WASHINGTON – As the Democratic presidential candidates begin a sprint to determine who will take on President Donald Trump this fall, party insiders are wrestling with another consequential uncertainty: Whether voters are already tuning out.
Lower-than-expected participation in the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses and massive audiences at Trump’s rallies that have eclipsed those of his rivals – including one on the eve of the New Hampshire primary – have undermined an early narrative that Democrats are so energized after losing in 2016 that they’re ready to show up in droves in 2020.
As the nation parses the results of the New Hampshire primary Tuesday for signs of who might emerge from the crowded field to be the Democratic nominee, party leaders will also scrutinize turnout figures to assess whether they’re facing the same enthusiasm headwinds that worked against Hillary Clinton four years ago.
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“Democrats can’t just take it for granted that we’ll have an enthusiasm advantage in November,” said Josh Schwerin with Priorities USA Action, a political action committee that supports Democratic candidates. “Just having Trump on the ballot isn’t enough.”
Schwerin said his group’s polling indicates high enthusiasm for both Democrats and Republicans but he acknowledged that “we need to work for it.”
Democrats are also fighting against a sense of inevitability, strengthened by the economy, a highly unsettled Democratic field and Trump’s own marketing. Two-thirds of voters expect Trump to be re-elected in November even as most Americans think he doesn’t deserve a second term, according to a Monmouth University Poll released Tuesday. Just 11% of Democrats think their party’s nominee will “definitely beat” Trump while 38% of Democrats said it’s more likely than not that Trump will win a second term.
A high turnout in New Hampshire would ease some of the Democratic jitters. Bill Gardner, New Hampshire’s Secretary of State, last week predicted a record turnout for the primary, forecasting that some 292,000 people would cast a vote for a Democrat, up slightly from 2008. But the state’s Democratic Party chairman, Raymond Buckley, sought to lower expectations during a call this week with reporters.
‘Not even close’
As they crisscrossed the Granite State days before the first-in-the-nation primary, the Democratic candidates cast themselves as best positioned to take on Trump. Former Vice President Joe Biden released a scorching ad questioning whether Pete Buttigieg’s experience as mayor of South Bend prepared him for the White House.
Buttigieg, meanwhile, slammed Sen. Bernie Sanders, telling NBC in an interview that it “would be very difficult” for him to beat the president in November.
But as Democrats fired verbal shots at each other about electability, Trump – who does not face a serious threat for the GOP nomination this year – filled a nearly 12,000-seat arena in Manchester, N.H., for a Monday night rally. Free from the impeachment proceedings that cast a shadow over his presidency for months, Trump touted low U.S. unemployment to jubilant supporters and projected an image of Republican unity.
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Repeating a similar surrogate surge he employed in Iowa, Trump was joined by members of his family and several congressional allies, including Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rand Paul, R-K.Y., as well as GOP Reps. Kevin McCarthy of California, Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Matt Gaetz of Florida.
“You know, they always talk about the Democrats, they have enthusiasm. We have so much more enthusiasm, it’s not even close,” Trump told the raucous crowd. “They are all fighting each other…They don’t know what the hell they are doing.”
Sanders, leading in New Hampshire polling in the run up to the primary, delivered the next-closest display of energy to Trump’s, drawing some 7,500 supporters to a University of New Hampshire rally and concert Monday night. Buttigieg, riding momentum after a strong Iowa finish, gathered a crowd of 1,800 on Sunday.
Sanders argued he’s the best candidate to turn out young people, and polls show that much of his support in New Hampshire is concentrated within that voting bloc. In fact 44% of voters between the ages of 18 to 34 prefer Sanders, according to a CNN poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire this week.
Biden, who has downplayed New Hampshire his prospects after his fourth-place finish in Iowa, abruptly left the state Tuesday to begin campaigning in South Carolina, where he has maintained a comfortable lead in recent polling.
Yet to find a message
The fact that there are multiple candidates vying for the nomination should increase turnout an enthusiasm, said Lynn Vavreck, a UCLA political scientist.
“To the extant there is a lack of enthusiasm it may be coming from other things, like a general sense of fatigue with politics or the possibility that none of the candidates excite their base of support very much,” she said.
Democratic strategists speculated that voters may be slow to engage in part because, unlike in 2008 when record numbers turned out for Barack Obama, the economy is strong and there isn’t an anti-war sentiment coursing through the party’s psyche. Trump’s unorthodox presidency may viscerally bother Democrats, said Democratic strategist Michael Ceraso, but it doesn’t hit them in the pocketbooks.
“The enthusiasm gap is derived from Trump, who frustrates voters with his tone and bravado, but he doesn’t elicit a reactive response from voters who need a personal reason – not a symbolic one – to cast a vote in an election,” Ceraso said.
“Democrats have yet to find a message for these voters,” he added. “And that could prove problematic in pivot counties.”
Iowa left a mark
Self-doubt among Democrats was exacerbated in Iowa, where turnout fell far short of the record 240,000 caucus goers in 2008. Though the number of people caucusing – about 176,000 – was higher than in 2016, the showing ran counter to the idea that Democrats animated to oppose Trump would show up in high numbers.
Democratic party officials had predicted last week’s caucuses would eclipse the 2008 results, especially after the 2018 midterms saw the highest turnout rate in recent history. That wave of support gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives.
William Howell, a University of Chicago political scientist, speculated that Iowa’s turnout may be less about enthusiasm and more about anxiety within the party. The lack of clarity from Iowa underscored a persistent cleavage between liberal and moderate voters – not to mention overall concerns about uniting behind any candidate who can beat Trump.
That anxiety was triggered further by Biden, Howell said, a candidate who staked his claim to the nomination on his ability to beat Trump but who has struggled for oxygen.
“I don’t think the Democrats see a way to bridge these differences and that stokes anxiety about what’s likely to play out in the fall,” he said. “The field looks more impressive than any individual candidate does. And at the end of the day, they’ve got to settle on an individual.”
And that raises a key point: It’s early. The entire dynamic could change when the field begins to narrow and Democrats settle on a candidate.
“We don’t know yet about the enthusiasm gap between the Democrats and the Republicans,” Howell said. “But I think we can speak to the lingering anxieties and a sense among Democrats of feeling dispirited in the aftermath of Iowa. All that build up for what exactly?”