As has been the case all year, voters’ preferences in the midterm elections remain divided. But for the first time, slightly more registered voters say they will vote for the Republican candidate in their district, or lean Republican, than say they will support a Democrat or lean Democratic (46% vs. 42%). In early September, 44% said they planned to vote for a Republican and 47% for a Democrat.
The GOP continues to hold a significant advantage among likely voters (50% to 40%). The Republicans held a seven-point lead among likely voters (50% to 43%) in early September. In Pew Research’s final pre-election survey in 2006, Democrats led among registered voters (by 48% to 40%) and held a slight advantage among likely voters (47% to 43%).
Where the Race Stands
The GOP now holds significant leads among likely voters in many demographic groups. Republicans lead by 15 points among men (52% to 37%). In the closing days of the 2006 campaign, men were evenly divided.
The current survey shows no gender gap among white likely voters – white men favor the Republican congressional candidate by 23 points and white women by 20 points. In November 2006, white men backed the Republican by 11 points while white women were divided.
As was the case in September, independent likely voters favor the Republican candidate by a wide margin (49% to 30%). Late in the 2006 campaign, Democrats held a seven-point edge among independent likely voters (42% to 35%).
White mainline Protestants, who were evenly divided in November 2006, now support the Republican candidate by a 58% to 32% margin. White Catholics also were divided late in the previous midterm campaign; today they favor the Republican candidate by 53% to 37%.
The midterm race is close among likely voters in the Northeast and West. But in the Midwest, 53% of likely voters back the Republican candidate compared with 37% who favor the Democrat. In November 2006, the Democrats held a 51% to 40% advantage among voters in the Midwest. And while the GOP had a six-point edge among likely voters in the South four years ago, Republicans currently lead by 18 points (55% to 37%).
Competitive and Safe Districts
The midterm race in this year’s most competitive districts mirrors the race nationally: In the 77 House districts identified as competitive by a consensus of political analysts, 51% of likely voters favor the Republican candidate and 39% favor the Democratic candidate.
Those districts identified as “safe” Republican districts appear to be a bit safer than the districts seen as favoring Democrats. The GOP holds a 58% to 31% advantage among likely voters in safe Republican districts. In safe Democratic districts, 51% of likely voters favor the Democratic candidate while 41% favor the Republican.
Roughly one-in-four (27%) registered voters say they plan to cast their ballot before Election Day or have already voted. This is up substantially from 18% of registered voters in October 2006. The actual share of votes submitted before Election Day in 2006 was 22.4%.
Early voting was higher in 2008 than in 2006; 30.6% of the votes cast in 2008 were submitted before Nov. 4. In the Pew Research Center’s final pre-election survey that year, 35% of registered voters said they had either already cast their ballot (26%) or still planned to vote early (9%).
Reflecting the variation in voting rules in different states, early voting intentions vary by region. Roughly half (52%) of registered voters living in the West plan to vote early or have already done so. Three-in-ten voters (30%) in the South say they will or have already voted early. Just 15% in the Midwest intend to vote early, as do only 8% in the Northeast.
Older Americans are more likely to vote early: Roughly a third (34%) of voters 65 and older intend to cast their vote before Nov. 2, compared with about a quarter of younger voters. There are no substantial differences by gender or party.
Republicans Outpace Democrats in Campaign Interest
Overall levels of voter interest match or exceed the high levels recorded at a similar point in the 2006 election campaign. Unlike 2006, when interest among Democratic voters was on par with or exceeded Republican interest, Republicans today outpace the Democrats. In fact, Republicans are more interested and attentive to the campaign than at comparable points in the past five midterm election cycles. And when asked to compare their own level of enthusiasm with previous congressional elections, 56% of Republicans say they are more enthused, compared with just 41% of Democrats.
Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Republican registered voters report that they have given a lot of thought to the elections, 36% say they are following news about the campaign very closely, and 74% say they definitely will vote.
Interest in the campaign among Democratic voters is as high as in recent midterms – with the exception of 2006 – but they still lag behind GOP voters. About half of Democrats (49%) say they have given a lot of thought to the election, which is higher than in 1994 or 1998 and about the same as in 2002. It is 10 points lower than at the same time four years ago, when 59% of Democratic voters were giving a lot of thought to the election. As many Democrats say they a
re following campaign news very closely as did so four years ago, and attention is greater now than in 1994 and 2002.
The gap in campaign interest among Republicans and Democrats is mirrored in differences among Republican-leaning and Democratic-leaning independents. Currently, 63% of independents who lean to the GOP have given a lot of thought to the election compared with 46% of Democratic-leaning independents.
The Republican advantage in engagement can be seen in the comparatively lower levels of interest among some key Democratic voter groups. Young voters, who remain the party’s most supportive age group, fall far below older voters in thought given to the election. Currently, 33% of voters younger than 30 say they have given a lot of thought to the campaign. That is no different from four years ago (30%), but half or more in older age groups say they have given a lot of thought to the election.
Fewer than half (45%) of young voters say they definitely will vote, 23 percentage points lower than among any other age group.
