The Enthusiasm Gap

by dday

I know that Digby has on more than one occasion suggested that the hard right, with social conservatives foremost among them, would come back to the GOP nominee in November, because there are tribal forces that keep these Republicans, who feed more than anything on hatred of their opponents, coming back for more. And that is probably true. But there's more that the fundies and the hard-right conservatives did to win elections for George W., for example, beyond voting. We're five months out and this is entirely subject to change, but there are warning signs that John McCain has huge problems with just the kinds of voters who volunteer and do the ground work for practically every Republican campaign.

I don't know if it's longstanding suspicions or the unceremonious dumping of John Hagee and Rod Parsley, but McCain has serious problems with the evangelical community and the religious right, and his campaign is not doing a whole lot to alleviate those problems.

You represent some of the nation’s most powerful evangelicals. What do those leaders say about McCain?

This is one guy’s perspective, but I am surprised by how little I’ve seen or read in conservative circles about McCain since February. I don’t think I’ve gotten one email or letter or phone call from anybody in America in the last four months saying anything about this election or urging that we unite behind John McCain and put aside whatever differences we have. Back in the fall and winter, you’d get several things a day from conservatives saying, “The future of the Supreme Court is at stake. We have to stop Hillary Clinton. Get behind so and so—or don’t’ go with this guy.” It’s just very quiet. It could meant there’s a real sense of apathy or it could mean they’re’ waiting for the general election to begin. But it’s a surprise, given the way email networks work now.

That apathy is being reiterated again and again. These voters are unlikely to man the phone banks, stuff the envelopes, knock on the doors, and bug their neighbors to vote in November the way they did four years ago. Not to quote Novakula but he usually has good sources in conservative circles, and he's hearing the same thing. Dumping Hagee, who had ties to the Bush White House and a larger base of support than previously considered, has definitely caused some resentment. And if you needed even further confirmation, Pastor Dan at Street Prophets has it:

The Barna research indicates that the Christian community in the U.S. has largely shifted its loyalty to the Democratic nominee in this year’s race. In the 2004 election, 81% of evangelicals voted for the Republican incumbent George W. Bush. Currently, 78% of the likely voters who are evangelical expect to vote for Sen. McCain. Evangelicals represent 8% of the adult population and just 9% of all likely voters.

But the big news in the faith realm is the sizeable defection from Republican circles of the much larger non-evangelical born again and the notional Christian segments. The non-evangelical born again adults constitute 37% of the likely voters in November, and the notional Christians are expected to be 39% of the likely voters. Among the non-evangelical born again adults, 52% supported President Bush in 2004; yet, only 38% are currently supporting Sen. McCain, while 48% are siding with Sen. Obama. Although notional Christians voted for John Kerry in 2004 by an 11-point margin, that gap has more than doubled to 26 points in this year’s election. Protestants and Catholics have moved toward the Democratic challenger in equal proportions since 2004.

And they probably don't even know about McCain dumping the first wife yet.

And while Obama, as Tristero notes, holds views that the Dobsonites will view as a threat to their attempt to re-fashion a theocracy, he is most certainly going after voters of faith, most notably young voters through his Joshua Generation Project, which offers a different spin on religious values and how to manifest them in public policy instead of allowing the Bible to stand in for the Consttitution.

Here's the problem for McCain. He can't do the kind of dog-whistle outreach to these communities that Bush preferred because he was never seen as one of them. And if he presents himself as a hard-right social conservative more overtly, he ruins what is his only ace in the hole - the blurring strategy that allows independents to believe he's a moderate on all issues (Brave New Films destroys that myth today). Every religious right voter he attracts equals a moderate voter he loses. That's why it's so smart of Obama to play up this bind by constantly describing McCain as representing Bush's third term (which is true), and forcing McCain to disavow it, which just depresses his base even more.

And this is not limited to religious voters, but across the spectrum of the conservative right. Alarm bells should have been raised when McCain was still losing 25-30% of the vote in primaries three months after all his opponents dropped out. But the signals are coming into view. The Texas GOP is pissed off, thinking along with many of their colleagues that whoever wins, conservatives lose. Bush donors are hesitant to give a dollar to McCain. Tom DeLay said today that his wife is voting for Bob Barr. The Republican National Committee has signed up just one-sixth of the amount of volunteers for their convention as the Democrats have for theirs.

Part of this is the exponential growth of Democratic activism online, with which Republicans have thus far failed to compete:

According to the Congressional Management Foundation's recently released report on Congressional communications, 44% of Americans contacted a member of Congress in the last five years, a significant bump from 2004 and a number that far outstrips the total count of online donors. The report also goes on to point that the internet has become the primary vehicle for learning about and interacting with Congress, even though most people don't think that Congress is listening. The gist of the report is not just that people who are connected vote, and people who vote tend to be connected, but that connectivity is driving increased political interaction with decision-makers.

This will only increase in the years ahead, and frankly, if Obama didn't exist in this race, the country would invent him. Actblue's exponential growth - from less than a million in the 2004 to its current base - shows that the country is hungry for change and that a leadership base of committed organizers are running for office using new tools. Looking a bit beneath the surface of the Obama juggernaut, as Vargas did, shows that this army of people is real, and that it isn't just money they are giving. The 10 million people (at an extremely high end) who may donate to Obama, while extraordinary, is dwarfed by a rough factor of ten by the 44% of the country who have contacted Congress in the last five years.

The country is strengthening its flabby civic muscles, and learning how to be a committed and engaged citizenry. We haven't seen anything like this for a hundred years, if not more. And that's not even counting the younger generation, who grew up on this stuff.

But it's more than that - there's a noticeable enthusiasm gap for these particular candidates at this particular historical moment. It makes McCain's Vice Presidential pick both a huge opportunity and a huge gamble, again going back to the vice grip that conservatism has put itself in over the past few years. Tim Pawlenty may be able to deliver millions of evangelicals into the fold, but as that becomes noticed by independents wary of the influence of the religious right, he'd lose ground there, and a 2004-era base strategy doesn't have enough voters in it for McCain to win. Then again, a strategy which ignores the base doesn't either.

It's more than whether or not individual GOP voters will come out. Enthusiasm matters. It finds the voters that don't always cast a ballot. It drives cars so that those with special needs can get to the polling place. It helps knock down the inevitable scandals and furors that come with a national campaign. And all of that enthusiasm is on the Democratic side. I don't want to sound complacent, but that's a tremendous advantage.