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Why Trump — Not Biden — Might Have An Enthusiasm Problem

The Trump campaign has found its silver lining in an avalanche of awful polling numbers: Voters who support Donald Trump are enthusiastic about his candidacy.

Polls consistently show that Trump’s supporters are more excited to vote for him than presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s supporters are to vote for him. For example, half of Trump supporters in a recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll said they were “very excited” about their candidate, compared to just 27 percent of Biden backers. Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale even described their enthusiasm advantage over Biden as “the most important factor in the campaign.”

‘I’m not sure (enthusiasm) will be enough to save (Trump)’ in 2020: Silver

But the significance of this “enthusiasm gap” is exaggerated. Enthusiastic votes count just as much as unenthusiastic ones, meaning an enthusiasm gap would only really matter in a close election. And right now, it isn’t a close election: Biden leads Trump in national polls by nearly 9 points. No enthusiasm advantage — no matter how big — could possibly make up for that kind of a gap.

[Related: The Latest Presidential Polling Averages]

Let’s pretend, though, that voter enthusiasm is an important metric for understanding Trump and Biden’s candidacies. The Trump campaign would still have a problem, and that’s because the 2020 enthusiasm gap is mostly a myth.

First, while Biden voters may not be all that excited about voting for Biden, they’re very enthusiastic about voting against Trump. And that gives Biden a pretty strong edge, because Trump supporters don’t despise Biden the way they despised Hillary Clinton in 2016. In fact, according to survey data from the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape project, the share of Trump voters who rate Biden unfavorably is consistently much lower than the share of Biden voters who rate Trump negatively — nearly 30 percentage points lower as of the last survey conducted at the end of June.

Second, because Trump voters don’t dislike Biden as much as Biden voters dislike Trump, Biden actually has an advantage in net enthusiasm (calculated as the difference between a candidate’s “very favorable” and “very unfavorable” rating). The gap on this metric has widened between the two in the past month, too.

What’s especially notable here is that Biden’s net enthusiasm rating is near zero, which is similar to most major-party presidential candidates’ ratings from 1980 to 2012. Trump’s current score of around -20, on the other hand, has only one historical comparison other than his own campaign four years ago: Hillary Clinton in 2016.

[Related: How Popular Is President Donald Trump?]

Trump should know better than anyone that this isn’t good. After all, he won in 2016 in part because the record number of voters who had negative opinions of both major candidates broke decisively in his favor.

But right now, Trump can’t count on the “haters” to swing the election for him again. Registered voters with negative opinions of both Trump and Biden preferred Biden to Trump by a whopping 23-point margin in the polling Nationscape conducted in June. They also rated Biden less negatively overall, with only 33 percent of this group saying they had a very unfavorable opinion of Biden compared to 62 percent who said the same of Trump.

[Related: The Voters Who Don’t Like Trump Or Biden]

These results, especially when combined with recent political science research on the power of negative partisanship, suggest that the public’s stronger dislike of Trump is probably the more consequential enthusiasm gap in 2020.

To be sure, that negative enthusiasm gap will almost certainly narrow as Trump ratchets up his attacks on Biden. But it’s unlikely Biden will engender the same level of hatred that Clinton did. Even though she’s spent four years out of the political limelight, Republicans are still more hostile to Clinton than Biden. A Fox News poll from last month found that 76 percent had a “strongly unfavorable” opinion of Clinton, compared to 64 percent of Republicans who held the same opinion of Biden.

[Related: So … About That Supposed Lack Of Enthusiasm For Biden?]

Additionally, social science research suggests that antipathy toward the other side is driven in large part by racial and cultural differences between the parties — differences that Clinton and former President Barack Obama exemplify in ways that a 77-year-old white moderate male Democrat doesn’t.

As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer astutely put it, “The notion of a Biden presidency simply does not provoke the visceral rage that Clinton and Obama did — not in Trump, and not in his supporters.” So long as Biden’s campaign does not evoke such negativity, Trump will likely be the one on the short end of the 2020 enthusiasm gap.

Michael Tesler is a professor of political science at University of California, Irvine, author of “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era” and co-author of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”