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

The GOP primaries this week drew turnout that was double or triple the Democratic primary turnout in the same states, and in individual House districts, the ratio of Republican primary voters to Democratic Party primary votes was at the highest level in years. And just as in 2008, the differential can not be explained away as solely a factor of more competitive primaries on the GOP side than on the Democratic side.

For much of the year, the Rasmusssen polling has shown a solid lead for the GOP in the generic vote for Congress. Other surveys did not confirm this differential. One explanation offered for why Rasmussen was an outlier was that his screen was of likely voters, while other pollsters were measuring registered voters. The subset of likely votes is generally more Republican leaning than that of registered voters. In the last few weeks, other pollsters, while still using a registered voter screen, have started showing substantial leads for the Republicans in the generic vote.

At the same time, President Obama’s net job approval rating has fallen into negative territory by about 5% on average. In other words, the enthusiasm gap between the voters from the two parties that was vividly on display in the primaries this week is confirmed by other measures.

It can even be argued that Sarah Palin did not have such a bad night Tuesday, when her choice for the GOP Senate nomination in Kansas, Tom Tiahrt, was defeated by Jerry Moran. Prior to Palin’s endorsement in the race, Moran had a 20-point lead on Tiahrt. On primary night, Moran won narrowly, by just under 5%. As with her other endorsements, Palin’s endorsement in Kansas seemed to move a slice of the GOP electorate and inject some energy into her candidate.

As to the conclusion by some that tea party candidates fizzled out in some of the races this week, it needs to be understood that the tea party remains a very decentralized and largely amorphous populist movement, far different than, say, the Obama ground  organization that was created to register voters, track them, and then get them to vote for Obama in 2008. In local races, particularly in primaries, name recognition and financial resources generally matter more than position papers and endorsements.

The tea party movement does not have a national or even state superstructure that allocates campaign dollars, trains candidates, develops media for them, and buys ad time. The tea party movement is not at this point anything like the Club for Growth (or, for that matter, the SEIU) in terms of its campaign focus.

The big story this year -- the enthusiasm gap between the parties -- is in part a reflection of the grassroots activism of members of the tea party movement, many of whom are Republicans. But the biggest shift this year has been among independents who supported Obama and have now turned hard against both him and the Democrats in Congress. That shift appears to reflect, above all, economic anxiety as well as concern over rapidly rising federal spending, huge deficits, enormous new government regulatory powers, and an unemployment rate that seems stuck near double figures. These fears are shared by members of the tea party movement, which is why the GOP will likely do very well this year.