2016 Campaign: Strong Interest, Widespread Dissatisfaction
1. Campaign engagement and interest
The 2016 campaign has attracted a high level of interest from voters. Several key measures of voter attention and engagement are currently as high – or higher – than at any point over the last two decades.
Today, roughly three-in-four registered voters (74%) say that it “really matters who wins” the presidential election, substantially higher than the share who said this at similar points in any of the prior four presidential contests: In 2008 and 2012, smaller majorities (63% each) said that the outcome really mattered, while 67% did so in 2004.
And eight-in-ten voters (80%) say they have thought “quite a lot” about the election. The percentage thinking a lot about the election is the highest in the past quarter-century (the previous high was 72% in 2008). Four years ago, 67% said they had thought quite a lot about the election.
The proportion who are paying attention to news about the presidential candidates very or fairly closely is also higher than in recent elections: 85% of voters say they are following election news very or fairly closely, up from 72% in 2012 and above the previous high of 81% in 2008.
And six-in-ten (60%) now report that they are more interested in politics than they were four years ago. This is on par with the share who said this in 2008, and higher than in any other election in the last few decades.
On all four measures, both Republican and Democratic voters are more invested in this year’s election than they were in 2012.
About three-quarters of Republicans and Republican leaning voters (77%) and roughly as many Democrats and Democratic leaning voters (76%) say it really matters who wins the election, up from 69% of Republicans and leaners and 62% of Democrats and leaners in 2012.
Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, 78% say they have thought quite a lot about the election, up from 64% in June of the 2012 campaign, and on par with previous high in 2008 (75%). Today, 85% of GOP voters have thought a lot about the election, up 13 percentage points since 2012, and higher than in other recent elections. The seven point partisan gap on this question is similar to 2012, though in 2008, Democrats were as likely as Republicans to have thought a lot about the election.
Republicans are also more likely than Democrats to say they are closely following news about the presidential candidates (57% vs. 47%), though those in both parties are paying greater attention to the campaign than in 2012 or in most recent elections (in 2008, 51% of Democrats followed the campaign very closely, roughly the same level as today).
Across all age groups, voters are more focused on the presidential election this year than in 2012. Today, about three-quarters of 18-29 year-olds (74%) have given quite a lot of thought to the election, up 15 percentage points from June 2012. And 81% of voters 65 and older have thought quite a lot about the election, up 11-percentage points since 2012.
As in most recent elections – with the exception of 2008 – older voters are currently more attentive to the election than younger voters. Among those under 50, 76% are giving the campaign quite a lot of thought, while 84% of those 50 and older say so.
Similarly, though voters of all ages are more likely to say the outcome of the 2016 election really matters to the country than said this four years ago, older voters remain more likely than younger voters to do so. Seven-in-ten (70%) voters under 30 think it really matters who wins the presidential election, an increase from 55% in 2012. About eight-in-ten (79%) of those 65 and older say it makes a difference who wins the election, up from 66% four years ago.
White voters are more likely than black voters to say they have given a lot of thought to this year’s election, a change from the past three presidential election cycles when there were no significant differences between blacks and whites on this measure. This year, 84% of white voters report giving quite a lot of thought to the election. About seven-in-ten black (69%) and Hispanic (68%) voters, say the same.
Black voters are about as likely to give a lot of thought to the election this year as in 2012, when 71% did. But the 84% of whites who have given this year’s election a lot of thought represents a significant increase from 68% four years ago.
White voters of both parties are thinking more about this the election than they were in 2012. This year, 87% of white Republican and Republican-leaning voters have given the election quite a lot of thought, up from 71% at the same point in the 2012 campaign. On the Democratic side, 84% of white partisans and leaners this year have given quite a lot of thought to the election, compared to 66% in 2012.
However, there is no difference between white (75%) and black (74%) voters in the share who say that it really matters who wins the election; 67% of Hispanic voters say the outcome of the election really matters.
Campaign seen as interesting, not substantive
The current campaign is perceived by many to be interesting rather than dull (77% vs. 17%), but also too negative (68% vs. 28% not too negative), and not focused on important policy debates (65% vs. 28% focused on important policy debates).
About three quarters of voters (77%) call the 2016 race “interesting,” a higher proportion than any election in the past two decades. Only 17% consider this year’s campaign “dull.”
But despite this interest, many voters also consider this year’s race “too negative.” About two-thirds (68%) say the tone of the campaign is too negative, while just 27% think it is not too negative.
In 2012, about half of voters (53%) said the campaign was too negative. And in 2004, voters were split (47% called that year’s campaign too negative, while 46% said it was not too negative).
About two-thirds of voters (65%) say that this year’s presidential campaign is not focused on important policy debates; just 27% think the campaign is focused on important debates.
Last December a slightly smaller majority (57%) said the campaign was not substantively focused, while about a third (35%) said it was.
Republicans and Republican leaners are somewhat more likely than their Democratic counterparts to think the campaign has been focused on important issues. A third of GOP voters (33%) say the campaign has been focused on important policy issues; only about a quarter (24%) of Democrats and Democratic leaners say the same.
Republican voters who supported Donald Trump in the GOP primary are far more likely than those who supported other GOP candidates – or Democratic primary supporters of either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders – to say the campaign so far has been focused on important policy debates. Roughly half of Trump’s primary backers (48%) say it has been a substantive campaign, compared with just 22% of those who supported other Republicans for the nomination.
Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, just 21% of voters who supported Bernie Sanders in the primary and 27% of those who backed Clinton say the campaign is focused on important policy debates.
Roughly three-quarters of Democratic voters (73%) say the campaign has been too negative in tone; a smaller majority of Republican voters (61%) say the same.
Those in both parties are in agreement that the campaign has been engaging: 81% of Republicans and 77% of Democrats say the campaign has been interesting to date.
Other demographic differences on these measures are relatively modest; however, women (75%) are more likely than men (61%) to say the campaign has been too negative.