The Obama-Romney match up is shaping up to be a nail biter. Our most recent Reuters-Ipsos poll has them in a statistical deadheat; other polls show a similar narrowing. Part of this trend is without a doubt a direct result of a dip in economic optimism, a dysfunctional Europe and lousy jobs report. But this variability is also just the natural ebb and flow of the election. Sometimes you are up; other times you are down.
I still believe that Obama is the odds-on favorite to win in November (see here) — barring a complete economic meltdown. But this will be a race of mere inches won at the margins. Such an election puts a special premium on mobilizing the core base and wooing likely “swing” voters. Both the Romney and Obama camps will have this focus as a central part of ther strategies.
Key to this election will be the relative enthusiasm of the Republican and Democratic bases. Enthusiastic supporters translate into concrete votes on election day. On this front, Republicans have had the historical advantage. While fewer in number, Republicans are more likely to show up on election day than Democrats. In 2008 though, Obama and the Democrats were able to significantly reduce this gap — a big factor in the lopsided results that year.
So how does the enthusiasm gap shake out this year?
To answer this question, I look at likelihood of voting–a good proxy for enthusiasm–and how it varies by party identification using our ongoing Reuters-Ipsos poll. I also compared this to similar Ipsos polls in 2008 and 2004.¹
What do we find?
Quite simply, Republicans have gained the advantage again–with a full 7-point advantage in enthusiasm (see graph below). Indeed, the gap grew from 4 points in 2008 to 7 points now.
A more detailed look also shows that, relatively speaking, the extremes have become more enthusiastic and the center less so. Indeed, independents are now much less enthusiastic than they were in 2008: 54% now versus 64% four years ago.
Is this the omen of a negative election that talks to the extremes and the not the center? Or a symptom of the polarized climate in Washington? We will see.
So what are the implications of this shift?
First, these results strongly reinforce, in my mind, that this will be a close race. Republicans have the advantage in enthusiasm, Democrats in numbers. Numerically they cancel each other out, meaning the tables will be tilted at the margins: the short-term fluctuations of the economy, swing voters, lukewarm partisans.
Second, the data suggest that the Obama campaign must target the lukewarm partisans–those that voted for him in 2008 but will probably stay at home this year. This is easier said than done. Enthusiasm is not something that can be turned on and off. I would expect Obama to go increasingly populist on economic issues as the campaign unfolds to get bodies to the polls–put differently, a strong dose of fear to nudge the reluctant faithful.
Third, the Romney campaign must ensure that its base stays excited and ready to vote in November. This, however, is made difficult because Romney is ideologically left of the center of his base (link) and seen by many as “different” or “distant” from them. Here money and highly-charged wedge issues will be used to to make Romney’s “less savory” aspects more palatable. However, most presidential elections are determined by the median voter, or political center, not the extremes, complicating the laws of political physics for Romney.
Fourth, in a game of inches, the independent swing vote may be deciding factor. Both the Obama and Romney camps will use wedge issues like healthcare reform, reproductive rights and deficit reduction to tilt the odds in their favor. Swing voters’ perceptions of the relative performance of Obama versus Romney’s promise will potentially be the deciding argument. Here we already see the DNA of a race riddled with point-counterpoint on the economic credibility of the adversary. We should expect much more.
Finally, I believe, contrary to some, that the ultimate victor will have optimally combined an effective mobilization effort among the faithful with a convincing argument with independent swing voters.
In my next several blog pieces, I plan to dive deeper into the related issues of unenthusiastic partisans, the independent swing voter, wedge issues, and economic populism, including:
(1) What are possible 2012 wedge issues and how do they play with the respective political bases?
(2) Who are the likely independent swing voters? What is their profile? Where do they live? What issues most resonate with them? And how do they lean on key political values?
(3) Who are Obama’s lukewarm faithful? Why will they stay home this year? And what issue might push them from unlikely to likely voters?
¹Here I define likely voter using the estimated probabilities from a 7-item likely voter scale and with a cut-point of between 80 and 85% registered voters depending on the election (link).