July 1, 2010

Voting Intentions Even, Turnout Indicators Favor GOP

Section 1: The 2010 Midterm

Voters continue to be divided in their preferences for this November’s Congressional elections – 45% support the Republican candidate in their district while 45% favor the Democratic candidate. These numbers are nearly identical to those in March and have been relatively stable over the course of this election cycle.

At this point in 2006, Democrats held a substantial 12-point advantage (51% to 39%) among registered voters. Voter preferences were evenly divided in June of the three previous election cycles.

GOP Engagement

Across all measures of interest, enthusiasm and voting intentions, the disparity between Republican and Democratic voters this cycle is wide. A 55% majority of registered voters who support the Republican candidate in their district say they are more enthusiastic than usual about voting this year, and 77% say they are absolutely certain that they will cast a ballot. By comparison, 42% of voters who support the Democratic candidate in their district say they are more enthusiastic about voting than usual, and 65% are absolutely certain they will vote.

The enthusiasm gap is driven in large part by high engagement among Republicans rather than disengagement among Democrats. At 42%, the share of Democratic voters who say they are more enthusiastic than usual is comparable to the 1998 and 2002 elections, and only slightly lower than the 47% who said this four years ago. By contrast, the 55% of Republican voters who say they are more enthusiastic than usual this year is far higher than any previous election cycle, particularly 2006 when only 30% expressed greater enthusiasm.

High enthusiasm this year spans the GOP’s voting base. Not only are conservative Republicans more enthusiastic than usual, but moderate and liberal Republicans – and even independents who lean Republican – see this as an especially engaging election. The gap between the enthusiasm of Republican-leaning independents and Democratic-leaning independents is particularly noteworthy. Both groups back their party’s candidates by overwhelming margins, but 54% of Republican-leaning independents are more enthusiastic than usual and 76% are absolutely certain they will vote. Among Democratic-leaning independents, just 39% say they are more enthusiastic than usual, and 58% are certain they will vote.

While the overall share of Democrats who say they are more enthusiastic than usual this year is down only slightly from 2006, liberal Democrats have a notably different mood this year. In the current survey, 37% say they are more enthusiastic about voting today, down from 53% in 2006.

Enthusiastic Tea Partiers

The focus on this year’s midterm elections is particularly intense among the 28% of registered voters who say they agree with the Tea Party movement – 85% of these voters say they are absolutely certain to vote, 77% are following campaign news closely, and 62% say they are more enthusiastic about voting this year than usual.

Within the Republican base, the difference in engagement between those who agree with the Tea Party and those who offer no opinion about the movement is particularly noteworthy. Roughly half (51%) of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters say they agree with the Tea Party movement, while three-in-ten (30%) say they have heard of the Tea Party but neither agree nor disagree with what it stands for. (Much smaller minorities either disagree with (5%) or have never heard of (14%) the Tea Party.) In general, Republican voters with no opinion about the Tea Party are no more enthusiastic or engaged in this year’s midterm election than are Democratic voters. It is only the Tea Party Republicans who are fired up.

Eight-in-ten Tea Party Republicans are closely following news about local candidates and campaigns, just half of Republicans who have no opinion about the Tea Party say the same. Nearly nine-in-ten (88%) Tea Party Republicans are absolutely certain they will vote, compared with 68% of Republicans with no opinion about the Tea Party. Roughly two-thirds (65%) of Tea Party Republicans say they a
re more enthusiastic about voting this year than usual; about half (49%) of Republicans with no opinion of the Tea Party say the same. On all three measures, Republicans with no opinion of the Tea Party movement share more in common with Democratic voters than with Tea Party Republican voters.

The Democratic Turnout Dilemma

Age is one of the strongest factors associated with turnout in midterm elections, and 2010 looks to be no different in this regard. Only 60% of registered voters under age 50 say they are absolutely certain they will vote this fall, compared with 79% of voters age 50 and older. This is likely bad news for the Democrats in that voters over 50 favor Republican candidates by a 52% to 41% margin this year, while Democrats hold the edge among voters under age 50 (48% vs. 40%).

Not only are younger voters less inclined to turn out in general, but younger Democrats are particularly unenthusiastic. Just 53% of voters under age 50 who support the Democratic candidate in their district say they are absolutely certain to vote this fall. This compares with 72% absolutely certain to vote among Republican voters under 50. There is virtually no partisan gap in expected turnout among voters over age 50, with roughly eight-in-ten saying they are certain to vote on both sides.

Commitment to voting is also low among working class Democrats. Lower income and lower education voters who back Democratic candidates are substantially less likely to say they will definitely vote this fall. About six-in-ten Democrats without college degrees (59%) say they are absolutely certain to vote in November, compared with 75% of Republican voters without a college degree. Similarly, 57% of Democratic supporters with family incomes of less than $50,000 a year definitely plan to turn out while 72% of lower income Republicans say they are certain to vote.

