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The Secret Sauce of Politics

Most Americans want a government that works, not an ever-expanding Leviathan that can’t sit still.

7:50 AM, Jun 17, 2010 • By GARY ANDRES
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Political enthusiasm is the secret sauce of American politics.  When it comes to producing calories for winning elections, it’s the difference between a Big Mac and Lean Cuisine.

The Secret Sauce of Politics

But what stimulates this vote-producing electoral flavoring?  One party sometimes gets an energy jolt through a combination of forces.

This year Republicans received the extra dollop of zeal on the political menu.  Predictable historical conditions explain part of the equation.  The “out” party normally enjoys an enthusiasm gap because the “outs” want to become the “ins.”

But Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress also contribute to the GOP’s edge. Their policies and performance – since January 2009 -- engender emotions that will create additional GOP electoral punch in November.

At one level, the Republicans enjoy an expected enthusiasm gap. History provides some insights here. In November 1994, with Bill Clinton in the White House and his party in control of Congress, a Gallup survey asked voters if they were “more enthusiastic” or “less enthusiastic” about voting compared to previous elections. Self-identified Republicans said they were more excited by an 11-percentage point margin.

That energy boosted Republican turnout and helped the GOP gain majorities in the House and Senate.  It also returned the country to conditions of split party control between the White House and Congress for the next six years.

Fast forward to 2006. With George W. Bush in the White House and Republicans controlling majorities in the House and Senate, a midterm election occurred again under conditions of unified party control for the first time since 1994.  (In the 1998 midterms, Republicans controlled Congress and Democrats the White House; in 2002, Democrats held the majority in the Senate and Republicans controlled the White House.)

But 2006 was 1994 in reverse. Now the Democrats were the “out” party and their voters tasted the secret sauce.  When Gallup asked the same enthusiasm question that November, it was the Democrats that enjoyed an 11 percentage point enthusiasm edge.

The election results were a mirror image as well. Democrats gained 31 seats in the House and 5 (plus 1 independent) in the Senate, recapturing majorities in both chambers.

 Unified party control exists again today.  And not surprisingly the Gallup enthusiasm numbers follow the predictable pattern.  As of June, out-party Republicans enjoyed an 18-percentage point energy edge.  According a new USA Today/Gallup poll released yesterday, Democratic enthusiasm is at its lowest point since 1998.

This national trend is exemplified in 60 key Democratic Congressional districts, according to a June survey conducted for National Public Radio by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Public Opinion Strategies.  In these districts, Republicans who rate their interest in the election as a “10” (very high) have a whopping 25-percentage point advantage over their Democratic counterparts (37 percent rate their interest in the election as a “10”). 

But while enthusiasm shifts based on who’s in and who’s out, these numbers are also influenced by other factors.

A veteran Republican political operative says a lot of people talk about “anger” as a motivator, but he argues it’s more complicated.  He believes fear about reckless federal spending is the dominant force animating many voters.

“There are no angry mobs,” he told me. “These people are just plain scared.”

He’s right.  “Anger” is this year’s short hand loaded with a lot of different meanings.

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz wrote last Sunday that the “angry electorate” is a catchall phrase describing the general sour mood of voters toward Washington, incumbents, and even other “big” non-governmental institutions.

But why have voters developed an “attitude” toward all these institutions now?  The last two years don’t hold a monopoly on the vile quartet of greed, corruption, selfishness and incompetence.

As Freud would say, the explanation is “overdetermined,” meaning it stems from multiple causes.

Here’s one to consider.  Call it “in your face activism.”

Something fundamentally changed since 2008.  With some exceptions, many Americans preferred a world where the gory details of Washington politics and public policy remained more distant from daily lives.

Yet over the last two years, Washington transformed into a hotbed of new policies, programs and initiatives, bringing government activities and political bargaining closer than ever before.  Any citizen watching developments in federal spending and debt, health care, student loans, energy, and the financial services sees federal activity growing like a thunderhead. 

Washington now finds policies to “fix” every problem; it uses crises and villains to leverage more ambitious goals.

The president again on Tuesday night used the BP disaster to promote his broader agenda. 

For many, it looks like Obama and his party needs political Ritalin.

Most Americans want a government that works, not an ever-expanding Leviathan that can’t sit still.

A hyperactive federal government is the magic topping that could produce a very unsavory election night for Democrats in November.

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