[T]here’s an enthusiasm gap. Typically, but not always, Republicans vote at higher rates than Democrats in congressional elections. And at this early stage, that seems likely to happen again, perhaps at an even greater rate than usual. One telling indicator came in December, when the Pew Research Center found that Republicans are much more optimistic about their party’s electoral prospects than Democrats are. Fully 55% of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters expect the GOP to do better in 2014 than the party has in recent elections, while only 43% of Democrats expressed such confidence.
Another challenge for Democrats is winning independents, who typically decide election outcomes. Democrats trail Republicans among independents by 38% to 44%, according to Pew’s February survey. Democrats also lost the independent vote in the 2012 presidential election, 45% to 50%, according to national exit polls. In other words, President Obama owed his re-election victory to his base. This is an important indication of how lagging Democratic engagement could sway 2014.
A third challenge is the white vote. While winning whites is not as essential as it once was, they will still make up close to 80% of this year’s midterm electorate. Democrats have consistently lost the white vote in recent decades, even in the 2006 congressional landslide. The early polls in 2014 don’t show a changing tide. The Pew Research Center’s February poll showed the GOP with a 53% to 38% advantage in congressional voting intentions among white registered voters.