According to the Gallup Poll, there is a fairly large enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to voting this year. In an article just published on their website, Gallup's Jeff Jones reports on the findings of a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted from July 19-22 in which Americans were asked whether, compared with previous elections, they were more or less enthusiastic about voting this year. Fifty-one percent of Republican identifiers and leaners said that they were more enthusiastic than usual versus only 39 percent of Democratic identifiers and leaners.
The 39 percent of Democrats who were more enthusiastic than usual about voting this year represents a sharp decline from four years ago when 61 percent of Democrats reported that they were more enthusiastic than usual. On the other hand, the 51 percent of Republicans who are more enthusiastic than usual this year represents a significant increase from the 35 percent of Republicans who were more enthusiastic than usual four years ago.
According to Gallup's Jones, the 12 point enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans, which was up from 8 points in February, would pose a serious threat to President Obama's chances of reelection if it continues into the fall and results in a Republican turnout advantage. But before speculating about how the enthusiasm gap might affect turnout of party supporters in November, there is an important question that needs to be asked. Is the enthusiasm gap real or is it an artifact of the way this particular question was worded?
A potential issue with the wording of this question is that it asks about enthusiasm compared with previous elections which would appear to cue respondents to think about their feelings during the most recent presidential election in 2008. Thus, Democrats might be comparing their level of enthusiasm this year with their very high level of enthusiasm four years ago while Republicans might be comparing their level of enthusiasm this year with their relatively low level of enthusiasm four years ago.
The fact that Democrats feel less enthusiastic than four years ago and Republicans feel more enthusiastic than four years ago does not necessarily mean that Democrats are now less enthusiastic than Republicans in any absolute sense. To determine whether that is the case, we would need to ask a question that focuses on respondents' absolute level of enthusiasm, not their enthusiasm compared with 2008. Fortunately, the Gallup poll asked just such a question one month ago and the results present a very different picture of the relative enthusiasm of Democrats and Republicans.
In a national survey conducted on June 25-26, Gallup asked Americans to rate their enthusiasm about voting this year on a five-point scale. The choices offered were extremely enthusiastic, very enthusiastic, somewhat enthusiastic, not too enthusiastic or not at all enthusiastic. On this question there was almost no difference between the responses of Democratic identifiers and leaners and those of Republican identifiers and leaners: 43 percent of Republicans were extremely or very enthusiastic compared with 39 percent of Democrats. On the other hand, 34 percent of Republicans were not too enthusiastic or not at all enthusiastic compared with 32 percent of Democrats. On a 1 to 5 scale, where 1 is the highest enthusiasm score and 5 is the lowest, the average score was 2.87 for Democrats and 2.88 for Republicans.
These results indicate that Democrats are just as enthusiastic about voting this year as Republicans. And other evidence from Gallup's national tracking poll suggests that there is unlikely to be an unusually large Republican turnout advantage in November. In Gallup's most recent three-week compilation of their tracking poll results from July 3-22, 83 percent of registered Democrats said that they would definitely vote in November compared with 87 percent of registered Republicans.
One important point to bear in mind when it comes to turnout is that Republicans almost always turn out at a higher rate than Democrats, regardless of enthusiasm. So the 4 point gap in the Gallup tracking poll is nothing unusual. In fact, according to evidence from the highly respected American National Election Study surveys, Republicans turned out at a higher rate than Democrats in both 2004 and 2008 despite the supposed Democratic advantage in enthusiasm in those elections.
Republicans will almost certainly enjoy an advantage in turnout this year but it won't be because of their greater enthusiasm. It will be because Republicans identifiers are disproportionately white and affluent and find it easier to overcome numerous obstacles that make it difficult for many lower income and minority citizens to register and vote including, increasingly, voter identification laws enacted by Republican legislatures.