Interest in the election is much higher among white evangelical Protestants and white Catholics, both of which favor Republican candidates by a wide margin, than among the unaffiliated, who favor Democratic candidates by 15 points. Interest in the campaign among religious groups – as well as the unaffiliated – is little changed from 2006.
The survey finds that voters in the West are giving significantly more thought to the election this year than in 2006, perhaps driven by the large number of competitive statewide races going on in states like California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Nevada. Nearly two-thirds of Western voters (64%) say they have given a lot of thought to the election, which is at least 9 points higher than in any other region.
Interest in the campaign among Democratic voters has increased this fall, with the percentage saying they have given a lot of thought to the campaign growing from 41% last month to 49% today. The proportion of Democrats who say they are following campaign news very closely has grown substantially since June – from 16% to 27% currently. And in three of four previous congressional elections polled by Pew Research, Democratic interest increased from October to the final weekend before the election. The only exception was 2006, when Democratic interest was already at a relatively high level.
Widespread Anti-Incumbent Sentiment
Only about half of registered voters (47%) say they would like to see their own congressional representative reelected, while 32% do not want their own representative returned to Congress. At the same time, just a third (33%) favor the reelection of most members of Congress; 54% say they would not like to see most members win reelection.
Four years ago, anti-incumbent sentiment also was extensive. But at a comparable point in that campaign, fewer voters (26%) said they would not like to see their own representative reelected and opposed the reelection of most members of Congress (49%).
As in previous surveys during this campaign, anti-incumbent feeling is concentrated among voters who favor the Republican candidate in their district. Republican voters are divided over whether their own representative deserves reelection: 39% would like to see their representative reelected while 42% would not. By nearly four-to-one (73% to 19%), Republican voters say most members of Congress do not deserve reelection. By contrast, 63% of Democratic voters would like to see their own representative reelected and 52% say they would like to see most members of Congress reelected.
Many Prefer “New Faces” over Experience
About half of voters (53%) say it is more important to have experienced people who know how the government works, while 36% say it is more important to have new faces in office this year. The percentage saying it is more important to have new faces in office is higher than in 2006, 1998 and 1994, though somewhat lower than earlier this year (41% in June).
Since June, during primary season, there has been an increase in the proportion of Republican voters who say it is more important to have new faces in office (from 42% to 50%). More Republicans now see having new faces in office as more important than in October 1994 (39%). By contrast, fewer Democrats want new faces in office than did so in June (18% today, 30% in June).
Voters who agree with the Tea Party continue to stand out for their preference for political newcomers – fully 62% say it is more important to have new faces in office, while just 29% say it is more important to have experienced people in government.
At the same time, young voters are less likely than their older counterparts to say they value new faces over experience (24% of voters younger than 30 express this view, the lowest percentage of any age group).
Party Control of Congress a Factor for Voters
Since June, majorities have said that the issue of which party controls Congress will be a factor in their vote; currently 61% express this view. The proportion rating partisan control of Congress as a factor in their vote this year is as high as it was in 2006, and much higher than in 2002 and 1998.
While there has been little change in overall opinions on this issue, an increasing percentage of liberal Democrats say which party controls Congress will matter in their vote. Currently, 78% of liberal Democrats say party control will be a factor, up from 59% in June and 68% in September.
There has been little change among other partisan groups, including conservative Republicans. Consequently, there are no differences in these opinions between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats; in June, conservatives were more likely than liberals to say party control of Congress would factor in their vote.
Similarly, while there has been little change in overall opinions about Barack Obama’s impact on the vote since September, more liberal Democrats see their vote as a vote “for” Obama. Currently, 61% of liberal Democratic voters say they think of their vote as a vote for Obama, while 35% say Obama is not much of a factor in their vote. In September, 51% said they thought of their vote as being for Obama, while nearly as many (44%) said Obama would not be a factor.
Among all voters, 27% say they consider their vote as being for Obama, 30% think of their vote as a vote against Obama, while 39% say Obama is not a factor. These views are largely unchanged from September.
National Issues Trump Local Concerns
The proportion of voters rating national issues as the biggest factor in their vote is about the same as in 2006 – but is higher than in prior midterms dating to 1994. Currently, 35% say national issues will be the biggest factor in their vote; 29% say local and state issues; 23% the candidate’s character and experience; and 5% the candidate’s political party.
Republicans, particularly conservative Republicans, continue to be more likely to say national issues are the biggest factor in their vote. Half of conservative Republicans (50%) say national issues are most important, compared with 25% of moderate and liberal Republicans, 33% of independents and 30% of Democrats.
Most Republicans Expect Better Midterm Result for Party
About three-quarters (76%) of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters expect their party to do better in this year’s Congressional elections than it has in recent elections. Republicans have expressed confidence since June of this year, when 72% expected better results for the Republican Party in the 2010 midterm.
Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters’ expectations are far less unanimous than Republicans. A 39% plurality says they expect the Democratic Party to do about the same as it has in recent elections. Roughly equal percentages of Democrats say their party will perform worse (30%) or better (26%) in this year’s midterms. The percentage expecting the Democratic Party to perform worse than in the past has increased from 18% in June.