The enthusiasm gap

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  September 3, 2008

The heavens even seemed to be biased. Obama took the risk of planning an outdoor climax, and lucked out with picture-perfect weather — while Republicans were cursed by stormy weather headed, Katrina-like, toward New Orleans. Although most were careful not to say it in public, many couldn’t help expressing the feeling of destiny that seemed to have attached itself to Obama.

Cautious optimism
No need to worry about complacence or overconfidence — Democratic activists are still deeply nervous about the election, and the mythical powers they imbue in the Republican political machinery to tilt elections. Activists in the party of the donkey will believe they need to work their asses off, regardless of polling data, right up to the final minute.

And they are right to. The country remains highly divided, and highly skeptical of a relatively unknown, biracial Democrat who claims to have the power to heal the country and renew our promise.

But there are reasons to believe that the election is, if not in the bag, at least well in hand with two months to go.

Initial post-convention polls show that the race has quickly returned to a solid Obama lead, with several national surveys putting the margin between five and eight percentage points.

Even if McCain gets a convention bounce of his own, Obama’s lead is still particularly strong, because many political analysts believe that Obama will out-perform the poll numbers. Voter enthusiasm remains much higher among Democrats than Republicans, which should translate into a higher turn-out rate on Election Day. Plus, pollsters, using models based on previous elections, are almost certainly undercounting young voters and black voters — both of whom far exceeded expectations in primary turnout, and will probably do so again in November. Both groups will vote overwhelmingly for Obama.

In addition, Obama, the Democratic Party, and left-leaning groups are engaged in an unprecedented program to register millions of new voters, in demographics likely to vote Democratic. Obama’s voter-tracking and get-out-the-vote operation is also immense, while the relatively cash-strapped McCain is putting little effort there.

Plus, there is reason to suspect that when specific issues, which have thus far taken a back seat in the campaign, eventually become part of the national debate — as the candidates participate in debates, and interest groups advertise their preferences — those late-deciders will flee one-by-one from McCain, who holds a full slate of positions opposed by the bulk of Americans. Those include McCain’s opposition to health-care coverage for everyone, his strong advocacy for privatizing social security, his opposition to raising the minimum wage and to passage of the Fair Pay Act, and his opposition to federal funding of birth control and sex education.

The issues are against McCain, because the issues are currently against Republicans — and, as his choice of ultra-conservative Sarah Palin suggests, McCain is still trying to get his base enthusiastic about his candidacy.

Obama did not need an ultra-liberal V-P pick to do that; he needed a good convention. From the looks of things inside the hall, he accomplished it.

To read the “Talking Politics” blog, go to David S. Bernstein can be reached

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