Where You Live Made A Difference:
Americans' Involvement in Presidential Nominating Process Varied Substantially From One State to the Next
Americans' attention to the 2000 presidential nominating campaigns varied substantially from one state to the next. Residents in some states paid relatively close attention to the election while those in other states took much less notice. These differences were closely associated with the time and attention a state's nominating contest received from the presidential candidates and the national press.
These findings are based on nearly 40,000 survey interviews conducted during the past eight months by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Since early November, the Shorenstein Center has conducted a weekly national poll of more than 1,000 respondents as part of its Vanishing Voter Project. Each weekly poll has included four questions designed to measure the level of citizens' campaign involvement: whether citizens are currently following the campaign, whether they can recall a recent campaign news story, and whether they have recently thought about or talked about the campaign. The four questions together are the basis for the Voter Involvement Index a weekly measure of how engaged Americans are in the campaign. When the results of all of the weekly polls are combined, state-to-state differences in involvement levels during the nominating phase emerge.
Not surprisingly perhaps, New Hampshire residents had the highest average involvement level. They were more likely than residents of other states to have been following the campaign, and talking and thinking about it. Residents of Arizona and Massachusetts ranked second and third on this involvement measure. Wyoming residents were at the bottom end of the Involvement Index with Alabama and North Dakota just above them. On a typical day during the nominating process, New Hampshire residents were nearly twice as likely as Wyoming residents to be following the campaign or thinking and talking about it.
Involvement levels within a state were closely related to whether its primaries or caucuses were actively contested. On average, residents of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan, and the eleven Super Tuesday states each of which held its contest before the nominations were decided were more likely than residents of the other states to score high on the Index. While this pattern is not particularly surprising, it is significant that the impact of a contested primary extended beyond the time at which it was held. Stimulated by a competitive race, residents of these states continued to think and talk about the campaign at a heightened level even weeks after the campaign had moved on to other states. "Our data strongly suggest that once hooked in the early, contested primaries, voters tend to retain their interest and enthusiasm for an extended period," says Marvin Kalb, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project and the Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's Washington Office.
National news coverage also served to engage states' residents. Although coverage of the campaign was heavier in the period before Super Tuesday than afterward, not all states that held their contests on Super Tuesday or earlier received the same amount of attention from the national press. The New York and California contests, for example, received substantially more coverage than those in Ohio and Missouri, and New York and California residents had higher involvement levels than Ohio and Missouri residents.
Differences in involvement levels were related to residents' awareness of election issues. The higher the average level of involvement in a state, the more likely its residents of the state were to know the candidates' policy stands. "We know from past studies that involvement affects what voters learn in a campaign," says Tami Buhr, research coordinator at the Shorenstein Center. "And here we have dramatic evidence that, as involvement levels vary across states, so does the level of information in these states. When the campaign activates a state's residents, they are better informed. When it fails to activate them, they know less."
These findings highlight the influence that the structure of the nominating process has on public engagement. Although the nominating process in principle involves all the states, the sequence of the primaries and the media's tendency to highlight particular contests affects people's ability to engage and learn from the campaign. "Whether people think and talk about the campaign, and pay attention to news about it, is influenced by the attention that their state's contest receives from the candidates and the media," says Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor at Harvard's Kennedy School and director of the Shorenstein Center surveys. "To paraphrase Orwell, all citizens are equal, but are some are more equal than others. If we want to engage Americans more fully in the nominating process, we need to design it in a way that gives residents in all states a meaningful opportunity to influence the outcome."
The impact of the structure of the campaign on involvement is substantial enough to override traditional differences in participation levels. For example, North Dakota, Minnesota, Utah, and Idaho are states where voter turnout in the November elections is always among the highest in the nation. Yet all four of these states ranked near the bottom on the Voter Involvement Index. And all four states had nominating contests that were more or less meaningless in the selection of the 2000 presidential nominees.
Figures are based on 39,436 interviews conducted in the 48 contiguous states between November 14, 1999, and July 9, 2000. Respondents were randomly selected and interviewed by telephone. The Voter Involvement Index is calculated by averaging the responses to four questions whether people say they are currently paying close attention to the campaign, and whether in the past day they were thinking about the campaign, talking about it, or following it in the news.
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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