vision 2020

There’s Only One Way the ‘Enthusiasm Gap’ Matters

Do these fired-up MAGA people get extra votes for being excited? Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Those of us who get paid to write about politics inevitably have some meme or theory or habit of speech we hear regularly offered that makes us a bit crazy. For me it is the “enthusiasm gap,” which is touted every two years to claim that one party or the other or one candidate or the other is in a superior position because their supporters are psyched out of their skulls. Here’s the 2020 version presented on Trump’s behalf at the Washington Examiner by Kimberly Ross:

At the end of March, an ABC News-Washington Post poll revealed that “74 percent of those supporting Biden are doing so enthusiastically, compared to 86 percent of Trump supporters.” And an April Emerson College poll showed that Republican voters are far more excited about voting for Trump than Democratic voters are for Biden.

The simple fact is that regardless of messaging, Biden can’t elicit as much passion as his opponent, the unapologetic and charismatic president….

Democrats may have an enthusiasm problem, but frankly, they don’t have much time left to fix it.

Before getting to the root problem with this point of view, I’d note that those promoting it often don’t offer exactly convincing evidence even if you accept their premise. Here’s another big data point from Ross:

According to a recent Rasmussen poll released Thursday [May 14], the gap in party energy between the two candidates is rather wide. When it comes to Republicans, 70% believe Trump should be the nominee compared to 23% who believe another should take his place. Another 7% are undecided. On the Democratic side, 54% believe Biden should be the nominee relative to 28% who would prefer someone else. A whopping 18% of likely Democratic voters remain unsure.

You don’t have to be an especially acute observer of political news to be aware that Trump had no significant opposition for his party’s nomination (to the point where states were canceling presidential primaries long before COVID-19 showed up), while Biden had to fight through more than 20 opponents and still hasn’t clinched a majority of delegates. Of course Trump has more “energy” if that’s how you define it.

But the bigger problem is the unreflective belief that “energy” or “enthusiasm” or “passion” can be cashed in at the ballot box for votes. Here’s how I described that article of faith back in 2014, before I had any clue we’d be dealing with wild crowds of thrilled reactionaries led by a reality TV character:

We’re at that time of the election cycle when you start hearing a great deal about the relative “enthusiasm” of each major party’s “base,” with the assumption being this is the key to a robust turnout in November….

[T]here are a couple of problems with this assumption, namely (1) “enthusiasm” does not reward the base voter with additional trips to the ballot box, and (2) there are quite a few factors other than “enthusiasm” that affect turnout rates.

On this first point, the reality is that the voters most likely to vary in levels of “enthusiasm” are those most likely to vote — and most partisan in their leanings — in the first place. Short of a rare self-conscious revolt, the party is going to get their votes, even if the voters have mixed feelings about it. “Enthusiasm,” unless it’s infectious…is quite frankly a wasted quality from a strictly electoral point of view. It may excite partisan journalists to sense their voters are snake-dancing to the polls (recall all those excited conservative columns in late October 2012 about the size of Romney rallies in places like Pennsylvania), but it doesn’t necessarily add to the length of the snake.

That is, an unexcited Biden vote counts exactly as much as an excited Trump vote. Yes, enthusiasm matters up to the point that it exists sufficiently to get the voter to the polls. But unenthusiastic voters trudge to presidential elections every year – the bar for whether one will cast a vote for a candidate is considerably lower than whether someone will profess to be enthusiastic about said candidate in a poll .

In downballot or even presidential nomination races, “enthusiasm” is valuable in producing campaign contributions and volunteer signups. “Enthusiasm” is legal tender in the Iowa Caucuses, but not so much in a presidential general election in which money is largely not that significant and both candidates have near-universal name ID and vast armies of partisans at their disposal.

Now you can make a case that enthusiasm can become contagious via social media or interest- and identity-group organizing, which makes it a vote-multiplier if not a vote-originator. But you cannot measure the quantity or quality of such efforts by asking big samples of voters whether they are excited or kinda meh about their preferred candidate. One reason campaigns exist is to maximize the electoral payoff for inputs like partisanship, strong issue-commitments, and perceived identification with a candidate. Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale likes to depict himself as some sort of magician in churning information (or more often disinformation) into his digital messaging machine and somehow turning it into net votes. Some are impressed, while others think he’s a stone hustler. But “enthusiasm” is nothing more than a raw material for campaign practitioners.

So let’s please hear a lot less about it, at least until we are on the brink of the election and can begin to make a real-time assessment of the obstacles to voting for those who favor Trump or Biden–whether it’s the coronavirus, or voter-suppression efforts, or a relative lack of “enthusiasm.”

There’s Only One Way the ‘Enthusiasm Gap’ Matters