December 8, 2008

Some Final Thoughts on Campaign ’08

Dems Led in Campaign News Interest, Too

From the beginning of the campaign to its conclusion, Democrats consistently expressed more interest in election news than did Republicans. That represents a change from previous campaigns. There were only a few weeks when Republican news interest matched or surpassed Democratic interest, including the weeks just before and after the nominating conventions. Despite signs of less Republican engagement, it is not clear whether core GOP groups turned out to vote at lower rates than in the past. What is evident from the national exit polls is that African American turnout increased markedly. More will be learned about this when the results of the Current Population Survey of voter turnout is available.

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Registered vs. Likely Voters

Pew Research Center surveys found that the difference between registered voters and likely voters moved in the GOP’s direction in the closing stage of the last three presidential campaigns. In Pew’s Oct. 23-26 survey, Obama led McCain by 16 points among all registered voters and by virtually the same margin (15 points) when the sample was narrowed to likely voters. However, Pew’s election weekend survey found Obama held an 11-point lead among registered voters but just a seven-point lead among likely voters. In the previous two elections, a similar pattern was evident. In both 2000 and 2004, when the sample was narrowed to likely voters, Bush’s margin of support increased more in the final surveys before Election Day than it had in earlier surveys. (See “Slight Bush Margin in Final Days of Campaign” released October 31, 2004, and “Popular Vote A Tossup: Bush 49%, Gore 47%, Nader 4%” released November 6, 2000.)

McCain’s Gains Among Late Deciders

Compared with other voters, late deciders in 2008 broke in a Republican direction according to the exit polls, giving McCain a slight boost from where he might have ended up had the election been held a week earlier. Those who said they decided in the last week of the campaign (10% of voters) divided evenly (48% for each candidate). But Obama held a wide margin among voters who said they had made up their minds earlier (53% to 46%).

The Long Campaign (Part 1)

In a campaign that began so early, the first several months of national polling on the nominating contests proved to be less than revelatory. Through most of 2007, Rudy Giuliani had a large advantage in the GOP race, and Hillary Clinton had an even larger lead among Democrats. But that changed dramatically in early 2008, when voters began paying greater attention to the election.

The Long Campaign (Part 2)

Perhaps surprisingly, voters never tired of the very long campaign — although they said they were hearing too much about both Obama and Sarah Palin at certain points in the campaign. In August, 48% of the public said they had been hearing too much about Obama. Nearly as many expressed that opinion in October (41%), but at that time 46% also said they were hearing too much about Palin. By contrast, much smaller minorities experienced McCain fatigue or Biden fatigue.

Obama’s Visibility

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The amount of news coverage of Obama bore a closer relationship to his public visibility than was the case for McCain. Throughout much of the summer, Obama received more coverage than McCain, according to a content analysis by Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ); Obama also was much more visible with the public. Yet even when McCain caught up to Obama in news coverage after the nominating conventions, Obama remained far and away the most visible candidate to the public.

Media Coverage and Candidate Support

There is a different pattern with respect to the relationship between the tone of coverage and candidate support levels. The tone of coverage that McCain received was correlated with changes in support for him, according to a study conducted by PEJ. By comparison, positive coverage of Obama fluctuated between mid-September and mid-October, but his support levels rose steadily. (See “How the Press Reported the 2008 General Election” release October 22, 2008.)

Gender and the Vote

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While age mattered a great deal in this campaign, gender was less of a discriminating factor, despite the attention it received over the course of the campaign. Obama performed better than John Kerry among both men and women, and both sexes registered the same five-point increase in support for the Democratic candidate.

Dems Gain Again Among Seculars

Obama drew more support from voters in most religious groups than did Kerry. However, the Democrats made some of their biggest gains among religiously unaffiliated voters. In 2000, unaffiliated voters backed the Democratic candidate by a margin of 61% to 30%. That advantage grew to 67% to 31% for Kerry, and 75% to 23% for Obama.

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Terrorism Concern Unabated

Voters were as worried about terrorism as they were four years ago — but it mattered a lot less as a voting issue. In 2004, 71% of voters said they were worried about the possibility of another major terrorist attack in the U.S., compared with an almost identical 70% of voters who expressed the same worry in 2008. However, in the 2008 election, just 9% named terrorism as the most important issue facing the country. In 2004, in response to a similar question, 19% said terrorism was the issue that mattered most to their vote.

Early Voting Woes

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Many voters were motivated to vote early for convenience and to avoid the lines. But a greater percentage of early voters than of Election Day voters waited in line to cast a ballot (48% vs. 33%). Who knew?

“Issues” Mattered

As in 1992, another election when the economy was struggling, a relatively high proportion of voters said that issues were discussed more than usual in the 2008 campaign: 57% said this in 2008, compared with fewer than half of voters in each of the three previous election cycles, and 59% in the 1992 campaign.

Positive Voting Increases

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Fueled by enthusiasm among Barack Obama’s supporters and relatively little animosity toward either candidate, the percentage of voters who said they voted “for” their own candidate rather than “against” his opponent was the highest ever recorded in a Pew Research Center survey (75%). Positive voting also had been relatively high in two previous elections with no incumbent running: it was 64% in both 1988 and 2000.