The enthusiasm gap

This election, with Obama having stoked pennant fever in Denver, it is the Dems who have cornered the excitement market  
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  September 3, 2008


The selection of gun-shooting, anti-abortion, creationist, doctrinaire conservative Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as John McCain’s vice-presidential nominee has finally got the GOP’s conservative base excited. The right-wing talk-show hosts and religious leaders who had been lukewarm over McCain — and fearful that he really might put Senator Joe Lieberman on the ticket — are beside themselves with glee.

Once again, as in 2000 and 2004, the Republican base will get fired up for November. Conservative religious groups will distribute fliers about abortion, homosexuals, and atheism. Evangelical churches will run busses to the polling places. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity will warn, hour after hour, of the impending socialistic state of Barack Obama, and the inevitable nuclear attack on American soil.

Palin is part of McCain’s attempt to reclaim the Republican advantage in party-base enthusiasm, an edge which arguably won the past two presidential elections for the GOP. This year, that advantage was seen as heavily favoring the Democrats.

But not only has McCain started to energize his conservatives, fervor was also waning in recent weeks among Democrats, due to in-fighting, uncertainty, and tightening poll numbers — to the point that Democrats arriving in Denver this past week for their national convention seemed surprisingly nervous about the election, and noticeably cautious in their enthusiasm.

Like Red Sox fans in the 86 years of darkness, Democratic insiders bear the scars of past broken hearts, from times when they previously let themselves believe that their time had come — only to see victory elude them like a ground ball between the legs of Al Gore and John Kerry.

To mix Red Sox metaphors, it is as though they have come to expect that Karl Rove lurks in the batter’s box like Bucky Dent, always ready to drive one over the Green Monster and beat them in the end.

Obama needs his base — the delegates and party activists in Denver — to believe again that this is, really, the year his party’s dreams will come to fruition. He needs them to believe, so that they will be passionate speakers on his behalf back in their home states; so that they will fill his coffers with money; so that they will spend endless hours registering voters, making phone calls, and doing all the grunt work of the national campaign — in short, so that the enthusiasm gap this time works in the Democrats’ favor.

So, while the convention was on one level meant to sell a likable Obama to the national audience, on another level it was meant to whip the Democrats inside the convention hall into a frenzy that would stand up to the inevitable enthusiasm of the Republicans.

Mood sourers
These should be heady times for Democrats. Their party is on the rise, while their opponents are in the national doghouse. Most analysts believe Democrats are just a few months away from holding not just the Oval Office (their presidential candidate has led in almost every national poll taken since the two 2008 major-party nominees have been known), but a minimum of 55 percent of positions in the US Senate, US House, and governorships, as well. Among the general populace, voters are now far more likely to register and self-identify as Democrat than Republican, and to prefer that Democrats control government. On almost all the major issues of the day — the economy, Iraq, health care — a solid majority of Americans favors Democratic positions over Republican ones.

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