The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Does Joe Biden have an enthusiasm problem?

President Trump shakes hands with former vice president Joe Biden as former president Barack Obama looks on during Trump's inauguration. (Jonathan Newton /The Washington Post)

A poll this week from The Washington Post and ABC News had some rough findings for President Trump — chief among them being his 10-point deficit to Joe Biden.

But Trump, ever the optimist, found something he liked quite a bit in the poll.

“Biggest ‘enthusiasm’ lead ever!” he declared.

That may be characteristically overstated, but Trump does have a point. The Post-ABC poll does show a major enthusiasm gap between him and Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. While 69 percent of Trump supporters said they were “very enthusiastic” about supporting him, just half that number — 34 percent — said the same in Biden’s case. To the extent that enthusiasm matters in presidential elections, Trump has an unusually large lead.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

For one, an enthusiastic vote counts just as much as an unenthusiastic one. Even if Democrats don’t love Biden, the important thing is that they show up to vote for him. It may be tougher to get them to the polls if they’re not exactly jazzed about his candidacy, but he has some room for error if he does in fact lead nationally by 10 points. (And it may be somewhat understandable that the party is still somewhat unenthusiastic given that many of its members didn’t vote for Biden in the primary.)

The second — and more important — point is this is just one way to measure enthusiasm. The great uniter among Democrats right now isn’t their own presumptive candidate, but the alternative: Trump. And if you dig a little deeper, you’ll see there’s plenty of enthusiasm to vote regardless of the Democratic nominee.

You only need to look at the tweet that Trump passed along above. In a separate finding, the Post-ABC poll found that 74 percent of Biden supporters said they’ll definitely vote for him, while 87 percent of Trump supporters said they’ll definitely vote for him. Another enthusiasm gap!

Except keep in mind the overall numbers. Biden leads overall by 10 points — 53 percent to 43 percent — which means much of his support comes from more middle-of-the-road voters who may understandably be less enthusiastic about him. If Biden has 53 percent support, and 74 percent of his supporters are definitely voting for him, that translates to about 39 percent of registered voters definitely voting for him. That’s actually slightly higher than the percentage of Americans who say they support Trump and are definitely voting: about 37 percent.

Then there’s when you ask the question without candidates. Pollsters often ask not whether people are excited about their candidate, but how excited they are about voting, period. On this measure, the numbers are more encouraging for Democrats.

Gallup has for months shown comparable levels of enthusiasm between Democrats and Republicans, although the Democrats slipped a bit in April. A more recent poll, though, suggests the two parties are still close to parity. The Monmouth University poll from early May showed 31 percent of Democrats said they were more enthusiastic about voting than usual, while 27 percent of Republicans said the same.

Even in that poll, though, there was a warning sign for Democrats: Among the rest of voters, 22 percent of Democrats said they were less enthusiastic than usual, while just 11 percent of Republicans said the same. Those numbers matter. If 1 in 5 Democrats don’t feel a strong urge to get out and vote come November — especially if the coronavirus pandemic is still raging — that’s a significant problem.

But it’s also early in the general election cycle, with a contested primary just behind us and with a pandemic and now racial unrest preventing Biden from making much of an affirmative case for his candidacy. Biden will definitely want to make that case, but as — or more — important will be reminding people what they’re voting against. At least as of right now, he’s winning over people who don’t like either candidate — the “double haters” — by a large margin.

If he can maintain that, he can certainly afford an enthusiasm gap.