When Policies Flop, Political Enthusiasm Wanes

Two sets of numbers tell you a lot about an important difference between election year 2008 and election year 2010.

In 2008, 37 million Americans voted in Democratic presidential primaries and just under 21 million voted in Republican presidential primaries. One reason for the difference was that the Republican nomination was decided earlier. But even counting only the early contests, Democratic turnout was 26 million and Republican turnout was 17 million.

This year it's different. Only 13 million Americans have voted in Democratic primaries held before Sept. 1, according to Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate. During the same period, 17 million voted in Republican primaries.

As Gans points out, that's historic. Democratic primary turnout has been higher than Republican primary turnout in every off-year election since 1930.

That Republican margin may narrow a little as the returns from this week's primaries come in from states like New York, Massachusetts and Maryland, which have a lot more registered Democrats than registered Republicans. Yet in California, where Democrats have a similar registration edge, almost as many Republicans showed up as Democrats.

Enthusiasm is not aroused simply by a stirring speech. It's aroused by seeing your ideas and policies work out the way you expected.

What we're seeing here is a change--a sea change--in the balance of enthusiasm. That's been critical in a decade in which turnout in presidential years increased from 105 million to 122 million to 131 million. Republicans had a narrow advantage in the balance of enthusiasm in 2002 and 2004. Democrats had a wider advantage in 2006 and 2008. Now Republicans clearly have a wide advantage and have a good chance to sweep the elections six weeks and six days from now.

Democratic strategists hope that Barack Obama can rekindle some of the enthusiasm that was so apparent two years ago. Liberal columnists have cheered his slashing attack on House Minority Leader John Boehner and his denunciation of proposals to maintain the tax cuts on those earning more than $250,000.

I doubt that it will be that easy. Enthusiasm is not aroused simply by a stirring speech. It's aroused by seeing your ideas and policies work out the way you expected. Or, perhaps even more, it's aroused by seeing your political adversaries' ideas and policies fail to work out the way they expected. In that case, you're usually pretty sure your alternatives will work out better--and you're enthusiastic about trying them. Consider Republicans during the second term of George W. Bush. Rescue efforts in New Orleans and military efforts in Iraq didn't produce anything like the positive results Republican-leaning voters expected. Republican congressional majorities seemed to be producing nothing but big spending (the bridge to nowhere) and scandals.

When the world isn't responding as you hoped and expected, you tend to stop paying attention. You stop watching the news and maybe even get a life.

Democrats in the past 20 months have seen Obama fail to produce the hope and change they expected. It seemed so easy to call for withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, for shuttering Guantanamo, for trying al Qaeda terrorists in civilian courts. But none of those things has happened.

Neither has Obama ended the ban on openly gay men and women serving in the military. He continues to oppose same-sex marriage while Dick Cheney backs it.

Meanwhile, the vast increases in government spending in the stimulus package and Obama budgets have done little to produce a robust economic recovery, and the health care bill jammed through a reluctant Congress has failed to produce the widespread gratitude that Obama said we should expect.

For upscale Obama supporters, these economic policies were expected to be, in Pat Moynihan's elegant phrase, boob bait for the bubbas. But the bubbas didn't take the bait.

So just as the world stopped working as Republicans expected in 2005, the world stopped working as Democrats expected in 2009.

You can see this in last week's report from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. It found that in 2008, 67 percent of liberal Democrats said they enjoyed the news a lot, while just 45 percent say so today. In contrast, 57 percent of conservative Republicans say they enjoy the news a lot today. The interesting question is whether they will continue to do so if and when Republicans win majorities and share responsibility for governing again.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: BigStock/pgangler

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  • Michael Barone, a political analyst and journalist, studies politics, American government, and campaigns and elections. The principal coauthor of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), he has written many books on American politics and history. Barone is also a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

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