An overwhelming majority of voters (88%) report having seen or heard commercials for candidates running for office so far this year. This is comparable to the 89% of voters who said they had seen or heard campaign commercials at roughly the same point in the 2006 midterm cycle. Today, more than half of voters (56%) report having seen or heard a lot of commercials, 14% some and 18% just a few.
About seven-in-ten (71%) voters have received mail from candidates or political groups this year. A majority (59%) has received a pre-recorded or live phone call, up from 41% who reported that candidates contacted them over the phone in 2006. Far more report receiving pre-recorded calls this year than calls from a person (55% vs. 22%); in 2006, the survey did not distinguish between live and pre-recorded calls.
Email contacts also are more prevalent this year than in 2006; 26% have received an email from candidates or political groups this year, up from 16% in 2006. About one-in-five (18%) voters have been visited at home this year, up slightly from 14% who reported this in 2006. Only 4% of voters have received a text message from candidates or political groups.
More voters report donating money than did so during the last midterm cycle; 14% now say they have contributed money to a candidate or campaign this year, up slightly from 10% in 2006. About one-in-ten voters (11%) have attended a campaign event, similar to the 9% who had in 2006. Only 7% of voters have volunteered their time to help one of the candidates or campaigns. In 2010, 19% of voters say they have visited a candidate’s website or followed a candidate through email, Facebook or Twitter.
Media Blitz in Competitive Districts
While nearly all voters have seen campaign ads this year, the ad barrage has been particularly intense in competitive House districts. Two-thirds (66%) of voters in the 77 most competitive House districts nationwide say they have seen a lot of commercials, compared with 54% of voters living in districts with less competitive races.
Voters living in competitive House districts also are more likely to say they have received mail and pre-recorded calls from candidates and political groups this year. In the most closely contested districts, 78% of voters have received mail this year, compared with 69% in relatively safe House districts. And 65% of voters in the most competitive districts have received one or more pre-recorded phone calls, often referred to as “robocalls,” compared with 53% elsewhere. Voters in competitive districts also are slightly more likely to have received live phone calls (26% vs. 21% elsewhere), but there are no significant differences between competitive and safe districts in email contacts, home visits or text messages.
Most See Candidates Attacking, Not Explaining
By margins of more than two-to-one, voters say both Republican and Democratic candidates are spending more time attacking their opponents than explaining what they would do if elected. About a quarter (26%) say Democratic candidates are spending more time explaining what they would do, while 56% say they are spending more time attacking Republicans. Similarly, 58% say Republican candidates are spending more time attacking Democrats while just 26% say they are explaining their own agenda.
A Bipartisan Ad Blitz
Among the overwhelming majority of voters who report having seen or heard campaign commercials this year, 78% say they have seen about the same number of commercials for Republicans and Democrats. Large majorities across all partisan groups say this.
While most say they have seen about the same number of ads in support of candidates from both parties, 13% say they have mostly seen ads on behalf of Republican candidates, and 6% mostly on behalf of Democratic candidates. Democrats are more likely to say they have seen more Republican than Democratic ads (20% vs. 3%). In particular, liberal Democrats see a disparity: About a third (32%) of liberal Democrats say they have seen more Republican ads than Democratic ads (2%). Republicans are about twice as likely to say they have seen more ads in support of Democrats (11%) than Republicans (6%).
Important to Know Who Pays for Campaign Ads?
Amidst controversy about the transparency of funding for campaign advertising this year, voters are divided over the importance of knowing where ad money comes from. Roughly half (49%) say it is important to them to know who paid for the campaign commercials they see and hear, while the other half (50%) say this doesn’t matter much to them. And most voters (55%) who have seen ads this year say it is generally easy to tell who paid for them, while only 32% say it is generally difficult.
Liberal Democrats differ considerably from voters in most other party and ideological groups on the importance of knowing who is paying for campaign ads. About seven-in-ten liberal Democrats (72%) say it is important to them to know the source of the money; just 39% of conservative and moderate Democrats say the same. Four-in-ten (40%) Republicans say it is important to know who paid for campaign commercials, while 59% say it doesn’t matter to them. Independents are about equally likely to say it is important (53%) as to say it doesn’t matter much (45%).
Partisans also differ somewhat in their impressions of how easy it is to tell who paid for campaign advertising, with 62% of Republicans, 54% of independents and 50% of Democrats who have seen or heard ads saying this is easy to determine. Nearly half (46%) of liberal Democrats say it is difficult to tell who is paying for ads this year, substantially more than conservative and moderate Democrats (31%), independents (36%) or Republicans (23%).
Among the roughly half of voters who say it is important to them to know where ad money is coming from, 51% say it is generally easy to tell, while 44% say it is generally difficult.
Older voters place the most importance on knowing the source of ad money, and also say it is more difficult to determine. A majority of those 65 and older (56%) say it is important to them to know who paid for the ads they see, but just 36% of those who have seen ads this year say it is easy to figure out. By contrast, only 39% of voters under 30 say it is important to them to know who paid for the ads they see, and 70% who have seen ads this year say it is generally easy to tell.
