July 8, 2004

Voters More Engaged, But Campaign Gets Lukewarm Ratings

Choice of President Matters More in 2004

Summary of Findings

The presidential election is capturing the public’s attention much more now than it did at this point four and eight years ago. Nearly half of Americans (47%) say they are more interested in politics than they were four years ago, up from 38% who expressed that view in June 2000. Public attention to election news is greater now than at a comparable point in the last three campaigns. And this is translating into a more focused electorate ­ nearly six-in-ten voters (58%) say they are giving “quite a lot” of thought to the election, compared with 46% who said that four years ago at this time.

The rise in campaign interest is directly related to a growing sense of the election’s importance. The contrast with the last campaign is striking ­ four years ago fewer than half of Americans (45%) said it “really matters” who wins the election; today, 63% say the election result really matters. The shift in opinion has been especially notable among Democrats and independents. Fully two-thirds of Democrats and 56% of independents now say they election really matters; fewer than half in both groups expressed that view in June 2000 (46%, 39%).

These measures bode well for a possible increase in voter turnout from the 51% of Americans age 18 and older who cast ballots in 2000. But other indicators show that the public, despite viewing the presidential contest as more important, has a typically skeptical view of the campaign and the way it is being conducted. As in 1996 and 2000, most Americans (57%) say they find the campaign “dull,” and the Bush and Kerry campaigns, on average, only receive a grade of C from the potential electorate.

In a similar vein, while most (79%) say the 2004 election is important, roughly half of Americans are already voicing unhappiness with the campaign, saying it is too long (52%), uninformative (48%) and too negative (45%). And swing voters ­ those who are undecided or still may change their mind ­ do not view this election as particularly consequential. Only about four-in-ten swing voters (39%) think it really matters who wins in the fall, barely half the number of committed Bush voters (75%) and Kerry voters (74%) who say the election outcome really matters.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted June 3-13 among 1,806 Americans (1,426 registered voters), shows that large majorities in both parties, as well as 63% of independents, perceive clear differences between the candidates, which is a marked departure from 2000. Overall, 68% of voters believe President Bush and Sen. John Kerry take different positions on issues, while 21% view their issue positions as similar. That is greater than the percentage of voters who saw significant differences between Bush and Al Gore at the end of the 2000 campaign (60%). At this stage four years ago, just 51% believed there were obvious differences in Bush and Gore’s positions.

The survey finds that voters continue to say that Kerry has been more critical of Bush, rather than vice versa. More than four-in-ten voters (44%) think that Kerry has been too personally critical of Bush, while 33% say Bush has been too personally critical of Kerry. Interestingly, there are no differences in these opinions in the battleground states, where both campaigns have been bombarding the airwaves with political ads. In general, people in the battleground states express fairly similar views of the campaign as those living elsewhere.

Overall, Republican voters are about as satisfied with the presidential candidates as they were four years ago, but there is a schism within the ranks of the GOP this year. Conservatives express more satisfaction with the candidates than they did in 2000. However, moderate and liberal Republicans are significantly less positive, and along with independents, are among the least satisfied with their options this year.

Democratic voters also express about the same level of satisfaction with the choice of candidates as in 2000 (64% satisfied now, 67% in June 2000). If anything, liberal Democrats are a bit less satisfied with the choice of candidates than four years ago (70% in 2000, 63% now).

Democrats also give the Kerry campaign fairly anemic grades. Just 54% of Democratic voters say the Kerry campaign merits a letter grade of A or B in convincing them to vote for him; that is about the same evaluation Al Gore received from Democrats in June 2000 (57% A or B). By contrast, Republicans are more positive about Bush’s campaign than they were in 2000. More than seven-in-ten (73%) give his campaign a grade of A or B, compared with 64% four years ago.

Moreover, more than four-in-ten Democratic voters (42%) give Kerry a grade of C or below for convincing them to vote for him. Only about a quarter of Republican voters (26%) grade Bush at C or worse for his efforts at convincing them to vote for him.

Campaign Seen as ‘Dull’

By a wide margin (57%-33%), Americans describe the presidential election campaign as “dull” rather than “interesting.” Still, somewhat more people say they find the campaign interesting than at this stage in 2000 (28%).

While more Republicans describe the campaign as interesting than did so four years ago (42% vs. 32%), there has been less change among Democrats and independents. Independents stand out for their generally negative opinions of the campaign. Fully six-in-ten independents (61%) describe the campaign as “too long,” compared with only about half of Republicans and Democrats (48%, 47% respectively). Similarly, far more independents than Republicans or Democrats believe the campaign has been “not informative.”

Young People More Interested

Overall, 58% of voters say they have given quite a lot of thought to the election. As in previous elections, older people and the best educated are more engaged in the election than the young and those with less education.

Nonetheless, young voters today are significantly more likely to be giving the election a lot of thought than they were four years ago, with 53% of registered voters age 18-29 saying they have thought a lot about the election (up 18 percentage points).

