Is there really an enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican voters this election cycle?
[IMGCAP(1)]Well, that all depends on what you mean by “enthusiasm” and what you mean by “gap.”
The Democrats will probably lose seats; the party that controls the White House usually does in the midterm elections. Will the Democrats lose big? Will they lose control of the House? The Senate? Will Republicans make gains at the state and local levels?
Maybe. That depends.
But let’s dispose of some myths. The country is not “disgusted” with Democratic policies, as some media commentators wish we would believe. For instance, strong majorities favor a Medicare-style national health plan, even if they have to pay more for insurance, and even if the question is phrased with an insurance industry bias, according to a Harris Interactive poll.
Another Harris Interactive poll found that Americans “overwhelmingly supported the Democrats’ efforts to tighten regulations on Wall Street.”
Secondly, you don’t draw the kinds of crowds President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton have been drawing if there’s a lack of enthusiasm.
Third, the Supreme Court’s decision in this year’s Citizens United case, which allowed unlimited, anonymous corporate donations, reveals something about enthusiasm while also skewering the election process. The Republican media campaigns are largely funded by third-party groups that seek to reverse the progress and policies offered by Democrats to strengthen the middle class. Though many of these anonymous donors are afraid to reveal their true agenda, Democratic fundraising has matched, and in some districts exceeded, Republican efforts.
Pivotal races all across the country are tightening, including Senate contests in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Nevada. When Democrats can keep pace with Republicans’ fundraising numbers despite the help of their anonymous deep-pocketed financiers, there doesn’t seem to be too much of an “enthusiasm gap.”
Fourth, criticism does not equal apathy. That many progressives and liberals are disappointed doesn’t mean they won’t come out and vote for Democratic candidates. That some of the blogs and discussion boards seem to be forums for disappointment and disparagement doesn’t mean these same bloggers won’t be out volunteering, donating and voting.
Much of this disappointment and frustration among voters stems from Democrats on Capitol Hill setting high expectations on making major policy changes. The last thing Democrats or progressives want is to stay home and allow conservatives to take the country even further to the right.
But, you might counter, the polls say Democrats will get trounced. Yes, but the polls only say what the odds are today, not what they’ll be tomorrow or next week. It’s like the weather or fantasy football playoffs — the further from the event, the more variables and unknowns will make predictions and pundits look foolish.
“What about all those angry tea partiers, though?” you ask. The key word is “angry.” Angry people aren’t enthusiastic; they’re just angry. And once the object of that anger is gone, there’s not much left, except perhaps more undirected anger.
Tea-party anger is not enthusiasm for Republicans or Republican policies — the only folks more disliked than incumbents are those inside the tea-party movement itself. Polls show a majority of Americans don’t align themselves with the tea party. A late August CBS poll, for example, found that 54 percent did not support the movement.
Besides, even if anger does translate into voter enthusiasm, liberals and progressives have plenty of their own. They’re angry about the lack of progress and the forced compromises. But the pundits aren’t lapping it up because it’s not a Fox News feed or a siren-yielding headline.
If we’re going to equate anger with enthusiasm — which is not a good idea, but that’s the media’s ginned-up, don’t-think-for-yourself, pre-fabricated narrative — then we have to note that angry voters are usually abrasive and obtuse. It’s not an emotion of the future.
Patriotism, on the other hand, does look into the future. And real patriotism is about solving problems, not posing slogans or inciting fear. Patriots debate; they don’t vilify, and they actually work toward things like establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility and promoting the general welfare.
So if the tea partiers are angry about the past, the progressives and liberals — the heart and soul of the Democratic Party — are frustrated about the future. And frustration is usually more productive than anger.
Can the Democrats lose big? Of course, if they follow the Republican game plan or allow the cable noise to distract them from turning out their 2008 surge voters.
The Democrats need to follow the formula of Sean Payton, the Super-Bowl-winning New Orleans Saints coach: Change the attitude from “no we can’t” to “yes we can”; go back to the basics — knock on doors and talk to voters — used effectively in 2006 and 2008; pay attention to what voters are yearning for — jobs, jobs, jobs; and get ready to come back to Washington during the lame duck and address the problem head on.
In a Sept. 23 Huffington Post article, Zach Friend and Spencer Critchley have done just that. Their three-point game plan is worth summarizing.
1. Establish an emotional — and true — narrative. Frame the election about who creates jobs and find the phrases that express ideas but resonate emotionally: Democrats create jobs, the American way.
2. Draw the contrasts. Clarify the choice voters face. Take the initiative. Run on accomplishments, not away from them. And use visuals.
3. Get your field ops operating.
Listening to the news, I sometimes feel I’m watching a promo for a disaster movie, another attempt by the well-funded, right-wing noise machine to rewrite history before it happens. But tempests and teapots won’t decide this election; voters who know the rest of the story will.
Donna Brazile, who managed the Gore/Lieberman campaign in 2000, is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist and political contributor on CNN and ABC News.