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Despite Heavy News Coverage, Interest in Campaign Declines
December 2, 1999

As the New Hampshire primary draws closer, one might think that Americans’ attention to the presidential campaign would be on the rise. Although news coverage of the New Hampshire primary has been relatively heavy, Americans’ interest level has actually declined in recent weeks. They are less likely to have talked about the campaign, to have thought about it, and to recall having seen a campaign news story than in early November.

  Voter Involvement Index
November 1014 23%
November 1923 17%
November 2328 16%
Source: Shorenstein Center Poll, November 2328, 1999
Sampling error: ±3%

The proportion saying they were paying "a great deal" or "quite a bit" of attention to the campaign also fell. In early November, nearly 20% claimed to be paying close attention. During the past two weeks, less than 15% did so. Meanwhile, those saying they were paying "no" attention to the campaign jumped from 31% to more than 40%.

The Shorenstein Center Poll for the Vanishing Voter Project also found that attention levels had fallen among all major demographic groups. Of Americans under 30 years of age, for example, the number who claimed to be ignoring the campaign entirely rose from just under 55% to nearly 60% during November. "Across the board Americans are paying less attention now than a few weeks ago," says Thomas Patterson, project co-director and Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University. "It's not what we expected to find."

Where's the Beef?

Americans' attention to the campaign has declined despite relatively heavy news coverage. For example, coverage of New Hampshire's primary in major newspapers since September 1 has been 50% heavier than in the comparable period in 1996. Although there was a marginal decline in the amount of New Hampshire coverage between early and late November, the decline in public attention during this period was three times as large in percentage terms.

Even more striking was the drop in personal conversations about the campaign. Despite the gatherings of family and friends across the nation for the Thanksgiving holiday, only 10% of Americans on a typical day said they talked with another person about the campaign. In early November, 17% claimed to have done so.

The difference between the two periods would appear to have less to do with the amount of news coverage than with the content of the news. In the earlier period, Elizabeth Dole's withdrawal from the race, John McCain's alleged temper, and George W. Bush's inability to identify foreign leaders were still topics of conversation. The more recent news coverage has been less provocative, and campaign discussion has diminished.

"It shows that news coverage in and of itself does not stimulate interest in the campaign, at least at this point," says Marvin Kalb, Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center and co-director of the Vanishing Voter project. "There have to be other reasons-a charismatic candidate, a grabbing issue, a very stimulating debate. People may see something about the campaign on television, but if it's not stimulating, just ordinary, it generally goes in one eye and out the other."

The Voter Involvement Index

  Voter Involvement Index: 16%

Components of Index
  Talked about campaign 10%
  Paid close attention to campaign 15%
  Recall a news story about campaign 19%
  Thought about campaign 20%
Source: Shorenstein Center Poll, November 2328, 1999
Sampling error: ±3%

A feature of the Vanishing Voter Project is a Voter Involvement Index, which will track the public's involvement in the presidential campaign on a weekly basis through 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 week of November 23-28 was 16%, down from 23% earlier in November.

"We're expecting public involvement to rise during the next few days as a result of the Republican debate in New Hampshire," says Patterson. "But the extent of the increase will likely depend on what is said during the debate. If something happens that gives people reason to talk, the rise may be sharp and sustained. Otherwise it could be small and temporary."


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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