Much has been made of the supposed disenchantment of voters in the current election. In the most recent CBS News/NYT poll, only 36% of registered voters say they are enthusiastic about voting this year. But a review of polling on voter’s feelings in elections over the last two decades indicates that voter unhappiness this year may be somewhat overstated from a historical perspective.
Questions that rate enthusiasm on a straight scale from extremely enthusiastic down to not enthusiastic at all do indeed show lower enthusiasm this cycle than in the last several elections. Unfortunately, this question was not asked before 2004.
In comparison, Gallup’s enthusiasm question, which asks respondents whether they feel more or less enthusiastic about this election “than you usually do,” has been asked since 1994. This longer timeframe provides much needed perspective. More voters report high-than-usual enthusiasm this year than in any national election between 1994 and 2002. Enthusiasm this year far exceeds that in 1996, a year that suffered from very low voter turnout.
A measure like this one, which asks respondents to rate their enthusiasm compared to other elections in which they’ve voted, is also particularly susceptible to changing expectations – and short memories. If 2008 was an unusually exciting election for many voters, subsequent elections may look worse in comparison.
There is some indication that enthusiasm for this election has waned over the election cycle. Enthusiasm peaked during the primary debates and hit a low just before the conventions. Enthusiasm now is roughly at the same level as it was before the primary season was fully underway last year.
Who is feeling the excitement this cycle? The most recent CBS/NYT poll has 45% of Trump supporters saying that are very enthusiastic. Just 36% of those intending to vote Clinton feel the same way. But different language might yield somewhat different results. In an late August Suffolk/USA Today poll, roughly equal proportions of Clinton and Trump backers said they were excited about the election (27% and 26%), while 53% of Clinton supporters and 47% of Trump supporters said they were alarmed. Alarm is far from excitement or enthusiasm, but it may be enough to get voters to the polls.