With voter turnout down considerably in several of the Republican presidential nominating contests, there’s been growing talk in recent months about the GOP losing the edge in the “enthusiasm gap.” It’s this gap that helped produce massive Republican gains in the 2010 midterms, and the party will need a similar advantage to thrive in 2012.
In his latest Wall Street Journal op-ed, Karl Rove argues it’s Democrats who should be worried. Relying on fundraising data, the Republican strategist argues that it’s President Obama who has an “enthusiasm” problem.
As is generally the case, there’s an important gap between Rove’s rhetoric and reality. There’s ample polling data to let us know about voter enthusiasm, and at least for now, Democrats have reason to feel encouraged.
Republicans are less enthusiastic about having Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum as their potential presidential nominee than they were four years ago about Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., according to a Gallup survey released on Thursday. For conservatives, the lackluster numbers are a worrying sign that the party’s already bitter primary fight has sapped voter enthusiasm and left the GOP weakened for the fall battle with President Obama.
Gallup reported that just 35 percent of Republicans surveyed said they would vote enthusiastically for front-runner Romney if he becomes the party’s standard-bearer. Similarly, 34 percent said they would enthusiastically support Santorum, his main challenger for the nomination and the preferred choice of the most-conservative Republicans.
That represents a precipitous drop in excitement from 2008, the poll found. In a survey released in early February of that year, 47 percent of Republicans were enthusiastic about the prospect of backing McCain, a 12-point difference from Romney’s numbers today.
Making matters worse, take a look at this table Gallup published:
About a fifth of self-identified Republicans said they would support President Obama or stay home if Romney is the nominee. A similar number said the same thing if Santorum is the nominee.
I suspect those numbers will change as the election draws closer, but it’s certainly not where the Republican Party wanted to be in mid-March of 2012.