WASHINGTON – Politics is a water-cooler topic, a dinner-table subject, an issue to discuss after Sunday services, and this year the interest of American voters is at its highest level in more than a decade.
That renewed attention could translate into higher voter turnout on Nov. 7, according to an Associated Press-Pew poll.
Seventy percent say they are talking politics with family and friends, and 43 percent are debating the issues at work. Among churchgoers, 28 percent share their political views, a number that rises to 34 percent among the congregations in the South.
The relationship with politics is not unrequited.
Americans have heard from the candidates and campaigns through phone calls, e-mail or one-on-one. In turn, they've participated more in the political process, attending campaign events, circulating petitions and making political donations.
"Politics comes up fairly frequently in my workplace," said Christine Adkinson, an operating room nurse in Lakeland, Fla. "Most of the physicians are Republicans and some of my fellow nurses, we are mainly against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan — we have quite lively discussions."
The embrace of the democratic process comes despite the view of some that it is flawed, with significant percentages saying their votes don't count. Only 45 percent of Democrats are very confident their votes will be counted, and only 30 percent of blacks are confident. Almost six in 10 of all voters polled had a lot of confidence their votes will be counted, according to the AP-Pew survey.
"I'm reasonably confident about my vote," said Jeff Francis, an architect from Palisade, Colo. "But I'm still not convinced Florida was accurate in 2000 and I'm not too sure about Ohio in 2004."
The level of interest outpaces 1994 when Republicans swept Democrats from power in Congress. It's a far cry from the weeks after the disputed 2000 presidential election when discussion of politics was verboten at many family gatherings, especially those with carving knives nearby.
The high levels of political interest are driven largely by Democratic anger and optimism that they can win in November. Republican interest is close to its usual levels, according to the poll of 1,804 adults, including 1,503 registered voters.
The survey was conducted Sept. 21-Oct. 4 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The war in Iraq and Afghanistan, fears of terrorism and anxiety that the middle-class dream is slipping away have drawn intense interest in next month's elections.
"Women are very, very concerned at the direction that this country is going," said Shannon Hargrove of Fort Worth, Texas, who talks politics frequently with her friends. "A lot of us have sons that are the age to participate in the wars, and we have daughters and sons that are of the age that are trying to find jobs, and that's very difficult."
In the past, high levels of voter interest haven't always translated into votes, especially in midterm elections.
Turnout figures for midterms are generally about four in 10 of those eligible to vote, said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University. That's far lower than the number who said they almost always vote, probably because people give the answer they think is expected.
The poll also found:
_Almost two-thirds oppose replacing voting at the polling place with voting by mail, but a majority favors allowing the option to vote by mail.
_14 percent of voters who plan to vote say they plan to vote early. Those 50 and over, who live in cities, and have more education and higher incomes were most likely to vote early.
_Three-fourths have seen or heard campaign ads, and the more ads they have seen, the more the likelihood they will vote.
Becky Mayer of Waverly, Tenn., votes in spite of political advertising.
"The political ads are awful," she said. "My mother taught me if you don't have nothing nice to say, don't say nothing."
But Mayer hasn't lost faith that a politician someday will earn her vote.
"Somebody, somewhere will come along and be for the people," she said. "I keep hoping."