Jewish World Review Oct. 11, 2004 / 26 Tishrei, 5765
OK, curb your enthusiasm
Some elections are about persuasion. This one is about turnout. In past presidential debates, candidates have tried to change peoples' minds and win over undecided voters. In this year's presidential and vice presidential debates, the candidates have tried to increase the enthusiasm of their base. The results have shown up in the polls, most vividly in those that don't weight the results to match the party identification of the last couple of elections. Thus George W. Bush zoomed up in some polls right after the Republican National Convention in New York. The first post-convention Gallup Poll had the president ahead of John Kerry by 52 to 45 percent, compared with a 48-to-46 percent lead before the convention. Gallup is volatile because its likely-voter screen is very tight, so that not much more than a majority of registered voters are classed as likely voters. The post-convention sample had more Republicans and fewer Democrats than the preconvention poll. That's evidence that Republicans felt a lot more enthusiastic about their president after the convention than before.
Similarly, Gallup showed Kerry spiking to a 49-to-49 percent tie after the first debate, as compared with a 52-to-44 percent Bush lead in Gallup's last predebate poll. That's evidence that the balance of enthusiasm tilted toward the Democrats after the debate.
Evidence but not conclusive evidence about where the candidates would stand if the election were held when the polls were taken or soon thereafter. Pollster John Zogby, who weights his results by party identification, shows much less movement in his surveys. Starting with a poll taken during the convention, Zogby has shown Bush at 46 percent and Kerry between 42 and 44 percent.
Who's right? The answer, I suspect, is somewhere in the middle. Zogby, I think, has it right in one important sense: Very few Republicans are abandoning Bush, and not many more Democrats are fleeing Kerry. But Gallup also has a good point. Republican and Democratic turnout is simply not the same year after year and cannot be assumed to be so this year.
So this year, obviously, it's hard to be sure. Both sides are paying unprecedented attention to turnout. The Bush campaign, from the beginning, has devoted far greater resources than previous Republican campaigns to voter registration and turnout operations. Bush spokesmen say they have attracted more than a million volunteers, with more than 50,000 each in critical states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Democrats are also devoting more resources to registration and turnout than in previous years. They are relying on the labor unions, which have been their mainstay in the past, and also on liberally funded 527 organizations.
Affection. There is also a difference in motivation on the two sides. Democrats are motivated more by hate not too strong a word of Bush than they are by positive feelings toward Kerry, the candidate they settled on quickly to avoid the electoral disaster they thought they'd face if they nominated Howard Dean. Republicans are motivated more not by love, that is too strong a word but by affection for Bush and for the way he has stood up under the attacks of his opponents and the media.
That affection seems likely to be strengthened by Bush's performance at last week's second debate in St. Louis. Bush showed a sense of command and a command of facts and argument much greater than he had eight days before in Coral Gables. He seemed at ease and even cracked a few jokes. Kerry, on the other hand, often seemed on the defensive and fell into the habit of repeating himself the very same habit that hurt Bush in their earlier encounter. Kerry's stentorian tones were, for the most part, unleavened by humor. As this is written, no poll results have been announced, but my guess is that the balance of enthusiasm is likely to tilt toward Bush by about the same amount it tilted against him after the first debate. If that's right, Bush's numbers are likely to spike upward in the Gallup Poll and to rise slightly in polls that weight for party identification. But that may not be the final move. The balance of enthusiasm can change quickly, as we have already seen. And any significant shift could change the outcome of this election.
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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report His latest book is "Hard America, Soft America : Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) Send your comments to him by clicking here.
©2004, Michael Barone