Summary of Findings
Former Sen. Fred Thompson has broad potential appeal among Republican voters even before his expected entrance into the presidential race. Thompson is not nearly as well known as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani or the other leading GOP candidates. But 37% of the Republican and Republican-leaning voters who have heard of Thompson say there is a “good chance” they will support him. This is equal to the level of support Giuliani receives from GOP voters who have heard of him, and reflects far more enthusiasm than any of the other Republican candidates garner.
Democratic voters continue to express somewhat more enthusiasm for their party’s top-tier candidates than do Republicans, and Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continue to draw the greatest potential support. The enthusiasm advantage Clinton enjoyed in February has all but disappeared, as the percentage of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters saying there is a good chance they would support her has dipped from 52% to 44%.
Support for Obama is unchanged from February; 40% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters say there is a good chance they would vote for him. Former Vice President Al Gore has gained ground in recent months – 34% say there is a good chance they would vote for Gore today, up from 27% in February.
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted May 30-June 3 among 1,503 adults, finds that overall voter engagement in the presidential campaign remains somewhat limited, despite intense press coverage of the race. Just 33% of all voters say they have given a lot of thought to the presidential candidates, up only modestly from December (27%). However, Republican voters have caught up with the Democrats in campaign engagement, after trailing in previous surveys.
Many voters are dimly aware of even heavily covered aspects of the candidates’ positions and backgrounds. For instance, just 37% of all registered voters could correctly identify Giuliani as the leading Republican candidate who favors a woman’s right to choose when it comes to abortion. Among Republican and Republican-leaning voters, just 43% correctly identified Giuliani.
The survey finds a wide partisan gap in the campaign issues that Republican and Democratic voters view as very important. Health care, the war in Iraq, and the economy are the leading issues for Democrats; roughly eight-in-ten Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters cite these issues as very important to their vote. By contrast, just 56% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters say that health care will be very important in their vote, while 64% cite the war in Iraq.
Far more Republican than Democratic voters say that terrorism and immigration will be very important issues in their voting decisions. Roughly six-in-ten GOP voters (63%) say immigration will be very important, compared with fewer than half of Democratic voters (47%).
Abortion is not a top-tier issue among either Democratic or Republican voters. Only about four-in-ten Republicans and Republican leaning voters (43%), and slightly fewer Democrats (38%), say that abortion will be very important to their voting decisions. Among Republicans, abortion rates about as important as the environment.
The survey finds that President Bush’s job approval rating has declined significantly since April. Bush’s approval rating stands at 29% – the lowest of his presidency – down from 35% two months ago. Bush has lost substantial support from his Republican base. Only about two-thirds of Republicans (65%) approve of Bush’s job performance, which also is the lowest mark of his presidency. As recently as April, 77% of Republicans approved of the way Bush was handling his job as president.
The Republican Field
Giuliani, McCain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich remain the most visible GOP candidates among Republican and Republican-leaning voters. But the visibility gap between them and other GOP candidates has narrowed since February. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, in particular, has become much better known. Fully 72% say they have heard of Romney, up from 46% in February. Former Govs. Tommy Thompson and Mike Huckabee, and Sens. Sam Brownback and Chuck Hagel also are better known among Republican and Republican-leaning voters than they were a few months ago.
Overall, solid majorities of Republican voters (and independents who lean Republican) say there is a good chance or some chance they would vote for four declared or possible Republican candidates, based on those who have heard of the candidates. Giuliani continues to draw the most support among those who say there is a good or some chance they would vote for a candidate: 76% say there is a good or some chance they would vote for Giuliani, compared with 66% for Fred Thompson, 65% for McCain, and 60% for Romney.
Giuliani and McCain draw about the same levels of potential support as they did in February. Romney has gained modestly since then; currently 24% of Republican and Republican-leading voters say there is a good chance they would vote for him, compared with 15% in February. Overall 60% say there is a good or some chance they would support the former Massachusetts governor, although a sizable minority (32%) continues to say there is no chance they would vote for him.
