Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Enthusiasm Gap

Voter engagement in the presidential race

Alan I. Abramowitz, Special Guest Columnist February 14th, 2008

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Dr. Alan Abramowitz is one of the most distinguished and best known political scientists in the United States today. He has a rare talent for distilling data into appealing, fascinating accounts about American politics, as you will see in his guest column for the Crystal Ball today. Alan is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University and the author of Voice of the People: Elections and Voting Behavior in the United States (2004, McGraw-Hill). –Larry J. Sabato, U.Va. Center for Politics


There is a large enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican voters in this year’s presidential campaign. The gap is evident in polling data, crowds at campaign rallies, turnout in primary elections, and campaign contributions. In a January 10-13 Gallup Poll, for example, 74 percent of Democratic voters said that they were “more enthusiastic than usual” about voting this year compared with only 44 percent of Republican voters. Forty-eight percent of Republican voters said that they were “less enthusiastic than usual” about voting this year compared with only 15 percent of Democratic voters.

The Democratic advantage has also been evident in turnout in presidential primaries. On February 5th, Super Tuesday, almost 15 million voters participated in Democratic primaries compared with fewer than 9 million in Republican primaries. One week later, more than 1.8 million voters in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia participated in Democratic primaries compared with fewer than 800 thousand in Republican primaries. Even in Virginia, until recently considered a solidly red state, Democratic turnout more than doubled Republican turnout.

The Democratic advantage in turnout represents a big change from the 2000 presidential primaries, the last time both parties had competitive nomination races. In that year over 19 million votes were cast in Republican primaries compared with only 14 million in Democratic primaries.

Last but certainly not least, the leading Democratic candidates have raised far more money from individual contributors than their Republican counterparts. During 2007, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama raised a combined total of 208 million dollars from individual contributors. During the same period, the three leading Republican candidates, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, raised only 99 million dollars from individual contributors.

Like the Democratic advantage in primary turnout, the Democratic advantage in fundraising represents a reversal of the situation that existed during the 2000 presidential campaign. In that year, the two leading Republican candidates, George W. Bush and John McCain, raised a total of 130 million dollars from individual contributors while the two leading Democratic candidates, Al Gore and Bill Bradley, raised only 105 million dollars from individual contributors.

While the enthusiasm gap between the parties is real and important, there is also strong evidence of an enthusiasm gap within the Democratic Party: supporters of Barack Obama appear to be more enthusiastic about their candidate than supporters of Hillary Clinton. This difference is reflected in the larger crowds that Obama has been attracting at his campaign rallies and the larger number of individuals who have contributed to Obama’s campaign.

Although Obama and Clinton received about the same amount of money in individual contributions during 2007, 26 percent of Obama’s contributions came from individuals giving less than 200 dollars compared with only 12 percent of Clinton’s contributions. As a result, Obama’s contributor base was much larger than Clinton’s. And this gap appears to have expanded dramatically the first few weeks of 2008 according to reports issued by the two campaigns. As of the end of January, the Obama campaign claimed to have received contributions from over 350 thousand individuals while the Clinton campaign claimed to have received contributions from about 150 thousand.

Obama’s enthusiasm advantage may also explain his dominance thus far in the caucus states. In the states holding primaries on February 5th, Obama and Clinton split the popular vote almost evenly, 49 percent for Clinton to 48 percent for Obama. But Obama swept all six states holding caucuses, receiving a combined 67 percent of the vote compared to 31 percent for Clinton. This pattern continued on the following weekend as Obama swept three more caucus states–Washington, Nebraska and Maine–winning each by a wide margin.

Why is Obama doing so well in these caucus states? The demographic make-up of states like Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota and Colorado certainly does not appear to favor him. There are very few African American voters in these states and Colorado has a very large Hispanic voting bloc–a demographic than has strongly supported Hillary Clinton in most of the primaries. The major explanation for Obama’s strong showing in the caucus states appears to be the greater enthusiasm of his supporters. Participating in a caucus requires a lot more time and effort than voting in a primary and a much larger percentage of Obama’s supporters than Clinton’s supporters appear to be willing to put out that time and effort.

Why does this matter? First, because it suggests that Obama would be able to attract more grass-roots volunteers to work on his campaign than Clinton and research has shown that personal contact is by far the most effective method of turning out voters. But the most important advantage that Obama would derive from the greater enthusiasm of his supporters is that he would be in a stronger position financially if he becomes the Democratic nominee. That is because he continues to generate more individual contributions than Clinton and because he is raising a larger share of his money from small contributors who could continue to be tapped for additional donations. In contrast, Clinton is raising more of her money from large contributors, many of whom are barred by federal election law from giving more money to her campaign.

Whoever wins the Democratic presidential nomination, whether it is Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, should enjoy a substantial advantage in enthusiasm among rank-and-file party voters compared with the almost certain Republican nominee, John McCain. Democratic voters are highly motivated to put a Democrat in the White House after eight years of George Bush and exit polls indicate that the large majority of Democrats have a favorable opinion of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In addition, despite sewing up the GOP nomination relatively quickly thanks to party rules allowing winner-take-all primaries, McCain is likely to face continuing criticism and resistance from influential conservative leaders and commentators in the weeks ahead. Nevertheless, because of the greater enthusiasm of his supporters, Barack Obama would appear to be a stronger general election candidate for the Democrats than Hillary Clinton.

Alan Abramowitz can be contacted via email at polsaa@emory.edu. The Crystal Ball extends its sincere gratitude for his guest column today.