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The Enthusiasm Gap

For the Democrats 2008 was one of the most exciting campaigns in the party’s history. Their candidate was the first African American to lead a national ticket and his popularity and his oratory were the stuff that made the political juices flow. The enthusiasm that then-Senator Obama could generate was hard to match. Local Democratic chairs were awash with volunteers wanting to help Obama. It got to the point that at my local headquarters volunteers using their own cell phones had to sit on the front steps of the headquarters offices, or out in their cars, in order to make calls to prospective voters. There simply wasn’t enough room inside.

However, perhaps the most exciting possibility for the Democrats was the chance, as the slogan went back then, to “turn Virginia blue.” A Democrat hadn’t carried the Commonwealth in a Presidential year in more than four decades. To change that often predictable outcome a lot of things had to go right. In 2008, they did, and Obama won the Commonwealth with room to spare. However, what carried the day for Obama wasn’t just the campaign’s superior technology and voter identification efforts; it was also a phenomenal turnout, powered by simple enthusiasm that carried the day. Rarely has a candidate generated so much optimism and passion for change.

But that was four years ago, and now it’s a different election. President Obama has had a tough four years, but in spite of voter frustration, and the drag of a bad economy, he hangs on to a narrow lead in the Commonwealth. It’s not much of a margin, but it’s proved durable, and there is some indication that the President’s edge might have widened during the past week. However, encouraging polls, and the Democrats actually winning in the Old Dominion, are sometimes two different things. For a Democrat to win requires a specific set of wins and margins in certain key localities. But, it also requires holding enough votes in Republican strongholds to find that edge in statewide totals. To do that, as Obama proved in 2008, requires a passionate level of voter enthusiasm. And it’s not clear it’s still out there in 2012.

The formula that seems to hold is that for a Democrat to win in a statewide race he needs to carry Northern Virginia, in particular Fairfax, as well as its neighbors Arlington and Alexandria, by a large margin. In 2008 Obama got 60% in this region. But it also requires carrying the adjacent counties of Prince William and Loudoun by smaller, but still respectable margins. The rest of the state, with exceptions, is generally favorable to the GOP. But even then, for Democrats to win, historically, they’ve needed to pull at least 40% in these regions to hang onto a statewide majority.

A good example is in our own backyard. In 2008 Obama got 42% of the vote in King George County. King George, in national elections, is Republican-friendly. George Bush won it with over 60% of the vote in 2000 and 2004, as did Bob Dole in 1996. The same was true for neighboring Stafford County, where Obama got an astounding, for a Democrat that is, 46%. No Democrat had polled so well since 1976.

For all of these factors to come together - a big surge in Northern Virginia, and a higher than normal vote for Democrats in usually Republican friendly counties - a lot of enthusiasm is required. Voters on the margin, voters who might vote or might not vote, and of course every last vote in the Democratic base, have to come out and have to vote for the President. Can it happen? Sure. The Romney campaign seems to be hitting some speed bumps and the President’s support appears to be climbing. That’s helping the Obama campaign in Virginia. However the support of the black community, an important factor in any Democratic win in the Commonwealth, needs to be nearly rock solid. And Black voters have to turn out in large, if not record numbers. This requires organization, and yes, there it is again, a lot of enthusiasm. The same, to a lesser extent, has to be true with young voters. Their numbers, generally low, rarely vary from election to election. But in 2008 their enthusiasm was unusually high, and while it’s hard to say that they changed the outcome of the election, they sure helped.

Some of the problem for the Democrats is that President Obama isn’t new anymore. The freshness of his approach, and his promise to change government, didn’t quite happen the way many, and probably this includes the President, had hoped. What they see in Washington is inaction and stagnation. Whether it’s the President’s fault or not doesn’t seem to matter. They’re worried about the budget; many are learning to spell sequestration (especially in Virginia); some like the healthcare bill, but don’t know how it’s going to work; and others only see a struggling economy. There are arguments that can be made for the President, strong ones, but at the moment, it’s hard to rev up the voters the way the Democrats did in 2008. While the President may win nationally, winning Virginia, where cobbling together a Democratic majority for a national race is a task of monumental proportions, requires enthusiasm and a lot of it. Unfortunately, enthusiasm for the Democratic campaign, at the moment, seems in short supply. 

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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