It’s the enthusiasm gap, stupid:
Virginia Republicans are heading into the homestretch of a campaign season with a level of enthusiasm unparalleled in recent years as gubernatorial hopeful Robert F. McDonnell surges ahead in the polls and gives hope to a party that has experienced a series of demoralizing defeats over the past decade.
McDonnell led his Democratic opponent, R. Creigh Deeds, by a significant margin in a Washington Post poll this week. But his supporters are also expressing a high level of excitement, a factor that could be key in motivating voters on Election Day.
In the poll, 41 percent of Republican McDonnell backers said they were very enthusiastic about his candidacy, compared with 21 percent of Democratic Deeds supporters about his candidacy.
Democrats have struggled this year to recapture a measure of the excitement that was pervasive last fall, when flocks of supporters helped Barack Obama become the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Virginia in 44 years.
Only half of the poll respondents who backed Obama a year ago said they are certain to vote next month, compared with the two-thirds of voters who backed Republican John McCain.
The enthusiasm gap has been evident at county fairs, back-to-school nights and other spots in Northern Virginia that typically overflow with campaign volunteers. McDonnell backers were quicker to blanket highway median strips with signs.
In Fairfax County, a community that has solidly backed Democratic candidates in recent years, more than 300 activists attended a recent GOP breakfast pep rally — triple the number at a similar event last year, and so many that the pancakes ran out.
“I think it would be fair to say that the Republicans are feeling the urgency of the campaign far more than Democrats have been,” said C. Richard Cranwell, chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. “But I think as the election approaches, more and more Democrats are engaging and focusing on the race. I think between now and Election Day, the enthusiasm gap will close.”
The shift in energy has been particularly dramatic in light of last year’s history-making presidential campaign. Republicans and Democrats say that George W. Bush’s absence from the White House has robbed the Democrats of a motivating force. They also say Deeds and most candidates lack Obama’s charisma.
Bernard Hill, 71, of Ashburn said he has diligently voted for most of his life but never felt inspired to become politically active until Obama came along. He has done some volunteer work for Deeds, but he said he does not expect to become as absorbed in the state senator’s campaign as he was in Obama’s. “He is our Democratic choice, and I have to back him,” Hill said.
That kind of attitude will get some voters, like Mr. Hill, to the polls, but many of them are just going to stay home in November unless there’s a major turnaround in the race.
Yes, as Mr. Cranwell says above, the enthusiasm gap will close somewhat as the Election Day gets closer. It always does in races like this. But, that’s not likely to be enough to give Deeds the edge he needs to pull out a win here, especially if the polls continue to show him falling behind McDonnell and voters who might come out for him become even less discouraged.
The biggest change between this year and the last two Gubernatorial Elections seems to be the fact that the Republican Party of Virginia has finally picked a candidate that people are excited about, and that’s making all the difference.