July 10, 2008

Likely Rise in Voter Turnout Bodes Well for Democrats

Section 2: Evaluating the Candidates and Campaigns

Despite their high levels of interest and engagement, the proportion of voters who express satisfaction with the choice of presidential candidates this year is no greater than it has been in the past two elections. Overall, six-in-ten voters say they are either very satisfied (19%) or fairly satisfied (41%) with the field of likely presidential candidates this year. This is down slightly from 2004 when 65% were very or fairly satisfied with the choices.

This decline is mostly driven by Republican discontent with the candidates. Democratic satisfaction is the highest it has been over the past five election cycles: fully 74% of Democratic voters say they are very or fairly satisfied with the candidates, up 10 points from 2004. The share of Republicans who are satisfied stands at 49% – down 26 points from 75% in 2004 – while half say they are not too or not at all satisfied. As with many measures of interest and engagement, the gap between Republican and Democratic satisfaction with the field is larger than it has ever been in June election polling.

African American voters stand out as being especially enthusiastic with this year’s field: fully 86% of African-Americans are satisfied with the candidates, including a 53% majority who say they are “very satisfied.” Just 56% of all white voters are satisfied with the presidential field, though white Democrats are much more likely than white Republicans to say they are happy with the choices for president (70% vs. 48%).

Satisfaction with the candidates among white evangelical Protestant voters is down 28 points, from 72% in 2004. Currently, 44% of white evangelical Protestants say they are satisfied with the choices, while a solid majority (55%) says they are not satisfied.
Young Americans are about as satisfied with the candidates this election cycle as they were in 2004; voters ages 50 and older are far less satisfied. Again, partisanship is a factor as 65% of Democrats ages 50 and older are happy with their choices (up from 58% in 2004) compared with 45% of Republicans in this age group.

Obama Getting Better Grades

Voters give much higher marks to Obama’s presidential election campaign than they do to McCain’s. A solid majority (56%) give the Obama campaign letter grades of A or B for the job he is doing to convince the American public to vote for him, while only 32% say the same of the McCain campaign. More than a third (35%) offer a grade of C to McCain’s campaign so far, and nearly as many (30%) say the campaign has earned a D or F.

The grades voters give to the Obama campaign for the job it is doing convincing them to vote for him are the highest measured for any candidate over the past four election cycles. In June 2004, for example, just 39% gave Bush’s efforts an A or B; even fewer gave high grades to Kerry’s campaign (31%).

In contrast, McCain’s middling grades are slightly lower than those awarded to Bush in both 2000 and 2004. McCain’s campaign does garner higher grades than the 1996 Dole campaign, which only 22% graded highly.

In this regard, the 2008 campaign has the largest disparity in high grades for the Democratic and Republican candidates over the past four election cycles (24 points). The gap between the grades for Obama and McCain is even larger than for Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in July 1996; at that time, 37% gave Clinton an A or B, while just 22% gave top grades to Dole.

The differences in the ratings of the two presidential campaigns are reflected in the opinions of their partisans. Nearly eight-in-ten Democratic voters (79%) give the Obama campaign letter grades of A or B for the job he is doing to convince the American public to vote for him, and a smaller majority of Republican voters (54%) give high marks to the McCain campaign. More independents give A or B grades to the Obama campaign than to the McCain campaign (49% v. 31%). In addition, while more than a third of Republicans (35%) give high grades to Obama, just 16% of Democrats give high grades to McCain.

Few Say Candidates Are Too Negative

Relatively few voters think either Barack Obama or John McCain has been too critical of his presidential rival so far in the campaign. Roughly one-in-five voters (19%) say Obama has been too personally critical of McCain, while 73% say he has not. Slightly more (26%) say McCain has been too personally critical of Obama, while 65% say he has not. At this stage in the campaign four years ago, far more voters believed both candidates were too negative: 44% said Kerry was too personally critical of Bush, while 33% said Bush was too critical of his rival.

Currently, more Democrats than Republicans say their party’s candidate has been treated too critically. Nearly four-in-ten Democrats (38%) say McCain has been too personally critical of Obama, compared with 25% of Republicans who say that Obama has been too critical of McCain. In June 2004, by contrast, 64% of Republicans said that Kerry was too critical of Bush, while 47% of Democrats said Bush was too critical of Kerry. Fewer than one-in-four independent voters accuse Obama (22%) or McCain (24%) of going too far in personal attacks.

While solid majorities of white voters think neither McCain nor Obama has been too personally critical of the other, nearly half of black voters (47%) say that McCain has gone too far in this respect. By comparison, just 14% of blacks say Obama has been too critical of McCain.

Candidate Visibility and Press Coverage

Even as the 2008 election season has shifted gears to the general election matchup, Barack Obama continues to dominate both media coverage and public attention. According to the latest weekly content analysis of major media coverage by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Obama has been featured in 60% or more of news stories about the campaign in most weeks since February, while in most weeks fewer than half of campaign stories covered McCain.

This gap has narrowed since Obama clinched the Democratic nomination, but even over the past month Obama has continued to receive more press coverage than McCain. In the latest week of content analysis (June 30-July 6), 62% of campaign news stories included substantial coverage of McCain. This is the highest proportion for McCain for the entire year, and still lags the share of stories covering Obama by 11 points.

