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Closing the intensity gap

For most of the past year, Democrats suffered an “intensity gap” that threatened to turn a bad year into a majority-threatening rout. Conservatives were enraged and engaged, believing President Barack Obama to be a foreign-born commie hell-bent on destroying America and sapping our precious bodily fluids. Meanwhile, the progressive base wasn’t demoralized by the failure of Democrats to use the White House and dominant congressional majorities to deliver on campaign promises. 

It didn’t matter that Democrats and Republicans were essentially tied in generic congressional ballot polling. If Republicans turned out and Democrats didn’t, the election would be over before it began. 

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We saw the effect of this gap in last year’s statewide elections in New Jersey and Virginia. Voters turning out to vote in Virginia’s 2009 contest had voted for John McCain over Obama by a 51-43 margin. Obama won the state 53-46 in 2008. In New Jersey’s gubernatorial campaign, 41 percent of 2009 turnout was Democratic, compared to 31 percent Republican. In 2008, it was 44 percent Democratic, 28 percent Republican. Going from a 16-point partisan advantage to 10 points cost incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine the race.

Democrats continued to lag in intensity throughout this year. The first week of March, Gallup found 42 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners were “very enthusiastic” about voting in November, compared to just 24 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners. A Research 2000 poll for Daily Kos at around the same time found 51 percent of Republicans were likely or definitely going to vote in November, compared to just 40 percent of Democrats — an 11-point intensity gap. The questions were different (Gallup asked about enthusiasm; Research 2000 asked about voting likelihood ), but the bottom line was the same — Republicans were far more electorally engaged.

But the passage of health reform is changing that dynamic. After last week’s big votes, 62 percent of Republicans were likely or definitely going to vote in November, compared to 55 percent of Democrats, per Research 2000. While both sides were further energized by the healthcare debate, what had been an 11-point Republican intensity advantage had been shaved down to seven points. 

Other polling was even more encouraging for Democrats. An ABC News/Washington Post poll last week asked respondents if they were “enthusiastic” about voting in November. Seventy-six percent of registered Democrats were “very” or “fairly” enthusiastic, compared to 75 percent of Republicans. 

While the ABC numbers were more favorable to Democrats than other contemporary polling, it’s clear the Democratic base has become more deeply engaged as of late. After 14 months, progressives have finally seen Democrats deliver on a major plank of their agenda. And while the new law is imperfect and will need further refinement, the base appreciates the effort it took to get this far, given substantial challenges — from obstructionist Republicans, the hysterical right-wing machine and nefarious moneyed corporate interests. Whatever additional work the law may need, it is progress, and we finally got to see Democrats fighting. 

It’s obvious that congressional Democrats enjoyed the victory, and hopefully that euphoric feeling is infectious. Fully eliminating that intensity gap will require further action — on the economy, on immigration, on “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” on the environment, on labor and on financial regulatory reform.

Democrats won’t win all those battles, but victory on all fronts isn’t necessary to engage the base. Rather, they want to see Democrats fighting for what they believe in. If Democratic leaders carry that fight through the rest of the year, that intensity gap will be long gone by the time November rolls around.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos (dailykos.com).

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