Republican voters: Highly motivated–and scarce.

A lot has been said about the motivation gap in the midterm elections. It’s true that Republicans are more likely to say they’ll vote in November than Democrats. But that’s because there are many fewer of them.

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.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

10 thoughts on “Republican voters: Highly motivated–and scarce.”

  1. As a reality check, I am an ex-diehard democrat. I contributed over $3,000 in 2006 & 2008 and worked extensively on Obama's campaign. I now wake up every day cursing Obama and the Democratic legislators. I will probably walk a block to vote democratic at my never-crowded suburban polling place, but I wouldn't wait in line and I certainly wouldn't contribute any money or time. When they call me on the phone I just start yelling until they hang up.

    This scientific sampling of one person's emotions represents a rather extreme swing and Democrats much less diehard than I was, who nevertheless turned out for Obama, might well stay home. I for one am profoundly demoralized by Obama's obscenely hypocritical first year. Between Emanuel, Geithner, Summers and Holder, I've thrown up my hands in utter disgust.

    So it might be a tad bit early for the democrats to stop worrying about 2010.

  2. Those don't look to be "approval" ratings, but rather favorability ratings. And I think you're reading too much into partisan identification. Partisans identifying as independents are a huge part of the electorate, and according to this poll, independents break Republican 3-2, and are more motivated than Democrats to vote. And take a look at the right-track/wrong-track numbers. Which group is furthest from the independents?

    There are regional variations to partisan approval, but I think it's pretty clear that in fact Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are more geographically dispersed than Democrats are.

    The reason that people are panicking is that they're looking at polls for election matchups. If you're a Democratic Congressman in the middle of the country and don't represent an urban district, there's a real good chance that you're going to lose this fall. (Also, a real good chance that Obama is very unpopular in your district.)

  3. Brett, I don't love Kos, but he uses a reputable nonpartisan firm and makes the precise methodology, question phrasing, and complete results available, precisely so his bias can't discredit his polls.

  4. Rasmussen, by contrast, is frequently opaque or slanted and has a terrible track record.

    I suspect the problem with this poll is that many people who vote Republican refuse to accept the party label.

  5. If Democrats in congress want to stay in office they had better stop drinking the bipartisan koolaid and start voting like Democrats. And stop worrying about playing nice. Voters don't care if you treat the GOPers nice. Voters care if you Pass The Damn Bill! Cheat, fight, change the rules, come hell or high water: PASS THE DAMN BILL!

    For once Democrats, ferchrisake WIN!

  6. Warren, just pointing out polls differ.

    And, Fred, you're right: The voters DO care if you "Pass the damn bill, cheat, fight, change the rules." Of course, "caring" comes in two polarities…

  7. Brett Bellmore says:

    February 8, 2010 at 3:33 am

    "Warren, just pointing out polls differ. "

    Bullsh*t, liar. Polls differing means nothing in an of itself – how they differ, how much they differ, and why means everything. The fact that a bad pollster X differs from pollster Y doesn't make pollster Y bad.

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