Campus & Community

Now you see ’em: Kennedy School project looks for vanishing voters

8 min read
Thomas Patterson, head of Vanishing Voter
EXAMINING THE PATTERNS: Thomas Patterson of the Kennedy School of Government is co-director of the Vanishing Voter polling program. (Staff photo by Justin Ide)

As presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush rev up their campaign bandwagons, charging out of the summer political conventions and into the fall election cycle ahead, many of the nation’s voters can muster up nothing more than a yawn to reflect their disinterest in the entire affair.

It is that sentiment that most deeply concerns Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press, and co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project, sponsored by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG).

With voter apathy on the rise (less than 50 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the 1996 presidential election), the Project was conceived to measure the extent of the malaise, and to generate and examine ideas for getting more people interested and involved in the electoral exercise.

“The question was whether it would be worth looking carefully at the whole process, with the idea that the electorate is moving away from this process, both as audience and as voter,” Patterson says. “[We wanted] to look carefully at the campaign, to try to get a good sense of what pulls people in and what drives them away, and use that information to think about how you might play around with the structure of the campaign — not simply the events within it, but also the campaign schedule itself.”

Last summer the Project received an initial grant of $900,000 from Pew Charitable Trusts to fund its research. Patterson and Project co-director Marvin Kalb then convened several seminars, both at Harvard and in Washington, D.C., to solicit input from scholars, journalists, and the political parties. What emerged was the framework for a series of weekly polls that survey voter sentiment from the early primaries through the general election in November. The information from the polling will be used to compile a book after the election.

The endless campaign

The initial Shorenstein Center polling numbers from last fall may have shocked even the most ardent Washington insider. Sixty-three percent of those Americans surveyed described the campaign as “boring.” More than half called it “uninformative,” and more than a third labeled it “discouraging.” Subsequent polls indicated that younger voters were just half as likely as their parents to pay close attention to the campaign.

“One of the complaints we picked up from the beginning was [that the campaign cycle] is way too long,” Patterson says. “Americans think this process is endless. If you create a campaign that’s endless, it really is tough for people to stay engaged. That’s a structural problem, and I think one challenge is to find a way to shorten this thing, while maintaining the integrity of it.”

Later surveys reflected a sharp upturn in voter interest as the contentious early primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire reached their climax. A February poll indicated that more than a quarter of those surveyed said they had been paying either “quite a bit” or “a great deal” of attention to the campaign during the previous week. However, voter interest plummeted significantly just weeks later — after the two major party candidates, Bush and Gore, scored decisive victories on Super Tuesday.

“We think there’s been a real interplay between the structure of the campaign and the low level of interest,” Patterson explains. “During the campaign in early March, Americans were getting involved. They were beginning to engage in the campaign in a pretty significant way, and then Super Tuesday comes along … and it slammed the door on the races, and it was like the election was moved to another planet or something. The media went away. The candidates stopped banging on doors, and the voters [lost interest].”

‘Endangered species’

Both major candidates recaptured the nation’s headlines several months later when each announced his running mate. The historic selection of a Jewish vice-presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, in particular, attracted major media coverage for several days, but Patterson says the attention is short-lived. “Come Labor Day, I don’t think [Lieberman’s selection] will be a stimulus to [voter] involvement,” he says.

The political conventions have traditionally served the party’s purpose of showcasing their candidates and their messages, and re-energizing the electorate heading into the fall campaign. In recent cycles, however, that has begun to change, with the television networks devoting fewer prime-time hours to covering the events, and fewer viewers bothering to tune in.

“[The conventions] are not a fully endangered species, but the broadcast networks have really cut back their coverage,” Patterson says. “From the standpoint of the parties, they have become very stylized, so you have the parties almost turning them into infomercials for the candidates, and the networks increasingly reluctant to take up prime time to cover them.”

Several of the major networks devoted only one hour of prime-time programming per night for convention coverage this year, and many voters simply tuned out altogether. A Shorenstein Center poll indicates that little more than a third of potential voters watched the GOP convention coverage on an average night, and more than half of those viewers said they “just came across” the coverage while channel surfing.

Reinvigorating the process

Patterson concedes the conventions have lost some of their luster, but not their importance in the campaign, considering that even in recent elections, “the point of decision for the largest number of voters is the convention period.” For that reason, he believes, the political parties are willing to examine systemic changes that will preserve the quadrennial gatherings while altering the contour of the primary season.

“I think the parties believe this primary system is broken,” Patterson says. “They may not fully agree with the way that we think it’s broken, because our perspective is that of the voter. They’ve got to look at it from what works for the party, and parties like to get through these primaries not too badly beaten up.

“[The parties] don’t want to nominate someone who is damaged, so they have an interest in holding down some of the conflict, getting it over, then having a little repair time to get ready for the general election. That doesn’t really fit with what the voters are looking for. The voters want choices, so they want the competition. They need the conflict in some ways to engage — to have the choices, to have the alternatives.”

Most alarming, according to Patterson, is the disconnectedness felt by voters in those states whose primaries fall late in the cycle, often after the races have been decided. A recent Shorenstein poll indicates that voters in New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, and Michigan score at the top of the “voter involvement index,” while those in Wyoming, Alabama, and North Dakota score at the bottom.

“I think in some ways you make a mistake if you think that the way you bring people into politics is by entertaining them, but you’ve got to make it compelling in the sense that they’ve got to feel a part of it,” Patterson says. “The way the primaries are designed, half the states really don’t get a chance to play, and that violates our general notions of fairness — one person, one vote. Everyone should get a chance to have a voice in these decisions that are going to affect them.”

In recent years, the parties themselves have begun discussing potential changes to the primary system to reinvigorate the process. Among the options are regional primaries, rotating primaries, and population-based primaries. There is also some sentiment for scheduling the primaries later in the year, closer to the conventions, to maintain voter interest.

“When you think hard about how you create a primary structure where all the voters have a choice, you probably do increase the likelihood that the primaries won’t be decisive,” Patterson explains. “And when you come down to the last dates, it might not be enough, and … you may well end up breathing new life into the conventions because they would be more likely to be deliberative in the sense of some real choices to be made.”

The more choices, the better, according to Patterson, although he admits that even the most contentious election won’t draw all the voters to the ballot box. “All [the current trends] suggest that voter involvement will continue to decline, regardless of the changes that one makes in the structure, but if you could change the structure somewhat, it would be more engaging, and at least the people who do participate would get more deeply involved.”