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CBS News poll analysis: Is there an enthusiasm gap between Trump and Biden?

CBS News poll shows Biden ahead of Trump
Biden leads Trump in Michigan while president leads in Ohio, CBS News poll shows 01:58

Campaign strategists and pollsters often talk about an "enthusiasm gap" between parties, suggesting one side's supporters are more enthusiastic about voting than the other's. Some, including President Trump, have touted a 2020 enthusiasm advantage for Republicans. Is that really the case and, either way, what can it tell us about this year's campaign?

The first thing to know is that surveys measure enthusiasm in a variety of ways, and the way a question is asked can produce different results. Some ask about excitement about a particular candidate, while others ask about enthusiasm around voting more generally.

Our recent Battleground Tracker polling does the latter, asking voters how they feel about "voting in the election in November." In key battleground states we've polled this month, supporters of both President Trump and Joe Biden tend to say they're "very enthusiastic" about voting. However, supporters of Mr. Trump are more likely to say so by a margin that ranges from 2 to 9 percentage points, depending on the state. As the chart below shows, the gap is most pronounced in the Sun Belt states we polled at the beginning of the month: Arizona, Texas, and Florida.

While much has been made of enthusiasm, it may not be the most important measure this year. An unenthusiastic vote, of course, counts just the same as an enthusiastic one, so this is a useful measure insofar as it indicates who's firmly behind their candidate and who will actually turn out this fall.

We measure the firmness of each candidate's support in multiple ways, and this data tells a different story about the 2020 campaign. First we ask how strongly voters support their chosen candidate. 

Nationally, the vast majority of both candidates' supporters say their support is either very strong (78%) or strong (16%). As the chart below shows, Biden has the advantage on this measure in some states, particularly in our latest polling of Michigan and Ohio (negative values indicate a Democratic advantage). However, in Arizona and Texas — which both look like very tight races — Mr. Trump leads on both enthusiasm and strength of support.

Importantly, even Biden backers who are not very enthusiastic about voting mostly say their support is very strong — even more so than not-very-enthusiastic Trump supporters — indicating that despite their lack of enthusiasm, they've made up their minds.

Another way we measure firmness of support is by asking voters how open they are to changing sides. Neither Trump nor Biden supporters appear very open to switching: Nine in ten say they would never consider the other candidate.

Moreover, most that they strongly support their candidate and that they would never consider the other candidate: 77% of Trump supporters and 74% of Biden supporters say so nationwide.

Back to enthusiasm, voters' likelihood of saying they're very enthusiastic is related to the main reason they choose for supporting their candidate. While most Trump supporters say they're mainly voting for him because they like him, about half of Biden voters say opposition to Mr. Trump is driving their vote. Together, this means that across parties, most voters are basing their decisions mainly on how they feel about the president. Biden backers appear to express less enthusiasm, in part, because they are driven more by antipathy toward Mr. Trump than loving their candidate.

In summary, our data suggest that while Trump voters are more enthusiastic in certain states, other emotions appear to be motivating Democratic voters, who are just as strong in their support of Biden. If lack of enthusiasm doesn't indicate softness of support, does it signal whether or not someone will actually bother to vote at all?

The congressional elections of 2018 — in which historic turnout levels propelled a blue wave in the U.S. House of Representatives — offer some clues. In our polling, Republicans and Democrats showed similar levels of enthusiasm. When we recontacted them after the elections, we found that their pre-election enthusiasm did little to predict whether they actually voted, at least after controlling for their self-reported likelihood of turning out.

However, Republicans and Democrats consistently differed on two other dimensions that year: anger and the perceived importance of the midterms. In competitive districts, Democratic voters were 20 points more likely than Republican voters to say they would be angry if the other party won, as opposed to just disappointed. And Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to say that the midterms were more important than a presidential election. Neither of these sentiments is "enthusiasm" per se, but they were important signs of discontent underlying a turnout surge.

As we survey voters in competitive states this year, a similar dynamic appears to be at play. However, in the midst of a deadly pandemic and evolving procedures and rules for election administration, it's far less clear how these sentiments will translate to the number of people who cast a vote.

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