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Public Involvement and the 2000 Nominating Campaign: Implications for Electoral Reform

Americans' Response to the Nominating Campaign

Each of our weekly polls included four questions designed to measure and track Americans' involvement in the campaign:

  1. During the past week, how much attention did you pay to the presidential election campaign-a great deal, quite a bit, just some, only a little, or none?
  2. During the past day have you been doing any thinking about the presidential campaign, or is this something you haven't been thinking about?
  3. Can you recall a particular news story about the presidential campaign that you read, saw, or heard during the past day?
  4. During the past day have you discussed the presidential campaign with anyone?

Responses to these questions are the basis for our weekly Voter Involvement Index; it is the average of the affirmative responses to the four questions.

Public Involvement

We had expected public involvement to rise slowly but steadily in the months before the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. A different pattern emerged (see Figure 1). Involvement rose and fell irregularly during November and December and never climbed very high during any week in this period. Not until two weeks before the first contest in Iowa did involvement begin to increase steadily. The peak level of involvement (46%) occurred in the days immediately following the Super Tuesday primaries. All components of the involvement index reached their highest level at this time: 36% claimed to have been paying "a great deal" or "quite a bit" of attention to the campaign, 55% said they had been thinking about the campaign, 38% reported having had a conversation about it, and 54% said they could recall a news story about it.

Figure 1: Voter Involvement

After Super Tuesday, public involvement dropped steadily. The Voter Involvement Index is now at a level (20%) close to that of November and December. In our latest weekly poll (April 18-22), 15% said they had been paying close attention to the campaign, 27% claimed to have thinking about the campaign, 14% said they had talked about it, and 22% could recall a news story about the campaign.

Critical events clearly play the key role in stimulating public involvement. Although the candidates were campaigning heavily in November and December, most Americans expressed little interest in the election at that time. The Iowa and New Hampshire contests spurred public interest, which was still rising at the time of Super Tuesday's primaries. These contests marked the end of the active primary campaign and, since then, public involvement has declined sharply.

Information and Candidate Preferences

Although it might be assumed that people's information about presidential candidates rises steadily during the nominating period, our data tell a different story.

Figure 2: Knowledge of Candidate Issue Positions

Americans' awareness of the candidates' issue positions improved gradually as the campaign moved toward the first contests but, after the flurry of Super Tuesday contests, it began to diminish (see Figure 2). Americans today are measurably less informed about Bush and Gore's positions than when the campaign was at its March peak. As people's interest in the campaign has declined, their knowledge has also diminished.

Candidate Support and Voter Involvement

Candidate preferences have followed a similar pattern (see Figure 3). We had expected the proportion of undecided voters to decline steadily as the campaign unfolded. This pattern held only in the most active period of the campaign. After the Christmas holiday period, for example, the number of undecided voters rose by almost ten percentage points. A similar increase has occurred in the period since Super Tuesday.

Perceptions of the Campaign

A presidential nominating campaign can be an exciting, suspenseful event. The Bush-McCain race obviously captured the interest of many Americans. Nine of the contested Republican primaries enjoyed a record turnout.

Nevertheless, we did not record even a single week when Americans claimed to be more excited than bored by the campaign (see Figure 4). The New Hampshire primary produced the highest excitement level: 31% of our respondents claimed it had been an exciting week in the campaign. Yet 42% said it had been boring. In our latest poll, those who claimed the week was boring far exceeded (69% - 5%) those who found it exciting.

Figure 4: Reaction to Campaign

During most weeks Americans have also claimed to be discouraged by recent developments in the campaign. Those who said they were "encouraged" exceeded those who were "discouraged" during only two of the 26 weeks we have been polling.

And during most weeks people have described the campaign as uninformative. Only during the six-week period following New Hampshire did a larger proportion of respondents describe the campaign as informative.

These perceptions tracked closely with the level of campaign activity. Americans were much more likely to describe the campaign as "exciting," "informative," and "encouraging" during the intense period between Iowa and Super Tuesday than at any other time.

Americans' View of the Current Nominating System

The public is not strongly attached to the current nominating process. A chief complaint is that the campaign lasts too long. When asked in four separate surveys whether the campaign "is too long" or whether they prefer a long campaign because it offers "a better chance to know the candidates," a majority in each instance claimed that the campaign is overly long (see Figure 5).

Figure 5: Is the primary process too long?

The campaign's length was also the major source of complaints when respondents were asked open-ended questions about the nominating system. These questions also revealed that many Americans believe the system is unfair. This opinion was sometimes expressed in the context of whether the system is equally fair to all presidential candidates. But it was expressed chiefly in regard to voting. Americans believe the system is biased against states that hold their primary late in the process.

New Hampshire's primary is also a source of dissatisfaction. Thirty-one percent of respondents claimed that it "has too much influence" on the nominations. However, 44% claimed, instead, that New Hampshire is "a good test of the candidates." Small-state residents are particularly supportive of the New Hampshire primary.

Americans' Opinions of Alternative Nominating Systems.

Americans say they would like a change in the nominating process. Their favorite alternative is a national primary (see Figure 6). By nearly two-to-one, Americans say they would rather have a national primary than the current system. Support for a national primary rests primarily on people's belief that it would dramatically shorten the campaign and that it would be "fair" since all voters would cast their ballots on the same day.

Figure 6: Alternative Primary Systems

By a narrow margin, respondents also indicated a preference for rotating regional primaries over the current system. They claimed that a regional primary system would be "shorter," "cheaper," and "fairer" than the current one. Respondents by a narrow margin also said they would prefer a population-based primary system (the so-called Delaware plan, discussed below) to the current one.

Americans' dissatisfaction with the existing system is broad enough that a plurality even expressed a willingness to eliminate primary elections altogether. When asked whether they preferred the current system or the "old system" in which party activists from all the states met in the national conventions to choose the nominees, a plurality -43% to 40%- opted for the "old system." This preference was especially strong among older Americans. Half of those 50 years of age or older said they would prefer a convention-based system.

Americans' Response to the Televised Debates

There were two dozen televised primary election debates in 2000. The audiences were quite small. One reason is that none of the debates was televised on the major commercial broadcast networks. The debates also failed to hold the interest of viewers. In our survey, two-thirds of those who tuned into a debate said they watched only "some" or "a little" before switching channels.

Viewers were not particularly impressed with the debates. Negative comments outnumbered positive ones by three-to-two. Viewers complained about everything from the debate formats to the candidates' conduct. Viewers who said they watched "all" or "most" of a debate had a more favorable opinion but even they were as likely to express a negative opinion as a positive one.

Policy Implications: Communication in the Nominating Phase >>

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