About half of Republican and Republican-leaning voters (49%) say there is at least some chance they could support Gingrich; notably, as many GOP voters say there is a good chance they would vote for the former House speaker as say that about McCain (20% each). But the proportion of Republican voters who say there is no chance they would vote for Gingrich is much higher (46% vs. 28% for McCain).
Conservative Republican voters are substantially more enthusiastic about Thompson, Romney and Gingrich than are more moderate or liberal members of the party. Thompson is the most appealing candidate in the field to conservative Republicans – 43% say there is a good chance they would support him. By comparison, just 28% of moderate and liberal Republicans say there is a good chance they would vote for Thompson, placing him 10 points behind Giuliani among this group of voters.
Neither Giuliani nor McCain’s support divides along ideological lines. About the same share of conservative (36%) as moderate and liberal (38%) Republicans say there is a good chance they would vote for Giuliani. McCain’s appeal is more limited – only about one-in-five Republicans, regardless of ideology, express the same level of support for his candidacy.
Among Republican voters, 43% are aware of Giuliani’s position, and there is little difference between conservatives and moderate or liberal Republicans. Moreover, just 44% of Republican voters who cite abortion as a very important issue can identify Giuliani as the candidate who supports a woman’s right to choose. However, nearly twice as many Republican and Republican-leaning voters who rate abortion as very important say there is no chance they would vote for Giuliani, compared with those who view abortion as less important (27% vs. 15%).
Issues and the GOP Field
As evidenced by the low awareness of Giuliani’s position on abortion, issues play only a modest role in candidate evaluations at this stage of the campaign. Yet there are relevant links between voters’ issue priorities and their candidate preferences. For example, despite the fact that most Republicans who prioritize abortion don’t know Giuliani’s position, he does garner somewhat less interest from these voters than from Republicans who rate this a lower priority.
The roughly three-quarters of Republicans who rate terrorism as a very important campaign issue express substantially more enthusiasm for many of the candidates – more say there is a “good chance” they would vote for Giuliani, Thompson, Romney and Gingrich than among Republicans who see terrorism as less important.
Republicans who rate immigration as a very important issue express more serious consideration of Gingrich, Romney and Thompson than do those who see it as less important.
The Democratic Field
While several lesser known Republican candidates have gained in familiarity over the past few months, this has not been the case among Democrats. Sen. Joe Biden, Gov. Bill Richardson, Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Sen. Chris Dodd are not much more visible among Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters than they were in February.
Among declared or possible Democratic candidates, four draw substantial support. Eight-in-ten Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters say there is a good or some chance they would vote for Sen. Hillary Clinton, while 76% say they would consider voting for Sen. Barack Obama. Somewhat fewer Democratic voters say they would consider voting for former Vice President Al Gore (69% good/some chance), or former Sen. John Edwards (68%).
While comparable percentages of Democratic voters say there is at least some chance they would vote for Gore and Edwards, more say there is a good chance they would vote for Gore (34% vs. 24% for Edwards). In February, about the same numbers said there was a good chance that they would vote for each man (27% Gore, 26% Edwards).
Reflecting their more general engagement in the early stages of the 2008 campaign, liberal Democrats are more enthusiastic about many of the leading candidates than their more conservative and moderate counterparts.
About half (51%) of the liberal Democrats who have heard of Hillary Clinton say there is a good chance they would support her, compared with 41% among moderate and conservative Democrats who have heard of her. The gap in enthusiasm is at least as large for Obama, 51% of liberals who have heard of him say there is a good chance they will support him, compared with 35% of moderate and conservative Democrats.
Issues and the Democratic Field
As with Republican voters, issue priorities among Democrats have, at best, a modest link with candidate enthusiasm at this stage of the campaign. For example, the priority Democratic voters place on such issues as abortion and immigration has no significant link with how they view the candidates.
Health care is rated as a very important campaign issue by 82% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters, and 47% of these voters say there is a good chance they would vote for Hillary Clinton. By comparison, 35% of the minority of Democrats who rate this as a less important issue say there is a good chance they would vote for Clinton. The emphasis a Democratic voter places on health care is unrelated to views of the other major candidates.
