Mitt Romney's struggles to win over the conservative wing of the GOP base have often been dismissed as a problem for the general election. Even if evangelicals and social conservatives in Alabama want to vote for Rick Santorum over Romney, they're unlikely to turn around and cast their ballot for Barack Obama in November.
Still, enthusiasm plays a role in elections. On that mark, the Democrats are in the lead, at least for the moment. According to national numbers from Public Policy Polling, 57 percent of Democrats describe themselves as "very excited" to vote this year, compared with just 46 percent of Republicans. Back in January, there was just a three-point spread between the parties, but it's grown steadily over the intervening months except for a momentary jump in excitement for both parties in March.
The biggest change has come on the Republican side. In January, 54 percent listed themselves as "very excited," but as the primary continues to drag on, Republicans, much like the electorate at large, has soured on Romney.
This is why head-to-head polls between Obama and various GOP challengers were largely meaningless earlier this year. Republicans could cheerily say they would vote for any candidate while secretly thinking of their idealized nominee, whereas Obama's supporters weren't yet mobilized against a coherent opposition. Now the voting bloc that turned out for Obama in 2008 is beginning to notice that despite his shortcomings, the president better represents their views than a candidate who would slash taxes on the wealthy, wants to shut down Planned Parenthood, and has endorsed the regressive cuts included in the Paul Ryan budget. Romney and Republicans have had months to delineate the differences between their party and Obama. The president is just getting started at marking his ground, so that enthusiasm gap might grow even wider as time wears on.
While a gap in excitement could have an impact on the presidential election, it will play a bigger role on down ballot elections. If Democrats are more enthused about voting for the top of the ticket, they'll also be more likely to turn out and vote for their Democratic candidate in a Senate or House race. Obviously, a lot can change in the next six months, but it's yet another sign that 2012 isn't going to be the same kind of easy victory Republicans were envisioning several months ago.