Democrats Don’t Seem Excited About Voting In 2016, But That Doesn’t Mean They’re Bound To Lose

It's too early to worry about the enthusiasm gap.
Mark Wallheiser via Getty Images

Republicans are notably more enthusiastic about the 2016 election than Democrats. But Dems shouldn't worry too much -- at least not yet.

While recent polls show that Republicans have a greater level of excitement about voting and feel more content about their field of presidential candidates than Democrats, political experts say current voter enthusiasm doesn't necessarily indicate which party will ultimately win the White House.

"It's far too early to suggest that Democrats have a definitive disadvantage in 'enthusiasm' heading into 2016," says John Sides, an associate political science professor at George Washington University.

It makes sense for Republicans to be more enthusiastic about voting in 2016.

For starters, Republicans are highly dissatisfied with President Barack Obama and the direction of the country, and this election presents an opportunity for a new start.

"Some element of Republican enthusiasm reflects an anti-Obama sentiment," says Michael Traugott, a political science professor at the University of Michigan who focuses on polling and media. In part, he says, the idea of replacing Obama "fuels Republicans to be more enthusiastic."

The two parties' different primary fields probably play a role, too. Republicans, unlike Democrats, have a wide and competitive primary field that has been successful in engaging the public thus far. The five GOP primary debates held in 2015 spurred record ratings. And their current front-runner, Donald Trump, has been a media sensation, drawing more attention than all the Democratic campaigns combined.

Democrats, on the other hand, have had a smaller field with only two competitive candidates to focus on. Their debates, often held at odd times, have captured far less attention than the Republicans'. Most Democrats have accepted that Hillary Clinton will be their eventual nominee and are thus giving less attention to the primary. Republicans have a greater interest in paying attention considering that their support remains fragmented and most have not settled on a candidate.

How far does that enthusiasm extend? According to a CBS/New York Times poll conducted in early December, 81 percent of Republicans say they're somewhat or very enthusiastic about voting in 2016, compared to 64 percent of Democrats.

Additionally, a YouGov/Economist poll conducted in late December shows that likely Republican voters are 14 percentage points more satisfied with their field of candidates and 12 points more excited about the prospect of their first-choice candidate winning the nomination.

But Republicans, with the exception of the 2008 election, have always been more enthusiastic about presidential elections, so there's no historical precedent that suggests any meaningful correlation between voter enthusiasm and the party that wins.

Analysts and pundits sometimes rely on enthusiasm level to make assumptions about voter turnout. But doing so is a stretch. Kerri Milita, an assistant professor at Illinois State University who studies voting and elections, notes "people who vote will still turn out to vote by and large," regardless of enthusiasm.

Even though Americans might tell a pollster they're enthusiastic about voting, their enthusiasm doesn't necessarily motivate them to register to vote and then turn out on Election Day. Instead, other factors such as location and hours of voting stations or the weather are more indicative of voter turnout than reported enthusiasm.

And while Democrats seem to have an enthusiasm problem right now, it doesn't mean it will persist. Traugott says that it's possible that the enthusiasm gap will narrow when the race reaches the general election -- Democrats will likely become more engaged once they have a Republican opponent.

As the general election nears, enthusiasm does become an important factor that can help mobilize the base, Traugott says. But that impact isn't necessarily direct; it can be useful to "tap into voters that have enthusiasm at the grassroots level and get them to work to knock doors, get out the vote," as political journalist Ed Kilgore wrote.

Having a high level of engagement from the base -- whether it be in the form of donations or volunteer hours spent registering people to vote and driving them to the polls -- can affect voter turnout.

Even though enthusiasm doesn't ultimately play a consequential role in the outcome of the race, Milita thinks it's still signifies a big problem if voters lack excitement about the candidates they're presented with. It suggests that the democratic process is not working and "the parties are not being responsive to their constituents.”

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