For months, the news media have written and talked about the Democrats’ “enthusiasm gap” in 2010. The polling suggests that more Tea Party Republicans than Democrats are excited about voting this year. Factored into “likely voter” models, that explains most of the TGOP’s leads in the midterms. But what does it mean? (More)

While registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by about 4:3, and hold a slight edge in approval ratings, the most recent Gallup poll shows the parties tied on the generic ballot question. Last week’s much-ballyhooed 10-point TGOP lead was apparently sampling error and since April the parties have hovered within the poll’s margin of error.

But that same Gallup poll shows Tea Party Republicans having a 25-point lead in voter enthusiasm. TGOP voters are twice as likely to be “very enthusiastic” about voting in 2010, and numbers like that are factored into “likely voter” profiles used by Gallup and other pollsters when estimating support for candidates and issues.

The common media narrative for the “enthusiasm gap” has been that Democrats are dissatisfied with President Obama and their elected leaders in Congress, and thus are less likely to vote in 2010. But do the facts support that narrative?

About “likely voter” polls.

First a bit of explanation. In “likely voter” polls, pollsters do not count every voter they contact. Instead they randomly select responses to fit their projected profile of the November electorate, based on age, sex, race, party, and other demographics.

For a simple example using hypothetical numbers, assume a pollster expects 45% of the November voters to be seniors, 50% to be middle-aged, and only 5% to under age 25. For a total sample of 1000, the pollster may contact 1500 or more voters to make sure they can fill out each demographic subset. The pollster then randomly selects the responses of 450 seniors, 500 middle-aged, and 50 young voters for their sample of 1000 “likely voters.” In practice pollsters use several demographic traits, so a sample of 1000 “likely voters” might specify 117 senior, white, male, registered Republicans. The totals of all seniors, all whites, all males, and all Republicans in the overall sample will reflect the pollster’s projected ratios for each demographic.

Pollsters devise those projections based on historical trends, e.g.: fewer young voters typically vote in midterms, and the opposing party usually gains seats in a president’s first midterm. They also factor in voters’ stated enthusiasm, as noted above, and other vote-drivers such as referendums on states’ ballots. For example, were a Bible Belt state to get a referendum on the ballot requiring the Ten Commandments to be posted in public school classrooms, pollsters would expect higher TGOP turnout in that state.

Finally, pollsters also consider voters’ stated reasons for voting – to support their own party (“voting for”) or to block the opposing party (“voting against”) – as compared to historical data for who actually votes in midterm elections. And that, it turns out, may be the best explanation for Democrats’ “enthusiasm gap.”

Enthusiasm, or Complacency?

A May article by Public Policy Polling argued that the media narrative of dissatisfied Democrats staying home in 2010 may be wrong. PPP’s analysis, consistent with other polls, shows Democrats generally approve of the Obama administration and remain hopeful about our party’s agenda. The most recent Gallup approval poll showed 87% support for the Obama administration among liberal Democrats, a number that has remained within the margin of error since last summer. That is 9 points higher than among Democrats overall, suggesting The Myth of the Dissatisfied Democratic Base is exactly that: a myth.

And an August Gallup poll asked registered voters in each party if they would vote “for” their own party or “against” the opposing party this year. The results were surprising:

  • Among Democrats, 61% said they would vote for Democrats, while only 32% said they would vote against Republicans.
  • Among Republicans, only 48% said they would vote for Republicans, while 44% said they would vote against Democrats.

My analysis of that data would be that the Tea Party vs. Establishment primary battles have left many TGOP voters less than thrilled with their candidates, but they still want to block the Democratic agenda so they’ll “vote against” Democrats. Conversely, more Democrats are satisfied with and would “vote for” their candidates … if they vote.

Those last three words are the key. Gallup’s and PPP’s analysis shows that negative (“vote against”) voters are more likely to vote in midterm elections, while positive (“vote for”) voters are more likely to take the election for granted.

In short, the data suggest, the “enthusiasm gap” is actually a Complacency Gap … that too many Democrats, generally satisfied with our leaders and hopeful for our agenda, are taking too much for granted.

The good news is that these numbers are only projections. They are not cast in stone, and won’t be until November 2nd. We grassroots Democratic activists can help change them with energetic GOTV work over the next 54 days.

The 2010 midterms are no time to be complacent. The stakes are too high. Contact your local Democratic candidates, your state or local Democratic Party, or Organizing For America and ask how you can help.