Where the polls are pointing

Take enthusiasm. Democrats certainly suffer from a considerable enthusiasm gap this cycle. Analysts routinely assume that enthusiasm equals turnout — that lower levels of Democratic enthusiasm will translate into lower turnout among Democrats. Indeed, some pollsters actually incorporate survey responses on enthusiasm into likely voter models.

Is the fixation on enthusiasm justified by data?


While every gap can be interesting, not every gap is meaningful — and our analysis of new data suggests that an individual’s level of enthusiasm tells us precious little about his or her propensity to turn out. 

Sen. Scott Brown’s (R) victory in Massachusetts helped ignite the enthusiasm story in the press, if not among the cognoscenti who have long examined such variables, and it was there my question about the relevance of enthusiasm first emerged.

Strangely enough, my suspicion developed out of the very accuracy of our polling (for an independent effort), which mirrored the final result exactly, while also showing a vast 20-point enthusiasm gap between Brown and Martha Coakley voters. But if enthusiasm predicted turnout, with the enthusiastic turning out and the indifferent staying home, how could our poll have been spot-on while revealing a vast difference in enthusiasm?

To probe beneath the surface, we matched our polling data to the turnout information recorded on the voter file to see if in fact the more enthusiastic were more likely to turn out. Contrary to conventional wisdom there was no consistent relationship, at least among the less enthusiastic Coakley voters.

Among those who were “very” enthusiastic about voting for Coakley, 88 percent voted; among those who were “somewhat” enthusiastic, 83 percent turned out; and among those “not too” enthusiastic, a slightly larger 85 percent turned out.

For the generally much more excited Brown voters, enthusiasm appeared to play a somewhat greater role. Ninety two-percent of very enthusiastic Brown supporters cast a ballot, compared to 78 percent of those who admitted little enthusiasm for the GOP nominee, though only 5 percent of Brown voters expressed indifference.

Unfortunately, the same kind of data do not exist for other major 2005 races, but examination of New Jersey’s voter file provides some hints. We can reasonably stipulate that Democrats were less enthusiastic about voting for Jon Corzine than Republicans were about casting ballots for Chris Christie. 

What impact did those differing levels of enthusiasm have on Democratic turnout? The answer is complicated, but only about 27,000 fewer Democrats voted in 2009 than in 2005, while about 8,500 more Republicans turned out than in the previous gubernatorial election — in a race Corzine lost by almost 90,000 votes. Among one stalwart segment of our party’s base — African-American Democrats — turnout increased by 12,000 over 2005.

One final piece of evidence on the relevance of enthusiasm to turnout is provided by George Mason Professor Michael McDonald, who noted that the 62 percent who told Gallup they were enthusiastic about voting in this year’s election was “the highest level of enthusiasm among registered voters in a midterm election since Gallup began asking this question in October 1994.

The next highest level was recorded at 49 percent in a June 2006 poll, a difference of 13 percentage points.” Moreover, that 62 percent is on par with responses in presidential years. Indeed, it is just seven points lower than the level of enthusiasm expressed before the 2008 presidential election and almost 20 points higher than that leading into the 2000 presidential. 

Anybody want to bet that turnout in this midterm will be higher than in the 2000 presidential?
If you are cautious about taking that bet, you should be equally cautious in using enthusiasm measures to predict turnout.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.