Voter engagement in this year’s presidential election is lower than in 2008, but on par with, or higher than, levels at a similar point in the previous four election cycles. Two-thirds (67%) of registered voters say they are giving quite a lot of thought to the election. This is down somewhat from 2008 (72%), but is still higher than in campaigns from 1992 to 2004.
Similarly, interest in election news has slipped modestly since 2008, but is as high or higher than in prior campaigns dating to 1992. About seven-in-ten voters (72%) are following news about candidates for the 2012 presidential election very closely (37%) or fairly closely (35%). In June 2008, 80% were following election news at least fairly closely, including 46% who tracked election news very closely.
There has been a steep decline since 2008 in the percentage of voters saying they are more interested in politics than they were four years ago, from 63% then to 48% today. But the percentage of voters expressing relatively more interest in politics is the same as in 2004 (also 48%) and higher than in 2000 (40%) or 1996 (42%).
Voter engagement levels in June provide a rough gauge of turnout levels on Election Day. In both 1996 and 2000, early June measures showed a distinct lack of public interest and engagement, and they ended up being two of the lowest turnout elections in recent history. By comparison, engagement levels were higher early in the 1992, 2004 and 2008 election cycles, when turnout was relatively high.
At this point, voter engagement falls somewhere between the past two election cycles. Voters are somewhat less engaged than in June 2008, but somewhat more than in 2004. Given that actual turnout was almost identical in these two elections, the engagement measures suggest that actual turnout could be high again.
The trajectory of voter engagement was different in the 2008 campaign than it was in 2004 and most earlier elections. Four years ago, there was a great deal of interest early in the campaign, but it increased only modestly as Election Day neared. In prior elections, by contrast, voter engagement was at a lower level in June surveys, but increased substantially toward the end of the campaign.
Democratic Engagement Down from 2008
Across most measures, Democratic engagement levels are down substantially from four years ago, while Republican rates are steady or up. And Romney voters are more interested than Obama voters in this year’s election.
Nearly three-quarters (73%) of Romney voters are giving quite a lot of thought to the election, compared with 63% of Obama voters. There is a similar gap in the percentages following election news very closely (43% of Romney voters vs. 34% of Obama voters). Four years ago, Obama voters were following campaign news more closely than were McCain voters.
Romney and Obama voters are about equally likely to say they are more interested in politics this year than they were four years ago (51% Romney voters vs. 46% Obama voters). In 2008, 74% of Obama voters expressed heightened interest in politics compared with 53% of McCain voters.
As in 2008, Obama voters are more satisfied with the choice of presidential candidates this year; 64% of Obama voters say they are very or fairly satisfied, compared with 52% of Romney voters. Obama voters were far more likely than McCain voters to be satisfied with the candidates in 2008 (80% vs. 44%). Bush voters were more satisfied than Kerry voters in 2004 (72% vs. 62%).
Romney voters are slightly more likely than Obama voters to say it really matters who wins this year’s election; 69% of Romney voters say this, compared with 63% of Obama voters. In 2008, Obama voters were 11 points more likely than McCain voters to say this.
Younger Voters Less Engaged
Four years ago, younger voters were highly interested in the presidential campaign and the long-standing age gap in engagement narrowed considerably. But younger voters are far less interested in the current campaign. As a result, familiar age differences in engagement have reemerged.
Fewer voters ages 18 to 49 say they are giving quite a lot of thought to the election than did so in 2008. The decline has been particularly steep among those 30 to 49. Six-in-ten voters (60%) in this age group are giving a lot of thought to the election, down from 74% four years ago. By contrast, voters 50 and older are just as likely to be giving a lot of thought to the election as they were in 2008.
The pattern is similar in attentiveness to campaign news. Less than a third of voters under age 50 are following news about the presidential candidates very closely, down from 2008 and far lower than attentiveness among voters 50 and older.
The proportion of younger voters expressing increased interest in politics this year has plummeted since 2008. In June 2008, 69% of voters under 30 and 64% of those 30 to 49 said they were more interested in politics than they were four years earlier. Today, 52% of those younger than 30 and just 39% of those 30 to 49 express greater interest in politics. There also has been a dropoff in relative interest in politics among older age groups, but the change has been far less dramatic.
Blacks are far more likely than whites to say they are more interested in politics than they were four years ago (69% of blacks vs. 45% of non-Hispanic whites). In June 2008, 78% of blacks and 60% of whites said they were more interested in politics than they had been four years earlier.
Interest Gap Not Closing as General Election Begins
Partisan differences in campaign interest this year may reflect the fact, unlike in 2008, only the Republicans have had a highly competitive primary. Even with the primaries concluded, however, there are no signs that the partisan gap in engagement is narrowing.
The Pew Research Center’s weekly News Interest Index survey has tracked public attention weekly over the course of the year, and Republicans have consistently been following campaign news more closely throughout.
In polls conducted during the first half of June, 37% of Republicans and Republican leaners say they tracked campaign news very closely compared with 29% of Democrats and Democratic leaners. The differences in campaign news interest are comparable to earlier this year, during the GOP primaries and caucuses. By contrast, throughout the 2008 election Democrats were tracking campaign news substantially more closely than Republicans.
Compared with 2008, More Republicans Say Outcome Matters
A majority of voters (63%) say when it comes to important issues facing the country, it really matters who wins this year’s election. This is about the same as in 2004 and 2008. In 2000, only 50% of voters said it really mattered who won that year’s election.
This year, younger voters are less likely than older voters to say it really matters who wins. Just 55% of voters younger than 30 say this, compared with 66% of those 65 and older. The pattern was reversed in 2008 with younger voters more likely to say it really matters who wins. In 2004, there was little variance across age categories on this measure.
Three-quarters (75%) of conservative Republicans say it really matters who wins this year’s election, up 12 points from 2008. This year about as many liberal Democrats (73%) as conservative Republicans say it really matters who wins. In 2008, liberal Democrats were far more likely than conservative Republicans to see the election outcome as important (78% vs. 63%).
Fully three-quarters of voters say that Obama and Romney take different positions on the issues, while just 17% say they take similar positions. In 2008, identical percentages said Obama and John McCain took different positions. And in 2004, 68% said George W. Bush and John Kerry took different positions on the issues. But in the 2000 race between Bush and Al Gore, just 51% said the two candidates took different positions on the issues.
Satisfaction with the Candidates
The sharpest increase in satisfaction with the candidates since 2008 is among conservative Republicans. Six-in-ten conservative Republicans (61%) are satisfied with the presidential candidates this year, up from 49% in 2008. Meanwhile, satisfaction is down among independents and liberal Democrats.
Despite these shifts, liberal Democrats remain more satisfied with the candidates than conservative Republicans by a 71% to 61% margin. This is down from an 80%-to-49% margin four years ago. In 2004, when George W. Bush was the incumbent presidential candidate, conservative Republicans expressed more satisfaction with the presidential candidates than did liberal Democrats (83% vs. 63%).
A majority of Americans (57%) agree that there should be a third major political party in addition to the Democrats and Republicans. This is on par with levels of support for a third party in 2008 and 1996, but higher than in 2000 and 2004.
Men are more likely than women to say that there should be a third major political party; 61% of men agree, compared with 52% of women. Just 39% of blacks say that there should be a third party, compared with 60% of whites and 58% of Hispanics.
There also are sizable age differences in support for a third major political party. Just 40% of those 65 and older agree that there should be a third major political party, compared with majorities in all other age groups.
As in the past, independents (68%) are far more likely than Republicans (48%) and Democrats (50%) to agree that there should be a third major political party.