Friday afternoon, students gathered in University of Tampa's Reeves Theatre to listen to one of the top polling scientists in the country. Scott Keeter is the director of survey research at PEW Research Center in Washington, D.C.
Keeter's presentation addressed the recent trends in polling and the factors that affect voter decision-making. "He really touched on the events that have affected our country's outlook and the democratic choices of our citizens over the past 20 to 30 years," Mike Koulianos, a junior at UT said.
Among one of the more interesting points was Keeters discussion on the trends created by young voters. Polls show that with young voters aged 18-29, 58 percent support Sen. Barack Obama, while 39 percent support Sen. John McCain. In fact, all age groups aside from those 65 and older, currently favor Obama. Keeter said young voters tend to support bigger government, are more liberal on social issues and are more likely to be secular. The secularization of young Americans, he notes, is not an age-related characteristic.
Keeter also said that young voters are not always liberal. In fact, they are more supportive of private accounts and social security. Unfortunately, young voter turnout was not as high as it could have been during the last election. In 2004, turnout for young voters dropped nine points, a number that could easily make or break an election.
Keeters polling reveals that younger generations are becoming less conservative on social issues. He notes that they are more tolerant and less traditional on family and marriage issues. Keeter said that, Todays generation is less likely to agree with the idea that school boards should have the right to fire homosexual teachers." However, when it comes to another controversial issue facing the country, abortion rights, the polls do not provide evidence that age reflects voter opinion. Abortion debates do not show any sort of trend among age groups.
Keeter gave a very brief, but informative, explanation on party affiliation during recent decades. He showed that in the 1990s as Bill Clinton did poorly, voters turned more conservative, thus electing a republican congress during his term.
Affiliation with the Democratic Party has gone up for this election due to a number of factors including the war in Iraq and the handing of Hurricane Katrina. Right now 51 percent of the country affiliates with the Democratic Party. Bushs approval rating hit a low of 19 percent, with three months left to go.
Obama vs. McCain
Here is how the candidates rated their favorability on the following issues according to Keeters polls:
Economy: 51 percent Obama, 33 percent McCain
Financial Crisis: 46 percent Obama, 33 percent McCain
Energy: 52 percent Obama, 36 percent McCain
Taxes: 49 percent Obama, 36 percent McCain
The focus of the debate was on foreign policy and national security, but the current economics situation put a lot of emphasis on those issues. The statistics below show McCain just barely stepping ahead of Obama:
Iraq: 43 percent Obama, 48 percent McCain
Foreign Policy: 42 percent Obama, 49 percent McCain
Terrorism: 36 percent Obama, 53 percent McCain
Judgment in a Crisis: 42 percent Obama, 45 percent McCain
Race and Religion
In terms of the impact on race, Keeter notes, It is difficult to put a number on that in survey research, although as far as white voters go, Obama is doing better among them than Krry did in the 2004 election. Many scholars argue that race will play an important role in the election, but it is not the kind of issue that many voters would be willing to admit to in a poll.
Polling on religion does offer more problematic results for Obama. September polling results show that 13 percent of Americans think that Obama is a Muslim, 16 percent say they have heard different things about his religious background, and 53 percent think he is a Christian. Obama is Christian, but the fact that this statistic is so largely disputed is a sad reflection on the level of misinformation and misperception presented in American politics.
Younger generations tend to feel that their opinions do not matter, but Keeter showed that they matter enough to be the focus of one of the most important polling research centers in the country.