Survey Sez: More Americans Tuned in to Presidential Campaign (with poll)

Democracy breathed a sigh of relief with a new new report that finds that three-quarters of adults surveyed are more interested in the 2008 presidential election than four years ago. And what’s a study without some tea-leaf prognosticating that offers a glimmer of hope for one candidate while  suggesting that the other needs to quickly shore up the base?The National Annenberg Election Survey notes that potential voters paying “very close” attention to the early 2008 presidential campaign are approximately double those during the 2004 Democratic primary election season between mid-December and March — then quite the highly charged horse race among Sen. John Kerry, Gov. Howard Dean and Sen. John Edwards.

While older respondents are paying closer attention than any other age group, the most dramatic differences between the two election cycles are the high engagement levels occurring now in adults aged 30-44, women and the potential youth vote. Those signs bode well for likely Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama, who has enjoyed unprecedented voter turnout in the early primaries and caucuses.

Further demographic detail can be viewed here [PDF].

A fascinating side note — and perhaps an early warning about Sen. John McCain’s conservative street cred — can be found in the survey’s crosstabs of political party affiliation and ideology.

While both major parties had competitive 2008 presidential races early on, adults registered as Democrats boasted a higher rate of very close interest in the contests than their Republican and unaffiliated counterparts. But GOP adults demonstrated a higher difference in interest in this election cycle than for the same survey time period in 2004. Not much of a surprise there, with the decreased concern four years ago most likely a result of President Bush running unopposed, thus making the whole Republican nomination process a rather humdrum affair.

However, the potential chink in McCain’s armor comes from comparing the close interest level of conservatives versus self-identified moderates and liberals.

Proportionally conservatives (typically Republicans) were tuning in less across the board on both measures of close and somewhat close attention to the race than their liberal counterparts. Right-leaning adults also lead in the not-paying-attention-at-all category. Winning over conservative voters is an absolute must for McCain, and none more than the socially conservative “values voter” bloc led by Focus on the Family’s own Rev. James Dobson, who has long held the Arizona senator in disdain.

Though the survey doesn’t link party registration to self-disclosed ideologies, the moderates (often pejoratively referred to as the “mushy middle”) remain the group to watch as they likely span both political parties. Though collectively the moderates’ very close interest has now doubled compared to the 2004 race, they are, at this point, significantly less engaged than their brethren to the right and left of the political spectrum. As notes in a detailed analysis of 2008 exit polling in primary states, Obama does well with unaffiliated voters while moderates prefer Sen. Hillary Clinton. How the moderates will break, if and when Clinton leaves the race, is the $64,000 question.

The NAES report released Monday is the first in a series over the 2008 presidential election cycle that will track attitudes about the candidates, issues and traits Americans are seeking in a president and the effectiveness of political communications. The largest opinion poll of its kind, the survey will compile responses from 50,000 phone surveys and 100,000 Web interviews through election day. Colorado Confidential will provide periodic updates of the survey as information becomes available.

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