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The Enthusiasm Gap

Also: The (Other) Great Divides; Poll Vault: A Hurricane Preparedness Tip

By Richard Morin and Christopher Muste
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 30, 2004; 7:38 AM

Forget the gender gap. The chasm that yawns the widest this election year is the Enthusiasm Gap.

Nearly two in three likely voters who support President Bush -- 65 percent -- said they were "very enthusiastic" about their candidate while 42 percent of Sen. John F. Kerry's supporters express similarly high levels of enthusiasm for their choice, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll.

That's a 23-point difference in relative excitement. Although the polling record is incomplete for earlier elections, the available data suggest that the enthusiasm gap in the 2000 presidential campaign was negligible, at best.

In an election in which turnout is key, keeping the faithful energized is one of the most critical challenges facing Kerry as he approaches the first presidential debate tonight. Not only must he convince the small number of persuadable voters who currently support Bush to switch their vote, but he also must re-energize his own supporters to ensure that they turn out on Election Day.

While the enthusiasm gap is apparent across most key voting blocks, nowhere is it more striking than in the way that political conservatives, moderates and liberals view their respective choices.

Bush's conservative base is broadly enthusiastic about the president while political liberals are noticeably cooler to Kerry. Among registered voters, nearly seven in 10 self-described conservative supporters of Bush say they're enthusiastic about the president. But four in 10 liberals -- 43 percent -- express similar levels of excitement about Kerry.

This enthusiasm gap extends to political moderates as well. Nearly half of Bush's moderate supporters are energized about their candidate, compared to a third of Kerry's moderate base.

Bush also has been able to fire up his partisan base more than Kerry has. Today, two-thirds of all Republican voters who support Bush say they're enthusiastic about him, a double-digit increase since June. But fewer than half -- 48 percent -- of Kerry's Democratic supporters express similar enthusiasm about their choice, up 13 points since June but down from his post-convention peak of 54 percent.

The enthusiasm gap extends to black voters, typically one of the most reliable Democratic voting groups. In two Post-ABC News surveys in September, fewer than half of blacks who back Kerry said they were very enthusiastic about him. White voters, who disproportionately favor Bush, do so with far more enthusiasm: Six in 10 white Bush voters are highly enthusiastic about their candidate.

There's a gender gap in enthusiasm -- or half of one, at least. According to the latest Post-ABC News poll, there's virtually no difference in levels of excitement among men and women who support Bush; if anything, women are a bit more enthusiastic about him. But among Kerry voters, women are 14 points more likely than men to say they're very enthusiastic about their candidate.

The most recent Post-ABC News poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 23 to 26 among 1,204 randomly selected adults nationwide, including 969 self-identified registered voters. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.

The (Other) Great Divides

The Enthusiasm Gap is not the only Great Divide in election 2004. Here are other gaps that savvy poll watchers are tracking this election year:

• The Grad-School Divide. It was an awful summer for John Kerry -- except among America's best-educated voters. Currently five in nine registered voters -- 54 percent -- who finished graduate or professional school plan to vote for Kerry compared to 40 percent who support Bush, according to the latest Post-ABC News poll. In fact, Kerry's standing among these voters improved between the end of the Democratic convention and the beginning of autumn -- one of the few groups in which the Democrat apparently gained support in August.

Kerry is about as popular with the grad-school crowd now as Al Gore was four years ago. In 2000, the Democrat got 52 percent of their vote while Bush received 44 percent, according to network exit polls.

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