In addition, 58% of young people say they are more interested in politics this year than they were in 2000. Four years ago, a smaller number of those age 18-29 (45%) said they were more interested in politics compared with the previous (1996) campaign.

However, only about one-in-five (21%) of those under age 30 say they are following news about the campaign very closely. That is up modestly from 2000 (16%), but the gap in campaign news interest between young Americans and older people is as large as it was four years ago, and larger than at this stage of the 1996 campaign.

Independents, Liberals Tuned In

Much of the increased attention to the election is coming among independents and Democrats, especially liberals, who are significantly more engaged than they were at this time four years ago. By contrast, Republicans show a more modest increase in interest, with nearly all of the growth occurring among conservatives within the party.

Nearly two-thirds of liberal Democrats (65%) say they have given a lot of thought to the election. This matches the level of attention among conservative Republicans (67%), and is fully 16 percentage points higher than in June 2000. Conservative and moderate Democrats are also more interested (57% say they have thought a lot about the election), but the change from four years ago is slightly more modest (up 11%). Moderate and liberal Republicans are no more engag
ed today than they were four years ago.

Although much commentary on the election has focused on the strong opposition of liberals to President Bush, and the comparable intensity of support for him by conservatives, independents are much more engaged in the election than they were four years ago.

The percentage of independents who have given a lot of thought to the election (56%) is now nearly comparable to that of Democrats (59%) and Republicans (61%). Four years ago, independents fell far below partisans on this indicator (37% for independents, compared with 45% for Democrats and 56% for Republicans).

Beyond the presidential election, the poll finds 44% of Americans saying that they follow developments in government and public affairs most of the time, a figure that is somewhat higher than at a comparable point in the 2000 election cycle (38%). Independents, in particular, say they are following more often than in 2000: 44% say they are following government and public affairs most of the time, up from 33% at this stage four years ago.

Higher Stakes in 2004

Interest in the election is higher today than four years ago because far more people believe that the election really matters. More than six-in-ten Americans (63%) now say that, on the important issues facing the country, it “really matters who wins” the presidential election. This is almost 20 percentage points higher than in June 2000, when less than half of the public (45%) expressed that view. Similarly, more than three-quarters of the public (78%) say it does make a difference who is elected, up nine points from 2000 and comparable to the 1992 level.

Feelings about the importance of the election have grown among nearly all groups in the population since 2000, but especially among Democrats (up 21 points, from 46% to 67%). Voters who say they are certain to vote for John Kerry are 21 percentage points more likely than Gore voters in 2000 to say it really matters who wins. Bush voters today are 15 points more likely than Bush voters four years ago to say the election matters (75% now, 60% in 2000).

Swing voters are far less likely to think the election matters, and only among this voter group do we see little change in the sense of importance of the election (39% now, 36% in 2000). It is important to note, however, the size of the swing vote has declined markedly since June 2000 (from 32% to 21%).

An important reason why the public believes the election matters is that far more voters see a clear choice between the candidates. About two-thirds of registered voters (68%) say that George W. Bush and John Kerry take different positions on the issues; just 21% say they are fairly similar in their positions. In June 2000, just 51% saw differences between Bush and Al Gore. Perceptions of differences between Bush and Gore grew during the 2000 campaign, but never exceeded 61% that year.

Judging the Field

In general, most voters (65%) say they are at least moderately satisfied with the choice of presidential candidates: 17% are very satisfied and 48% are fairly satisfied. This is comparable to the 62% satisfied with the choice between Bush and Gore at the same point in the 2000 campaign, and considerably higher than the level of satisfaction with the choice between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in June 1996 (46%) or between George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton in 1992 (37%).

Greater satisfaction with the choice of candidates is also reflected in the dwindling number of voters who say that neither Bush nor Kerry would make a good president. This year, only 29% agree with this negative sentiment, compared with 37% four years ago. This change reflects declines among both Republicans (from 23% in 2000 to 13% today) and independents (49%, down to 40%). But as in 2000, a sizable minority of Democrats think neither candidate would do a good job.

And in another sign that voters see clear differences between the candidates, just 22% say it is difficult to choose between Bush and Kerry because either one would make a good president. In 2000, more voters (32%) said that either Bush or Gore would make a good president.

Democrats More Focused on Congress

Voters currently favor Democratic over Republican candidates for Congress (48% Democratic, 41% Republican), with partisans saying almost unanimously that they will vote for a candidate of their own party and independents tilting Democratic (43% to 36%).

But the question of which party controls Congress appears to matter more to Democrats than Republicans. Currently, 53% of Democrats compared with 45% of Republicans say party control of Congress will be a factor in their vote this fall. Just 32% of independents say that party will matter to them.

Campaign Views Similar in Battleground

The presidential campaigns have been focusing heavy attention on the battleground states, and this is reflected in the relatively high percentage of voters in these states who have seen campaign ads. Roughly a third of registered voters in battleground states (34%) say they have seen a lot of Kerry’s ads, compared with just 12% in other states. There is a similar disparity regarding exposure to Bush’s campaign ads ­ 33% of voters in battleground states report seeing an ad for the president, compared with 13% of those elsewhere.

