November 13, 2008

High Marks for the Campaign, a High Bar for Obama

Section 1: Report Card on the Campaign

Voters award very high marks to Barack Obama’s campaign and th
e Democratic Party this year – the highest for a candidate and party since the Center first asked voters to grade the candidates, parties and other campaign actors in 1988. Roughly three-quarters (76%) of voters who gave a grade to Barack Obama said he earned an A or B for the way he conducted himself in the campaign. Prior to now, the highest marks received by a candidate and party were in 1992 when 66% gave Clinton an A or B. George W. Bush earned an A or B from 56% of voters four years ago.

As is generally the case for the unsuccessful candidate, John McCain receives substantially poorer marks; only 40% of voters gave McCain an A or B for his campaign. This is lower than the 47% for Kerry in 2004 and 54% for Gore in 2000 (though the 2000 race was not yet decided at the time of the survey). But McCain’s grades are substantially higher than either Bob Dole’s in 1996 (34%) or George H.W. Bush’s in 1992 (31%) and on par with the grades given to Michael Dukakis (39%) in 1988.

The Democratic Party’s grades are also at a 20-year high. Fully 70% of voters give positive scores to the winning party, surpassing the previous highs of 60% for the Democrats in 1992 and 51% for the Republicans in 2004. While this reflects the overwhelmingly positive marks from Democratic voters themselves, the grades conferred by independents – and even Republicans – are notably high. Nearly seven-in-ten independents (68%) and fully half of Republicans give favorable grades to the Democratic Party.

In contrast, grades for the GOP are at their lowest level in over a decade – only 28% of voters now give the Republican Party a grade of A or B for the campaign, and a third give the party a D or F. And the criticism of the GOP is not all from outside the party. For the first time, more Republicans give the Democratic Party a grade of A or B (50%) than their own party (44%). The gap in ratings among independents is stark – just 22% give the GOP good grades compared with 68% for the Democratic Party. This is the lowest grade for the Republican Party among independents since 1996 (20% A or B).

Of the other players in the campaign, voters and pollsters, in particular, earned high grades. Two-thirds of voters say the electorate deserves an A or B for how it conducted itself this year, the highest grades given since 1992. Fully 58% of voters also give pollsters good scores, their highest marks since the question was first asked in 1988. Compared with 2004, Democrats and independents give pollsters higher grades, while Republican grades for pollsters are largely unchanged.

Ratings of the press overall are similar to those seen in 2004, though these have become increasingly partisan. Today, fully 62% of Democratic voters give the press positive grades, up from 46% in 2004. By contrast, just 13% of Republicans now give the press an A or B, and more than four-in-ten Republicans (44%) give the press an F grade (up from 28% in 2004). Independents also give the press lower grades than in 2004.

Satisfaction with the Candidates

Overall, two-thirds of voters say they were very or fairly satisfied with the choice of candidates this year. Nearly all Obama voters (95%) say they were satisfied with the choices, and 69% report being very satisfied. Just 37% of McCain voters say they were satisfied with the choice of candidates, with only 9% very satisfied.

Voters who supported the winning candidate are typically happier with the quality of the candidates in Pew’s post election surveys, but the level of satisfaction among Obama voters this year is remarkably high. Four years ago a record number of Bush voters (58%) said they were very satisfied with the choice of candidates; but that record was easily broken this year with 69% of Obama voters expressing strong satisfaction.

While McCain’s supporters were less satisfied, no records were broken. In 1996, only 31% of Bob Dole’s supporters said they were satisfied with the choice of candidates, compared with 37% of McCain voters today. Satisfaction on the losing side today is comparable to what George H.W. Bush voters in 1992 and Michael Dukakis voters in 1988 expressed. Notably, McCain voters were considerably less satisfied with their choices than supporters of John Kerry in 2004.

Debates and Commercials

Two-thirds of voters said the debates were very or somewhat helpful in deciding which candidate to vote for, the highest number since the 1992 debates between Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ross Perot. At the same time, despite the unprecedented spending on campaign commercials in this race, voters were only slightly more likely than in 2004 to say that campaign commercials were helpful in making their decision, and less likely than voters in 1992 to say this.

Most Issue-Focused Campaign since 1992

Increased public satisfaction with Campaign 2008 reflects the fact that most voters (57%) say that there was more discussion of issues in this campaign compared with previous elections. Four years ago, fewer than half (47%) described the campaign this way, as did 46% in 2000 and just 25% in 1996.
The last time voters saw the campaign as particularly focused on the issues was in 1992; following that campaign, 59% said that issues were discussed more than usual.

Independents, who historically have tended to be critical of the lack of issue discussion of campaigns, largely share the view that the 2008 campaign was different. A 52% majority today say issues were discussed more than usual this year, the first time a majority has said this since 1992.

However, this view is not held across the board. Almost three-quarters (76%) of Democrats say the election was more focused on issues than in the past, up from just 45% in 2004 and the greatest percentage of Democrats saying this in 16 years. This view is even more widely shared by liberal Democrats, 81% of whom say the campaign discussion was more issue-driven this year than it has been in the past. But Republicans are much less likely than they were in 2000 or 2004 to say this year’s campaign was issue-oriented. Only four-in-ten Republicans, down from 56% in 2004, say issues were discussed more than usual.

More Mudslinging, But Not as Bad as 2004

While a majority of voters (54%) say that the 2008 campaign had more negative campaigning, or mudslinging, than they had seen in the past, this represents a substantial decline from 2004 when more than seven-in-ten (72%) voters said the tenor of the Bush-Kerry contest was particularly negative. There are no significant partisan differences in views about the tenor of the campaign, and the shift from 2004 is seen across the political spectrum.

However, while the election overall is not viewed as particularly negative, voters split in their evaluations of the two campaigns. As had been the case with registered voters in early October, almost half of voters (49%) now say John McCain was too personally critical of Barack Obama in this campaign. About one-in-five voters (21%), on the other hand, say the same about Barack Obama’s treatment of John McCain.

Opinion among independent voters mirrors that of voters as a whole – they are more than twice as li
kely to say McCain was too critical of Obama as to say the reverse. While both Democratic and Republican voters are considerably more likely to view the opposing party’s candidate as too critical (and less likely to view their own candidate as too critical), about a third of Republicans (34%) say Obama was too critical of McCain (compared with 74% of Democrats who say McCain was too critical of Obama).