For a midterm election, polls show voter enthusiasm is high

A new Gallup survey shows a record share of registered voters -- especially Republicans -- say they're more enthusiastic than usual about voting. A really high turnout at election polls may mean Democrats marshaled their forces at the end.

Ed Reinke/AP
Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul signs the election register in front of poll workers as he prepares to vote in Bowling Green, Ky., Tuesday. Paul's wife, Kelley, is at left.

After months of campaign ads, candidate debates, and record amounts of cash spent, today’s midterm elections come down to just one factor: turnout.

Whether Democrats wake up Wednesday morning to a complete rout or a surprise showing will largely depend on how many – and which – voters actually have cast ballots.

According to a new Gallup poll, Americans are displaying record enthusiasm for a midterm election, with 53 percent of registered voters saying they are more enthusiastic than usual about voting. This is largely due to the much-vaunted “enthusiasm gap” between the two parties: 63 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents told Gallup they are more enthusiastic than usual about voting, compared with only 44 percent of Democrats.

That bodes well for Republicans overall. If that enthusiasm also translates into record voter turnout for a midterm, though, it may mean that Democrats finally did succeed in prodding their supporters to the polls – making it harder to predict the level of expected GOP congressional gains.

“Under normal circumstances, when you have a deep recession, two things happen: The party in power gets [punished], and turnout goes up,” says Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the Electorate at American University here. This year, “I’m sure of the first. I’m not at all sure of the second.”

In the 2006 midterm elections, roughly 40 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Like most experts, Mr. Gans is anticipating lower turnout this time around among a number of Democratic-leaning constituencies, such as Hispanics and, especially, young people.

“Young people are not going to vote in anything near the numbers they did in 2006,” he predicts. “They’re very disillusioned.”

That would suggest this year’s voter demographics may be more in line with those of typical midterm elections, in which white, older voters make up a much bigger portion of the electorate than in presidential contests.

But Gans also sees the possibility for depressed turnout among certain Republican-leaning voters who, he speculates, may be “reluctant to support some of the more extreme candidates.”

On the other hand, analysts say, higher-than-expected turnout levels wouldn’t necessarily benefit Republicans at this point anyway. Because Republican enthusiasm has already been factored into most polls, a relatively high turnout Tuesday could mean that Democrats were able to muscle more of their voters to the polls in the end. That could make a difference in some tight races.

“Probably, a higher turnout benefits Democrats,” says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.

At polling stations across the country Tuesday, Republicans appear energized – and, in many cases, angry. In Bowling Green, Ky., where a fierce and much-watched Senate contest has been waged between tea party favorite Rand Paul and Democrat Jack Conway, Secretary of State Les Fugate says the state is on track to meet an expected 48 percent turnout rate. At Briarwood Elementary School, Marianne Patton describes her vote as not only for Mr. Paul but also against the Obama administration.

“A lot of promises were not fulfilled,” she says. “I don’t think the current administration is in touch with everyone.”

Similarly, in Vienna, Va., home to one of the tightest House contests in the country, many supporters of Republican challenger Keith Fimian described their vote as a protest against the policies of the past two years. Ed Farmer, a mechanic, said his main concern was the size of the federal government. “Half the country can’t work for the other half,” he said.

Democrats, on the other hand, say they are worried about what might happen if Republicans seize control of Congress. Paul Grano says he voted for the Democratic incumbent, Gerry Connolly, because “if Republicans win, it will make things more difficult for the president.”

A similar mood of trepidation was on display among Democrats in Brookline, Mass., where Rep. Barney Frank (D) is expected to win reelection, though after a tougher-than-usual fight. This election “all depends on if people let themselves be swayed by emotions or reason,” says Democratic voter Daniel Cantor. “What I am afraid of is that reason won’t get enough votes.”

“The economy is the biggest issue,” says Sharon Catto, another Frank supporter. “People seem to have a very short memory about what got us into this mess.” She, too, worries about the election results: “I’m afraid of what’s happening in the rest of the country.”

If there’s a bright side for some Democrats on Election Day, it’s in looking ahead to the next battle. “I’m gratified by the fact that history shows midterm elections have little impact on the presidential election,” says Gerald Fine, a CEO and independent voter who cast his ballot for Mr. Frank.

Sara Afzal in Brookline, Mass., Sara Johnson in Vienna, Va., and Carmen K. Sisson in Bowling Green, Ky., contributed to this report.

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