July 13, 2000

Voter Turnout May Slip Again

II. Voter Engagement

Tuned Out

The presidential campaign is not on the minds of most Americans. Fewer than half of registered voters (46%) say they have thought a lot about the election. That represents a modest decline from a similar point in the campaign four years ago (when 50% said they gave the campaign a lot of thought) and a substantial decrease from June 1992, when 63% were fully engaged.

Interest in the campaign is down among nearly all demographic groups, but particularly among younger voters. The percentage saying they are giving a lot of thought to the election has declined by more than 20 percentage points among those under age 50 since 1992. The decline in interest among young people has been most pronounced among the well-educated: In June 1992, 68% of 18-34 year-old college graduates said they had given a lot of thought to that year’s election. Today, just 39% agree.

By comparison, there has been a smaller decrease in interest among older Americans. Today, 55% of registered voters age 65 and older have given a lot of thought to the election, down only eight percentage points from 63% in 1992.

Interest in politics has changed slightly along partisan lines compared to 1992, when the GOP was the incumbent party and the Democrats were challenging. In 1992, just 17% of Republicans were following election news very closely, compared to 23% of Democrats. Today, 28% of Republicans and 24% of Democrats are paying close attention.

Few Familiar with Positions

Lack of interest in the campaign is also reflected in limited public awareness of candidate positions. When asked which candidate has proposed building a missile defense system and reducing the number of U.S. nuclear weapons, even if Russia refuses to do the same, only 18% correctly identified Bush, while 20% incorrectly guessed Gore.

Slightly more people correctly identified Gore as the candidate who has proposed using surplus Medicare funds to protect the program’s future and Bush as the candidate who has proposed allowing workers to invest some of their Social Security contributions in stocks and bonds. But the vast majority were in the dark on these questions.

Unfamiliarity with specific policy positions taken by the candidates does not signify a complete lack of attention to the campaign, however. Fully 40% of respondents correctly identified Tipper Gore as the candidate’s wife who has spoken out about the need to help Americans with mental illness.

Men typically are more familiar with candidate policy positions than women. But as many women as men are aware of Tipper Gore’s activities (42% of women, 39% of men). Moreover, older voters consistently do better than younger ones at identifying candidate positions and campaign events.

Do Elections Still Matter?

Not only are many Americans turned off by the current campaign, a significant number say it doesn’t much matter who is eventually elected. Nearly half of Americans (49%) believe things will pretty much stay the same regardless of who is elected; less than half (45%) say that, as far as making progress on the important issues facing the country is concerned, it really matters who wins the 2000 presidential election.

While there is a clear generational divide on these questions, with younger people more skeptical that the election matters, education and income are also important factors. For example, 57% of those whose education ended with high school say conditions in the country will be the same regardless of who is elected in November. That compares to only 38% of college graduates.

Independents are more likely than party loyalists to express doubt about the election’s significance. Fully 37% of independents say it doesn’t make much difference who’s elected president, compared to 28% of Democrats and 23% of Republicans. Similarly, 58% of independents say things will be the same regardless of who is elected in 2000, vs. 45% of Democrats and 41% of Republicans.

Beyond that, fully one-third of the public believe that Gore and Bush do not have well-defined policy differences. This perception is strongly linked to feelings about the importance of the upcoming election. Among those who say the candidates have similar issue positions, 62% say things will remain the same, regardless of who wins in November. Among those who perceive the candidates as having different positions, only 38% hold this view.

Attitudes Associated with Voting

The diminished relevance of the election in many citizens’ minds is one factor contributing to the possibility of low voter turnout in this year’s election. Fully 81% of likely voters feel that it makes a difference whether Bush or Gore is elected, while only 56% of unlikely voters agree.

A more exciting campaign over the coming months still might serve to drive up voter participation in November, as voting is strongly connected to interest in the campaign. More than a third (37%) of likely voters say the campaign has been interesting so far, compared to only 19% among those less likely to vote. By comparison, evaluations of the quality of the campaigns and press coverage have little effect on the likelihood of voting.

For Non-voters: It’s the Candidates

Taking a longer view, Americans generally blame the poor quality of candidates and an aversion to getting involved in politics as reasons they don’t always vote. Fully 72% of those who do not always vote say it is because they sometimes don’t like any of the candidates, up from 65% in 1992. This increase has been most dramatic among non-voters age 50 or older, who now express nearly as much dissatisfaction as younger voters. In 1992, just 55% said dissatisfaction with candidates was a reason for not voting, compared to 68% today. Among those under age 50, 73% list dissatisfaction with candidates, compared to 68% in 1992.

