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Parsing the Polls: The Democrats' Anger Advantage

By now most political junkies know where the battle for control of the House and Senate is being fought. What no one -- The Fix included -- knows is the answer to this question: Which party will more effectively turn out its base?

In recent elections Republicans have more effectively identified and motivated their base voters, a system that has resulted in a second term for President George W. Bush and larger Republican majorities in the House and Senate. For much of this cycle, however, Democrats have insisted that it is their base that is more energized to turn out on Nov. 7 -- unified by the desire to send a message to Bush about his handling of the war in Iraq, among other issues.

"Our message moves voters with less dollars behind it than does theirs," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, at a briefing for reporters Tuesday. He said his committee will devote more than $20 million this election to get-out-the-vote efforts in states with targeted Senate races.

Republicans insist that the voting patterns in the primaries this year have shown little evidence of an energized Democratic electorate or a depressed Republican base.

We won't settle the question until Election Day, but a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center seems to indicate Democrats may be on the right side of the argument.

Let's parse the polls...

The most striking finding in the Pew poll was the comparisons between Democratic and Republican energy levels in the last midterm election year and today. In 2002, 40 percent of Democrats said they were enthusiastic about voting in the fall while 44 percent of Republicans said the same thing. Four years later, 51 percent of Democrats said they were enthused while just 33 percent of Republicans said the same.

The Fix is no mathematician, but that's an 11-point increase in Democratic enthusiasm and a corresponding 11-point decrease in Republican enthusiasm -- a 22-point net swing.

Nearly six-in-ten Democratic voters (59 percent) and five-in-ten Republican voters (48 percent) told Pew that they had given a lot of thought to this year's election. Four years ago 46 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of Republicans said the same thing. At this time in 1994 -- less than a month before Republicans swept Democrats from their House and Senate majorities -- 50 percent of Republicans said they had given a lot of thought to the election while just 40 percent of Democrats said the same.

"These indications of Democratic engagement suggest that the turnout advantage the GOP has enjoyed in recent elections may not hold this November," reads a summary of the Pew poll's findings.

Look deeper in the numbers of the Pew poll and you'll find more evidence of an intensity gap between Democrats and Republicans. Thirty-seven percent of the overall sample approved of the job President Bush was doing compared with 53 percent who disapproved. But, as we have been saying for months, the key to grasping which side is more energized to turn out on Election Day is the percentages who strongly approve and strongly disapprove of the president's job performance. Of the 37 percent who approved of the job Bush is doing, 23 percent said they strongly approve. Of the 53 percent who disapprove, 43 percent said they do so strongly. That's a 20-point intensity disparity between strong backers and strong detractors of Bush.

The numbers are equally striking when comparing the views of partisan voters. Seventy-seven percent of Democrats strongly disapprove of the job Bush is doing; only 58 percent of Republicans strongly approve of Bush's handling of his job. The 19-point difference among base voters seems to suggest that not only are Democrats unified in their distaste for the president but Republicans are less supportive of Bush than they have been in years past.

Asked whether they are generally satisfied or dissatisfied with the direction of the country, 30 percent pronounced themselves satisfied while 63 percent said they were dissatisfied. Just eight percent described themselves as very satisfied while 36 percent said they were very dissatisfied -- a 28-point gap. Not surprisingly the strong levels of disgust with Bush and dissatisfaction with the direction of the country has produced a significant segment of the electorate that is mad as hell and isn't going to take it anymore.

Pew asked six questions aimed at gauging various levels of voter dissatisfaction -- aggregating the six replies into an "anger index." Roughly two-thirds of Democrats (63 percent) scored high on this anger index compared with 44 percent of Republicans and 42 percent of independents. "Anger is a much stronger factor in turnout for Democrats than it is for Republicans and independents," the Pew pollsters write.

What does all of this mean for those of us trying to understand what will happen on Nov. 7? It suggests that enthusiasm among the Democratic base may wipe out Republicans' nuts and bolts advantage when it comes to turning out voters.

Remember: Midterm elections traditionally have much lower turnout than presidential cycles. With fewer voters making the effort to cast ballots, a discrepancy of intensity between the two party bases could well be decisive for Democrats hoping to gain control of the House and possibly the Senate.

(The Pew poll's methodology is described here.)

By Chris Cillizza  |  October 18, 2006; 8:55 AM ET
Categories:  Parsing the Polls  
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