Articles and Analysis


Can Democrats sustain enthusiasm for their presidents?

Topics: Barack Obama , Bill Clinton , Democrats , enthusiasm , George W. Bush , Republicans

Yesterday, President Obama spoke at a large rally at the University of Wisconsin that was intended to help rally the Democratic base for the midterm election. But will he and his party be able to narrow the enthusiasm gap with Republicans? The indicators aren't encouraging.

One possible obstacle was suggested recently by The New Republic's Jon Chait, who suggested that Democrats can't sustain enthusiasm when their party holds the presidency like Republicans:

The Democratic base tends to lose interest in the threat of right-wing politics when their party holds power. Republicans, I'm guessing offhand, have had more success energizing their base during Republican rule. (Anybody want to quantify this?) Specifically I'm thinking of the 2002 and 2004 elections, which featured revved-up Republican bases despite total GOP control of government.

My seat of the pants analysis is that this reflects a psychological difference between the left and the right. The liberal coalition is more ideologically diffuse and attracted to individualism. Sometimes you see left-wing splintering at the end of periods of Democratic control -- 1948, 1968, 2000 -- but more often it's simply harder to make liberals understand the urgency of preserving their party's control of power against a hypothetical threat. Conservatives, by contrast, may find the idea of rallying behind a leader more attractive. Liberals were obviously very enthusiastic about the historical nature of Obama's election, but the enthusiasm has waned since. The conservative cult of personality around George W. Bush actually seemed to peak in 2004.

Is this claim supported by the data? Gallup has asked survey respondents whether they are more or less enthusiastic are about voting than usual in every election since 1994. In previous years, I use the last available poll before the general election. However, Gallup changed their question wording this election cycle for the enthusiasm question so I rely on the June 11-13, 2010 survey (the last using the old wording) to make sure the results are comparable with previous years (the current estimates of enthusiasm using the new wording are very similar).

Using this measure, I calculate net enthusiasm by party (% more enthusiastic - % less enthusiastic) and then take the difference between parties, constructing a measure of the net enthusiasm advantage for the president's party.* (This abstracts away from features of the election that may increase or decrease enthusiasm in both parties.) The results are more ambiguous than Chait's claim:


Democrats have been less enthusiastic relative to the other party in the first midterm under both Clinton and Obama than Republicans were under Bush, but it's important to keep in mind that the 2002 election is an outlier due to 9/11. By comparison, 1994 and 2010 were extremely unfavorable electoral environments. In more favorable conditions (principally, a booming economy), we see that Democrats were relatively more enthusiastic for Clinton in the 1996-2000 elections than Republicans were for Bush in 2004-2008. It's unlikely that Democrats will close the enthusiasm gap with Republicans in this election -- the conditions are just too unfavorable -- but the historical record doesn't indicate that they are incapable of enthusiastically supporting a Democratic president.

* I relied on Gallup's tabulation of enthusiasm by party (including leaners) when available. I calculated results myself for 1996 and 2000 using survey data archived by the Roper Center. Note: The 1996 survey includes "the same" as an option for the enthusiasm question; in other years, it was only recorded if volunteered by the respondent.

[Cross-posted to brendan-nyhan.com and Huffington Post]



Without being cast as overally 'elitist' or some other similar adjective, it would seem to me that it's highly likely that Republican/conservative adherents would almost always be more supportive of their party's presidents than would Democrats, especially in recent years with the influence of conservative-dominated media outlets.

Liberal Democrats tend to have a far more diverse set of important issues that drive their enthusiasm, and frequently are one-issue "firebrands," so when their particular issue is not currently at the forefront of a political discussion, then their interest in general politically activity wanes somewhat. Republicans and conservatives, however, seem to have a much more narrow focus of "hot buttons" (Isn't it always taxes, their 'moral values' issues, national defense and anti-government diatribes that seem to drive their interest?)

Also, those GOP issues tend to always focus on the alleged problem, never the solution, so it's easy to drive enthusiasm. Democrats tend to want to focus on how you might solve a problem and "sometime solutions" or "'maybe compromises' that solve part of a problem" are hardly the stuff that generates excitement.




I agree in part with your analysis. Democrats platforms are more oriented toward outcomes or solutions. This is why in campaigns, Democrats can almost always out-promise Republicans. They can, with a straight face, proclaim that their policies will "end homelessness" or "limit unemployment to 8%" or "bring peace to the Middle East."