And consistent with their lack of enthusiasm about this year’s midterm, liberal Democratic voters are no more likely to say they will absolutely cast a ballot this year (62%) than are conservative and moderate Democratic voters (67%).

These partisan differences in certainty about voting were not as apparent in the later part of the 2006 midterm election cycle. In October of that year, 78% of voters who supported Republican candidates and 77% of voters who supported Democratic candidates said they were absolutely certain they would cast their ballot. Moreover, there were no differences between the share of Democratic and Republican voters who intended to vote in most subgroups. In particular, young Democratic voters were just as likely to be certain to vote as young Republican voters (76% and 74%, respectively.)

Anti-Incumbent Sentiment

The electorate today is in a decidedly anti-incumbent mood. About a third of voters (34%) say they would not like to see their member of Congress reelected this November; 49% say they do want to see their representative reelected. This level of support for Congressional incumbents is at a historical low point, in keeping with voter opinion over the last several months and on par with opinion in June of 2006 (when 32% of voters said they did not want their representative reelected). By comparison, voters were considerably more content with their Congressional representation in the 2002 and 1998 midterm cycles. The current anti-incumbent sentiment is also somewhat higher than it was in October 1994 – weeks before the extensive GOP victories that lead to the party gaining control of Congress (30% of voters did not want their representative reelected then, compared with 34% today).

Similarly, a majority of voters (56%) now say they would not like to see most members of Congress reelected. This general rejection of Congressional incumbents is comparable to other recent historical highs in June 2006 (when 57% of voters said most members should not be reelected) and in October 1994 (when 56% said this). In other recent midterms, anti-incumbent sentiment was significantly less pronounced.

Party and Incumbency

About four-in-ten Republican (41%) and independent (42%) voters now say they do not want to see their representative reelected, while just 20% of Democratic voters share this view. Republican opinion toward incumbents today is slightly more negative than GOP views in October 1994 – the last midterm election in which they were the party out of power – when 34% did not want their member reelected. In June of 2006 it was the Democrats who were in an anti-incumbent mood, with 36% saying they did not want their congressperson reelected.

With 42% saying they don’t want their member reelected, anti-incumbent sentiment among independents is not much higher than four years ago, when 38% said the same. However, independent frustration is substantially more widespread than in 1994, when just 29% said they did not want to see their Congressperson reelected.

For the most part, this frustration is focused among a subset of independent voters who do not identify with either party, but say that they currently lean toward the Republican Party. Fully 57% of Republican-leaning independents say they do not want to see their incumbent returned to office. This is 30-points higher than among Democratic-leaning independents (27%), 28-points higher than the share of Republican-leaners who were of this opinion four years ago (29%), and even 16-points higher than among Republicans overall or conservative Republicans in particular (41% each).

Voters who support the Tea Party (many of whom identify as Republicans or Republican-leaning independents) are also more likely than others to say they want their representative to lose in November. Nearly half (49%) say this, compared with 25% among those who disagree with the Tea Party and 30% of those who do not give an opinion of the Tea Party.

Similar differences are evident on the question of whether most members of Congress should be reelected. Nearly seven-in-ten Republicans (69%) say they should not, as do 65% of independents; just 37% of Democrats say this. Historically, independent opinions on this question have tracked with the party not currently in control of Congress. Eight-in-ten voters who support the Tea Party (80%) say most members should not be reelected; fewer than half of other voters (47%) share this opinion.

Desire for New Faces in Office

Consistent with widespread voter dissatisfaction with incumbents, voters are now more inclined than they have been in the past to say that “having new faces in office” is more important to them this year than “having experienced people who know how the government works.” While the balance of opinion continues to favor experience (50%), substantially more voters today say that having new faces in office (41%) is their priority than in 2006 (30%), 1998 (22%) or 1994 (31%).

Not surprisingly, the appetite for new faces in office is often higher for members of the party not currently in control of Congress. Today, 42% of Republican voters say they value new faces more than experience, about the same proportion that said this in 1994 (39%). In contrast, when the GOP controlled Congress in 1998 and 2006, only about half as many Republican voters said they prioritized having new faces in office (19% in 1998, 21% in 2006). However, while Democratic voters are currently less likely than Republicans to say new faces are more important (30% vs. 42%), they are about as likely to say this as they were in 2006 (34%).

Having new faces
in office is more important than having people with experience in government for the majority of independent voters (54%). Far fewer independent voters said this in 2006 (38%) or in 1994 (35%). Consistent with their anti-incumbent views, Republican-leaning independent voters are the strongest advocates for seeing fresh faces in office – more than six-in-ten (63%) say they value new faces over experience. In 1994, 44% of Republican leaning-independent voters said this. A majority of Tea Party supporters (58%) – many of whom are Republicans or Republican-leaners – also prize new faces over experience.

