It’s very much the case that Donald Trump has a strong, committed base of support. He gets tens of thousands of people to turn out to rallies in random places across the country, a sign of the level of commitment of his voters. That enthusiasm, he has said, shows why he can still win this thing.
There are just two catches. First, the most recent Post-ABC News poll, released Sunday, shows that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has more enthusiastic voters at this point than her Republican rival does. Second, Trump’s voting base has regularly been less enthusiastic about him than Mitt Romney’s was four years ago. As a gentle reminder, Romney lost.
We’ve polled three times since the beginning of last month. In September, 79 percent and 78 percent of Clinton backers said that they were very or somewhat enthusiastic about supporting her. In the new poll, that jumped to 82 percent. Trump’s numbers were 83 percent, 88 percent and 78 percent, the latter in the poll released Sunday.
Trump still holds the advantage among those saying they’re very enthusiastic to go vote for him, but it’s much narrower than it was at the end of September. It’s that group that includes those vocal supporters who attend rallies, so no need to complain about this article by pointing them out. I am aware that many Trump fans are very enthusiastic about his candidacy! It’s just that more people are broadly enthusiastic about Clinton’s at the moment.
What changed since last month? Republicans got disheartened by Trump’s candidacy, particularly Republican women. In late September, 60 percent of Republican women who planned to vote for Trump said they were very enthusiastic about doing so. This time, that number fell to 45 percent. (Among Republican men, the figure was about the same.)
In 2012, both President Obama and Romney had more enthusiastic bases of support than the candidates do this year. Obama’s base was much more enthusiastic in October of that year than Clinton’s is now. Romney’s base saw a sudden spike in mid-October, with nearly 60 percent of his base saying they were very enthusiastic about casting a vote for him.
What changed? Between the second and third polls above the two candidates held their first debate. In that debate, Romney polished the floor with Obama, spiking his poll numbers broadly and making people more enthusiastic about his candidacy. There’s clearly a link between those two things: When poll numbers go up, so does enthusiasm. This isn’t exactly rocket science, but it’s important to point out.
This suggests that it’s a little hard to read too much into these enthusiasm numbers at this point. If something dramatic happens, they can move quickly. Romney had more people saying they were very enthusiastic to vote for him at this point in 2012, but a month later he lost the election.
But how was it that Romney voters were so much more enthusiastic than Trump ones are now? It seems to defy our understanding of the two races. The simple answer is that fewer of Romney’s voters viewed him unfavorably. Among registered Trump voters who view him favorably, 90 percent are enthusiastic about backing him. A fifth of Trump voters view him unfavorably, though, and they are understandably significantly less enthusiastic about voting for him than their fellow Trump supporters. In a normal year, that might be a significant obstacle to Trump’s candidacy. Luckily for him, he’s running against someone who is also viewed negatively, which balances things out a bit.
We tend to overestimate the role enthusiasm plays in an election, I think. Democrats tend to vote less regularly than Republicans, a function of logistics more than excitement. Campaigns have get-out-the-vote efforts so that they can make sure they’re getting sporadic voters to the polls, and Democrats have long had more robust GOTV efforts precisely because they turn out less often. The bigger question for Trump is whether he can keep his voters enthusiastic even as his poll numbers stay gloomy, especially since his campaign isn’t running much of a GOTV at all. If he gets to November with a dispirited, disinterested Trump base and no way to get people to the polls, it’s hard to see how he’ll do much better than Romney, much less win.
Ten thousand people attending a rally is one thing. 100 million going to the polls is another.