Despite rising media coverage of McCain since the end of the Democratic primaries, he remains far less visible to the public than does Obama. When voters are asked which candidate they have “heard the most about in the news in the last week or so,” Obama remains far and away the more visible candidate. In the latest Pew Research Center weekly News Interest Index survey conducted July 3-7, fully 71% volunteered Obama as the candidate they have been hearing the most about. Just 11% named McCain.

If anything, the gap between Obama and McCain’s overall visibility has widened since the end of the Democratic primaries. As Hillary Clinton has faded from the scene, Obama stands out even more as the most prominent figure in the 2008 election.

Stark Contrast Between Obama and McCain

Considerably more voters now say the presidential candidates take different positions on the issues than was the case in recent elections. Fully three-quarters think McCain and Obama generally take different stances; 68% of voters saw differences between Bush and Kerry in June 2004, while only about half (51%) saw differences between Bush and Gore in June 2000. Supporters of Obama and McCain agree that the candidates take different positions (76% of Obama supporters, 79% of McCain supporters).

But Obama supporters are more likely than McCain supporters to say that the election this fall really matters. Seven-in-ten Obama supporters say it really matters who wins the 2008 presidential election, compared with 59% of McCain supporters. In June 2004, Bush and Kerry supporters were about as likely to say it really mattered who won the election (70% of Bush and 68% of Kerry supporters), as were Bush and Gore supporters in 2000 (54% of Bush and 51% of Gore supporters).

Overall, voters are somewhat less likely to think the election matters than they were four years ago (63% today vs. 67% in June 2004). This drop is driven by conservative Republicans and, to a lesser extent, independents. About six-in-ten conservative Republican voters (63%) now say it really matters who wins the election in the fall; four years ago, nearly eight-in-ten (79%) said it really mattered.

Views on a Third Party

A majority of voters (56%) say the country should have a third major political party in addition to the Democrats and Republicans, while 39% it should not. Voters were more divided four years ago; in June 2004, 49% agreed that the country should have a third major party and 45% disagreed.

Not surprisingly, independents stand out in their desire for a major third political party. More than seven-in-ten independents (72%) say the country should have a third political party, far greater than the percentage of Republicans (53%) and Democrats (47%) who say the same.

Young voters ages 18-29 also express strong support for a third major political party (65%), while older Americans over the age of 65 are among the least likely to agree that there should be another major party (37%). Black and white voters also express different opinions about the prospect for a third major political party. Nearly six-in-ten whites (58%) agree that the country should have another major party, while considerably fewer African Americans share this view (36%).

Few Would Cast Vote of No Confidence

There has been no increase in the proportion of voters who say they would refuse to vote for any of the candidates running for office – a vote of no confidence – if that option was available on their ballot. When asked whether they would cast a vote “no confidence” in the candidates, about a third of voters (34%) said it is either very likely (14%) or possibly likely (20%) that they would vote this way. A majority of voters (64%) continue to say it is not at all likely that they would vote “no confidence,” little changed from four years ago and up nine points from 2000.

Independent voters are more likely than other groups to say they might cast a vote of no confidence. Nearly half of political independents (49%) say it is either very (20%) or possibly (29%) likely that they would vote no confidence in all of the candidates running for office; only about a quarter of Republicans (25%) and Democrats (28%) say they would consider doing so.

A greater proportion of young voters also raise the possibility of voting no confidence on their ballot: 40% of 18-29-year-olds say this compared with 32% of those ages 30 and older.

Income and educational levels also affect attitudes toward a vote of no confidence in all of the candidates running for office: 42% of those with a high school degree or less would consider voting no confidence compared with under a quarter (24%) of college graduates. By a similar margin, those earning less than $30,000 a year are more likely than those making over $100,000 a year to say they would be at least possibly likely to vote no confidence (41% and 23%, respectively).

Knowledge of the Candidates’ Position on Key Issues

The survey probed knowledge on two topics that have been central to the candidates’ messages: whether or not there should be a timetable for when U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq, and whether access to abortion should be restricted in most cases or remain available to women in most instances.

Slightly more than half of voters (52%) say that Obama is pro-choice, while one-in-ten erroneously say he is pro-life. Slightly fewer voters – 45% – correctly describe McCain as pro-life, while 17% incorrectly characterize his position as pro-choice. Sizable minorities say they do not know where Obama or McCain stands on the issue (38% each).

More voters are aware of the candidates’ positions on the subject of a timetable for troop withdrawals from Iraq: 76% correctly say that Obama supports a timetable, and 62% correctly say that McCain opposes a timetable.

As is typical in tests of political knowledge, college graduates are more knowledgeable than other groups of voters. Men are more knowledgeable than women about the candidates’ positions on a timetable for Iraq troop withdrawals, but not on the candidates’ positions on abortion. Blacks are less knowledgeable than whites about where McCain stands on abortion, but are about as knowledgeable as whites on Obama’s position on this issue and on both candidates’ positions on a timetable for troop withdrawals.

One pattern that differs from previous surveys of political knowledge is that younger voters are significantly more knowledgeable about the candidates’ positions than are older voters. For example, 60% of voters 18-29 correctly say that Obama is pro-choice, compared with just 51% of those ages 50-64 and just 41% of those ages 65 and older.