WASHINGTON -- American voters, to borrow a candidate's phrase, are fired up and ready to go.
Turnout in the opening Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary this month smashed records. By 2-1, those surveyed in a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll say they're more enthusiastic than usual about voting this year. Nine in 10 say it makes a difference to them who is elected president.
With the stakes high and the country's direction up for grabs, voters are poised to continue a rebound in Election Day turnout that began after dipping to a historic low in 1996, when barely over half of those eligible to vote bothered to go to the polls. High levels of interest are reshaping the races in both parties, boosting candidates who have reached out to new voters at the expense of those who targeted the ranks of the tried-and-true.
"I hate to say it, but (in past elections) I'd vote if I was available or my schedule allowed it or I remembered," says Sara Koscura, 28, a Republican and attorney in upstate Watertown, N.Y., who was among those surveyed. "Voting wasn't a high priority, but this year it is."
She supports Arizona Sen. John McCain, who won easily in New Hampshire over the better-funded Mitt Romney after pulling independent voters to the Republican primary. In Iowa, Romney's superior organization lost to Mike Huckabee, who drew a flood of conservative Christians to the caucuses.
The broadest outreach to young and independent voters has been by Democrat Barack Obama — who coined the phrase about voters being "fired up."
Young and independent voters swamp Obama's rallies, delivered a sweeping victory for him in Iowa and contribute to his strength heading into Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, when 22 states will hold contests.
Opposition to the Iraq war, anxiety about a possible recession, dissatisfaction with President Bush and dismay over gridlock in Washington are fueling Americans' engagement in the 2008 election.
By 62%-28%, voters say they're more enthusiastic about voting than usual. That's 17 percentage points higher than at this point in 2000 and 6 points higher than in 2004 — a year in which November turnout was the highest in a generation.
Democrats are significantly more keyed up about the election than Republicans, a major advantage if the feeling continues to November.
Republicans and independents who "lean" to the GOP say by 49%-37% that they're more excited than usual. For Democrats, it's 74%-19%.
"If things are going fine, people would relax and get back to their lives and go to the movies. But when the country's in trouble, then obviously you turn your attention to solving the problems in front of you," says Jon Krosnick, a Stanford professor who studies political psychology.
"Lots of people in the country, more so than in a really long time, are unhappy with the direction the leadership has been taking," he says.
That unhappiness is deep-seated. In the USA TODAY poll taken Thursday through Sunday, more than half of those surveyed say they are pessimistic or uncertain about how well the U.S. government will work in the long run. Nearly two-thirds are pessimistic or uncertain about the long-term soundness of the economy.
Nicole Collier, 25, a Democrat who works for the Texas Department of Transportation in Austin, frets about the future.
"There is so much uncertainty in what direction someone can go in once Bush is gone," Collier says. "There's a whole lot of work to do: where we are in Iraq, where we are with medical care. … There's a lot riding on it," she says of the 2008 election.
Collier, who's supporting New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, says that going to the polls this year "is critical.
"Once someone is elected, I don't want to look back and say, 'I should have voted.' "
The under-30 crowd
The greatest surge in political participation this year has been among the least reliable of voters: those under 30.
Even as turnout in the New Hampshire primary rose among all age groups, those 18 to 29 increased their share of the electorate. They made up 18% of Democratic voters, compared with 14% in 2004. In a survey of voters at the polls, young people were 14% of GOP voters, up from 11% in 2000.
In Iowa, the number of those 17 to 29 attending caucuses tripled from 2004. They made up 22% of Democratic caucusgoers — up 5 points from 2004 — and 11% of Republican caucusgoers.
Among Republicans, former Arkansas governor Huckabee did best among young voters, many of them evangelical Christians and home-schooling parents.
Among Democrats, Obama carried voters under 30 by 5-1, a major factor in the size of his victory there. He had courted support on college campuses and high schools, where those who would be 18 by Election Day were eligible to participate.
Obama's strategists, getting reports that night at the campaign's Des Moines headquarters, were amazed by the turnout among young people in particular and Iowans in general, says Steve Hildebrand, a veteran Democratic organizer and Obama adviser.
The campaign had projected a total of 150,000 to 160,000 participants in the Democratic caucuses. Nearly 240,000 showed up, almost double the record.
In one example of the challenges that can mean to campaigns, Clinton aides say they met their targets in delivering supporters to the caucuses only to have those numbers swamped by higher-than-expected turnout. She finished third.
"Voters under 30 have been one of the worst-performing categories of voters for decades," Hildebrand says. "And the question is going to be whether this is a one-year, one-time deal or if it's going to be a new part of the electorate."
In the past, the political engagement of young people has spiked only to wane.
"Remember, this occurred for Howard Dean" in 2004, says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.
