Why would Republicans be paying more attention to the presidential election than Democrats at this stage of the game? That’s not very hard to answer.
The most obvious reason is that they don’t have the White House right now and they haven’t had it since January 20th, 2008, when George W. Bush left office. Democrats simply aren’t craving what they already have, and it’s going to take them a while to focus on what they might lose.
That’s a cyclically-dependent variable, but there are others that are persistent, and still others that seem specific to this particular season.
As the electorate has sorted, older voters have trended Republican and younger voters have trended Democratic. Older voters read more newspapers, watch more television news, engage in more political activity outside the home, and vote more often in all elections than young voters.
There has also been a big difference between the parties in the nominating contests. The Republicans had eleventy-billion candidates, no certainty or even much consensus about who the winner might be, and the highly unusual (and famous) Donald Trump adding an entertainment value that could be enjoyed by even the least politically minded people. The Democrats have had (really) only two candidates, much less overall media coverage, and a presumed nominee from beginning to end.
Now, it should be a worrying sign to the Democrats that Republican engagement has been higher, and we’ve seen this not just in survey results but in the ratings for debates and in the voter turnout numbers in the primaries and caucuses.
But, I’m willing to argue that this should probably be of more concern to the Republicans. Despite Trump trending up in the most recent polls, his overall prospects look dim. And where is the room for growth?
Consider that Gallup finds that about twice as many people over fifty years of age are following the election “very closely” as are people under thirty. That number will begin to close and it will continue to narrow straight on through to Election Day. Consider, also, that 45% of whites claim to be watching the presidential election carefully while only 27% of nonwhites say the same.
Gallup says a central challenge for Democrats is to fix this disparity in engagement, and that’s true. But, with two conventions in July, followed by four debates, and the fall campaign, voter interest will rise automatically, and the Democrats have a lot more disengaged voters who will be coming online without any effort by the DNC or the Clinton campaign.
There’s also a current advantage the Republicans are enjoying in that their nomination is now a settled matter, and they’re consolidating a little earlier than the Democrats. Bringing the Clinton and Sanders camps together will more difficult than usual and will probably be somewhat incomplete, but that schism is minor compared to the one on the Republican side where the Speaker of the House can’t even endorse his own party’s nominee.
So, while the Democrats would probably prefer to see numbers that showed more parity in interest, they shouldn’t be overly concerned about these survey results. The Republicans should be aware that the tide will come in and the shoreline will move against them.