Kerry is seen as the more negative campaigner in both battleground and non-battleground states. In both regions, 44% say Kerry has been too personally critical in his discussion of the president, while 33% say Bush has been too critical of Kerry. This is comparable to polling conducted in mid-March, when 47% said Kerry was being too critical, and 33% said this applied to Bush.

Otherwise, voters in the battleground states have similar opinions of the candidates and the campaign as do those living in other states. Satisfaction with the candidates and perceptions of their differences are similar in the battleground and non-battleground states. But in the battleground states, in particular, more voters give good grades to the Bush campaign than to the Kerry campaign.

For the most part, the ads are reaching more people who have already made up their minds about the campaign than the all-important swing voters. In the battleground states, fully eight-in-ten Kerry supporters who say there is no chance they will change their minds have seen at least some campaign ads, and 77% of committed Bush supporters also report seeing at least some ads. This compares with just 66% of swing voters.

Kerry, Bush Equally Negative to Frequent Ad Viewers

Voters who report seeing a lot of campaign ads, regardless of the state in which they live, are significantly more likely to see the Bush campaign as overly negative than do less frequent viewers of ads. While more voters overall say the tone of Kerry’s campaign has been overly harsh (44% say Kerry has been too critical of Bush, 33% say the same of Bush) ­ voters who have seen a lot of ads are equally likely to criticize both Kerry (44%) and Bush (42%) for being too personally negative. By comparison, only about three-in-ten voters who have seen fewer ads believe the president has been overly critical of his opponent, and just 26% of those who have seen no ads take this view of Bush’s campaign.

Unlike views of the Bush campaign, the belief that Kerry has been too personally critical is unrelated to how many ads voters have seen. Voters who have seen few or no ads are about as likely to see Kerry’s campaign as overly negative as those who have seen a lot of Kerry ads.

Aside from evaluations of each campaign individually, voters who have watched a lot of campaign ads view the entire campaign as having an excessively negative tone. A 56% majority of frequent campaign ad viewers describe the campaign as “too negative,” compared with fewer than half of those who have seen fewer or none of the campaign ads.

Voter Registration Indicators Stable

Despite the higher level of interest in the 2004 presidential campaign, measures of registration and voting intentions remain stable. Roughly three-quarters (76%) of Americans say they are certain they are registered to vote, which is comparable to previous elections. Among those who say they are registered, 85% say they are “absolutely certain” to vote in November, virtually the same number that said this in June of 2000 (84%) and 1992 (88%).

Age, as well as education, income, and party identification, are among the most important factors in registration and voting intentions. Since 1992, modest majorities of those age 18-29 report being registered to vote, compared to over eight-in-ten people aged 50 and over. Currently, 56% of those under age 30 say they are registered, compared with 85% of those age 50 and older.

But there has been an increase in the number of young people who say they are certain to vote in the November election. Currently, 64% of those age 18-29 are certain to vote in November, up 11% from June 2000 and 1996 (54% each year). While these numbers are rising for younger Americans, a significant gap remains between younger and older people’s voting intentions. Nearly eight-in-ten (79%) people over 50 say they are certain to vote.

Nontraditional Voting

The increased prevalence of voting by mail and absentee ballot has not replaced the traditional civic activity of voting at a local polling place for most Americans. More than three-quarters (77%) of registered voters say they intend to vote at their polling place on Election Day, compared with19% who plan to vote early, through the mail or with an absentee ballot.

Voters living in the West are far more likely than those in other regions to say they will be voting in a nontraditional fashion. Fully 41% of those in the West plan to vote before Election Day by mail or absentee ballot, compared with 13% in the rest of the country. Voters in battleground states (20%) and more secure Democratic states (21%) also are more likely to vote before Election Day than those in solidly Republican states (14%).

Voting Preferences ­ More Like the Booth

Given the choice, a majority of Americans (52%) continue to choose voting in a booth, rather than over the Internet (28%) or by mail (17%). This is largely unchanged since 1996 when 54% chose voting in a booth over voting by mail. Young people are the most interested in voting over the Internet, but interest is slipping in this age cohort. In June 2000, 43% of young people preferred the idea of Internet voting and only 32% chose the polling booth. Today those numbers have switched, with a plurality (42%) of those under 30 opting for the polling booth over Internet voting (38%).

By comparison, there has been modest growth in interest in Internet voting among older age groups. In the 30-49 age group, interest in Internet voting increased by 7% (from 29% to 36%) since 2000; interest among those 50 and older doubled, from 7% in 2000 to 14% today.

Cite this publication: “Voters More Engaged, But Campaign Gets Lukewarm Ratings.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (July 8, 2004) http://www.people-press.org/2004/07/08/voters-more-engaged-but-campaign-gets-lukewarm-ratings/, accessed on July 23, 2014.