Saturday, September 4, 2010

What Steve said ...

Public Policy Polling's Tom Jensen had a fascinating item yesterday that's worth pondering.

If the folks planning to turn out this year matched the 2008 electorate:

- Alex Sink running for Governor in Florida and Alexi Giannoulias running for the Senate in Illinois would have double digit leads.

- Elaine Marshall running for Senate in North Carolina and Pat Quinn running for Governor in Illinois would have small leads instead of trailing.

- Ted Strickland running for Governor in Ohio, Lee Fisher running for Senate in Ohio, Joe Sestak running for Senate in Pennsylvania, and Robin Carnahan running for Senate in Missouri would all be within three points rather than trailing by 7-10 as they do now.

Jensen characterizes the enthusiasm gap as really being the be-all, end-all variable this cycle. There's little evidence of Republicans getting more popular, but there's ample evidence that Democrats aren't inclined to turnout on Election Day. The result is "races that would otherwise be lean Democratic into toss ups, turning toss ups into leaning Republican, and turning leaning Republican into solid Republican."

Much has been written about how we reached this point, but Adam Serwer's summary today sounds about right to me.

I'd chalk it up a few things: the administration and Democrats in general being timid about defending themselves and their policies, a general sense that key liberal priorities were compromised on or abandoned, and the failure to get the economy moving again. What most people are seeing and hearing is that Democratic Party leaders are failing, which doesn't exactly make people want to come out and vote for them, let alone make phone calls and knock on doors.

If you're reading this blog, you're probably significantly more engaged than the typical voter, so other examples -- Robert Gibbs' comments about the "professional left," the defeat of the public option, annoyance with Rahm Emanuel in general, frustration on judicial nominees, the administration's disappointing record on civil liberties in the context of national security -- likely come to mind to explain progressive disillusionment. But like Adam, I suspect these developments are noticed in far more detail among actively engaged voters, and occur under the radar of folks in general, most of whom don't keep up on current events at the granular level.

Of course, if Adam's assessment is correct, and I think it is, then there's just not much to be done between now and November. Major liberal initiatives are highly unlikely to be approved over the next 59 days, and the economy almost certainly won't see dramatic improvements. A party goes into an election season with the broader circumstances it has, not the broader circumstances it wants or wishes to have at a later time.

But there's one aspect of this that I struggle to wrap my head around. In campaign politics, there's always been one major drawback to playing exclusively to the base, and it has nothing to do with alienating the "middle." It's the risk of a backlash from the other side. If Republicans, for example, cater exclusively to the desires of right-wing lunatics, rank-and-file Democratic voters will see this and think, "Hey, I'm starting to feel more motivated all the time...." At least, that's the theory.

In practice, that doesn't seem to be happening. The GOP is going exclusively with a base-mobilization tack, even going so far as to drive Republican moderates out of the party altogether, and yet, the Democratic base isn't responding in kind. I'm tempted to think the most radicalized Republican Party in generations would alone be enough to bring Democrats out to the polls in droves.

And yet, if polls pointing to the enthusiasm gap are accurate, the collective response from the Dem base is, "Meh."

There was a front-page piece in the New York Times yesterday, which seemed to suggest that Democrats, on top of all their other election-season troubles, are losing one of the party's key group of supporters: young people. Relying on research from the Pew Research Center, the NYT reported that "fewer younger voters see themselves as Democrats."

The college vote is up for grabs this year — to an extent that would have seemed unlikely two years ago, when a generation of young people seemed to swoon over Barack Obama.

Though many students are liberals on social issues, the economic reality of a weak job market has taken a toll on their loyalties: far fewer 18- to 29-year-olds now identify themselves as Democrats compared with 2008.

As it turns out, it depends on how one defines "far."

Way down in the story, the NYT gets to the data: younger voters' identification with Dems "peaked at 62 percent in July 2008." The newest data puts the number at 57 percent.

Paul Waldman's reaction seemed like the sensible one.

Well now. That doesn't seem so dramatic anymore, does it? In the heart of a presidential campaign in which the Democrat, a dynamic young candidate, would go on to whip the Republican, a crotchety old candidate, the proportion of young people identifying as Democrats peaked at 62 percent. And now, with the economy in the toilet, the president's approval ratings in the 40s, and Democrats facing huge losses in November, that number has plummeted all the way to ... 57 percent.

What's more, party I.D. notwithstanding, the same data shows younger voters are more socially progressive and less anti-government than other age groups. That's not a sign of trouble for Dems; it's the opposite.

Now all Democrats have to do is figure out how to get these younger voters to care about the midterm elections.

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