WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans still enjoy a big advantage in enthusiasm about November’s congressional elections, with their party members far more engaged and more likely to vote in a trend that could spell big trouble for Democrats.
President Barack Obama drew millions of first-time voters to the polls and pumped up Democratic turnout in the 2008 election, but those novice voters appear far more likely to sit things out in 2010 with Obama not on the ballot and his approval ratings drifting downward.
That could be a decisive factor in dozens of races nationwide that will decide whether Democrats hold their majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate.
A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released on Tuesday found 72 percent of Republicans certain that they will vote in November compared to 49 percent of Democrats.
The findings, similar to those in other national polls, could be crucial to the battle for power in Congress.
“I do think this turnout issue is really going to be the crucial indicator, and the election hangs in the balance on how many of those less-committed Democrats actually turn out again,” Ipsos pollster Julia Clark said.
“There may be a sense of complacency, a sense that ‘We’re done.’ That could spell a very, very tough time for Democrats,” Clark said.
Turnout is traditionally lower in congressional elections, when there is no presidential race to attract voters, making it crucial for the Democrats to retain the first-time voters drawn to Obama in 2008.
To combat the problem, the Democratic National Committee plans to spend about $30 million to increase turnout. Democratic campaign officials have been developing turnout plans at the state level and for specific congressional districts.
The DNC is targeting 15 million first-time voters who Obama drew to the polls in 2008, many of them young, women, blacks and Hispanics who would be likely to support Democratic candidates in November.
“That is a very real issue that we’re focused on,” Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen, who heads the House Democratic campaign committee, told Reuters recently.
The Democratic goal is to increase turnout from the norm by about 10 percent, which the party hopes would be the difference in key battleground states like Ohio, Colorado and Texas.
All 435 House seats and 37 of the 100 Senate seats are up for grabs in November, with Republicans needing to pick up 39 House seats and 10 Senate seats to recapture control.
Democrats point to their win in a May special election in Pennsylvania as a model for November. In a blue-collar typically Democratic House district that backed Republican John McCain for president in 2008, Democrat Mark Critz won with a larger-than-expected turnout from party voters.
“We were successful in getting our voters out to the polls,” Van Hollen said. “In the end, it comes down to a choice between two candidates and their vision of the future.”
The win by Critz came after a campaign in which he played down his links to Democratic leaders like Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — a tactic Republicans say will be harder to duplicate nationwide by Democrats who have voted in Congress for the healthcare overhaul or economic stimulus package.
“That particular candidate was able to get away with that, but that’s a much more difficult argument in other races,” said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the Senate Republican campaign committee.
Walsh said the grass-roots enthusiasm gap could be seen in improved fund-raising by Republican Senate candidates and improved Republican standing with independent voters.
Republicans won governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey last year and a special Senate election in Massachusetts in January with strong support from independents, who have been drifting away from Obama and Democrats in many opinion polls.
The Reuters/Ipsos poll showed Obama did slightly better among independents this month, with 52 percent approving his performance compared to 47 percent in June. Gallup reported earlier this month that 38 percent of independents approved of Obama’s job performance, his lowest rating as president.
Part of the Republican boost in enthusiasm has come from the anti-Obama anger of grass-roots conservative “Tea Party” activists, who have rallied against what they call Obama’s big-government and big-spending agenda.
Democrats contend that Tea Party-backed candidates, who won Republican primaries in high-profile Senate races in Nevada, Kentucky and elsewhere, have driven the party to the right in a move that ultimately will backfire on Republicans.
Republicans scoffed and pointed to opinion polls showing their improved standing with independents.
“Republican candidates are listening to folks in the Tea Party when they say government is spending too much money, it’s too big and it’s not creating jobs,” said Republican House campaign committee spokesman Paul Lindsay.
“That resonates with voters throughout the country,” he said.
Liberal Democrats also have been unhappy with Obama, complaining he has not fought hard enough for many of their priorities, including a stronger healthcare overhaul and immigration reform.
When the Reuters/Ipsos poll asked voters about their interest in news about the election, 78 percent of Republicans said they had a great deal or quite a bit of interest while 58 percent of Democrats said they did.
The findings on voter enthusiasm have been echoed by other national polls all year. A Gallup poll this week found 46 percent of Republicans “very enthusiastic” about the election, while 28 percent of Democrats felt that way.
Republicans have kept an average 16 percentage point lead in enthusiasm since Gallup began tracking the issue in March.
Editing by Will Dunham