President Trump and Democrats alike can claim voter enthusiasm is on their side — the polling data, after all, cuts both ways — but the clear trend indicates the energy in the 2020 electorate is either pro-Trump or anti-Trump. Joseph R. Biden is an afterthought.
The former vice president failed to generate Trump-like levels of excitement during the presidential primaries and backers have hopes that picking Sen. Kamala Harris for a running mate and basking in the spotlight of the national convention will pump up his base.
Charlie Gerow, a GOP strategist, said the enthusiasm gap between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden is being underestimated.
“In 2018, the Democrats chirped about the enthusiasm gap, but they are not doing it this year because the intensity here is all for Donald Trump,” Mr. Gerow said. “I am surprised how invigorated, enthusiastic, intense, and anxious to get to the polls the Trump base is.”
He added: “Trying to get a Trump sign today is roughly the same as trying to get a gold bar.”
Democrats view the race through a different lens, saying the anti-Trump sentiment has been building in the electorate since Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss four years ago, strengthening Mr. Biden’s hand.
Chris Walton, chair of the Milwaukee County Democrats, says voter enthusiasm in the battleground state of Wisconsin has jumped compared to 2016.
Back then, he said, the economy was on solid-footing and it was easier for some voters to buy into the “meh” feeling about Mrs. Clinton because it was unimaginable that then-candidate Donald Trump could win.
“Happy people don’t vote,” he said. “Angry voters are laser-focused, and the laser focus is on getting President Trump out of office.”
Mr. Walton says voters are badgering him for Biden-Harris yard signs every day.
It is a similar story in Dane County Wisconsin, according to the Democratic County Chair Alexia Sabor who said the “anti-Trump sentiment” is the primary driver.
“Joe Biden is fine, he will do a fine job,” she said. “Kamala Harris is great. She will do a fine job, but the top concern is we need to get this guy out of office.”
Ms. Sabor said that feeling has made it easier for Democrats to get over the hard-fought primary race and come together in a more unified fashion than they did after the 2016 primary.
“People have sort of been so bludgeoned by the idiocy that they are like, ‘Yeah this is not my first choice, but this is a very real sense that democracy in America is at a tipping point and that if we don’t get him out of the office right now, we are taking a slide into authoritarian that we might not get back from,’” she said.
“That sense of urgency I think is fueling enthusiasm for Joe Biden that wouldn’t have been there simply with him as a candidate on his own,” she said.
On Thursday, Mr. Biden delivered his nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, marking the end of a four-day all-virtual event that tested the party’s ability to rally voters.
It was the culmination of a national political journey for Mr. Biden that began in 1972 when he was elected as an energetic 29-year-old upstart to the U.S. Senate from Delaware.
He won the seat with a shoe-string campaign staffed by members of his family that relied on door-to-door interactions and featured a single radio ad in which Mr. Biden talked about voters losing faith in elected officials.
He promised to be a straight shooter.
Now a 77-year-old grizzled political veteran, Mr. Biden has led most national and battleground state polls for months despite the enthusiasm struggles.
It has been a different story for Mr. Trump, who memorably bragged during the 2016 campaign that he could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue in New York City “and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
“Joe Biden knows that he has real problems with his own base, that he has problems with his candidacy,” Trump campaign advisor Jason Miller said on ABC’s “This Week.” “That’s why he had to pick a radical progressive like Kamala Harris to come on as VP because he knows his numbers are very soft with his progressive base.”
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week showed that 48% of Mr. Biden’s supporters were “very enthusiastic” about throwing their support behind him — nearly double what the same poll found in March.
Mr. Trump, though, retains the upper hand with 65% of his backers describing themselves as “very enthusiastic.”
Mr. Trump’s support has hardened since four years ago when 56% of his supporters said their driving force was voting against Ms. Clinton, and 40% said they were all-in for Mr. Trump.
Now 73% say they are casting their vote for Mr. Trump, and 26% say they are casting their vote against Mr. Biden.
Meanwhile, 59% of Biden backers say they are casting their vote against Mr. Trump, compared to 38% who are casting it for Mr. Biden.
Political analysts say having enthusiasm for a candidate is different from having enthusiasm for voting.
“What I can say is that in Wisconsin there is very little difference between Trump and Biden supporters about voting in November, and a very little partisan gap in enthusiasm,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll.
“My conclusion: neither party nor candidate has an enthusiasm advantage at this point. The small differences here are trivial,” he said. “Things, of course, could change as we move forward.”
Gallup, meanwhile, noted that Republicans were more enthusiastic than Democrats to vote in 2016 and 2012.
They won in 2016, despite losing the popular vote, and lost in 2012.
This year the coronavirus has made it harder for local officials and party activists to gauge enthusiasm. Campaign rallies and door-to-door canvassing have been out of the question.
Republicans say they’ve seen Mr. Trump’s support solidify in the form of Republicans who might have been lukewarm about him in 2016 going all-in for him now.
Democrats, on the other hand, say they’ve seen an explosion of social media activity and more enthusiasm in volunteering to phonebank and work the polls than previous elections.
Matthew Mareno, chair of the Waukesha County Democrats in Wisconsin, said this presidential contest “feels radically different than 2016.”
“In 2016, we were basically begging people to take signs and barely got out 500 by November,” Mr. Mareno said. “It was rough, but here we are mid-August and I have already given out 850 Biden signs in two weeks in July and I already have 1,500 requests for the next order.”
The fact that Ms. Clinton carried the popular vote four years ago despite being on the wrong side of the enthusiasm gap is a reason for optimism, said Mr. Walton of the Milwaukee County Democrats.
“Hate and rage is white-hot,” he said. “If we could win the popular vote with ‘meh,’ we can definitely win the election with, ‘You have to go!’”
Mr. Gerow doesn’t think piling on Mr. Trump is a winning strategy.
“The pro-Trump sentiment is more powerful than an anti-Trump sentiment because being for someone is always better than being against something,” he said. “It might be a source of comfort for those people already locked into your position, but there simply aren’t enough of those people to win an election.”