Young voters are far less likely than older voters to have been contacted by candidates and political groups this year. The age differences are particularly large on receiving printed mail and telephone calls (both pre-recorded and personal calls). About four-in-ten (42%) 18 to 29 year old voters have received printed mail, compared with nearly twice as many voters 65 and older (81%).
And while 37% of young voters received a phone call from a candidate or political group, 59% of 30 to 49 year olds, 68% of 50 to 64 year olds and 71% of voters 65 and older have been contacted by phone. This gap is much larger than it was in 2006 when 32% of voters under 30 were contacted by phone, compared with 45% of those 65 and older. Even when it comes to receiving email, fewer young people say they have been contacted by candidates and political groups this year than those 30 and older. In 2006, there were virtually no age differences in email contacts.
Republicans are receiving more pre-recorded and personal telephone calls than are Democrats or independents. About six-in-ten (62%) Republican voters have gotten a robocall from a candidate or political group this year, compared with 50% of Democratic voters and 55% of independent voters. And more Republicans (28%) than Democrats (20%) and independents (20%) have received a personal phone call. There are virtually no partisan differences in contacts by mail, email, text messages or home visits.
More than twice as many voters have received robocalls this year than phone calls from a live person (55% pre-recorded vs. 22% live). But roughly two-thirds (64%) of those who have gotten automated phone calls say they usually hang up; 31% say they usually listen to the automated calls. By contrast, among the smaller number that has received calls from a live person, 73% say they usually listen, while just 23% usually hang up.
While most hang up on robocalls, there is little evidence that these recorded messages are a major irritant. Most of those who hang up say the calls are simply a minor annoyance, while only a few say the automated calls make them angry.
While the high hang-up rate suggests that automated phone calls are less effective, the payoff to campaigns is in the broader reach of these inexpensive calls. The current figures suggest that about as many voters have listened to robocalls this year as have listened to live calls. Overall, 17% of voters have received one or more robocalls this year and say they usually listen. This is almost identical to the 16% who have received a live call this year and say they usually listen.
Voter Involvement in Campaigns
As in all elections, voluntary campaign activity is far less widespread than campaign outreach. While roughly eight-in-ten voters have seen one or more campaign ads, seven-in-ten have gotten campaign mail, and six-in-ten have been called on the phone, just 14% say they have donated money to a campaign, 11% have attended a campaign event, and 7% have volunteered their time to a candidate or campaign.
These figures are comparable to 2006, when 10% had given money, 9% had attended an event, and 5% had volunteered.
And while it does not necessarily imply a commitment of time or money, the internet also provides an easy way for some voters to learn more about candidates and campaigns. Roughly two-in-ten voters (19%) have visited a candidate’s website or followed a candidate through email, Facebook or Twitter.
Two of these behaviors – making campaign contributions and following candidates online, differ widely by age. While a quarter (25%) of voters 65 and over have made a campaign donation this year, just 4% of voters under 30 have done the same. By contrast, those under 30 are twice as likely as those 65 and older to have visited a campaign website or followed a candidate online (23% vs. 12%). There are no significant differences among age groups when it comes to attending events or volunteering time.
Voters who have attended college are more likely than those who have not to have visited a candidate’s websites, donated money, attended campaign events and volunteered their time to help one of the candidates or campaigns.
Overall, there are no significant partisan differences in campaign involvement. But as in past campaigns, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats tend to be substantially more engaged than their more moderate counterparts. For example, about one-in five conservative Republicans (21%) and liberal Democrats (20%) have contributed money to a candidate or campaign this year, compared with 12% of moderate and liberal Republicans and 12% of conservative and moderate Democrats. While this suggests parity in contribution rates, it is worth noting that roughly 20% of registered voters describe themselves as conservative Republicans, while only 12% are liberal Democrats. The current figures also stand in stark contrast to two years ago, when fully 34% of liberal Democrats had contributed to the presidential campaign compared with only 13% of conservative Republicans.
About two-thirds (66%) of voters are getting most of their news about the election campaigns in their state and district from television. Far fewer are getting most of their news from newspapers (31%), the internet (20%) and radio (17%).
Television is the dominant news source for Republican, Democratic and independent voters. But where voters go for TV news varies substantially by party. Republicans and those who agree with the Tea Party are far more likely to turn to Fox News Channel while Democrats are more likely to turn to CNN and network news. (For more on party, ideology and news consumption see “Americans Spending More Time Following the News,” Sept. 12, 2010).
Politics in the Pulpit
Among voters who attend religious services at least once or twice a month, 15% say information on the political parties or candidates has been made available at their place of worship. This is similar to the number of voters who, following the 2008 campaign, said that political information had been provided at their place of worship (15%), but lower than the percentage who said this after the 2004 election (27%). Among religious groups, encountering political information at church is most common among black Protestants (36%).
Few regular attenders (5%) say that their clergy or other religious groups have urged them to vote in a particular way, and this does not vary significantly across religious groups.