any of this then my jaw is going to get bruised as it again hits the floor.

Posted by: lauren2010 | September 21, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

The Democrats are running on who they aren't (the Tea Party) rather than what they'll do. While us liberal voters certainly agree that we'd rather vote for somebody who's not associated with the Tea Party, we'd be much more enthusiastic if we could actually vote for something (public option? climate change? total withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan? labor reform? immigration reform? higher taxes on the casino er financial services sector?). But of course the Democrats won't actually run on any of these substantive ideas because they're scared to death that some conservative somewhere will criticize them for supporting those issues. Blah.

Posted by: redwards95 | September 21, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

"Obama is teh suck and a great disappointment to all people."

ALL people??
well, he is not a disappointment to me.
and many people see the good in him, and recognize how hard he is working, and how much he can realistically accomplish at this time.
people had unrealistic expectations for what they thought he could accomplish, and now they are disappointed. this is what happens in the real world.
people can accomplish good things through hard work, right action and wisdom. and he is. and he will.
after bush and clinton, i feel grateful to have president obama.

Posted by: jkaren | September 21, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

"If I have to explain any of this then my jaw is going to get bruised as it again hits the floor"

we have an honest disagreement.
dont bruise your jaw, or hurt yourself:-)

Posted by: jkaren | September 21, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Six weeks out is still way too early to call an election, especially when most voters do not even begin thinking about politics until after the World Series. Democrats have a good track record to run on, a strong spokesman in President Obama (and Bill Clinton), and Republicans are highly unpopular. We can win this if we continue to get out there and fight!

Posted by: WinningProgressive | September 21, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse

gonzosnose writes
"And unmotivated person's vote counts just the same as a motivated voter."

Dem's best hope right now is that their unenthused supporters bother to vote. Not impossible, but it would be a mistake to count on it happening.

Posted by: bsimon1 | September 21, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

winning progressive

yes! and what a really inspiring blogsite you have created, in the midst of your own difficult and challenging circumstances.
very best wishes to you.

Posted by: jkaren | September 21, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Hmm, while I think enthusiasm is going to matter a lot, I think the basic mathematical difficulty gets glossed over too much.

If the Democrats win 50% of the vote, they'll still take heavy losses. Right now they hold 58% of seats - they have to win 58% of the vote to break even. This is part of the built-in equilibrium of our system, and it's probably the single greatest factor in why the president's party almost always loses seats in the midterms.

Sorry, but as a life-long Democrat, I get tired of the Democrats are lazy/unmotivated/etc story. It's not that it's wholly without truth, but I think the real issue is swing/independent/less politically active voters that tend to only vote in presidential election years.

When the Dems win control in Congress, they tend to win much larger majorities than Republicans do, and thus we have more to lose.

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | September 21, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Do you know what would be useful? Context.

What was the enthusiasm in other years? 1994? 1998? 2002? 2006? Metrics about "enthusiasm" are meaningless unless we have a baseline for comparison. Right now, this is just restating the obvious.

The Democratic party is made up of several constituencies that have voted at significantly lower rates than white people overall, even during Presidential election years. During mid-terms? Youth, blacks, hispanics stay home. Of course, so do a lot of white people but the drop-off isn't as large.

It might be a shock to people but youth and blacks "stayed home" even in 2006. I don't think it was because Obama disappointed them.

Democrats won that year because they won over independents. Democrats are now losing independents and that's why they'll face big losses in November. if they can turn out their base with their ground game, they might mitigate some of the damage.

Posted by: lol-lol | September 21, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Nation wide poll of those voters who say they will vote in November:

Fifty-two percent (52%) say their own views are closer to Sarah Palin’s than they are to President Obama’s.

Just 40% say their views are closer to the president’s than to those of the former Alaska governor.

Posted by: illogicbuster | September 21, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

I am am a Democratic voter. Am I enthusiastic, heck no. Am I going to vote, heck yes.

Posted by: le_avion | September 21, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

It's unfortunate that President Obama gets thrown in with "the Democrats" in these sorts of discussions. As was talked about a ton during the healthcare debate, there's really just not that much that a president can do to twist arms these days, especially in the Senate. If you're not thrilled with the way the Democrats' major legislation turned out in the last two years, it's much more Joe Leiberman, Ben Nelson, or any of a dozen conservative Dems' faults more than it is President Obama's. We could also blame the filibuster, which gives individual Senators lots of negotiating power to be jack@sses.

The president is not a king, and he can't will legislation through Congress in a form he deems perfect. Though I'm not terribly thrilled with lots of the Dem accomplishments, they are accomplishments, and in this environment accomplishing something on most of their promises from the last election is worthy of praise and my vote to give them some more time.

Posted by: MosBen | September 21, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

The enthusiasm gap hurts the Donkeys with all the things that happen before Election Day, i.e. phone calls, canvassing, etc. Sure, I'll show up to vote, maybe even give a few dollars here and there to candidates that I like, but I'm not going to wear out my shoes knocking on doors on behalf of Democratic candidates like I have in the past. One of the reasons is that there are people in the administration and the Democratic leadership who like to play "punch the hippie" whenever they have a chance.

I wouldn't GOTV for Rahm Emanuel and Robert Gibbs if they paid me. While I'm on the subject of people who suck, Tim Kaine is worse than useless--he might be the least charismatic public figure I have ever seen. His lack of charisma would be excusable if he wasn't also clueless. A new website and ridiculous baby-on-board style keychains . . . yeah, that'll really get people fired up. Also, somewhat more substantively, the way they have treated people like Howard Dean, and the dismantling of the 50-state strategy . . . vex me.