"It occurred for John McCain in 2000. It occurred a little bit for Ronald Reagan in 1984, for Clinton-Gore in 1992, for Gene McCarthy and George McGovern" in 1968 and 1972.
Some young voters — and some older ones — remain unengaged. (Turnout wasn't particularly heavy in Tuesday's Michigan primary, which was ignored by the Democratic candidates because it wasn't sanctioned by the national party.)
"To me, even though you say that your one vote counts, I'm thinking it really doesn't," says Derek Foster, 20, a driver for Frito-Lay who lives in Manteca, Calif.
This is the first election in which Foster has been old enough to vote, but he isn't registered and doesn't plan to bother.
That attitude was more common among young people before the 9/11 attacks, says John Della Volpe, a political scientist at Harvard who has been studying youth voting since 2000.
"Then, they said, 'It doesn't matter,' 'politicians are all the same,' 'my vote's irrelevant,' " he says.
But 9/11 inspired many young people to pay more attention to politics, he says. Some current issues — the war, global warming, ethnic killings in Darfur — have particularly captured the interest of young people.
Campaigns in both parties are targeting young people, especially through online social networks that have made the task easier.
Get-out-the-vote efforts targeting supporters of all ages have become more intensive. Academic studies, some published since the 2004 election, have shown that supporters who troupe from door-to-door have a much more significant impact than "robo-calls" from celebrities, for instance.
Ken Mehlman, campaign manager for Bush's re-election, credits sophisticated use of shoe leather as an asset that drove up Republican turnout in such critical states as Ohio in 2004.
Hope … and fear
One key motivation for voters: hope.
By 84%-11%, Americans say there's a candidate running who would make a good president. The view is bipartisan, held by 85% of Republicans and 89% of Democrats.
That's a rosier assessment than during previous campaigns. At this point in 1992, when the elder President Bush was running for re-election against a wide Democratic field, just 40% felt that way.
In 1996, when President Clinton was running for re-election, 57% did. In 2000, as his tenure was ending, 75% saw a good prospect in the field of those hoping to succeed him.
What's more, seven in 10 now say the candidates are talking about the issues they really care about.
A majority believe some of the candidates are coming up with good ideas to solve the country's problems. Two-thirds say the election process is working as it should.
"This is not a re-run election," says Steven Rosenstone, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota and author of Mobilization, Participation, and Democracy in America. "This isn't another pass at Bush. It's not another pass at (Bill) Clinton. These are relatively fresh faces for most of the nation and candidates with some positives. That's going to turn people on."
The breakthrough character of some of the campaigns — the most serious presidential campaigns ever waged by an African-American (Obama), a woman (Hillary Clinton), a Mormon (Romney) — has energized some voters.
"The last couple elections I just voted Democratic; I don't even remember who I voted for," says Jacob Holmes, 28, who works in a pizza parlor in St. Louis and was called in the poll.
This year, he's paying closer attention and pulling for Clinton.
"I'd like to see a woman in office, that's my thing." he says.
Bess Lovejoy, 28, a reference-book writer from Manhattan, says she's been "obsessed" with the campaign and inspired by Obama's candidacy since she attended a New York rally.
"He just seemed to broadly touch on a lot of things that mattered to me and understood the issues in a way that I was really sympathetic to," Lovejoy says.
There's another powerful motivation this year, too.
"We've found what drives turnout is whether they dislike a candidate," Krosnick says. Those who are uncomfortable with or opposed to having a woman or an African-American or a Mormon as president will be more likely to vote to try to keep them from winning.
That's one reason political polarization has spurred voter participation.
In the 2004 election, marked by a bitter partisan split after the disputed outcome in 2000, 60.7% of those eligible to vote did so — the highest turnout since 1968.
Strong interest in the election early in the year usually correlates to high turnout in November. Some analysts say turnout this year might top 2004's record.
For one thing, the sharp divide between the two major political parties hasn't eased.
The candidates, viewed so positively in their own party, spark equally strong negative reactions from those on the other side.
In a Gallup Poll last month, respondents were asked whether they would be "excited," "pleased," "disappointed" or "afraid" depending on which candidate was elected president in 2008.
Among Democrats, 25% chose the most extreme reaction — "afraid" — if Republican Romney were elected; 29% felt that way about a Rudy Giuliani presidency. Among Republicans, three in 10 said they would be afraid if Democrats Obama or John Edwards won.
Sixty-two percent of Republicans said they would be afraid if she won.
"Might be looking at Canada if she's elected," jokes Ken Bridge, 43, an auto-parts salesman from Powell Butte, Ore. A Republican, he likes former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson but doubts he'll win the GOP nomination.
"I'm following it pretty close," Bridge says of the election. "I'll definitely be there this year."