Voters younger than 30 are less likely than their older counterparts to say they value new faces over experience (33% of 18-29 year olds say this, compared to 43% of those age 30 and older). Similar age gaps were evident in previous election cycles.

A Nationalized Election

Voters point to national issues – over a range of other factors – as the biggest influence on their vote for Congress this year. A 38% plurality names national issues as the factor that will make the biggest difference in their vote for Congress; 28% name local or state issues, 21% cite the candidate’s character and experience, and just 5% say the candidate’s political party will make the biggest difference in their vote.

The percentage citing national issues is up seven points from February and equals the highest level in any midterm election since Pew Research began asking the question in 1994. By contrast, the percentage citing a candidate’s character and experience is down compared with other recent midterm election cycles. Roughly equal shares of Republicans (40%) Democrats (34%) and independents (40%) say national issues make the biggest different in how they vote this year.

A separate question that asks respondents to choose only between national issues and local issues reinforces that the 2010 midterm has a national focus. A 56%-majority says, that in thinking about their vote for congress this fall, national issues matter more to them than local issues. About one-in-five (21%) say local issues matter more than national; and 23% volunteer that both national and local issues matter equally to their vote.

Control of Congress a Factor in Vote

Almost six-in-ten voters (58%) say the issue of which party controls Congress – Republicans or Democrats – will be a factor in their vote for Congress this year; 39% say it will not be. At 58%, the percentage weighing party control of congress in their vote choice is up 10 points since February and matches the percentage citing party control in June 2006 – the midterm cycle that registered the highest importance for party control of Congress since Pew Research began asking the question in 1998. The current figure is significantly higher than the percentages citing party control of Congress as a factor in their vote in June of 1998 and 2002.

Republicans are much more likely than Democrats and independents to say the issue of which party controls congress will be a factor in their vote. Fully 73% of Republicans say this compared with 60% of Democrats and 42% of independents. In June of 2006 – when Republicans held majorities in the house and senate – the picture was reversed: at that time Democrats (72%) were more likely than Republicans (54%) and independents (48%) to say party control of congress was a factor.

In the current survey, fewer than half (42%) of independent voters say which party controls congress will matter to their vote. However, a majority (55%) of independents who lean to the Republican Party say party control will be a factor in their vote, this compares to 44% of Democratic-leaning independents. A similar pattern among independent voters was evident in June of 2006, with those leaning toward the party out of power being more likely to say party control was a factor in their vote choice.

Most Say Obama Plays Role in Vote

About half of voters (51%) say that Barack Obama will factor into their vote for congress this year: 28% describe their vote as a vote against Obama while 23% say it is a vote for Obama; 47% say that Barack Obama isn’t much of a factor in their vote. Since February, voters have become eight points more likely to describe their vote as a vote against Obama.

While up since February, the percentage considering their vote as a vote against Obama is still lower than the 38% who said in June 2006 that their midterm vote was a vote against George W. Bush. Nonetheless, the percentage saying they are voting against the president is higher than at comparable points in other recent midterm election cycles. In fact, the current survey marks only the third midterm cycle since 1982 (along with 1994 and 2006) in which significantly more voters have described their vote as a vote against, not for, a sitting president.

Not surprisingly, most Republicans (54%) describe their vote as a vote against Obama, while 47% of Democrats describe their vote as for Obama; most independents (54%) say Obama is not much of a factor in their vote. The 54% of Republicans who describe their vote as a vote against Obama is a relatively high measure of out-party midterm discontent with a sitting president; but it falls short of the 65% of Democrats who, in June of 2006, described their vote as a vote against George W. Bush.

Tea Party Voters and the Midterm Vote

Voters who agree with the Tea Party movement are more likely than those who do not agree or haven’t heard of the movement to say national issues will make the biggest difference in their vote, that party control of congress will matter in their vote, and that their vote this fall is a vote against the president.

About half (51%) of voters who agree with the Tea Party movement say national issues will make the biggest difference in their vote for Congress. By comparison, a third (33%) of those who disagree with or haven’t heard of the Tea Party movement say the same.

And while 51% of those who disagree with or haven’t heard of the Tea Party movement say the issue of which party controls Congress will be a factor in their midterm vote, an even greater percentage of Tea Party voters (74%) say party control will matter in their vote.

The largest divide between those who agree with the Tea Party movement and those who don’t comes on the question of whether voters describe their vote as for or against Obama; fully 54% of Tea Party sympathizers describe their vote as against Obama compared with just 18% of those who disagree with or haven’t heard of the Tea Party movement– a 36-point gap in opinion.

Cite this publication: “Voting Intentions Even, Turnout Indicators Favor GOP.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (July 1, 2010) http://www.people-press.org/2010/07/01/voting-intentions-even-turnout-indicators-favor-gop/, accessed on July 22, 2014.