Anyway, I understand the need for compromises to get things done, and I understand that hardcore liberals like me weren't going to get everything we wanted. But they didn't have to be such jerks about not giving us what we want along the way.

Posted by: bucky_katt | September 21, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

I keep reading articles about how enthusiasm on the right will make the difference, but I'm not convinced about how the polls are done. If someone asked me now if I was "enthusiastic" about voting in November, my immediate response would be "no". But ask me instead if I'm highly motivated to vote in November, and you'd get a different answer.

I'm actually a registered Republican, but I've always voted more like an independent, and I may even change my registration. Because I've been paying close attention to my elected representative and how they've voted (they're all Republicans), and I'm disgusted (Grassley's pandering last year during the health care debate about "pulling the plug on Grandma" was the last straw, and all to avoid a primary race with someone more conservative). I may even vote a straight Democratic ticket, just to register my displeasure.

I don't consider that part of some anti-incumbent sentiment, either: it's about protesting politicians who've moved away from being moderate and reasonable, and lurched to the right to protect their jobs, thereby adding to the polarized political climate. I've had enough of a do-nothing Congress, though I don't see that changing even if the R's take the House. I think we're in for more gridlock. Especially if we get Tea Partiers who think compromise is a dirty word.

I understand why some liberals and progressives are disenchanted with Obama, but I think I'm far more realistic about how much government change is possible within a short time period. When I worked for the state legislature, there was a standard rule of thumb expressed by staffers and lobbyists that good legislation often takes a minimum of 7 years to pass. You have to get the idea out there, educate legislators and the public, and keep momentum going amongst competing ideas. That takes time and effort. I actually think the D's have accomplished a lot in the past two years. But I also think the economic circumstances are pushing people to need answers to their problems more quickly than government generally moves to solve such problems, especially when the problems are complex. And then we have partisan media sources peddling misinformation and ideology that skews perceptions of what government is doing, which is only adding to the frustration and anger.

A mob is enthusiastic about what it is doing. But rarely is it reasonable and thoughtful. The mob may very well show up in force on election day, but I doubt they'll be happy in the long run with the results. And then we'll see what happens in 2012.

But the polls ought to decern likely voters by something other than asking about "enthusiasm".

Posted by: reach4astar2 | September 21, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse


That you think the 50 State Strategy was "dismantled" pretty much exposes you as utterly uninformed. Odds are you couldn't explain what the 50 State Strategy was to begin with.

Here's a spoiler: There was no strategy. Dean threw some money for staff at every state party and that was it. No goals, no strategy, no nothing. It was about keeping the lights on at HQ during off-years, that was it. Some parties hired some good people, Others hired some party hacks. Mixed bag.

Dean also implemented some technology infrastructure upgrades and regular trainings - those haven't stopped and have even increased in some respects.

Kaine replaced the state party staff program and replaced it with OFA 2.0 which has hired field staff outside the state party structure and giving them clear goals and objectives to build a volunteer organization that's being leveraged for the mid-term elections. In other words, Kaine is doing everything you think Dean did.

But since Obama came up with OFA, the Professional Left would rather lie about it than get on board.

Posted by: lol-lol | September 21, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

Liberals (democratic base) want nothing less than utopia and are never happy, therefore their enthusiasm wanes. They are good at criticizing our President, but I'd like to turn the tables and say that THEY haven't been very good about getting THEIR message out to the American people. It is conservatives that are winning the hearts and minds of the American people, not liberals. I blame liberals for the mess we are in (I am center left). If it weren't for them, we wouldn't have had Bush run this country into the ground and Fox News gain a real foothold. Now, when things aren't perfect or don't happen overnight, they will sit by the sidelines and let these scary tea partiers take over. The right's agenda has been so effective because they know that little steps is the pathway to victory, the far left doesn't get that concept. I will blame them again when liberals just stand by, stay home and complain while these extremists get into power and have our nuclear codes, that is, if we are not blown to kingdom come first.

Posted by: Merlin57 | September 22, 2010 1:21 AM | Report abuse

I'm a Democrat and if they polled me I certainly would not use the word "enthusiastic" -- but I'm scared witless of the fickle and ill-informed "independent" voters, and the demagoguery of the Tea Party and Fox News and Sarah Palin and Newt and all their LIES and you better believe I'll be out there voting.

Posted by: herzliebster | September 22, 2010 1:33 AM | Report abuse

The "Democratic" Party peaked in 2006 when it was given the keys and a full tank of gas. Voters closed the Democrat's iron fist of power by electing Barack Hussein Obama.
Unfortunately for Democrats who are running for election this year, Obama, Pelosi and Reid took a hard left and floored the acelerator, keeping the pedal to the metal while crashing the economy and spending over 3 trillion DEFICIT dollars. Remarkably, the spend-crazed Dems failed to even produce a budget during this election year and the media doesn't seem to want to report that fact.
After 4 years of a Democrat-infested congress and senate including less than 2 years of "our dear leader," we are literally buried under trillions in additional debt, have a very unpopular and hidiously expensive "health care" reform bill yet to be paid for which the Democrats don't understand, and the Afghanistan war has turned into a "Vietnam-like" quagmire.
Meanwhile, Obama is trying to control the country with communist and socialist czars, we have had near double-digit unemployment the whole time under Obama, Medicare and Social Security are bancrupt and the Democrats think gays in the military is an election issue this year.
Why would we want more of this garbage?
Democrats will lose on Nov. 2 because they have earned a monumental defeat by virtue of their policies....

Posted by: lclifton | September 22, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

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