Un-curbing Democratic Enthusiasm
For the first time in 80 years, this year’s Republican turnout in statewide midterm primaries held before September exceeded Democratic turnout – by 4 million votes. It’s numbers like these that have pundits talking about, and Democrats worrying about, an “enthusiasm gap” between the two major parties that, if it continues unabated, could lead to a GOP upset in the Nov. 2 midterm elections.
Even Barack Obama has gotten into the gap act, attributing the phrase to an amorphous “they” and urging young Democratic voters to flock to the polls. “They say that there is an enthusiasm gap,” Obama said to roars of dismay. “And that the same Republicans and the same policies that left our economy in a shambles and the middle class struggling, year after year, that those folks might all ride back into power. That’s the conventional wisdom in Washington. We cannot let that happen.”
Talk of this chasm is rooted in voter turnout for the primaries as well as in a multitude of polls over the past several months that have found Republicans more interested in voting and taking the lead in congressional seats. One such poll, conducted by Reuters/Ipsos and released in late July, found 72 percent of Republicans certain that they will vote in November, compared to 49 percent of Democrats.
And voter turnout might well turn out to be the make-or-break issue here. The latest two Gallup polls found that the race would actually be pretty close among registered voters; but in the smaller, and presumably more telling, category of likely voters, Gallup estimates that Republicans will out-vote Democrats by between 13 and 18 percentage points. The Democrats were indeed out-voted in the 35 statewide primaries held before September, in which GOP turnout was the highest since 1970 – and Democratic turnout was the lowest ever, according to Curtis Gans, director of American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate.
The data war has to some extent given way to a rally war, with political leaders replaced by media figures like Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who have the advantage of guaranteed media promotion as they galvanize the pre-election crowds.
Of course, at a rally of like-minded adherents to the cause, enthusiasm is generally the byword, not the missing word. At a Madison, Wisconsin, rally of 17,000 students (plus 9,000 who couldn’t get in), Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin who is fighting to keep his seat, decried the much-publicized gap as “phony” and told the crowd, “This doesn’t look like an enthusiasm gap to me.”
For all the trends and counter-trends reflected in polls and rallies, though, nothing’s for sure until the ballots are counted. As a sagacious participant in yet another rally, the liberal “One Nation Working Together” rally held Saturday, put it: “There may be an enthusiasm gap, but we’re not going to know until we have an election.”
While the term “enthusiasm gap” is being used specifically to refer to differences between Democratic and Republican attitudes toward voting ahead of this year’s midterm elections, the construction of the phrase is familiar, since it follows the same format as its more well-known cousins, like “generation gap,” “age gap” and “credibility gap.”
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage cites references to other variants of the “gap” formulation dating from 1971, including the “trash gap” (the difference between the trash kids used to fill their minds with and the trash of nowadays) and the “confidence gap” (“distrust plus loss of self-confidence,” according to a 1983 book review).
Whether or not the Dems manage to un-curb their enthusiasm, writerly types ought to be warned: “The use of gap in such phrases as generation gap and credibility gap is discouraged as hackneyed,” scold the language dictators at Merriam-Webster. All the same, they acknowledge that there is, as they wouldn’t dare say, a usage gap between such stodgy prescriptions and the reality that, as they concede, those who proliferate such terms have yet to lose their enthusiasm.
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