Past Week's Primaries Strongly Reflect 'Enthusiasm Gap' between Parties

Four more states held primary elections this past week: Michigan, Kansas, Missouri, and Tennessee. The storyline that emerged in many news reports was that the tea party movement had a bad night, or that Sarah Palin lost her magic endorsement touch (at least in the Kansas GOP Senate primary contest).

It is hard to tell from week to week which storyline the media want to use with regard to the tea party movement. After the health care bill was passed, the party line was that the tea party movement is racist and homophobic, as proven by comments allegedly made to several Democratic members of the House as they walked into the chamber to vote.

Another line that has been pursued is that the tea party movement has taken over the GOP, which is in danger of becoming a racist party. This is presumably confirmed by the high percentage of whites among tea party members, Republican voters, and Republican candidates  for office (lesson: it is OK to be white if you vote for or run as a Democrat). And finally, there is this week’s theme: that the tea party movement is overrated and has already  begun to fade as a force in American politics.

On the other hand, one report this week suggested that  Democrats are more than happy to work with tea party candidates, at least if it means enabling them to run as third-party candidates to siphon off votes that would otherwise go to GOP candidates in close races.

The bigger picture of the four contests this week was captured by Sean Trende in an article for RealClearPolitics. All year there has been a huge enthusiasm gap between conservatives and Republican  voters and liberals and Democratic voters. This was validated again this week.

During the primary season in the 2008 campaign, the tight contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was used as an explanation for the very high turnout throughout the Democratic primaries. Each of the two candidates had a strong appeal to blocs of voters -- Clinton to women, blue-collar voters, and Hispanics; Obama to the intelligentsia, students, and African Americans. The GOP fight ended much earlier than the Obama-Clinton match, and by March, John McCain was the clear winner.

But even during the competitive phase of the GOP primary race,  GOP turnout lagged far behind Democratic turnout. The Democratic contest drew record turnouts for a primary in state after state. It is obvious in retrospect that voters were turning out for the Democratic primaries because they thought that the winner of this contest would be the next president. Voters were more enthusiastic about both of the Democratic contenders than any of the Republicans who ran in 2008.