It's only June, but already, voters seem fired up. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said, "We're seeing the importance assigned by voters to this election [is] as high as you normally see right before the election."
Both parties have raised record sums of money. John Kerry has been doing so well that he wanted to put off accepting federal subsidies so he could continue to raise and spend money on his own.
And the rhetoric is already getting pretty hot. "How dare the incompetent and willful members of this Bush-Cheney administration humiliate our nation and our people in the eyes of the world and in the conscience of our own people!" Al Gore fumed. "How dare they subject us to such dishonor and disgrace!"
The voters certainly seem energized. In May 2000, when the country enjoyed peace and prosperity, 42 percent of Americans, according to a Gallup Poll, had given "quite a lot of thought" to the upcoming election. By May 2004, war and anxiety were the rule. And 64 percent were saying they've given this race "quite a lot of thought."
Four years ago, 19 percent of Americans were telling Time magazine pollsters that they were paying very close attention to the campaign. Now, 34 percent are.
But will more voters actually go to the polls? In the May 2000 Time poll, 47 percent said they were absolutely certain to vote. Now, 54 percent say they'll show up.
What's energizing people? One theory is that it's the hard-core supporters of each party who are fired up—by Iraq, yes, but also by lingering resentment over the 2000 recount.
And by mutual contempt. Vice President Cheney had this to say about Kerry during a speech at Westminster College in April: "The senator from Massachusetts has given us ample grounds to doubt the judgment and the attitude he brings to bear on vital issues of national security."
And mutual loathing. Just after clinching his party's nomination in March, Kerry, not realizing his microphone was still on, said of the GOP campaign team, "These guys are the most crooked, you know, lying group of people that I've ever seen."
And, not the least important, by the prospect of another close race.
Some Republicans think they can win a contest of energized bases. While the two parties have about the same number of hard-core supporters, Republicans usually have the edge in intensity of commitment. Republican pollster David Winston reports that President Bush shows no sign of weakening with the GOP base: "To Republican conservatives, he is off the charts."
But angry Democrats might be catching up with Republicans' intensity. A May Gallup Poll shows 65 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Republicans saying they have given "quite a lot of thought" to the election. As recently as April, Republicans had an 11-point lead.
The Bush-Cheney campaign seems to be following a "turn-out-the-base" strategy. It has a "72-Hour Project" to stimulate Republican turnout in the final three days of the campaign, plus advertisements on the Golf Channel, plus Bush's endorsement of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The base strategy has worked before—notably in the 1994 and 2002 midterm elections, when a Republican surge overwhelmed Democrats at the polls.
But those were midterm elections, which tend to be dominated by hard-core partisans. Turnout naturally rises in presidential years, when typically about one-third more voters show up—about 105 million in 2000, for example, compared with 78 million in the 2002 midterm. Presidential elections bring out more swing voters, people who vote once every four years because they are attracted by the excitement of a presidential election.
That produces the second theory—one favored by Democrats—of what's energizing the electorate. Democrats believe it's not just hard-core partisans who are energized this year. It's also swing voters. There's some evidence that they're right. Most independents, 58 percent, say they have given "quite a lot" of thought to this year's election. While that figure is lower than for Democrats and Republicans, it's unusually high for people who claim to be nonpartisan. What's stirring them?
Democratic pollster Lake gives this answer: "You always have more intensity when voters are for change." According to the latest CBS News poll, only 30 percent of Americans think that the country is moving in the right direction. Nearly two-thirds say things are on the wrong track. That's the highest demand for changing course since November 1994, when the figures were exactly the same.
Uh-oh. In 1994, voters overthrew the Democratic Congress and gave Republicans their first two-house majority in 40 years. Many Democrats see another revolution coming.
The fact is, both sides are spoiling for a fight. As Lake observed, "In the case of the Democratic base, and the same for the Republican base, it's like, 'Why should we wait? We'd like to vote tomorrow. We're ready.' "
Back in 2000, voters were pretty happy with the way things were going. The election was close because voters couldn't make up their minds whether they wanted change or continuity. They got energized only after Election Day, during the recount.
Right now, the mood of the electorate is not like May 2000. It's more like December.