Election Weighs on Americans' Minds

by Darren K. Carlson, Government and Politics Editor

With less than a month until Election Day, candidates are crisscrossing the country, debates are stoking the public's political fire, and water coolers are bubbling with discussion about whom to vote for. Recent Gallup polling reveals that even in terms of the heightened attention common around elections, the current level of political interest is truly exceptional. It also sheds light on who's not tuned in yet, opportunities that represent the last few frontiers for the campaigns as they scurry to get the vote out.

Interest in National Politics at All-Time High

In a poll conducted Sept. 13-15*, more than 8 in 10 Americans (81%) said they were following news about national politics very or somewhat closely. Gallup has asked this question in pre-election periods since 1995, and only one other time -- January 1996 -- have attention levels been as high. The September poll showed 36% of Americans saying they were following national political news very closely -- the highest percentage yet recorded for that response. It is possible the number is even higher now given the high levels of viewership for the recent presidential debates. 

Majority Have Given the Election "Quite a Lot" of Thought

In the latest Gallup Poll**, conducted Oct. 9-10, 81% of Americans say they have given "quite a lot" of thought to the election, while 3% say they have given it "some" thought, and 14% say they have given it "only a little."

Historical comparison shows that the 2004 election is exceptional in terms of the level of thought that the public has put into it. Among registered voters, 89% say they have given quite a lot or some thought to the election, 17 percentage points higher than was found at this same time in 2000, and also significantly higher than the same period during the 1996 and 1992 election campaigns.

Who's Not Thinking About the Election?

With all the fervor over the election, where can the candidates go to engage voters who are not yet fully interested? Their best bets would be young people, the less educated, and those with low household incomes.

Specifically, 18- to 29-year-olds are significantly less likely to say they have given quite a lot of thought to the election -- 64% compared with at least 84% in the other three age ranges. Seventy-two percent of those with a high school education or less have given the election a lot of thought, compared with 92% of college graduates. Among those with annual household incomes of less than $30,000, two-thirds (66%) say they have given a lot of thought to the election -- presumably because many are intently focused on just making ends meet. Among those with household incomes of $30,000 or more, 86% say they have given the election a lot of thought.

Bottom Line

The increased interest shown in national politics and in the presidential election may be a lingering effect of the close race in 2000. The incredibly tight margin in that contest, and its exceptional and controversial ending may have driven public interest in politics to a new level. The percentage of voters who remain undecided in their vote preference -- those who do not have a current preference and do not even lean toward one of the candidates -- is the smallest Gallup has found in any pre-election polling it has done at similar stages in the past decades.

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,022 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 13-15, 2004. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. 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.

**These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,015 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Oct. 9-10, 2004. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. 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.
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