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Politics & Policy

The Generic Ballot and the Enthusiasm Gap

(Jim Young/Reuters)

Will Democrats take back the House this November? For months, polls showed the Democratic party well ahead on the generic-ballot question, which simply asks voters whether they plan to vote for a Republican or Democrat for Congress come November. But the margin has tightened since — the RealClearPolitics average shows the Democrats up 3.2 percent.

But an intriguing poll result out of Pennsylvania is a good reminder that generic-ballot polls this far ahead of November leave some important information out. Pennsylvania’s newly drawn first congressional district, which comprises middle-class, mostly white Philadelphia suburbs in Bucks County, is currently represented by Republican Brian Fitzpatrick. According to the Monmouth poll, Fitzpatrick, who is popular in the district, holds a lead over Democratic rival Scott Wallace among potential voters, 49–42. But when the sample is restricted to likely voters, that gap all but disappears, and Fitzpatrick is left with just a one-point lead.

Monmouth’s write-up of the poll explains that “greater Democratic enthusiasm” accounts for the difference: “69 percent of Wallace supporters say they have a lot of interest in the election compared with 58 percent of Fitzpatrick backers who say the same.” The enthusiasm gap has swung elections before: “There was about a 6-point enthusiasm gap favoring Republicans in 2010,” Nate Silver wrote back in March, “which took that year from being mildly problematic for Democrats into a massive Republican wave that saw them pick up 63 House seats.” Many generic-ballot polls, Silver explains, sample from a pool of registered rather than likely voters and thus don’t account for the enthusiasm gap.

So Democrats might have an enthusiasm advantage come November, and higher turnout certainly helped special-election candidates Doug Jones and Conor Lamb win in deep-red regions. But the tightening generic ballot is nonetheless important, in part because it suggests that the same issues driving partisan enthusiasm might not be as compelling to undecided voters. The Democratic base and its preferred talking heads increasingly have fixated on the Russia investigation, Stormy Daniels, and the corrupt individuals in Trump’s orbit. But voters do not seem to care as much about these stories as they do about health care, the state of the economy, and social services. Even if some Democratic candidates are running issue-oriented campaigns, the message from top Democrats and the national media is one of almost monomaniacal focus on Trump’s sundry scandals. Perhaps this gins up enthusiasm among partisan Democrats while rendering the Democratic message less persuasive to otherwise persuadable moderates. It’s a bold strategy — we’ll see if it pays off.


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