Indeed, those who are least likely to vote in this election are slightly less satisfied with the Gore-Bush match-up (59% satisfied) than those who are likely to vote (66% satisfied).

In addition to dissatisfaction with the candidates, a growing proportion of non-voters express a distaste for politics as a reason for sitting out elections. Today, 36% say not wanting to involve themselves with politics is a reason for not always voting, up from only 24% in June of 1992. Independents, in particular, are finding politics a turnoff. Today, 40% give this as a reason for not voting, compared to only 23% in 1992.

Among other factors cited for not voting, fully 47% of those who don’t always vote say they could make more of a difference by getting involved in the community than by participating in elections. This view is more prevalent among younger people and liberals than older Americans and conservatives. Almost half (49%) of those age 18-29 who don’t always vote say they can make more of a difference getting involved in the community than by voting in elections; 40% of those age 65 and older agree. More than half (53%) of those who don’t always vote and identify themselves as liberals feel this way, compared to 43% of non-voting conservatives.

However, people who give this reason for failing to vote are not necessarily more likely to involve themselves in community activities. Only 49% of respondents agreeing with this reason for not voting report actually doing volunteer work for a church, charity or community group, compared to 52% of the general public.

Relatively few cite difficulty getting to the polls (26%) or the complications of registering (13%) as reasons for non-voting. By comparison, 64% of people who don’t always vote say not knowing enough about the candidates is one reason for their non-participation.

Many Young People Unregistered

Despite the declining interest in this campaign, more general measures of voter involvement — such as registration and propensity to vote — have changed little over the past few elections. Currently, three-quarters of Americans report being “absolutely certain” they are registered, compared to 73% in June 1992. When asked specifically about this year’s race, more than eight-in-ten (84%) of those registered to vote are “absolutely certain” they will vote in November’s election, compared to 88% in 1992 .

Age, more than income, education and party identification, continues to be the most critical factor in registration and voting patterns. Only 55% of those age 18-29 are registered, compared to 87% of those age 50 and older. Barely half (54%) of those age 18-29 say they plan to vote this fall, compared to 80% of those age 50 and older.

Well-educated and high-income Americans also register and vote at higher rates than those who are less educated and have lower incomes. More than eight-in-ten college graduates (82%) say they are “absolutely certain” they will vote in November’s election, compared to only 66% of high school graduates and 52% of those with less than a high school education. Similarly, three-fourths of those with household incomes over $50,000 say they are sure to vote in the fall, compared to only 61% of those making under $30,000.

Registration rates and voting intentions are highest among Republicans, with 85% registered and 82% planning to vote. By comparison, 79% of those who identify themselves as Democrats are registered, and only three-fourths say they are certain to vote this fall. Independents lag even further behind, with only 64% registered and 55% planning to vote. Women are just slightly more likely to be registered than men (76% to 73%) and to be certain about voting in this year’s election (71% to 68%).

Voting Via Internet

Almost half of the public (47%) would choose voting over the Internet or voting by mail over a voting booth if they had a choice. Almost one-quarter (24%) specifically would prefer the Internet. Young people would much rather use the Internet as a voting tool. Some 46% of men age 18-29, and 41% women age 18-29 would prefer to vote over the Internet. More independents (31%) would like to vote over the Internet than Democrats (19%) or Republicans (24%).

Disabled Voters

For the most part, voter registration and intentions to vote are as high among people with disabilities as in the rest of the population. There is one important exception: Those who identify themselves as having physical, mental or emotional conditions that increase the difficulty of learning, remembering or concentrating report lower rates of registration and regular voting than the general public.

However, Americans with vision or hearing loss and conditions which limit physical activities are just as likely to be registered to vote as the general population and as likely to say they always vote in elections. The survey explored the possibility that the older age profile of people with disabilities masked a turnout problem among them, as older people turnout at higher rates than younger people. But even when age was taken into account, only minor differences in registration and intention to vote were observed between disabled and non-disabled Americans.

While disabled people vote at relatively high rates, they more often cite getting to the polls as a barrier to voting compared to the general public. Among those who do not always vote, 44% of people with conditions that impair physical activity mention this as a reason for not voting. By contrast, only 26% of the public cites this as a reason for not voting.

Disabilities are measured on the survey using definitions from the U.S. Census. Overall, 21% of respondents identified themselves as having at least one of the three types of conditions listed, with 7% citing vision or hearing impairment, 14% citing conditions that limit physical activities, and 6% citing mental or emotional conditions.