Americans Who Say They Will Vote on Tuesday Share Many of the Same Attitudes as Likely Non-Voters
Americans are so thoroughly disenchanted with electoral politics that the lines separating voters from non-voters have blurred. The opinions of voters and non-voters are nearly identical, for example, on the question of whether campaign money has too much influence on candidates and public policy more than 80% of each group say that it does.
For the past year, the Shorenstein Center has conducted weekly national polls of the American electorate, seeking to discover those factors that affect the public's involvement in the presidential campaign. In a recent survey, respondents were provided a list of common complaints about the electoral process and asked whether they agreed or disagreed with each one. The results reveal a public disdainful of modern election practices.
Respondents likely to vote in Tuesday's election are not in all respects similar to those unlikely to participate. Half of the likely non-voters believe that "most politicians are liars or crooks," nearly 90% say that "most political candidates will say almost anything in order to get themselves elected," and 43% claim that "Republicans and Democrats are so alike that it does not make much difference who wins." Likely voters are measurably less skeptical but have anything but a benign view of politics. More than a third question the basic honesty of most politicians, three-fourths question the campaign promises that candidates make, and a fifth say that Republican and Democratic politicians are too much alike.
When it comes to the way that campaigns today are run, however, the differences between voters and non-voters disappear almost entirely. Nearly 70% of each group says that the modern campaigns "seem more like theater or entertainment than something to be taken seriously," and over 70% of each group agrees that candidates are "more concerned with fighting each other than with solving the nation's problems." "Our latest survey underscores an apparent contradiction in public attitudes toward politics," says Marvin Kalb, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project, of which the Shorenstein Center poll is a component. "While more than 80% of likely and unlikely voters say money plays too large a role in presidential campaigns, the cry to do something about it for campaign finance reform continues to have little resonance among voters."
In other ways, however, voters and non-voters are still quite different groups. Non-voters are markedly less interested in politics, less attentive to news, and less content with their personal lives and the condition of the country as a whole. They also differ in their policy preferences. When asked about the federal budget surplus, likely voters are more inclined than non-voters to say it should go to a tax cut, debt reduction, or strengthening social security. Non-voters are more likely to say it should be spent on domestic programs in such areas as health, education, and welfare. "This preference reflects the fact that non-voters are disproportionately Americans of less education and lower income, who are thus more dependent on government services," says Tami Buhr, Shorenstein Center Research Coordinator. "And their non-participation gives political candidates even less incentive to pay attention to their needs and concerns."
Widespread public disillusionment with the conduct of elections may help to account for the relatively small audiences for the televised conventions and debates, and for the likelihood that only about half of all adults will vote in Tuesday's election. "Americans across the board are discouraged by campaign politics," says Thomas Patterson, Shorenstein Center survey director and Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "All the polls, the spin, the attack ads, the money, and the negative news have soured Americans on the way we choose our president."
The results reported here are from nationwide telephone surveys of approximately 1,000 adults conducted November 14, 1999 October 29, 2000. The surveys have a sampling error of ±3%. 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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