The enthusiasm gap

I mostly find out what Public Policy Polling is up to since I’m a facebook fan, but I think I’ll have to add them to my blog roll, as there’s quite  a number of thoughtful posts on the election.  Here Tom Jensen makes the very important point that the much-discussed enthusiasm gap is far from uniform nation-wide, but rather varies quite considerably by state (and surely within state if you look there,too):

Here’s the thing though: just because these 23 states average an electorate that’s 8 points more Republican doesn’t mean that’s the case for all of them individually. Some of them are seeing gaps much larger than 8 points. And some of them are actually seeing a slightly more Democratic electorate than in 2008…

It stands to reason that in states where there was not a big gain in Democratic turnout in 2008, there’s also not going to be a big drop in Democratic turnout in 2010. We’ve been getting a lot of flack because our West Virginia poll yesterday showed a McCain +11 electorate when he won the state by 13 that basically boils down to ‘where is the enthusiasm gap?’ The truth is that the Presidential race was the turnout driver in 2008 and West Virginia Democrats don’t like Barack Obama. The Senate race is the turnout driver this year and West Virginia Democrats love Joe Manchin.

It’s a close race and he could still lose but it’s misguided to think that because Democratic turnout is going to be way down nationally that it will be in West Virginia, just as it would have been a mistake in 2008 to assume that because Democratic turnout was way up nationally that it would also be in West Virginia.

There’s a nice table of the swing towards Republicans by state, if you’re curious.  NC is 10 points more Republican this time around (yes, poor Elaine Marshall again).  The swings across states follow a pretty clear pattern:

It’s not a 100% correlation but generally speaking the places where Democrats improved their performance the most in 2008 are going to have the biggest dropoffs in turnout this year. And the places where Democrats saw little or no improvement have the smallest dropoffs.

Jensen doesn’t quite put it in these terms, but it’s also a great example of regression to the mean.  When everything goes your way, chances are things will fall back to more normal levels in elections and in life.  Of course, as I always need to point out to my dad when Duke is losing a basketball game to a team playing really well, sometimes that regression to the mean (it’s become my dad’s basketball mantra– yet somehow he doesn’t expect it from Duke) doesn’t happen until the next game.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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