Who Is to Blame for the Enthusiasm Gap?

According to Gallup's most recent release, the enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans is large and growing:

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Lately, there's been something of an ongoing fight between Democrats who blame the "professional left" for the progressive enthusiasm gap, and liberal activists who blame President Obama for the progressive enthusiasm gap. David Sirota's critique of the administration is pretty typical:

On the other side are those progressive activists and media voices who say progressive voters are demoralized because the Obama administration hasn't fulfilled - or even tried to fulfill - it's most basic campaign promises... This side sees voters as fairly intelligent - or, at least intelligent enough to make voting decisions based on an analysis of concrete issues, rather than simply on orders from activists and media voices.

Of course, there's a third possibility that nicely sidesteps the self-serving narratives of Democratic partisans and progressive activists; namely, Democratic voters are historically less likely to vote in midterm elections than their Republican counterparts.

In 2008, Barack Obama -- along with Democratic candidates nationwide -- received heavy support from minorities, young people (ages 18-29) and first-time voters. Democrats hoped to carry that support along into 2010, but the simple fact is that these groups are historically less likely to vote in low-information, low-profile midterm elections. In 2008, for example, young voters were 18 percent of the electorate. By contrast, said voters were only 12 percent of the electorate in 2006. Likewise, African Americans were 13 percent of the electorate in 2008, and only 10 percent of the electorate in 2006.

What's more, as Daniel Hopkins pointed out at the Monkey Cage, the most competitive districts have populations that are demographically more favorable to Republicans than Democrats. The electorate that votes in those districts will look completely different than the electorate that voted in Obama. It's no surprise then that Republicans are more enthusiastic; unlike Democrats, they happen to live in places where they have a real shot at knocking off an unfriendly incumbent.

Simply put, not only is the electorate for midterms older and whiter than usual, which bodes well for Republicans, but Democrats tend to rely on voters who have never been terribly enthusiastic about voting in midterms to begin with.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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