Debates Help Fuel Strong Interest in 2016 Campaign

Source: Pew Research Center

But most say campaign has not focused on important issues

As candidates in both parties prepare for the next round of presidential debates, a new national survey finds that the public is highly engaged by the 2016 campaign. Fully 74% of Americans say they have given a lot or some thought to the candidates, higher than the shares saying this at comparable points in the past two presidential campaigns.

Strong interest in 2016 campaign, most say they have watched debatesThe presidential debates clearly have been a hit with the public. Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say they have watched at least some of the televised debates between the candidates. In December 2007 – the most recent election in which there were contested nominations in both parties – just 43% reported watching any of the debates.

The latest national survey by Pew Research Center, conducted Dec. 8-13 among 1,500 adults, finds that nearly two-thirds (65%) of those who watched the debates say they have been helpful in learning about the candidates. And about half of debate watchers (51%) say they have found the debates “fun to watch.”

Public impressions of 2016 campaignYet the public has mixed impressions of the campaign so far. Two-thirds (67%) describe the presidential campaign as interesting – far more than did so before the first primary contests in the 2012 and 2008 campaigns (36% and 37%, respectively). About half (48%) say the campaign is informative, which is identical to the share that described the campaign as informative in January 2012.

Most say 2016 campaign has not focused on important policy debatesAs during prior campaigns, many Americans view the current contest as “too negative” (54% describe the campaign this way) and “too long” (50%).

Moreover, only about a third (34%) say the campaign has “focused on important policy debates,” while 58% say it has not. Democrats and independents are more likely than Republicans to say the campaign has not focused on key policy debates. By roughly two-to-one, Democrats (63% to 29%) and independents (62% to 32%) say the campaign has not focused on important policy debates. Republicans are divided – 46% say the campaign has concentrated on important policy debates while 44% say it has not.

Higher campaign interest among Republicans than at same point in 2008With the election still close to a year away, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they have given at least some thought to the candidates. Currently, 86% of Republicans say they have given a lot or some thought to the presidential candidates, compared with 75% of Democrats and 72% of independents.

And Republicans are substantially more engaged in the current campaign than they were at this point in the 2008 campaign; in December 2007, 74% of Republicans had given a lot or some thought to the candidates running for president.

While large majorities in both parties – and across nearly all demographic categories – say they have watched the debates, 77% of Republicans report watching at least some of the debates, compared with 69% of Democrats and 67% of independents.

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