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Enthusiasm: The Holy Grail of the 2012 race

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Republicans have a big advantage in enthusiasm heading into the final 100 days of the campaign. Or maybe they don’t. Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney(L) and President Barack Obama. (AFP PHOTO/Getty Images)

A new Gallup poll released Wednesday showed the GOP with a sizeable edge in enthusiasm, with 51 percent of their voters professing more enthusiasm than in other recent elections, as compared to just 39 percent of Democrats. That’s its biggest advantage this cycle.

But just three weeks ago, a CNN/Opinion Research poll showed it was Democrats who had an unprecedented edge in enthusiasm, with 59 percent of their voters saying they were “extremely” or “very” motivated to vote, compared to 51 percent of Republicans.

Either something big changed in the first half of July, or we’re getting mixed messages. We’ll go with the latter.

The fact is that the enthusiasm gap is a hugely important predictor of elections that, right now, is very hard to pin down — for a number of reasons.

First, it depends a lot on how you ask the question. The Gallup poll asked voters to compare their level of enthusiasm to past elections, while the CNN poll asked a more straight up, ‘Are you enthusiastic’ question. Different questions get different responses, and we can all argue about which question is better.

Just as importantly, though, are a pair of very conflicted party bases.

Republicans in particular don’t seem to know whether they are excited or not. They are very enthusiastic about beating President Obama, but not very enthusiastic about GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

Much of the anti-Obama sentiment that drove record GOP enthusiasm (and huge GOP gains) in 2010 remains, but Republicans have an imperfect and less-than-exciting captain manning the helm.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 48 percent of Obama supporters said they were “very enthusiastic” about voting for the president, while just 34 percent of Romney supporters said the same of their guy.

So when Republican voters are asked how enthusiastic they are, do they think about beating Obama or voting for Romney? Republican leaders better hope the former is enough to get them to the polls on Election Day.

On the other side, Democrats still like their candidate plenty — personally, at least — but they are not terribly enthusiastic about what they’ve seen from his administration or the state of the country.

The 39 percent of Democrats who told Gallup they were more enthusiastic than before other recent elections is the lowest that number has been measured in a presidential election cycle since March 2000. And the 59 percent who told CNN they were “extremely” or “very” enthusiastic is much higher than it has been in recent months — a suggestion that it might have been a momentary bump.

(The CNN poll may have been a reflection of Obama’s recent base-rallying announcements, including coming out in support of gay marriage, stopping the deportation of young illegal immigrants, and pushing for tax cuts for the wealthy to expire.)

Overall, both sides right now have something to be excited about and something to keep them from showing up to vote. That’s why enthusiasm overall is lower at this point than it was in either 2004 or 2008, and it’s also why we’ve seen some muddled polling on the enthusiasm gap.

The question is which big motivating factor — personal affinity for Obama for Democrats and anti-Obama sentiment for Republicans — is more motivational come Election Day.

Obama inches toward action on guns: Obama suggested late Wednesday that he would be open to additional measures to restrict the ownership of guns in response to the country’s second big gun-related tragedy in 18 months.

Obama has been slow to embrace legislative action on guns in the aftermath of the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., but his remarks in New Orleans may give gun control advocates some hope.

“We should leave no stone unturned and recognize that we have no greater mission that keeping our young people safe,” Obama said, specifically mentioning more thorough background checks and keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

But even while taking a step toward action, Obama suggested guns are only part of the problem.

“We must also understand that when a child opens fire on other children, there’s a hole in his heart that no government can fill,” he said.

Also Wednesday, Romney suggested new gun laws weren’t the answer.

Hirono leads by 19 in Democratic poll: A new poll of the Hawaii Senate race conducted for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee shows Rep. Mazie Hirono (D) leading former governor Linda Lingle (R) by 19 points.

The DSCC poll, conducted by pollster Mark Mellman and shared with The Fix, shows Hirono at 52 percent and Lingle at 33 percent -- up from a 15-point lead last month. Hirono also has a higher favorable rating (55 percent) than Lingle (47 percent).

“Lingle’s weakness is a function of her relative unpopularity and the Democratic orientation of the state,” the memo concludes. “That combination puts huge obstacles in Lingle’s path, while the better-liked Hirono is further aided by the state’s partisan landscape.”

The poll is just the latest in a string of very disparate surveys of the race. While a Lingle poll released earlier this month showed her leading Hirono by five points, a Hirono poll released last month showed the Democrat up by 12 points.

This is really par-for-course for the 50th state, where it is very difficult to poll accurately.

Hirono still faces a primary with former congressman Ed Case — she announced the primary endorsement of GOP Rep. Don Young (Alaska) on Tuesday — but Hirono is expected to face Lingle in the general election. Hirono also released a new ad Wednesday.

Fixbits:

The Democratic mayor of Jacksonville, the city’s first black mayor, declines to endorse Obama.

For what it’s worth, Romney won’t announce his running mate while overseas.

A new poll in Pennsylvania — just like a national Fox News poll last week — shows Condoleezza Rice as Romney’s running mate would turn a six-point Obama advantage into a tie.

Chris Christie says he’s open to running for president in 2016.

Sarah Palin will campaign with Ted Cruz on Friday in the runup to Tuesday’s Texas GOP Senate runoff.

Former congressman Chris Shays’s (R-Conn.) Senate campaign suggests primary opponent and former WWE CEO Linda McMahon’s pro wrestling product is tangentially related to gun violence.

A Michigan Democratic congressional candidate is touting the endorsement of disgraced former senator John Edwards’s daughter, Cate Edwards.

A new independent poll in the member-versus member primary in Detroit shows Rep. Gary Peters (D) leading freshman Rep. Hansen Clarke (D) 45 percent to 27 percent.

Huckabee vs. Palin and West. Mike Huckabee backs Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) in a member-versus-member primary. Meanwhile, Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) will announce his endorsement of Rep. Sandy Adams (R) on Thursday. He joins Pain in supporting her.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has endorsed Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) — one of its few Democratic endorsements.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s (R) 14-year-old daughter got a job in the state House’s gift shop, which has some alleging nepotism.

The anti-incumbent Campaign for Primary Accountability, which hasn’t been active in recent weeks thanks to a cash shortfall, acknowledges it is mostly done for the year.

Must-reads:

In Congress, win a race, lose a friend” — Shira Toeplitz, Roll Call

IRS may consider tightening rules for nonprofits that influence elections” — Dan Eggen, Washington Post

As Romney, Obama spar over ‘you didn’t build that,’ small businesses add context” — Bill Turque, Washington Post

Obama Aides Play Campaign Roles” — Peter Nicholas and Carol E. Lee, Wall Street Journal

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