Much has been made of the GOP’s recent “enthusiasm” problem.  According to a Politico news story earlier this week, “Democrats currently are more excited about voting this fall than Republicans are, a sign that doesn’t bode well for the GOP effort to reclaim the White House.” Turnout has indeed been dismal in the most recent primaries and caucuses –although there are many other factors that could be at play, including the spread out primary calendar and lack of a competitive Democratic contest. And polls are now finding that Republicans report being less enthusiastic about voting in the November presidential election than Democrats, this despite their double-digit enthusiasm advantage in the 2010 midterm election.

The jury is still out on exactly if and how an enthusiasm gap in the polls translates to turnout in the polling booth, but it’s worth a closer look at the numbers before the Obama camp starts to celebrate.  Consistent with the Politico story, the most recent YouGov poll finds that Democrats are slightly more enthusiastic than Republicans.  As shown in the table below, 46% of self-identified Democrats are extremely or very enthusiastic to vote in the November presidential election, compared to 42% of Republicans and just 28% of Independents.  

But the key question is how enthusiasm compares to 2008. An identical question was asked in a CNN Poll in August 2008[1]—admittedly much later in the campaign cycle, but still before the fall campaign season.  Comparing 2012 and 2008 finds across-the-board dampened enthusiasm about the 2012 election, but the decline was much steeper among Democrats (a 22 percentage point decline compared to the Republican’s 13 percentage point decline).  This is the first indication that the enthusiasm numbers are not entirely rosy for the Democrats. 

Percent Extremely/Very Enthusiastic about Voting in November Election
  YouGov Poll (Feb 2012)       

CNN Poll (Aug 2008)      

Change

Democrats 46% 68% -22%
Republicans 42% 55% -13%
Independents 28% 48% -20%

 

Even more striking, however, is the breakdown of enthusiasm by race and ethnicity, shown in the table below.  Black Democrats remain much more enthusiastic than other Democrats, but their enthusiasm has plummeted relative to August 2008:  60% are extremely or very enthusiastic about voting in the November 2012 election, down from 92% in August 2008—a 32 percentage point decline.  Hispanics have also seen a significant drop in enthusiasm and now are no more enthusiastic about voting than White Democrats. 

Again, we can’t yet say what exactly this means for turnout, but it does raise questions about Obama’s ability to replicate the surge in turnout among Blacks and Hispanics seen in 2008.  For battleground states with large minority populations, like North Carolina and Florida, the stakes are especially high.  Perhaps reassuring to the Obama camp is that enthusiasm will almost certainly increase once the campaign gets into full swing.  A CNN poll from January 2008,[2] taken shortly after Obama lost the New Hampshire primary to Hillary Clinton, found that 65% of African Americans were extremely or very enthusiastic about voting in the 2008 presidential election.  Those numbers are only a tad higher than what we see today and suggest that enthusiasm can change dramatically not only across election years but also within a single election.

Percent Extremely/Very Enthusiastic about Voting in November Election
  YouGov Poll (Feb 2012)       

CNN Poll (Aug 2008)      

Change

White Democrats 43% 60% -17%
Black Democrats 60% 92% -32%
Hispanic Democrats 43% 62% -19%

[1] CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll, Aug, 2008. Retrieved Feb-9-2012 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. 

[2] CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll, Jan, 2008. Retrieved Feb-10-2012 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. 

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