PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans are unusually focused on this year's election, more so than for any recent election at this time in the election-year cycle. Democrats and Republicans appear equally interested in the election, although Democrats are more enthusiastic about their particular set of candidates running this year. The overall high level of voter engagement in the election most probably reflects several factors, including the early start of the primaries and caucuses, but interest at this point is higher than interest at any point throughout the winter and spring of the 2000 and 2004 elections. Other factors that may be producing high interest in the election include the fact that this is a truly open election with no incumbent president or vice president running, and perhaps the presence of a unique set of candidates who have captured the imagination of the American public.
Gallup monitors interest in presidential elections by asking: "How much thought have you given to the upcoming election for president -- quite a lot, or only a little?"
The early start of campaigning for Election 2008 is reflected in the fact that Gallup began asking this "thought" question last March, a year and a half before the election. Even at that point, almost half of Americans said they were giving the election quite a lot of thought. That percentage has risen steadily in the three times Gallup has asked this question since then. In the latest USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted Jan. 30-Feb. 2, 71% of Americans say they are giving the upcoming election for president quite a lot of thought.
The 71% "quite a lot of thought" figure is extraordinarily high for this time in the election cycle. In a late January/early February 2004 poll -- conducted immediately after the New Hampshire primary and 10 days after the Iowa caucuses -- only 58% of Americans were giving the election quite a lot of thought. And over a month later, in polling conducted after the March 2, 2004, Super Tuesday primaries, still only 62% of Americans had given quite a lot of thought to the election. In fact, in 2004, not until late July and early August did Gallup measure 70% or more of Americans giving quite a lot of thought to the election.
In mid-January 2000 -- a week before the Iowa caucuses and two weeks before the New Hampshire primary -- only 33% of Americans were giving quite a lot of thought to the election. However, this increased to only 39% in polling after the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary, and to 50% in mid-March, after Super Tuesday. In 2000, among registered voters (a group that would be expected to pay more attention than all adults), the 70% level wasn't reached until mid-October.
The early attention Americans are giving to this election probably has as its cause several unique factors that have come together this year. First, no incumbents are running for re-election -- the nominations are up for grabs within both parties, which in turn generates interest in the election across the political spectrum. Second, this year's "cast of characters" has unique characteristics and appeal. This election marks the first time in U.S. history that major-party front-runners this deep into the process have included a woman, a black, a Mormon, and a Baptist minister. Third, the primary and caucus season occur much earlier; Iowa's caucuses kicked off actual voting just three days after the beginning of the new year. Fourth, the races themselves got underway much earlier than usual, with full-scale announcements and campaigns initiated a year ago or more.
Gallup research has shown that Democrats are in general more enthusiastic about their candidates this year than are Republicans. But there is little difference in the thought given to the election between those who identify with each of the two major parties. Seventy-six percent of Republicans and 78% of Democrats are giving the election quite a lot of thought (predictably, only 61% of independents, who are usually less engaged in the political process, are giving it quite a lot of thought).
- There has been persistent talk about young people being engaged in this election (in part because of Barack Obama's appeal to young people). The results of this latest poll show that 60% of those aged 18 to 29 are giving the election quite a lot of thought, which is high on an absolute basis, but still significantly lower than the thought given by those who are 30 and older.
- Interest in the election is positively correlated with both education and income. For example, 83% of Americans with postgraduate degrees are giving the election a lot of thought, compared to 60% of those with high school education or less.
- Unmarried men are paying less attention to the election than are married men, and either unmarried or married women.
These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 2,020 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 30-Feb. 2, 2008. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±2 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.