There has been much written about the "enthusiasm gap" in the 2012 election. Democrats have been crowing that GOP turnout is down from 2008 in eight of the 13 states that have voted prior to Super Tuesday. According to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate and the Bipartisan Policy Center, GOP turnout has dropped from 13.2 percent of eligible voters to 11.5 percent.
Nearly 50 percent of Republicans are not satisfied with their candidates and would prefer someone else. The hot GOP race does not seem to be translating into unrelenting positive feelings toward the candidates; just the opposite, the negatives for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have steadily risen these last few months. This is especially true with the critical body of independent voters.
Clearly, the longer the Republicans engage each other with negative advertising in state after state the more likely voters will tend to the "none of the above" option, and enthusiasm and turnout will continue to decline.
One question is what does this mean for the general election? In terms of overall turnout the two groups mentioned above predict that there is a high likelihood that we will see a drop in voter turnout from 2008. That year was a high water mark for voters—231 million, with a percentage of 57.39, the highest since 1968, before the 18-year old vote was passed. In 2004, turnout was 216 million (56.69 percent); in 2000 it was 205 million (51.21 percent); and in 1996 it was 196 million (a low of 49 percent).
Predicting voter turnout is always a very risky business but it does appear that current polling and past experience would indicate that we will be hard pressed to meet the percentage of voters in 2008 and even achieve the mark of 230 million voters.
The second question is which party does this lower voter turnout benefit?
It would be a serious mistake for Democrats to become overconfident that this "enthusiasm gap" is necessarily going to benefit them this cycle. First of all, Republicans have very visceral, negative feelings about President Obama. They may be disillusioned now but it is a long time to November.
Second, when asked in a USA Today/Gallup poll whether they are "more enthusiastic than usual" about voting in the general election 53 percent of Republicans stated they were more enthusiastic compared to 45 percent of Democrats. Although this may be a result of the Republican primary activity (and lack of activity on the Democratic side), it is still a warning sign for the Obama campaign.
Third, and maybe most important, it is very difficult for the Obama campaign to duplicate the groundswell of enthusiasm and commitment to "Change You Can Believe In" that occurred four years ago. After all, achieving nearly four million donors, over eight million volunteers, extensive statewide organization, phone-calling, and door-knocking will not be easy.
So, over-confidence by Democrats that they will win the enthusiasm and turnout battles would be a serious mistake. That is why the Obama camp is putting so much emphasis into their targeting, voter ID, and get-out-the-vote operation for 2012. President Bush did it in 2004 with an extensive microtargeting effort in the key state of Ohio; that may have been critical to winning the election against Sen. John Kerry that year.
The "enthusiasm gap" cuts both ways this cycle, and Democrats should think twice before crowing right now and double-down on their organizing efforts.