Voter turnout could reach a record high this year, a new poll suggests, but Democrats and younger voters so far are less engaged in the presidential campaign -- suggesting that President Obama has lost some ground in his effort to replicate the slight expansion of the electorate that propelled him to the Oval Office.
Overall, Obama had a statistically insignificant edge over Republican rival Mitt Romney among registered voters, 50 percent to 46 percent, in the new Pew Research Center poll of voter engagement.
Romney’s supporters are more likely than Obama voters to say they have given quite a lot of thought to the election, are more interested than they were four years ago, are following the election closely and think it really matters which candidates win -- all reversals from the historic 2008 election.
Obama’s supporters are more enthusiastic about him, while Romney’s are fired up by dislike of Obama, the poll found. More than 70 percent of Obama voters say their preference is more a vote for their candidate than a vote against Romney. But a majority of Romney voters, 58 percent, say their vote is more against Obama than it is for Romney (just 38 percent).
Despite Romney's edge in engagement, he trails Obama on most personality traits usually associated with successful presidential candidates. By wide margins, voters say Obama better connects with ordinary Americans (59 percent to 28 percent), is willing to take an unpopular stand (54 to 35), is willing to work with the other party (52 to 35), is honest and truthful (46 to 32), would use good judgment in a crisis (50 to 37) and takes consistent positions (46 to 34).
But Romney shows his strength on the most important issues. Asked which candidate would do the best job of improving economic conditions, nearly half of voters, 49 percent, say Romney, versus 41 percent for Obama. On health care, likely to become a more prominent campaign theme after the Supreme Court's expected ruling next week, voters are split evenly between the two candidates.
According to the poll, conducted earlier this month and released Thursday, fully two-thirds of voters say they have given a lot of thought to this year's presidential election, down slightly from 72 percent in June 2008, when the heated Democratic primary race had just ended. But that is still greater than the percentages of voters who had given a lot of thought to that year's election in the late spring of the prior four presidential elections. Similarly, 37 percent say they are following news about the presidential election "very closely," down from 46 percent in 2008, but at a greater level than at this point in 1992, 1996, 2000 or 2004.
But engagement among Democrats and -- to a lesser extent, independents -- has dropped, while Republicans are as plugged in this year as they were in 2008. Sixty-six percent of Democrats say they have given quite a lot of thought to this election, compared to 77 percent in 2008.
The percentage of Democrats following election news very closely dropped substantially, from 55 percent in June 2008, to 37 percent today; the 2008 poll was conducted in late June, beginning more than 10 days after then-Sen. Hillary Clinton conceded the Democratic nomination to Obama. Comparatively, the percentages of Republicans giving quite a lot of thought and following the election closely are virtually identical to June 2008.
The drop in engagement among younger voters is more pronounced. Sixty percent of voters under age 50 say they have given a lot of thought to the election, compared to 71 percent in 2008. Engagement has slipped a little more acutely among voters aged 30-49 than those under 30, the poll shows. But voters 50 years of age and older remain as engaged as they were in 2008, with 73 percent giving the election a lot of thought in both the 2008 and 2012 surveys. The 2008 election was an anomaly as far as the engagement in young voters, and the results of the latest poll are more consistent with historical trends showing young voters lagging behind their older counterparts.
The Pew poll closely aligns with surveys from the Associated Press, Gallup and other pollsters showing a tight race, suggesting a Bloomberg poll released this week showing Obama with a double-digit lead is a statistical outlier. (The Pew poll was conducted over a longer time period -- June 7-17 -- than the other surveys.)
Obama’s 4-point edge over Romney in the Pew poll is within the margin of error. Among the most engaged voters overall -- those giving a lot of thought to the election, those closely following campaign news, those who voted in 2008, or those who say it is "absolutely certain" they will vote -- the two candidates are still statistically tied.
There is a significant gender gap in voters' ballot preferences: Men favor Romney by 10 percentage points, while Obama leads among female voters by 15 percentage points. But Romney runs close overall as a result of a modest 5-point lead among independent voters; each candidate holds around 90 percent of their own partisans.
Obama is at 41 percent among white voters, trailing Romney, who is at 54 percent. That closely resembles the two parties' performance among whites in 2008: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., led Obama among white voters, 55 percent to 43 percent, according to exit polls.
In the June 2008 voter engagement survey, Obama led McCain, 48 percent to 40 percent. Romney runs ahead of McCain, not only in the horse race, but also on some other measures. Republicans -- particularly the most conservative members of the GOP -- are more likely to say they are satisfied with their choice of presidential candidates than in 2008. Satisfaction is down among Democrats and independents from 2008, though Democrats are still more likely to say they are satisfied with their choices than Republicans.
Romney voters are also more engaged than Obama voters. Seventy-three percent of Romney voters have given a lot of thought to the election, compared to 63 percent of Obama voters. Forty-three percent of Romney supporters are following election news very closely, while only 34 percent of Obama voters are paying that level of attention to the race. In both cases, Romney's supporters match McCain's in the June 2008 survey, while Obama voters are less engaged than four years ago.
As the two men advance toward the general election, they are attempting to sway a decreasing share of the electorate that still can be persuaded. Consistent with Pew's report earlier this month showing an increase in political polarization in the country, the new survey finds fewer "swing voters" than in 2008. In the new poll, 40 percent support Obama and say there is no chance they would vote for Romney, while 38 percent would vote for Romney and would not vote for Obama.
That leaves a slice of around one-in-five voters who are undecided or, if they support a candidate, say they could change their minds. In the June 2008 survey, significantly more voters said they were certain Obama supporters than McCain supporters, and around a third of voters were swing voters.
It is worth noting that voter engagement is not static: While the June 2008 survey showed record numbers of voters who were giving a lot of thought to the campaign, interest in the election increased only slightly before November. In comparison, surveys in previous election years, regardless of whether an incumbent was on the ballot, showed that the percentages of voters who were giving a lot of thought to the campaign increased more markedly as time went along.
That shows the limits of the June engagement data in predicting turnout levels. In 2004, 58 percent of voters said in the June survey that they had given a lot of thought to the election, significantly less than the 72 percent giving a lot of thought in June 2008. But in November, the percentages of those giving thought to the election were virtually identical. As a result, turnout increased only slightly from 2004 to 2008, from 61 percent of the vote-eligible population in 2004, to 62 percent four years later.
Pew surveyed 1,563 registered voters for the new survey; results carry a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.9 percentage points. The margins of error are higher for subgroups. Some respondents under age 30 had participated in previous surveys and were recontacted by Pew.