Lately I have been writing a lot about the Republican nomination battle, and every time I do I receive a good number of emails from readers who are worried that there is no candidate who really enthuses the party. I thought it would be good to dedicate a whole column to the question: when and how is enthusiasm relevant in presidential elections?
To start, we have to clarify what we mean by "enthusiasm." Let's define it simply as the passionate support of a large percentage of a political party's base. Obama had lots of enthusiasm for his candidacy in 2008. John Kerry in 2004 had ... much, much less! Additionally, we have to make a clarification: Candidates who run a poor campaign or stick their foots in their mouths are going to lose enthusiasm because they are just not doing a good job. That is not what we're talking about. Candidate competence still matters a great deal. We're talking about enthusiasm by itself.
Where enthusiasm makes the biggest difference is in the primary battle. The nature of the contemporary nomination system is one where candidates do not have to forge majority coalitions (at least not in the first dozen or so battles). Instead, they usually find themselves in a multi-candidate race, and their goal is simply to win more votes than all their opponents, and wait for the competitors to drop out. It's kind of like a game of Survivor: "Outwit, Outplay, Outlast." This is where enthusiasm can make a tremendous difference, as we saw for Obama in 2008. His campaign organization mobilized his highly enthused based (mostly upscale liberals and college kids) to turn out for him, especially in the party caucuses. Ultimately, that is how he was able to win the nomination.
But Obama's triumph should also indicate who benefits from enthusiasm (and who does not). Has the Democratic party been the biggest beneficiary of the Obama craze? On a political level, I'd say no. His battle with Hillary Clinton sliced the party into two factions, and a decent share of Clinton voters did not return to the fold that November. Since he entered office, Obama has governed with disregard for that more moderate and rural wing of the party. Those "Blue Dog" Democrats were usually on the outside looking in during the health care debate, and they suffered the biggest casualties in November. Obama's victory in the 2008 nomination has been great for the urban liberals, who have now totally consolidated their hold over the party, but the party was decimated in non-urban districts in the Midwest and South last year. That's put them in the minority in the House, and Obama has persistently been under 50 percent approval for a year and a half (the bin Laden bounce notwithstanding).
So, enthusiasm in the primaries can be good for particular candidates, but not necessarily for the party as a whole.
What about for the general election? As a candidate, you need your base voters to turn out. Enthusiasm is certainly one option, but there are lots of ways to skin a cat. When you're running against an incumbent president who is extremely unpopular on your side, you typically can count on your base voters turning out to vote against the other guy, even if they are not in love with you. John Kerry in 2004 got a lot of votes from people who were only so-so about him, but they just plain hated George W. Bush -- and Kerry came close to victory. Another way to get voters out is a close race, which usually drives up interest among marginal voters and intensity with the party bases. Case in point: In five straight presidential elections from 1876 through 1892, there was barely a dime's worth of difference between the two major party candidates, but turnout was always through the roof. Why? One reason was that the two parties were very evenly matched in the electorate, and it always made for a great spectacle. In the end, it's important to remember that votes are votes -- people's motivations for casting them don't get counted on Election Day.
What about after a candidate is elected and begins to govern? There's no doubt that communication skills make a big difference. The president has very little by way of formal authorities over domestic affairs. Most of his power comes from his image as the leader of the nation, which therefore requires him to keep public opinion on his side. In this case, however, the party base will probably be with him so long as his proposals are in keeping with its core principles, and the real game for a president is usually in holding those marginal, independent voters. That will keep his job approval numbers above 50 percent and enable him to exert pressure on Congress.
Again, Obama is a case in point of the limits of enthusiasm. His job approval number with Democrats has regularly been 80 percent or higher, which is very good. However, his overall job approval numbers have been much lower, typically under 50 percent, which makes it more difficult for him to exert pressure over Congress. That's because he has performed very poorly among independent voters for quite some time.
So, in my scan of the trajectory of the presidency -- primary battle, general election, governance -- the place where enthusiasm makes the most difference is in the primary battle. But it does not necessarily help the party as a whole in that situation. Instead, it can hurt the party and simply help a particular candidate. Enthusiasm can be useful to bring out the vote in a general election, but there are other ways to get that done. And once in office, enthusiasm is no substitute for the support of the middle electorate.
In conclusion, it is not necessarily a problem for Republicans if they are not tremendously enthused about their nominee next year. Conservative dislike of Obama will take care of any enthusiasm gap in the general election. What they need to find is a candidate who shares their values, who can appeal to the middle of the electorate, who will as president implement as much of the party's agenda as possible, and who can retain the support of the independents during his term. That candidate might turn out to be dull. But he'd still be a keeper. And very possibly a winner.