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Most Americans Tuning Out Campaign, New Study Finds
November 17, 1999

Although it is still early in the presidential campaign, many Americans are already disenchanted by it. They describe the campaign as "boring" (63%) rather than "exciting" (11%), as "uninformative" (52%) rather than "informative" (25%), and as "discouraging" (37%) rather than "encouraging" (26%).

The first Shorenstein Center Poll for the Vanishing Voter Project also found that most Americans have not yet selected a presidential candidate, despite numerous national polls that suggest otherwise. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they don't yet have a preferred candidate.

The Vanishing Voter Project is dedicated to restoring Americans' interest in the presidential selection process. In increasingly larger numbers over the past three decades, Americans have been tuning out the campaign and staying home on Election Day. The Vanishing Voter Project will monitor the electorate every week for the next year to determine what draws people to the campaign and what keeps them away. From these findings will come recommendations on how to restructure the campaign in order to increase the level of public engagement.

The Project is part of 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.

What Americans Are Not Thinking About

The finding that most Americans have not yet selected a presidential candidate is at odds with those national surveys that show only a small percentage of undecided voters. But these surveys force respondents into a choice by reading them a list of candidates and basically asking them to choose one. The Shorenstein Center survey posed the question differently: "Which candidate do you support at this time, or haven't you picked a candidate yet?" The landslide winner (64 %) was "no candidate yet." George W. Bush was next with 16%, followed by Al Gore (6%), Bill Bradley (5%), and John McCain (2%).

"If we want to know what Americans are thinking about this election," says Professor Thomas Patterson, co-director of the Project, "we've at least got to give them the option of telling us that they haven't been thinking about it." In fact, when asked whether they "have been thinking about the campaign during the past day," only 28% said they had. More than 70% said the campaign hadn't entered their mind.

These and the other findings of the Shorenstein Center Poll are from a nationwide telephone survey of 1,007 adults conducted November 10-14. The poll has a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The Voter Involvement Index

A weekly feature of the Vanishing Voter Project is a Voter Involvement Index, which will track the public's engagement in the presidential campaign from now until next November. The Index is based on four measures whether people say they are currently paying close attention to the campaign and whether they are thinking about the campaign, talking about it, and following it in the news. The Index for the past week was 23 percent-a relatively low level.

During the week, only 19% claimed to have been paying "a great deal" or "quite a bit" of attention to the campaign. When asked about the past day, only 27% could recall an election news story, only 17% said they had discussed the campaign with another person, and only 28% said they had been thinking about the campaign.

"The question," Patterson says, "is when and why the Index rises and falls as the campaign unfolds. The changes will tell us what people like about the campaign-and therefore what should be preserved-and what they don't like-and therefore what might be changed." Patterson indicated, for example, that the study will examine the question of whether the lengthy presidential campaign strains people's ability to pay attention. "If the effect of a long campaign is to dull people's appetite for the election, then we ought to listen to them and find ways to shorten it."

The first Shorenstein Center Poll suggests that the campaign's length is an obstacle for some voters. Among those who are not following the campaign closely at this time, "it's too early" and "I'm too busy" were common responses. These citizens may lack the interest and time to follow the campaign closely for a year or more.

The Vanishing Voter Project

The Vanishing Voter Project assumes that public engagement depends on the attractiveness of the campaign's "key moments" the primaries, the conventions, the debates, and Election Day itself. "Elections are punctuated by moments when the citizens sit up, take notice, and actively listen, learn, and decide," says Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Shorenstein Center's Washington office and study co-director. "If we seek to increase the public's involvement in the campaign, these moments are the key."

"We've got to look at these moments as golden opportunities to bring people into the campaign," Patterson says. "If we don't capture their attention at these key moments, we might not capture them at all. We've got to make sure that the primaries, the conventions, and the debates are exciting, engaging, and meaningful. They've got to serve the needs and interests of the citizens, not just those of the candidates and the media."

The Shorenstein Center's weekly survey and its ongoing analysis of public engagement in the campaign are available at the Vanishing Voter web site (vanishingvoter.org).


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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