Paying Attention A Matter Of Partisanship

generic us american flag vote poll capitol building Frankovic polling positions
By Kathy Frankovic, CBS News director of surveys

Who is paying the most attention to this presidential election campaign?

On February 5, voters in 24 states will cast primary ballots or start their delegate-selection process in local caucuses. That's less than seven weeks from now, and while it still seems early in the presidential campaign, those 24 states include some of the largest: California, New York and Illinois.

Nationally, one-third of registered voters say they are paying a lot of attention to the campaign -- the largest number at this stage of the campaign in the 20 years CBS News has been asking this question, and about the same percentage who typically end up voting in a primary or caucus. Some of that higher level of interest is due to the fact that the process has begun so much earlier. Four years ago, the Iowa Caucuses were held on January 19 -- in 2008 they will take place on January 3. Before 2000, the Iowa caucuses took place in February, on dates after this campaign's February 5 extravaganza. Voters in those years easily could have waited until the actual election year to take much interest in what was happening in the nominating process.

The early primary and caucus dates came with intensive news coverage and personal appearances by candidates, which also heighten voters' interest in the campaign. What do we know about this attentive group?

Partisanship is one of the most important predictors of campaign attentiveness this year. Democratic voters are far more energized than Republican voters. Four years ago, Democratic attention to the campaign was partly motivated by dislike for the incumbent president. This year, not only does that feeling persist (only 4 percent of Democratic primary voters in the latest CBS News/New York Times poll approve of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president), but there is a positive component as well: a majority of them now also genuinely like their own party's options to replace him.

This year, a surprising number of Republican voters don't have the positive feelings expected of those whose party controls the presidency. Although 70 percent continue to approve of the way the president is handling his job, 23 percent don't. Forty-one percent think the country is on the wrong track. Half of Republican voters are dissatisfied or even angry about the way the government is working.

In addition, Republicans have concerns about the GOP candidates, and they don't know a lot about their party's frontrunners. Our early December poll found 60 percent didn't yet have an opinion about Mike Huckabee, even though he was nearly tied with Rudy Giuliani as their first choice for the nomination. (For the record, 30 percent were favorable, 10 percent were not.) Sixty-two percent had no opinion of Fred Thompson, who has appeared on many of their television screens -- as an actor -- for years. Nearly half (48 percent) couldn't say anything about Mitt Romney, who was in third place nationally, although, like Huckabee, those who did say something were positive about him, by a 36 percent to 16 percent margin.

Here are some other dramatic differences that may help explain why Republicans seem less excited than Democrats about the campaign so far:

  • Forty-five percent of Democratic primary voters say they are more enthusiastic than usual about voting in this election. Just 29 percent of Republican primary voters are. And nearly as many Republican voters (24 percent) admit they are less enthusiastic than usual about this election.
  • Democratic voters are more committed to whatever choice they have made. Although it's still early in the campaign, 40 percent of Democratic primary voters say their minds are made up, compared with just 23 percent of Republican voters.
  • From the very beginning, Democratic voters have been more likely than Republican voters to express satisfaction with their options.

All of which may explain why 41 percent of Democratic voters say they are paying a lot of attention, compared with just 28 percent of Republican voters.

Because of the Democratic dominance in attentiveness, there are fewer demographic differences than have historically been seen on this question - attentiveness this year doesn't increase with education, and women are as attentive as men. Those with only a high school education or less are just as likely to be paying a lot of attention as those with a college degree. And probably because of Barack Obama's presence in the race, blacks are somewhat more likely than whites to say they are paying a lot of attention.

But does being attentive matter? It does. The attentive voters know more than those who aren't paying as much attention. Sixty percent of the attentive voters -- though a majority were Democrats -- were able to tell us that Romney, a Republican, was a Mormon, compared with 42 percent of voters overall. More than six in ten attentive Republican primary voters had an opinion of Huckabee; and seven in ten had an opinion of Romney. However, nearly half still expressed no opinion of Thompson.

But most voters are not attentive, at least not yet. But there's a whole lot less time this year to catch up and start to pay attention!