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Busy and Bored Americans Say Campaign Has Started Too Early
November 30, 1999

Most Americans are not closely following the early stages of the 2000 presidential campaign. When asked why they are not following the campaign more closely, 54% indicated "it's simply too early in the campaign" while 22% claimed that they're "too busy" and 12% said they're "just not very interested in presidential politics."

  Reasons for Lack of Attention to Presidential Campaign

Too early 54%
Too busy 22%
Not interested in presidential politics 12%
Mix of too early, too busy, and not interested 4%
No reason I'm paying close attention 6%
Don't know 1%
Source: Shorenstein Center Poll, November 1923, 1999

The Shorenstein Center Poll for the Vanishing Voter Project found that some Americans prefer a lengthy campaign. When asked whether they like the long presidential campaign because it provides them "a better chance to get to know the candidates," 34% of the respondents said they like a long campaign. However, 60% claimed that the campaign was simply "too long."

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 survey the electorate every week for the next year to determine why citizens follow or ignore the campaign. The survey results reported here are from a nationwide telephone survey of 1,013 adults conducted November 1923. The poll has a sampling error of plus or minus 3%.

The Vanishing Voter Project is conducted 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.

An Early Start

The 2000 campaign has gotten an early start because states have moved up their primaries or caucuses in order to exert more influence on the nominating process. As a result, 35 states will hold their contests before mid-March, which was once early in the election calendar. To protect its first-in-the-nation primary, New Hampshire scheduled its contest for February 1, the earliest in history. Iowa responded by scheduling its caucuses for January 24.

This front loading accelerated the activities of the media and candidates. News coverage of New Hampshire's primary in major newspapers since September 1 has been 50% heavier than in the comparable period in 1996. Some major candidates, including Elizabeth Dole and Dan Quayle, have already dropped out of the race.

Nevertheless, the public is not taking much interest in the campaign. Over the past week, only 5% of Americans said they were paying "a great deal of attention" to the campaign and only 7% said they were paying "quite a bit." Slightly more than 25% said they were paying "just some attention" and roughly 60% said they were paying "little" or "no" attention.

"The public's attention to the campaign is a scarce resource, and we ought to treat it that way," says Thomas Patterson, co-director of the Project and Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard. "We want people to follow the campaign, but we have to ask whether they can be expected to do it for a year or more. The interests of Iowa, New Hampshire, and the other front-loading states ought not to outweigh the interests of citizens. 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 belief is widespread that the 2000 campaign has started too early. Among all major demographic groups, it was the most frequently mentioned reason why people are not paying closer attention to the campaign.

The Voter Involvement Index

  Voter Involvement Index: 17%

Components of Index
  Talked about campaign 10%
  Paid close attention to campaign 12%
  Recall a news story about campaign 25%
  Thought about campaign 21%
Source: Shorenstein Center Poll, November 1923, 1999

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 past week was 17%, down from 23% in the previous week.

During an average day in the week of November 19-23, only 25% could recall an election news story, only 10% said they had discussed the campaign with another person, and only 21% said they had been thinking about the campaign.

"The decline in public involvement during the past week," says Patterson, "may be attributable to the absence of attention-getting news stories. During the previous week, Americans, or at least some of them, were still talking about such things as George W. Bush's inability to identify world leaders. This past week, they barely talked at all about the campaign."

The public's lack of interest in the campaign mirrors their opinions of it. More than 60% percent described the past week of the campaign's past week as "boring." Only 8 percent said it was "exciting." Moreover, while 20% said it had been an "informative" week, 55% claimed it was "uninformative."

The survey results reported here are from a nationwide telephone survey of 1,011 adults conducted November 23-28, 1999. The poll has 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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