An Enthusiasm Gap vs. An Unappealing Candidate

For the previous post I found a paper that may have found evidence for “enthusiasm gaps.” pdf here.

I have an issue with enthusiasm gaps because the very notion of the “enthusiasm gap” seems to rest on several implausible assumptions about voter psychology. One assumption appears to be that voters can become “burned out” in the course of defending and advocating on behalf of a political position; I think this is implausible because a voter’s preferences are probably deeply-ingrained facets of their psychology. Their political preferences may be integral to their very concepts of self. Saying Obama supporters could possibly “burn out” after two years may be like expecting Red Sox fans to have burned out on sports two years after their World Series win.

Second, accepting the existence of voter enthusiasm gaps seems to explicitly require that there is something physically or emotionally taxing about the act of expressing voter preferences in the first place. While the physical act of voting may be a chore, in its most basic form the expression of preferences requires only this act, and only this act once every two years or so. More importantly, there is nothing about its physical taxation that really changes from election to election; each time you vote you probably have to endure more or less the same process.

There are a couple of different ways of playing the “media exhaustion” aspect of most definitions of the enthusiasm gap and I think neither quite work. One is that voters can become desensitized to the whole process by the media shitstorm that is political journalism; they may hear so much news about how their candidate of choice actually makes the sausage that they stop caring; they may hear so much about the daily nitty-gritty of actually doing the work that they lose their interest. Glaring issue one is that this process must be systematic: Both Democrats and Republicans have to tolerate the same journalistic excrement hurricane. If voters are “unenthused” by bickering, disappointing policy choices, it doesn’t seem clear to me that supporting one particular side of that compromise would be systematically more or less energizing than supporting the other. The sausage-making is a gritty process, whether it is being done by people you love or loathe.

Angle two is that perhaps “the media” systematically “unenthuses” one particular side of the electorate. This could be plausible; perhaps the media seeks to obsessively criticize the activity of the majority party while downplaying the role of the minority party altogether. Thus, any voter who supported the majority party could be systematically “unenthused” by the type and quality of media attention paid their party. This is a question that would be incredibly difficult to answer. What we do know, however, is that this would mean that, ceteris paribus, we should never expect to see a legislator’s second election go as well as their first one.

More likely, voter enthusiasm is part of a dynamic equilibrium and that a decision to vote or not vote obeys the same rules accorded any decision.

But within that context, here is what a positive political theorist would way about voter “enthusiasm.” Every election is a choice between candidates who occupy different points in some ideological space and that, given that the United States has more than one voter, the choice is not between Candidate A and No Candidate; it is between Candidate A and Candidate B. Voter exhaustion would not just be that a voter has lost interest in Candidate A, it would be that a voter wishes to actively defect in Candidate B’s favor to some degree; either by abstaining from voting and actively decreasing A’s vote share, or voting for B outright. In democracy, abstention is defection.

In Revisiting the Divisive Primary Hypothesis: 2008 And The Clinton-Obama Nomination Battle, the authors claim to have found evidence of an enthusiasm gap:

The authors detect a statistically significant negative effect in support for Obama in the general election among Democratic voters who preferred Clinton in the primary election. Voters who preferred Clinton were less likely to end up voting for Obama because they lacked his enthusiasm, conclude the authors.

The authors detect a statistically significant negative effect in support for Obama in the general election among Democratic voters who preferred Clinton in the primary election. Voters who preferred Clinton were less likely to end up voting for Obama because they lacked his enthusiasm, conclude the authors.

This situation is not how I would define a classical enthusiasm gap because the candidates are different. It is difficult to discuss a loss of enthusiasm for a candidate the voters themselves had explicitly rejected for a more favored candidate earlier. Thus, I think my criticism is headed in an obvious direction: Clinton voters who rejected Obama probably just thought McCain was closer to their preferred candidate type. Admittedly this probably encompasses a small subset of voters because of the relatively small but extant distance between Obama and Clinton as legislators, but makes more sense within the framework of voters who have to actively make a choice, and suffer its outcome whether their preferences are realized or not.

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