Looking through recent polls, it’s become clear that the Republicans have two advantages that can make up for their numerical doldrums in the health care debate: The age gap, and the intensity gap.
First, the age gap. A CNN poll finds the public closely split on health care, with 50% supporting Obama’s plans and 45% opposing it. But voters over 50 are more likely to oppose it, and those under 50 are more likely to favor it. Remember that older people typically vote in greater percentages than the young — thus giving them something of an edge in political debates.
As for the intensity gap, this is something we’re seeing in measurements like Scott Rasmussen’s controversial approval index, which compares only those people who strongly approve to those who strongly disapprove. This in turn is finding its way into the likely voter polling models we see in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, where the Republican base voters are currently far more motivated and likely to go to the polls.
Prof. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia told me that the age gap is in part an extension of the 2008 election results — the young voted for Obama and are invested in his policies, while more older people voted against him and thus the opposite feelings apply. As for the intensity gap, this is a mirror image of the liberal activism we saw during the Bush years, an element of life in opposition: “There’s just something about the negativity motive that seems to result in action. People are willing to spend some time and some effort to oppose something. But rarely are they willing to put out the same effort to support something.”Between all these factors, it’s no surprise that the people opposed to Obama’s agenda are far more vocal right now. “People are pessimists to a great extent, and older people in particular,” said Sabato. “They fear change, and that whatever is change might make their situation worse.”
While these factors can hamper Democratic movement, at the end of the day Sabato still thinks something will get done.
“Fortunately, other considerations come into play, including the political imperative of getting something done if you’re in the majority party. I’m just gonna be very surprised if the majority party follows the same model of disaster from 93 and 94,” said Sabato. “They’ve been through this once. They may have to scale the plan back, there may be some compromises, but to do nothing would be to invite an electoral debacle that would be greater than what might be produced by an unpopular plan. So I’m still betting they do something.”