October 18th, 2007 16:21 EST
Voter Fatigue Has Set In For Some Americans
Washington -- Months before the first presidential primary and more than a year before the general election, a majority of likely American voters already are weary of the current campaign, according to a September poll. This trend, coupled with declining voter participation since the 1970s, prompted some observers to investigate and suggest remedies.
Independent public opinion pollster Scott Rasmussen told USINFO his September poll of likely voters sought people’s views of the current 2008 presidential campaign. He was surprised that 56 percent agreed with the statement that debates and campaign activities so far have been “annoying and a waste of time,” compared to 29 percent who felt the campaign has been “interesting and informative.”
“I figured that if anybody is calling it a ‘waste of time,’ that’s a pretty strong assessment or indictment of the situation,” he said. The wording of the poll, Rasmussen Reports, was “done purposely in order to put a spin on it that some people might not be comfortable with, and I was surprised that so many were.”
Rasmussen also was surprised that the senior citizens in the poll, who traditionally have higher rates of political participation, were, at 65 percent, the age group most likely to express dissatisfaction. Only 36 percent of likely voters under age 30, who, according to past behavior are more likely to stay away from the ballot box, expressed dissatisfaction.
Based on previous polls, Rasmussen said he suspects that many Americans felt the campaign season had started too early and they “were just tuning out this entire process.” He said an overwhelming 72 percent of likely voters would favor shortening the presidential campaign by not allowing officeseekers to campaign more than one year before the November general election. Only 14 percent opposed the idea, with another 14 percent unsure.
Rasmussen found other evidence of substantial voter discontent. “There are no quick solutions to any of this. But there is an incredible discouragement with the political process in today’s world,” he said, especially the lack of public approval for how the electoral process operates.
“Over the past 10 to 15 years we have polled regularly about whether our elections are fair to voters and only about 50 percent of voters say ‘yes, they are.’ The overall numbers have been consistent since the mid-1990s,” he said.
“Over 60 percent say that the system is ‘badly broken.’ There are frustrations with the way the nomination process works,” he said. “I think one of the reasons people want a shorter [campaign] season is they just want to see less of it,” he said. “It’s not just a question of liking it shorter, but [a sense of] ‘as long as it’s going to be done so poorly, we may as well have it short.’”
For the 2008 race, Rasmussen cited public disgust over “frontloading,” in which individual states compete for the earliest primary election dates in order to increase their influence on the nominating process.
“Everything that we see in polling data suggests that people would like to have some sort of … rational process to do this, and instead you have … New Hampshire not telling anybody when the first primary is going to be because they’re afraid somebody else will jump in front of them. … I think that kind of gamesmanship really turns people off. And I’m not blaming New Hampshire; I think it’s every state official who has been involved in this in some way,” he said.
The presidential debates also have drawn criticism. Rasmussen said many do not see the current debate format as being “a healthy representation of what we should be doing.”
“Essentially, you have a bunch of people up there who don’t have time to really speak and articulate something, and you have a lot of reporters who are hoping that somebody says something bad to harm their candidacy. … And I just know from talking to people and from polling that we’ve done, that there is a sense of ‘there’s got to be a better way.’”
VOTER APATHY REMAINS A CONCERN
Voter dissatisfaction could translate into people staying away from the ballot box. According to Harvard University professor Thomas E. Patterson, the political system and media coverage have affected the voter participation. Turnout in presidential elections, always higher than in the midterms, fell from an average 65 percent of eligible voters in 1960 to a low of 52 percent in 1996. The 2004 campaign showed a resurgence, with 60 percent participation, but the overall trend has remained downward.
Among observations in his 2002 book, The Vanishing Voter: Civic Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty, Patterson argues that frontloading has caused reductions in voter turnout, interest, information and political discussion in states with later primaries due to their decreased influence in selecting the presidential nominee.
On the media side, “attack journalism” techniques, the prominence of “soft news” stories, and cutbacks in broadcast television coverage also have played a role.
To increase voter participation, Patterson advocates Election Day reforms such as designating the day a national holiday or extending voting hours for the benefit of those who work full-time jobs. He also calls for same-day voter registration across the country to allow more voters to participate.
Patterson says broadcast news coverage of election campaigns and conventions should be increased, arguing that wide dissemination in the past caused many who had “inadvertently” tuned in to develop an interest in participating. The predominance of shorter “sound-bite” coverage has reduced the frequency with which Americans think about and discuss political campaigns.
The Harvard professor also advocates a shorter campaign season, saying most citizens are “not psychologically prepared” to pay close attention when the election is months away. A long campaign season, he said, does not help to motivate voters’ attentiveness even when the election is only weeks away.
In fact, he argues, by the end of the campaign, voters will have forgotten much of what they had learned earlier.
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
By Stephen Kaufman
USINFO Staff Writer
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