A lot has been said about the motivation gap in the midterm elections: Republicans are much more likely to say they’ll vote in November than Democrats. That’s true as far as it goes. But it obscures the bigger pattern in ways that may make Democrats more scared than we should be.
Take the recent Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll (in which, by the way, Obama’s approval ratings are very good, and Democrats have regained the lead in the generic Congressional poll). Look at the cross-tabs.
Lumping together people who say they will “Definitely” or “Probably” vote in November, 79% of Republicans are likely voters, against only 52% of Democrats. That sounds dire. But only 22 percent of the sample are self-identified Republicans; 31 percent are Democrats. This multiplies out to a statistical (and substantive) dead heat. If the election were held today on these assumptions, 17 percent of the electorate would be Republicans who turned out; 16 percent, Democrats who did.
In other words, the reason Republicans are more likely to be die-hard voters is that the only people who still identify as Republicans are the die-hards. The motivation gap doesn’t necessarily represent a disillusioned Democratic base. It represents the fact that the Democratic party, unlike the Republican, consists of more than its base.
Finally, Republicans are much more geographically concentrated than Democrats. In the South, the Republican Party’s net favorables are at +34 (63-29). But in no other region does the GOP do better than minus 44. The GOP could win the election in a walk in the one region where it still has supporters, and still not do that well overall.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry, and doesn’t mean that we don’t need to give partisan Democrats reasons to turn out (as well as looking out for Independents, who favor generic Democrats over Republicans by ten points, though “not sure” swamps both). It does mean that there are no grounds for panic. On current evidence, this will be a tough race—but no rout. Time for some sangfroid.