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Where Have All the Voters Gone?

Where Have All the Voters Gone? Series by Thomas Patterson
Part 1: Where Have All the Voters Gone?
Part 2: Why Do So Many Americans Hate Politics?
Part 3: Why Is News So Negative These Days?
Part 4: Why the Re-election of Incumbents Year After Year Is a Threat to Democracy
Part 5: Can Anything Be Done to Increase Voter Participation?

Writing in the 1950s, political observers were optimistic about the future of voter participation. Turnout had fallen sharply in 1944 and 1948. In Britain as well as the United States, partisan activity was waning. No analyst has fully explained why this had to be the case or why the wartime governing parties in both England and the United States suffered stinging defeats in postwar legislative elections.

By the 1950s, however, voter turnout was back to normal, and all signs in the United States pointed to ever higher rates. College-educated Americans were half again as likely to vote as those who had not finished high school. With college attendance on the rise, the trend appeared unmistakable. Moreover, women had been steadily closing the voting gap that had existed ever since they had gained the vote in 1920. Their turnout rate initially was not much more than half that of men; by the 1950s, the gap had narrowed to 10 percentage points. And signs of racial change were clearly evident. It would only be a matter of time before literacy tests, poll taxes, and other legal barriers to black participation were removed.

Yet, turnout did not increase after the 1950s. In fact, the period from 1960 to 2000 marks the longest ebb in turnout in US history. Turnout was nearly 65 percent of the adult population in the 1960 presidential election and stood at only 51 percent in 2000. In 2002, turnout was 39 percent in the November election and a mere 18 percent in the congressional primaries.

Fewer voters are not the only sign of the public's waning interest in political campaigns. In 1960, 60 percent of the nation's television households had their sets on and tuned to the October presidential debates. In 2000, fewer than 30 percent were tuned in.

What's going on here? Why is the bottom dropping out on electoral participation? During the 2000 election campaign, as part of the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy (www.vanishingvoter.org), we interviewed nearly 100,000 Americans to discover why they are disengaging from elections. Combined with polling data from earlier elections, this evidence provides partial answers to the puzzle of the vanishing voter.

In this article, the first in a series of five to be presented a week apart on HHN, I will summarize the effect that changes in the political parties have had. Subsequent articles will explore the impact of changes in the media, candidate behavior, political competition, and election law.

Parties and Participation

There was a long period in American history when elections were waged on economic issues powerful enough to define the two major parties and divide the public. These issues stemmed from Americans' deepest hopes and fears, and had the power to cement their loyalty to a party and draw them to the polls. That era ended with the triumph of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, which, along with Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, put in place government programs that greatly reduced the sources of economic resentment and insecurity that had fueled party conflict. A safety net for the economically vulnerable was in place, as were policy mechanisms for stabilizing the economy. An electoral majority that could be easily rallied by calls for economic redistribution no longer existed.

As the economic issue weakened, a large set of less comprehensive issues emerged. Civil rights, street crime, school prayer, and welfare dependency were among the earliest of these issues, which were followed by others including abortion, the environment, education, and global trade. All were important, but they intersected with each other in confounding ways. And none had the reach or the endurance of the economic issue. As a result, the issues of one election were usually different than the issues that had dominated the previous election or would be at the forefront in the next one.

How could the political parties create cohesive and enduring coalitions out of this mix of issues? The short answer is that they could not do so. The issues were too crosscutting and too numerous for either party to combine them in a way that could easily satisfy a following. By the 1970s, self-described independents accounted for a third of the electorate. People also found it increasingly difficult to think and talk about the parties. Americans were better educated than they had been in the 1950s, but they had a harder time saying what the parties represented. In the 1950s, less than one in ten had nothing to say when asked in polls what they liked and disliked about the parties. By the 1970s, three in ten had nothing to say.

Since then, political parties have not recovered their prominence. They are relatively weak objects of loyalty and thought, which has diminished Americans' concern with election politics. Like any other emotional attachment, party loyalty heightens interest and commitment. For its part, party awareness reflects people's ability to recognize what's at stake in election politics and the options available to them. "My mind has just gone blank," said a Florida resident in 2000 when asked in one of our surveys to describe the parties.

Americans who today have a party loyalty and an awareness of the parties have a voting rate more than twice that of those who call themselves independents and who cannot find words with which to describe the parties. That was true also in the 1950s. The difference today is that the percentage of citizens in the high-voting group is much smaller and the percentage in the low-voting group is much larger than in the 1950s. The type of citizen that votes less often has been gradually replacing the type that votes more often.

The change in party politics helps to explain why, disproportionately, the decline in participation has been concentrated among Americans of low income. Although a class bias in turnout has been a persistent feature of U.S. elections, the gap has widened to a chasm. The voting rate among those at the bottom of the income ladder is only half that of those at the top. During the era of the economic issue, working-class Americans were at the center of political debate and party conflict. They now occupy the periphery of a political world in which money and middle-class concerns are ascendant. In 2000, low-income respondents were roughly 30 percent more likely than those in the middle- or top-income groups to say the election's outcome would have little or no impact on their lives.

The change in party politics also helps to explain why candidates now have trouble crafting messages that voters find compelling. Candidates have never had so many communication weapons at their disposal, yet they have never found it so hard to frame their message. As Franklin Roosevelt's voice crackled into living rooms through the vacuum-tube radio, his pledge to "the forgotten man" had a persuasive power that today's media consultants would envy. Listeners didn't have to be told what FDR had in mind or to whom he was speaking. Campaign messages today are strikingly different in the wide range of issues they address, the contradictions they contain, the speed with which they turn over, and the small percentage of voters with whom they resonate. After their defeat in the 2002 midterm election, Democratic leaders were roundly criticized for failing to put out a message that captivated voters. However, Democratic politicians are neither stupid nor apolitical. If a simple and compelling message was readily available, they would have seized it. Such messages are today quite rare. If Republicans could not rely on their perennial "let's cut taxes" pitch-which is now closer to a fight song than a true governing philosophy-they would face the same problem.

A century ago, James Bryce worried that the growing complexity of American society threatened the parties' ability to forge and mobilize cohesive majorities. Social complexity is now orders of magnitude greater and has clearly overtaken the parties. The consequences include a lower rate of electoral participation.