Is There An Election "Enthusiasm Gap"?

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This column was written by CBS News director of surveys Kathy Frankovic.
The most extraordinary difference between the supporters of John McCain and Barack Obama is in what we have chosen to label "enthusiasm." The latest CBS News/New York Times Poll, completed on July 14, shows Obama leading McCain 48 percent to 42 percent among registered voters. That's only six points. And more than one in three registered voters either admit that their minds aren't completely made up, or that they are truly undecided about their preference.

But the voters who have made a choice display an "enthusiasm gap" that overwhelms differences in support.

  • Asked how they feel about the fact that their choice is the party's nominee, 50 percent of Obama's current voters say they are "enthusiastic." Just 16 percent of McCain's supporters say that about his candidacy. And while more than half of McCain voters are "satisfied" with McCain, 15 percent say they are "dissatisfied" or even "angry" that he is the nominee!
  • How important is it that their candidate wins in November? It matters more to Obama voters: 37 percent of them say an Obama victory is "extremely important" to them, compared with 24 percent of McCain voters who say so about a McCain victory. Adding in those who think a victory by the person they are voting for is "very important" but not necessarily "extremely important" 69 percent of Obama voters - but only 53 percent of McCain voters - say it matters that much.
  • Are voters satisfied with their options? Historically, about half of all voters will say they wish there were more choices; and this year is no different. But again, there is a party divide. Two out of three Obama supporters are satisfied; just 29 percent want more candidates in the race. But the percentages are reversed among McCain voters: 60 percent of them wish there were more options, while only 29 percent are satisfied with the choices of only McCain and Obama.
  • Even when it comes to paying attention to the campaign, there is a gap. Fifty-nine percent of Obama voters say they are paying "a lot" of attention, compared with 51 percent of McCain voters.

    This enthusiasm gap can be seen in larger crowds at rallies, as well as in greater fundraising. Journalists - and voters - sense this kind of enthusiasm, too. By 53 percent to 30 percent, voters say they expect Obama to win.

    However, each candidate has problems motivating some of his partisans. The least satisfied of McCain's supporters are conservatives and evangelicals - the same groups with whom (exit polls showed) he had trouble in the primaries. And Obama still has to go some distance to capture the enthusiasm of former Clinton supporters, six in ten of whom are now supporting Obama, but not necessarily with enthusiasm. Just 29 percent of that group are enthusiastic about their current choice.

    Strength of support or level of enthusiasm can sometimes make a difference in an election, as the candidate who wins is often the candidate whose supporters care most about winning.

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    In late July, 2004, even AFTER that year's Democratic Convention and before the Republicans met, John Kerry's supporters were a lot less committed to their candidate than supporters of George W. Bush were committed to theirs. Sixty percent of Bush voters said they "strongly" favored their candidate; just 47 percent of Kerry's supporters said that. There was another motivation for many Kerry voters - 28 percent said they were voting for Kerry mostly because they disliked Bush. Strength-of-support numbers pretty much stayed the same for the rest of the campaign. Even in polls taken just before the 2004 election there wasn't much difference: 67 percent of Bush voters said they supported him strongly, compared with just 49 percent of Kerry voters. And while 37 percent of likely Republican voters said they would be "excited" by a Bush win, just 24 percent of likely Democratic voters said they would be "excited" by a Kerry victory.

    This year, in the CBS News Poll conducted right before the New Hampshire Primary, there were signs that Hillary Clinton's support was much stronger than the simple horserace numbers suggested. (As in every other poll conducted right before that primary, the CBS News Poll showed Obama ahead; yet, as we now all know, Clinton won that contest). We asked New Hampshire Democratic primary voters this question: "Would you say you like [Clinton/Obama] a great deal better than any other Democratic candidate for President, somewhat better than any other candidate, or only a little better than any other candidate?" Clinton had the edge in the share of her voters who were intense; 36 percent said they liked her "a great deal better" than any other candidate in New Hampshire, while just 26 percent of Obama supporters said they liked him a great deal better than the others.

    Caring a lot can translate into activity for a candidate - more than half of Clinton supporters in New Hampshire (55 percent) said they had recommended Clinton to other voters, while just 44 percent of Obama supporters had done that.

    So, yes, there is an "enthusiasm gap" in this year's election - and enthusiasm certainly helps to get out the vote. Clinton won the New Hampshire primary. Bush beat Kerry in 2004, and Obama is now leading McCain.
    By Kathy Frankovic