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‘Enthusiasm Gap’ Was Largest in Presidential Swing States

There are various ways to measure the “enthusiasm gap” that was manifest on Tuesday night. For example, exit polls suggested that an equal number people identifying as Democrats and Republicans turned out on Tuesday night. By contrast, Democrats led by 7 points on this measure in 2008.

Polls of registered voters, meanwhile — although there are differences from firm to firm — had generally given Democrats about a 5-point edge in party identification over the past several months, rather than showing the electorate evenly divided, as it was among actual voters.

That would point toward an enthusiasm gap – which compares party affiliation to actual turnout – of 5-7 points, which is exactly what the consensus of pollsters thought it would be. (The Gallup poll, whose traditional likely voter model pointed toward an enthusiasm gap in the double digits, indeed proved to be an outlier.)

Another way to measure the enthusiasm gap is to compare the actual presidential vote in 2008 to the presidential candidate for whom Tuesday’s voters claimed they had voted, according to exit polls. Nationally, for instance, Tuesday night’s voters told exit pollsters that they had split their vote 45-45 between Barack Obama and John McCain (some said they had voted for a third-party candidate or had not voted at all.) Since Mr. Obama won the election by about 7 points nationally in 2008, this would again point toward an enthusiasm gap in the 5-7 point range that we have been describing.

This measure of the enthusiasm gap, however, varied quite significantly from state to state. And there is something very interesting about the states where it was larger.

Exit polls were conducted in 26 states (mostly, where there were competitive Senate contests). The largest enthusiasm gap came in New Hampshire. There, Tuesday night’s voters claimed to have voted for John McCain by a 4-point margin, when in fact Barack Obama won the state by 10 points. That’s a 14-point enthusiasm gap.

The next largest enthusiasm gap came in Indiana; the electorate there shifted from having favored Mr. Obama by 1 point in 2008 to Mr. McCain by 10 points: an 11-point gap.

The enthusiasm gap was 10 points in Nevada, and 9 points in Iowa. It was 8 points in Ohio, Wisconsin, Missouri and Illinois.

What do these states have in common? Other than Illinois, which is Mr. Obama’s home state, all the others were key presidential swing states in 2008. In fact, there is nearly a one-to-one correspondence between 2008 swing states (which are shaded in the chart below) and those where the enthusiasm gap was largest:

Over all, the enthusiasm gap averaged 8 points in presidential swing states. But it was virtually nonexistent — favoring Republicans by just 1 point, on average — in states that weren’t competitive in 2008. It didn’t much matter whether the states (like Vermont and Hawaii) went heavily for Barack Obama in 2008, or (like Texas and Arkansas) went for John McCain: there wasn’t much of an enthusiasm gap in these non-competitive states.

On the surface, this looks like horrible news for Democrats: the enthusiasm gap was the largest in precisely those states that a Democrat (or a Republican for that matter) needs to win the Presidency.

But there is something else to keep in mind. Mr. Obama’s campaign had a terrific turnout operation, and — like any good turnout operation — it was concentrated in swing states. Mr. McCain’s campaign, by contrast, de-emphasized its “ground game” (a mistake that Karl Rove and George W. Bush would never have made), hoping to nationalize the election and win on the basis of television commercials.

What we’re probably seeing, then, is the “hangover” from the Mr. Obama’s turnout efforts in 2008. In states like Ohio and New Hampshire and Indiana, where Democrats registered tons of new voters and made sure that all of them got to the polls, a lot of them didn’t participate this time around. In other states, the electorate wasn’t much different and the people who were voting this year strongly resembled those who voted in 2008 — although Republicans still did better because the preferences of independent voters shifted toward them.

This sort of phenomenon is actually quite typical. In general, the bigger a President’s coattails, the more his party tends to suffer at the next midterm.

The key question for 2012 is whether those new voters will re-enter the electorate when Mr. Obama is on the ballot again. If so, Democrats should be in reasonably good shape — and they’ll also win back quite a few of the House seats that they lost in these states.

If not, however — or if Republicans are able to build a get-out-the-vote effort that is the equal of Mr. Obama’s — we could be up very late into the evening counting votes on Nov. 6, 2012.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.