Love may be many things -- patient, kind, etc. But when it comes to being a motivator for electoral activism, love's not so helpful. Anger, fear and frustration are what ultimately get people up from the couch and into the voting booth.
1994 was dubbed the "angry white male" election. That wasn't because the political makeup of the country changed, but because angry people were more engaged than those who just two years earlier were voting for Bill Clinton and singing "don't stop thinking about tomorrow."
Fast-forward to '09 and you can see the seeds for the intensity gap starting to sprout. To be sure, those people confronting their lawmakers at health care town halls this August aren't a representative sample of the whole electorate. But they could be representative of '10 voters. And that's the bigger problem for Democrats.
In 2008 House races, Democrats had a 7-point advantage on turnout, according to the exit polls. Forty percent of the electorate was Democratic -- and 92 percent of them voted for a Democrat. Just 33 percent of the electorate was Republican. Almost all of them (89 percent) voted for a Republican. The rest were independents, who split 51-43 percent for Democrats.
Long before "death panels" or "socialism," Americans with health care were suspicious of anything that messed with what they saw as a good thing.
Now, re-jigger those numbers so that, say, 40 percent of the electorate is Republican and 38 percent is Democratic. Or maybe they turn out in equal proportions. Either way, for the 68 Democrats who sit in GOP-leaning districts (those carried by John McCain last year or categorized by the Cook Political Report as voting more Republican than Democrat in the last two elections), that change could be deadly.
We've already seen the difference intensity -- and a bad economy -- can have on fundraising. At this point in 2007, for example, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had a $17 million cash-on-hand advantage over its Republican counterpart. Given the fact that Democrats "own" D.C., that gap should be bigger this year, right? Nope. When you account for debt owed by both committees, Democrats have just a $3.6 million lead. There's also concern among some Democratic House insiders that President Obama will not be able to turn his fabled e-mail list into fundraising gold like he did for his own campaign in 2008.
So, did the White House misjudge support for health care reform in the first place? Or is this intensity problem one that was caused by Democrats' mismanagement of the message?
On the one hand, we've seen a precipitous drop in support for a major overhaul of health care in the last month. In the June Diageo/Hotline poll, there was a bigger percentage of Democrats and independents who "strongly supported" the idea of health care overhaul than Republicans who strongly opposed it. A month later, while roughly the same percentage of Democrats strongly supported the idea, the percent of independents who were strong supporters dropped 13 points to 28 percent.
Meanwhile, the percentage of Republicans who "strongly opposed" health care reform jumped 15 points, from 34 percent to 49 percent. A Pew Research poll this month showed that just 27 percent of Democrats would be "very happy" to see a health care bill passed, while a whopping 38 percent of Republicans said they'd be "angry" if it did.
These numbers suggest that the ambiguity surrounding health care reform has been a major driver in this intensity gap and the reason the public has not bought into supporting a significant change to health care reform.
Yet before this debate even began, there were signs that the public had little appetite to upend the current system. In looking across an array of polling, we see that those with health insurance are just as happy with the quality of their care lately as they were in 1994. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll last summer found that 89 percent were satisfied with their care and 87 percent rated their coverage as excellent or good. A 1994 ABC News poll found that 85 percent were satisfied and 84 percent rated their coverage as excellent or good.
These numbers suggest that long before "death panels" or "socialism," Americans with health care were suspicious of anything that messed with what they saw as a good thing. It also helps explain why beating up on big, bad insurance companies hasn't gotten much traction.
OK, so maybe, given the sour state of the economy these days, Americans are more worried than ever about losing it? Nope. A July Kaiser poll showed that 29 percent were "very worried" they'd lose their health insurance. That's basically on par with what Kaiser has seen since asking this question in 2004.
When people are generally satisfied with something, they need a real strong motivator to actually change it. Maybe there was a time when Obama could have made that case. But that time has passed. The question now is whether it's better for Democrats to see Obama come down to earth sooner than later. Unlike '94, when many Democrats were pooh-poohing the idea of a GOP takeover until the polls closed on election night, an early alarm gives Democrats time to prepare themselves and their candidates for the serious battle in '10. Maybe love won't be enough to get Democrats to the polls in '10, but perhaps fear will be.