If current levels of voter engagement and interest in the 2008 campaign are any measure, the 2008 election could have historically high levels of voter turnout. Fully 72% of registered voters say they have given “quite a lot of thought” to the coming presidential election. In June 2004, 58% expressed a comparable level of engagement, which at the time represented the highest June engagement since the previous peak of 63% in 1992.

Similarly, 63% of voters
say they are “more interested in politics this year” than they were in 2004. In June of 2004 just 48% expressed this view, and only 40% said the same in June 2000. Interest in campaign news also is at a record high – eight-in-ten are following news about the campaign either very closely (46%) or fairly closely (34%). Four years ago, just 32% were following very closely, and in 2000 the comparable figure was 27%.

By nearly every measure, the 2000 election represented a low in voter engagement. In June of that year, just 46% said they had given quite a lot of thought to the coming election, while nearly as many (43%) said they had given “only a little thought” to the choice ahead of them. Similarly, the share of voters who were giving little or no attention to campaign news was double what it is today (38% in June 2000 vs. 19% today).

While the election is still four months away, these indicators of voter engagement taken in June of each election year provide a useful, though imperfect, preview of overall turnout levels on Election Day. A simple average of these three measures taken in June of each election year tracks fairly closely with actual turnout levels as a percent of the eligible voting population. If this correlation were to continue, overall turnout could be substantially higher in 2008 than the already high levels of 2004.

Voter engagement typically increases substantially between June and Election Day as the campaign gains increased media and public attention. For example, in June 2004, 58% of voters said they had given quite a lot of thought to the election, but by the weekend before Election Day this figure rose to 82%.

With 72% of voters already giving a lot of thought to the election this year, voter engagement is on a record pace. In fact, the current level of engagement is already as high as it was on the eve of Election Day in 2000 and 1988, and is five points higher than in the election weekend survey of 1996. In other words, by this and other measures voter engagement is already as high as it was at the end of three of the last five election cycles, and if history is any guide, is likely to only get stronger between now and November.

Democratic Engagement Increases

Engagement is up across the board this election cycle, but the increase is far greater among Democrats than among Republicans. For the first time since Pew began tracking these election measures in 1992, Democratic engagement in the 2008 election cycle is higher than Republican engagement across all three key measures. Slightly more Democrats than Republicans have given quite a lot of thought to the election (77% vs. 72%); Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say their interest in politics is greater than four years ago (71% vs. 51%); and Democrats are following campaign news more closely than are Republicans (55% vs. 44% “very closely”). In June 2004, there was no more than a three-point difference between Democrats and Republicans on any of these measures.

While the partisan differences this year may reflect the particular nature of the primary season – with a highly competitive and historic Democratic primary contest garnering the bulk of media and public attention – there are no signs that the partisan gap in engagement is waning with the primaries over and attention turning to the general election.

Since the first stages of the primary campaigns in early 2007, Democrats have consistently followed campaign news more closely than have Republicans, and if anything the gap is widening as the focus turns to the general election season. The weekly News Interest Index survey has tracked public attention in 72 weeks of the campaign, and when the data is compiled into monthly averages, the consistent gap in interest across partisan lines is apparent. From February through December of 2007, Democrats were, on average, seven-points more likely than Republicans to be following campaign news very closely.

Interest in campaign news spiked in the early part of 2008, peaking in February around Super Tuesday. Since McCain sewed up the GOP nomination, Republican interest in campaign news dropped off substantially, while Democratic interest has remained notably high. And even after Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination on June 3 and Hillary Clinton conceded on June 7, Democratic interest has remained far higher than Republican interest. In the last three weeks of June, the share of Democrats following campaign news very closely has exceeded the share of Republicans by 16 points. In fact, Republican interest is no higher than interest among political independents, who typically pay the least attention to week-to-week political news.

Youth Engagement Rises Most

Attentiveness to the 2008 campaign is registering at record highs across all age groups, but the rise is more substantial among younger voters. The gap between the number of younger and older voters who have given “quite a lot of thought” to the election is smaller than it has ever been in the June election year surveys, and the share of 18-29 year olds who are following campaign news “very closely” is double what it was in June of 2000.

But it is not only the very youngest voters who are tuning in at remarkably high rates this year. The gains in attentiveness are greater among voters younger than 50. In June 2000, 39% of voters younger than 50 had given a lot of thought to the campaign, compared with 54% of those 50 and older – a 15-point gap. Today, the gap is just 3 points, as 71% of those younger than 50 and 74% of those 50 and older have given a lot of thought to the campaign. Similarly, as the percentage following campaign news very closely has virtually doubled among those younger than 50 (from 22% in 2000 to 43% today) it has gone up by 17 points (from 33% to 50%) among those 50 and older.

Younger voters have always been more likely to say they are more interested in politics today than they were four years ago – reflecting the fact that for most this is only the first or second presidential election in which they have participated. By contrast, in every election from 1992 to 2004 most voters age 50 and over said they were no more interested in politics than they had been during the previous election. Once again, 2008 stands out in contrast, with a clear majority of voters of all ages saying they are more interested in politics this year.

Religion, Race and Turnout

One factor in the 2000 and 2004 elections that benefited George W. Bush was a notably high level of engagement among white evangelical Protestants in both years, who favored Bush by overwhelming margins. But the differential in engagement across religious groups is far less noticeable in 2008 compared with the past two cycles.

