Despite the oft-heard refrain that this is the most important election in our lifetimes, Gallup’s measure of voter engagement remains off the pace from the last two MIEIOLs. Less than two-thirds of general-population adults have given a significant amount of thought to the upcoming election, down from 70% at the same point in 2008 and 69% in 2004. Turnout might end up being lower than both presidential elections:
“Thought given to the election” is one of Gallup’s “likely voter” questions, and is a predictor of voter turnout. The current data, from a July 19-22 USA Today/Gallup poll, would suggest that voter turnout among the voting-age population will be lower in 2012 than it was in 2004 (55%) and 2008 (57%), but higher than in the 2000 election (51%).
The percentage of Americans thinking about the election typically increases over the course of the campaign; thus, more Americans should be paying attention to the election during the party conventions, debates, and final push to Election Day.
If so, the dropoff comes from Democrats. Only 61% say they have given “quite a lot” of thought to the elections, while 74% of Republicans say the same thing. Gallup notes that there may be a couple of reasons for this difference, however. First, Republicans had a competitive primary, while Barack Obama ran unchallenged for the nomination. Republican voters are also more engaged at this point than Democrats in general.
The question also gets asked a little differently, and the Republican edge once again shows up:
The “closely follow” question also shows a party difference, with 87% of Republicans and 79% of Democrats saying they are following news of the election closely. The party gap is even greater among those paying very close attention — 45% vs. 33%, respectively.
If that persists, Gallup concludes, then Republican turnout may surpass Democratic turnout — which didn’t even happen in 2010, although it came close (a 35/35/30 tie). A low overall turnout combined with enhanced Republican enthusiasm would be the worst of all worlds for Democrats, who have calculated their class-warfare campaign on a base-turnout strategy along the lines of the GOP in 2004. By that measure, the Obama campaign has so far fallen off the pace, too.
Team Obama has to hope that the convention will provide a huge boost of enthusiasm for the ticket. So far, the $120 million in ads attacking Romney and extolling Obama haven’t produced that kind of groundswell around which a base-turnout strategy can succeed. If the enthusiasm numbers continue to lag in September, the likely-voter models may end up looking a lot like the 2010 midterms.