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January 12, 2000 Contact: Melissa Ring (617) 496-9761

Debates Get Public's Attention, But Fail To Stimulate Interest

Voter Involvement Index Survey Methodology

In the past week, there has been a rash of presidential primary debates, spawning the heaviest news coverage so far of the campaign. This coverage caught the public's attention but did not generate much interest or excitement.

  Voter Involvement Index: 25%

Components of Index
  Talked about campaign 15%
  Paid close attention to campaign 11%
  Recall a news story about campaign 39%
  Thought about campaign 34%
Source: Shorenstein Center Poll. Margin of error: ±6%

The most recent weekly Shorenstein Center national poll (n=1016) saw a doubling from the previous week of the number of Americans who could recall having recently seen, read, or heard a campaign news story. The proportion of people who said they had thought about the campaign sometime "during the past day" also rose sharply, from 11% to 34%. But the debates and their news coverage failed to spark widespread discussion about the campaign. Only 15% said they had talked about the campaign with another person during the past day, only somewhat higher than during the previous week, when there were no debates and 11% reported discussing the campaign. Moreover, the number who said they were now paying "a great deal" or "quite a bit" of attention to the campaign rose only slightly, from 8% to 11%.

Underlying these responses was a perception that the debates had produced little that was new or startling. Sixty-five percent said that the campaign during the past week had been "boring." Only 9% felt it had been an "exciting" week in the campaign. Further, the number who thought the week had been "uninformative" was nearly double (46% to 25%) the number who found it "informative."

"These numbers reflect the ability of the media to get the voters' attention," says Thomas Patterson, coordinator of the Shorenstein Center poll and Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. "When the campaign is on the front pages and at the top of the newscasts, people will notice it. But they won't necessarily embrace it. To get that response, something big needs to happen. Nothing in these debates fits that description. That's why Americans say it's been a boring and uninformative stretch of the campaign, despite the debates."

The Shorenstein Center poll for the Vanishing Voter Project also indicated that the viewing audiences for the recent debates were generally somewhat larger than for earlier ones. Nevertheless, most viewers watched only a small portion of a debate before tuning to other programming. Those who stayed tuned were mainly committed partisans, particularly those from the candidates' own party. Of the major demographic groups, young adults were the least likely to have watched the debates.

"The debates are helpful and important, and they do attract some attention," says Marvin Kalb, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project and the Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's Washington office. "But so far, anyway, there is no evidence of public interest or excitement about the 2000 campaign, especially among young Americans. 'Boring' and 'uninformative' are still the adjectives of choice."

The Vanishing Voter Project is a study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Funding for the project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The project is co-directed by Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, and by Marvin Kalb, Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's office in Washington.

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