Republican planks are usually stated in the negative. "Read my Lips, No new Taxes." "Deregulation." "No negotiation with Terrorists." Of course, there are zillions of exceptions, but generally, I think the Republicans focus on process and procedure, without necessarily promising what the results will be. They say "No New Taxes" on pronciple, not because they can guaranty what impact that policy will have, but because in principle they believe taxes are high enough. This is why they can promise reduced spending, without knowing what they intend to cut precisely. And, of course, but Repiblicans and Democrats have proven themselves very capable of failing to keep their promises.

I think the reason for the swing toward Republicans this election cycle reflects the cynicism of the populous. They simply don't believe Democrats can deliver much of their promised outcomes. They have a little more faith that, focusing on process, Republicans will actually do some of what they say they will do - and let the chips fall where they may.



"Change," "Hope," etc... have been common electoral themes for democrats since Truman ("We must keep hope alive" - 1948), whether they are on the winning side or not. I was reading some of Hubert Humphrey's 1968 campaign rhetoric the other day and it amazed me how similar it was to Obama's.

Republicans aren't as "hopeful," although Reagan successfully incorporated a somewhat more subtle hope message in both his campaigns, perhaps a nod to the days when he used to be a democrat. Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and neither Bush used much "hope" in their campaigns.

Remember the roots - liberals/democrats are rooted in the progressive tradition that rose up as a critique of industrial society and with the goal of making it less exploitative. They felt they could make things better.

Conservatives/republicans are really the heirs to the 19th century "liberals" (correct use of the word) that were for laissez-faire capitalism and maintenance of the hierarchical and darwinistic social order. They thought things were fine the way they were.

So we know every democrat talks about hopeful change, but none of them seem to deliver all that much, mostly because the system itself resists it.

"Republicans will actually do some of what they say they will do"

Really? What have they done that would actually please their constituencies? Stop growth of government? No, Reagan and Bush II both created new departments that have gotten quite large (try cutting Veterans Affairs and hear the outcry). Prohibit abortions? No, still as legal as it was in 1973. Lower taxes? I guess they did that, although the rise in education and health care costs really negates the savings from taxes. Cut spending? Haha, the only spending they cut is democratic spending they don't approve of. Good luck cutting agricultural subsidies or medicare (republicans fought tooth and nail against ANY medicare cuts or changes to medicare advantage...at the same time conservatives say medicare is bankrupting the nation).

"No new taxes," haha, Bush I broke that, or actually just reverted taxes to previous levels, which in large part contributed to the economic sanity we had in the 90s, but probably cost him his re-election due to conservatives abandoning him.

A lot of promises are kept, however, but due to the system they have to be modified to such a degree that makes them unrecognizable. Obama has actually done a good amount of what he said he was going to if you listened to what he said throughout the primaries, particularly on FP.



But when you really boil it down, the republican message is just simpler.

Low taxes, less government. Sometimes "traditional values" or "common sense" or "strong defense," as the situation requires.

Using complexity makes you a liberal nowadays.



But when you really boil it down, the republican message is just simpler.

Low taxes, less government. Sometimes "traditional values" or "common sense" or "strong defense," as the situation requires. "

This year's tea party Republicans only live up to 2 of the things you mentioned. Lower taxes on the very rich, yes, but the bi-partisan budget offices have all warned that keeping the Bush tax cuts on the rich will increase our deficit. Even Alan Greenspan, no flaming liberal my any means, echoed the same thing.

The Tea party is great for many of those who cheat the system and don't pay their fair share of taxes as well. Financial regulation helped enforce this, not by raising taxes on the middle class, but fighting harder to prevent financial predators from screwing people.

On Strong Defense, Obama is clearly stealing the show over the past 2 years. I have not heard any of the tea party candidates, including Angle, Buck and others say anything about "strong defense".

It is like the old defense hawks like James Baker, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney have kept silent from the GOP. Eventually, tea party candidates like Rand Paul will have a crisis to vote on, and they are going to come across as incompetent. Hardly any of the tea party candidates have taken a position on defense, and that seems to be because, in their heart of heart's know Obama has done an adequate job at winding things down in Iraq.

On traditional values, I don't know where to start. A lot of this depends on what region of the country you are talking about; I think it is so interesting how the tea party talks about Libertarian values, yet they want to turn back the clock on women's health, and pass laws or support laws to outlaw legally recognized gay relationships. That doesn't seem too libertarian to me.

To look at the hypocrisy we have seen from John Ensign, David Vitter and Mark Sanford, what they have shown in their own lives has set a poor example. Granted John Edwards did a terrible thing as well, but Edwards didn't prothelatize his religion or support laws to outlaw gay marriage, or prevent the right for a woman to choose. That is why it is more damaging to Republicans who commit infidelity than when it is a Democrat.


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