Similarly, Democratic voters who rate terrorism as a very important campaign issue express substantially more interest in Clinton’s candidacy (49% say there is a good chance they would support her) than do Democratic voters who place less emphasis on terrorism (36%).
While eight-in-ten Democrats say Iraq will be a very important issue in deciding who to vote for, there are no clear signs that those who say this view the candidates all that differently at this point. Democratic voters who prioritize the environment are more enthusiastic about Al Gore’s candidacy (38% good chance) than those who do not (26% good chance). These environmentally-oriented Democratic voters also express more interest in Clinton and Edwards as well.
Bush Job Approval
For the first time in Pew Research Center polling, disapproval of President Bush’s job performance outnumbers approval by more than two-to-one (61% disapprove, 29% approve). Bush’s job approval is down six points from April, and is three points below the previous low measured in November and December of 2006.
The decline in Bush’s support is most notable among Republicans. Just under two-thirds (65%) of Republicans approve of the President’s performance today, down from 77% in April. This drop is apparent among both the conservative and moderate wings of the party. The proportion of conservative Republicans giving a positive rating declined 12 points to an all-time low of 74%. The proportion of moderate and liberal Republicans giving a positive rating fell 11 points (to 52%), also an all-time low.
White evangelical Protestants have been one of the groups consistently backing George W. Bush throughout his presidency. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the president’s overall job approval spiked to 86% nationwide it was as high as 95% among white evangelicals. As recently as December 2004, more than three-quarters of white evangelicals gave the president a positive performance review. But the current survey finds just 44% of white evangelicals expressing approval of the president’s job performance; roughly the same number (46%) say they disapprove.
Republicans More Engaged in Campaign
Overall, a third of voters say they are giving “a lot” of thought to the 2008 presidential candidates, compared with 29% in April. Since December, more Democrats than Republicans said they have given a lot of thought to the candidates. In April, 37% of Democrats said they were giving a great deal of thought to the candidates, compared with 27% of Republicans.
However, in the current survey identical proportions of Democrats and Republicans (33% each) say they are giving a lot of thought to the candidates. Independents also are more engaged by the campaign; 32% say they are giving a great deal of thought to the candidates, up from 25% in April.
Profiles of Candidate Support
Fred Thompson attracts strong potential support from men and older people, as well as from conservatives. A profile of Republican and Republican-leaning voters who say there is a good chance they will vote for Thompson shows that 70% are male and 65% are age 50 or older. Nearly three-quarters of those who say there is a good chance they would vote for Thompson are self-described conservatives (74%).
Giuliani’s potential base of support is younger than Thompson’s and less heavily male. More than half of Republican and Republican-leaning voters who would strongly consider voting for Giuliani are under age 50 (53%). Roughly six-in-ten are conservatives (61%). Notably, just 39% of possible Giuliani supporters attend church at least once a week; by contrast, half or more of those who say there is a good chance they would vote for the other leading GOP candidates attend church at least weekly.
Among those who say there is a good chance they would vote for Romney, 64% attend church at least weekly. In addition, roughly half of Republican and Republican-leaning voters who say there is a good chance they would vote for Romney have annual household incomes of at least $75,000 a year (52%).
A profile of McCain’s potential support shows that 61% are self-described conservatives – a smaller proportion than for any other leading GOP candidate except for Giuliani. Like Giuliani, McCain draws about half of his potential support from those under age 50 (51%).
Profile of Democratic Support
Among leading Democratic candidates, Clinton draws disproportionate support from those with a high school education or less. More than half of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters who say there is a good chance they would vote for Clinton have a high school education or less (54%).
By contrast, a relatively large proportion of Obama’s potential support comes from college graduates (40% vs. 26% for Clinton). In addition, roughly a quarter of Democratic voters who say there is a good chance they would vote for Obama are African American (28% vs. 20% for Clinton).
Nearly nine-in-ten Democratic voters who say there is a good chance they would vote for Edwards are white (87%) – the highest proportion for any leading Democratic candidate. In addition, more than half of Edwards’ potential supporters are age 50 and older (55%).