For the second time in less than one month, voters in an unusual but heavily Democratic area are heading to the polls with the possibility of electing a Republican.

Operatives on both sides say Tuesday’s special election for governor of West Virginia will be close, and Republicans are ready to pounce on the results as proof that President Obama is dragging down Democrats across the country — just as he did three weeks ago in the special congressional election Democrats lost in New York’s 9th district.

Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is the man to beat.

But is the closeness of the race between Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) and GOP businessman Bill Maloney (R) and the importance of Obama further evidence that Republican voters are just more motivated than Democrats?

It’s hard to tell.

For years now, special elections in otherwise uncompetitive areas have narrowed at the end, often leading to upsets that cause political observers like The Fix to look for hidden messages. And more often than not, upsets occur because one side is much more motivated than the other, for whatever reason.

That “enthusiasm gap” is exacerbated by a special election that has significantly lower turnout than a normal race. People need extra motivation to vote in a special election where the race is the only one on the ballot on a non-traditional Election Day; and those with extra motivation will account for a higher percentage of voters than those who aren’t.

As we’ve written in this space before, Republicans currently maintain a significant enthusiasm gap nationwide, with 58 percent of GOPers in a recent Gallup poll saying they are more excited to vote for president in 2012 than they were four years ago. For Democrats, that number is 45 percent – the biggest advantage Republicans have had on that measure in more than a decade.

But that enthusiasm gap between the parties hasn’t showed up in West Virginia polling, say operatives on both sides. Indeed, voters in West Virginia are largely happy with the way things are going, and when asked whether things are on the “right track” or “wrong track,” they are much more apt than voters nationwide to say things are going well.

So why are Democrats in trouble in a state where they dominate?

Republicans say the lack of an enthusiasm gap in West Virginia is misleading because of the high number of conservative Democrats who may be very motivated to vote against the Democratic candidate, unhappt with President Obama and his policies.

Before Obama became an issue — particularly the passage of the president’s health-care reform bill — Tomblin appeared headed for a significant victory.

“You may not see it in the data between Democrats and Republicans, because even conservative Democrats are motivated to send Obama and career politicians a message,” said West Virginia GOP Chairman Mike Stuart. “The story: conservative Democrats are voting for Maloney in big numbers.”

Indeed, recent polling shows upwards of one quarter of Democrats were ready to cast their ballots for Maloney – a significant crossover even in a state populated by lots of conservative Democrats. That’s more than crossed over to vote Republican in the 2010 Senate race won by Democrat Joe Manchin, who also picked off a significant number of Republicans and won with 53 percent of the vote.

Furthermore, polling at the end of the race shows many voters who were undecided but still motivated to vote have swung to Maloney’s side in recent days.

Democrats say they still believe in their turnout operation, which is much stronger than the historically weak West Virginia GOP operation. Democrats also think they have an edge in early voters, many who cast ballots before the onslaught of ads attaching Tomblin to Obama.

In fact, the Democrats’ early voting advantage is a few points better than it was in 2010, when they returned large majorities to the state legislature and sent Manchin to Washington — albeit by a much smaller margin than he had taken in his gubernatorial campaigns.

The question is how many of those Democrats cast ballots for a Republican. In the end, that’s the enthusiasm gap that matters.