In 2000 and 2004, white evangelicals were giving substantially more thought to the election than other voters, and while they, like voters overall, are even more engaged in the 2008 election, the gains have been smaller and the gap between evangelicals and others is no longer substantial. Currently 74% of white evangelical Protestants have given a lot of thought to the election, up nine points from June of 2004. But among white mainline Protestants the gain is 17 points (from 54% to 71%) and among white Catholics it is 19 points (61% to 80%).

There is also no gap between the level of engagement of blacks and whites in this election cycle. Fully 75% of African American voters say they have given a lot of thought to this election, as have 73% of whites. There also
was no difference in this measure of engagement in June 2004 (58% of blacks and 60% of whites), but in previous election cycles black voters expressed less interest in the elections than did white voters.

2008 Campaign Viewed as More Interesting

When asked if the presidential election campaign overall is “interesting” or “dull” the majority of Americans in each of the three election cycles prior to this year said the latter. But the 2008 election stands apart in this regard, with 59% of Americans currently describing the campaign as interesting, and just 35% as dull.

The 2008 campaign was not always so interesting to people: Throughout 2007, most described the presidential campaign as dull rather than interesting. But in February of this year, fully 70% said the 2008 election was interesting rather than dull. Currently, 59% describe the election as interesting.

While majorities of both Democratic and Republican voters rate the 2008 campaign as interesting (and majorities of both groups in 2000 and 2004 said it was “dull”) the gap in Republican and Democratic perceptions has never been this large, with fully 74% of Democratic voters describing the campaign as interesting compared with 56% of Republican voters. Moreover, even 53% of independent voters think the campaign is interesting, about double the proportion saying this in 2000 and 2004.

Younger voters are substantially more likely than older voters to describe the campaign as interesting. Two-thirds of voters younger than 50 (66%) say the campaign is interesting, compared with 56% of those 50 and older. In each of the three preceding election cycles there was no difference in evaluations by age.

Opinions on Civic Engagement Unchanged

While levels of campaign interest and enthusiasm are far higher than in recent elections, voters’ attitudes about voting and the relevance of national politics are far more stable. In fact, four long-standing measures of civic engagement and participation are virtually identical to the comparable point in 2000.

More than nine-in-ten voters (95%) agree that it is their duty as a citizen to always vote, unchanged from 2000, and the percent who completely agree with this statement is virtually unchanged. Voters also are just as likely as in 2000 to report feeling guilty about not voting. Seven-in-ten voters (69%) say they feel guilty when they don’t get a chance to vote, about the same percentage as eight years ago (67%).

Nearly half (46%) of voters say they are generally bored by what goes on in Washington, little changed from 2000 (49%). Similarly, there has been no change in the number of voters who say that most issues discussed in Washington don’t affect them personally: 28% feel this way now, compared with 29% in 2000.

Voter Registration Rates

Roughly three-quarters of survey respondents say they are “absolutely certain” they are registered to vote in their precinct or election district. The share of Americans saying they are registered has risen slightly over the past 12 years, from 73% in 1996 and 2000 to 76% today, based on compiled data from all People-Press surveys conducted in the first half of each election year. The gains in registration are most notable among younger Americans – a five-point increase from 52% to 57% among those ages 18-29, and a four-point increase from 73% to 77% among those ages 30-49. There has been no shift in the already high registration rates of Americans age 50 and older.

Campaign Contributions

Nearly one-in-eight voters (13%) say they have contributed money to a presidential candidate over the past year. Democrats – particularly liberal Democrats – are the most likely to say they have made a contribution during this election cycle.

Nearly one-in-five Democrats (18%) have given money, compared with 12% of Republicans and 10% of independents. Fully one-quarter of liberal Democrats have contributed to a campaign in the past 12 months.

Nearly half of voters who have contributed to a presidential candidate since the beginning of the primaries, or 6% of all voters, say they are first-time donors. Young voters are especially likely to have given money for the first time. One-in-ten voters younger than 30 made a contribution for the first time this election cycle; just 3% say they have donated money to campaigns in previous cycles as well as in the past 12 months. By contrast, 14% of voters 65 and older have given money in the past, in addition to donating to candidates in 2008 election, and 3% are first-time donors.

Young voters also are considerably more likely than older voters to have contributed money online. More than one-in-ten voters younger than 30 (11%) used the internet to make donations to presidential candidates in the past year, while 6% of voters ages 30-49 and even fewer voters 50 or older (4%) contributed online.

Obama’s Donor Advantage

Obama supporters are three times as likely as McCain supporters to say they have given money to their candidate of choice (12% vs. 4%), and this advantage is evident across all income categories. About one-in-six Obama supporters with family incomes of $75,000 or more have made a contribution to the Obama campaign (16%), but just 6% of McCain supporters with comparable incomes have donated to the Republican candidate. And while 8% of Obama supporters with incomes of less than $30,000 have given money to the Illinois senator (8%), just 1% of McCain supporters in the same income bracket have made a contribution to their candidate.

About one-in-eight Democratic voters (13%) who say they are voting for Obama in the fall have given money to their party’s presumptive nominee; 7% of Republicans who support McCain have given money to his campaign.

Among Republicans and independents who say they will vote for Obama in November, 8% have contributed to his campaign while 5% have contributed to a different candidate. On the other hand, Democrats and independents who support McCain are much more likely to have contributed to somebody other than the Arizona senator. Just 1% made contributions to the McCain campaign and 8% made contributions to another candidate.

Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters who favored Obama over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary are among the most likely to have given money to the Obama campaign so far (19%). By contrast, 8% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters who preferred McCain over one of his primary opponents have donated to his campaign.