As candidates in both parties prepare for the next round of presidential debates, a new national survey finds that the public is highly engaged by the 2016 campaign. Fully 74% of Americans say they have given a lot or some thought to the candidates, higher than the shares saying this at comparable points in the past two presidential campaigns.
The presidential debates clearly have been a hit with the public. Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say they have watched at least some of the televised debates between the candidates. In December 2007 – the most recent election in which there were contested nominations in both parties – just 43% reported watching any of the debates.
The latest national survey by Pew Research Center, conducted Dec. 8-13 among 1,500 adults, finds that nearly two-thirds (65%) of those who watched the debates say they have been helpful in learning about the candidates. And about half of debate watchers (51%) say they have found the debates “fun to watch.”
Yet the public has mixed impressions of the campaign so far. Two-thirds (67%) describe the presidential campaign as interesting – far more than did so before the first primary contests in the 2012 and 2008 campaigns (36% and 37%, respectively). About half (48%) say the campaign is informative, which is identical to the share that described the campaign as informative in January 2012.
Moreover, only about a third (34%) say the campaign has “focused on important policy debates,” while 58% say it has not. Democrats and independents are more likely than Republicans to say the campaign has not focused on key policy debates. By roughly two-to-one, Democrats (63% to 29%) and independents (62% to 32%) say the campaign has not focused on important policy debates. Republicans are divided – 46% say the campaign has concentrated on important policy debates while 44% say it has not.
With the election still close to a year away, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they have given at least some thought to the candidates. Currently, 86% of Republicans say they have given a lot or some thought to the presidential candidates, compared with 75% of Democrats and 72% of independents.
And Republicans are substantially more engaged in the current campaign than they were at this point in the 2008 campaign; in December 2007, 74% of Republicans had given a lot or some thought to the candidates running for president.
While large majorities in both parties – and across nearly all demographic categories – say they have watched the debates, 77% of Republicans report watching at least some of the debates, compared with 69% of Democrats and 67% of independents.
Impressions of the presidential campaign
Across a range of measures, Republicans generally have more positive impressions of the campaign so far than do Democrats or independents.
Republicans are 14 percentage points more likely than Democrats and independents to describe the campaign as interesting (79% of Republicans vs. 65% of Democrats and independents). And while a majority of Republicans (63%) view the campaign as informative, fewer than half of Democrats (46%) and independents (42%) say the same.
Overall, 54% describe the presidential contest as too negative, which is similar to views of the last presidential campaign in January 2012 (50%). In February 2008, at a much later stage in that campaign – more than half the country had held primaries or caucuses – just 28% described the presidential campaign as too negative.
Today, 65% of Democrats and 54% of independents say the presidential campaign is too negative, compared with 41% of Republicans. In January 2012, there were only modest partisan differences in views of that campaign, when about half of Democrats (53%), Republicans (48%) and independents (48%) said it was too negative.
And in February 2008, just 18% of Democrats, and about a third of Republicans (34%) and independents (33%) viewed the campaign as too negative.
In addition, higher percentages of Democrats (55%) and independents (53%) than Republicans (42%) view the campaign as too long. That was also the case in 2012, when just the GOP had a contested nomination. But in February 2008, Democrats (49%) were less likely than either Republicans (63%) or independents (60%) to say the campaign was too long.
Views of the debates
About two-thirds of debate watchers (65%) say the televised debates have been helpful in learning about the candidates, while far fewer (34%) say they have not been helpful. Majorities across partisan and ideological groups say the debates have been helpful in learning about the candidates.
About half (51%) say the debates have been fun to watch, while nearly as many (46%) say they have not been fun to watch. Republicans (56%-39%) are slightly more likely to view the debates as fun to watch than Democrats (50%-48%) and independents (48%-49%). However, about as many liberal Democrats (57%) as conservative Republicans (59%) say the debates have been fun to watch.
Overall, 58% of those under 30 say they have watched a presidential debate, compared with 72% of those ages 30 and older. All age groups are more likely to say they have watched a debate so far this cycle than in December 2007 – the last cycle with contested nominations in both parties.
But while a smaller share of those under 30 have tuned into a debate, those who have watched are more likely than older adults to say they have found the debates fun to watch. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) of debate watchers under 30 say they have found them fun to watch, compared to about half of debate watchers 30 and older.
When it comes to whether the debates have helped watchers learn about the candidates, there are virtually no differences by age. For example, 70% of those under the age of 30 and 68% of those 65 and older say the debates have been helpful.