As a series of Republican challengers rose one by one to the top of the polls during the year-long GOP primary slog, skeptics of Mitt Romney’s chances to win the nomination cited a lack of enthusiasm among his supporters as the reason for their doubt.
In knocking off each of his opponents on his path to victory, Romney proved that his backers were indeed enthusiastic enough to push him over the top. But now the former Massachusetts governor is once again fighting the same perception — that not enough people are champing at the bit to pull the lever for him, thus hurting his chances in November.
While President Obama has also faced questions about his ability to inspire the Democratic base — at least at the level he did in 2008 — the incumbent still draws boisterous crowds that number in the thousands. And he’s used his recent embrace of gay marriage and other hot-button controversies to generate a new wave of fervor among liberals who had become somewhat disenchanted with or disinterested in his re-election.
Romney, on the other hand, typically addresses audiences that number in the hundreds, and recent polling at first glance seems to confirm that he suffers from an enthusiasm deficit. Though not as deep as the one he at times faced against his GOP rivals, it is nonetheless significant.
According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll of registered voters released on Tuesday, 51 percent of those who intend to vote for Obama described themselves as “very enthusiastic” about supporting the president, while only 26 percent of Romney backers said the same about the presumptive Republican nominee.
More importantly, a Gallup poll released earlier this month showed that in the 12 swing states that will likely decide the election, 55 percent of Obama’s supporters were extremely or very enthusiastic, while only 46 percent of Romney’s supporters felt the same way about their chosen candidate.
Democratic strategist Bob Shrum said that the recent data was indeed good news for the president, especially since just about all of the enthusiasm was with Republican candidates during the midterm elections less than two years ago.
“What happened to Democrats in 2010 more than anything else was the composition of the electorate changed,” Shrum said. “So the good news for Obama in these data is that his base is going to turn out and wants to vote, and I think partly that’s because they don’t like Romney but it’s also because they like [Obama].”
A veteran of John Kerry’s 2004 campaign, Shrum noted that voter enthusiasm played a decisive role in the Democrat’s defeat that year, as anti-gay-marriage initiatives helped drive up turnout in key states among socially conservative supporters of President Bush.
But Shrum acknowledged that the recent polling does not tell the whole story on the state of voter enthusiasm less than six months before the 2012 election.
“A different way to ask this question might yield less of an enthusiasm gap, because you can ask Republicans how enthusiastic they are about voting against the president,” he said. “And you could then probably add those who are enthusiastic about voting against the president to those who are enthusiastic about Romney — you obviously have to eliminate the overlap — and you might get a more accurate read.”
Indeed, the vehement desire among the Republican rank and file to kick Obama out of office was a key reason behind Romney’s ultimate triumph in the GOP primary, as he was widely regarded as the most electable candidate in the field.
And conversations with Republican partisans indicate that the ultimate goal of inaugurating a new commander-in-chief in 2013 remains at least as motivating now as it was during the nominating contests.
In an interview with National Journal on Tuesday, Romney’s chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, did not offer much of a protest when asked about polling that suggests most of the Republican candidate’s voter intensity is driven by anti-Obama sentiment, rather than enthusiasm for Romney.
“We’ll see how that plays out,” Stevens said. “The desire for a positive alternative is pretty intense, and that’s going to drive this race.”
In order to drive up turnout among conservatives, Romney does not necessarily need his voters to fall in love with him. Instead, he may simply need them to feel the same way about Obama in November that they do now.
Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at email@example.com.Enthusiasm, Obamas, polls, Suggest