Setting the record straight concerning low voter turnout

Setting the record straight concerning low voter turnout

John Samples

EVERY YEAR as Election Day approaches, especially during presidential campaigns, critics of American politics decry low voter turnout. They note that it has declined steadily since the halcyon days of the 1960s. Some trace that drop to the baleful influence of “big money'” on voters, The large sums raised and spent by both parties are said to alienate voters and discourage participation. After all, if campaign contributors run the show, why bother to vote?

Other critics argue that sharply critical advertising (so-called negative ads) discourages voting by fostering cynicism about the political process. Some self-styled reformers contend that the harm done to democracy by big money and negative ads justifies government efforts to restrict campaign finance and regulate the tone of campaign commercials. In sum, critics believe the decline in voter turnout is a sign of sickness in the body politic and that limits on political liberty are needed to save the patient. The critics’ diagnosis, however, is wrong and their cure unnecessary.

Some pundits have made a profession of studying and lambasting the failure of Americans to live up to their political obligations. Curtis Gans, an analyst often quoted on this issue, has written of the country’s “disintegrating democracy,” where “the nation that prides itself on being the best example of government of, for and by the people is rapidly becoming a nation whose participation is limited to the interested or zealous few.”

Complaints about voter turnout come in two versions. Sometimes, critics say that the U.S. turnout is among the lowest in developed nations. That is accurate. Many countries in Europe have a higher percentage of voters. Yet, the differences between U.S. and European voting levels are not necessarily a problem. Why should the U.S. be judged by European standards? We have a different history and political culture than most el Europe. Government is smaller in the U.S., and politics matter less to the society and its citizens.

Moreover, has turnout in the U.S. really been declining steadily? Experts traditionally have measured voter turnout by dividing the number of voters by some measure of potential voters. They have gauged potential voters by the voting-age population of a state, a number easily obtained from the Census Bureau. That procedure does paint a picture of a nation slowly abandoning the polls. However, that way of measuring turnout is misleading.

Political scientist Michael McDonald has shown that the number of Americans actually eligible to vote progressively has become smaller than the number of Americans of voting age. In 2004, for example, McDonald estimates that the U.S. will have 17,500,000 people of voting age who are not eligible to vote. In estimating voter turnout, this difference changes everything. Calculations based on eligible voters (not the voting-age population) show that turnout in presidential and off-year elections has remained roughly flat for about 30 years.

McDonald confirms that voter turnout has gone down from its peak in the 1960s, though it has been higher than many experts have thought. However, the decline has not been slow and steady. Instead, turnout has followed two paths, one relatively high in the 1950s and 1960s and a lower path after the mid 1970s, Turnout dropped into the second, lower path between 1968 and 1974. The trend since the mid 1970s has been flat or slightly downward.

A road divided

The two paths of turnout provide a clue to their cause. A cause of the decline must have either increased or decreased sharply from 1968 to 1974 and then have maintained that larger or smaller value liar the next 30 years. Campaign spending does not fit either scenario: spending has risen steadily since the 1960s. In addition, negative advertising has varied in ways that undermine the belief that such communications have driven down turnout.

Why would increases in campaign spending cause declines in voter turnout? After all, candidates, parties, and groups spend money to bring voters to the polls. They spend money to stimulate turnout of potential supporters, not suppress it. One might expect that more money would lead to higher, not lower, turnout.

People concerned about voter turnout maintain that increases in campaign spending discourage voting by fostering cynicism. For example, a Federal court recently argued that “a failure to regulate the arena of campaign finance allows the influence of wealthy individuals and corporations to drown out the voices of individual citizens,” leading to a “political system unresponsive to the needs and desires of the public, and causing the public to become disillusioned with and mistrustful of the political system.”

The leader of Common Cause told the Rules Committee of the Senate that “large contributions buy access and influence in all aspects of legislative decisionmaking. And that is exactly why [citizens] are becoming increasingly cynical about their democracy.”

As to the first conjecture, over the past 40 years, the National Election Studies Center has asked the following question every two years: “How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right–just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?”

A response of “just about always” or “most of the time” shows high trust in the Federal government. Since 1958, the proportion of Americans showing high trust in the Federal government has declined overall. Although the trend is downward, trust in government has declined and risen twice since 1958. The first decline began in 1964 and ended in 1980: the second began in 1986 and ended in 1994. Trust rose for a few years after 1980 and has risen continuously since 1994. Once again, campaign spending does not correlate well with public trust: Spending has risen continually since the early 1970s while trust has gone up and down.

Soft money contributions, recently banned by law, were said to be the epitome of the influence of money on politics. The soft money exception to Federal election law came about in 1979. Shortly thereafter, trust in government began to rise, which directly contradicts the conjecture that “big money” causes distrust in government.

Trust started downhill again in 1986 and continued to decline until 1994. The partisan of campaign finance regulation might be tempted to conclude that the “abuses” of soft money became clear only in 1986 and, along with the Iran-Contra scandal, caused a decline in trust. Unfortunately for that theory, soft money began to grow in 1995 when Pres. Bill Clinton and his advisors raised such contributions to pay for an extensive advertising campaign designed to prepare the ground for his reelection. In other words, just at the moment the alleged soft money abuses started, trust in government and its functions began to rise.

In general, if we look at soft money spending in presidential election years, we find a positive relationship between it and trust in the Federal government. Other public opinion data support a similar conclusion. For example, the number of Americans who agree with the statement “People don’t have a say in what the government does” dropped like a stone during the period when soft money fundraising rose rapidly. By 2002, the number agreeing with that statement was near its all-time low. The same can be said of the number of individuals who believe that public officials do not care what people think or who answered “not much” when asked “How much does the government listen to the people?” Public belief in the responsiveness of the government appears to have risen during a period of increased campaign spending and soft money fundraising.

Step back again from the trust data. When did trust in government go up? In 1980 and 1994. What happened in those two years? Outsiders promising limits on government and lower taxes won the presidency and the Congress. Overall, increases in trust are associated strongly with declines in the Federal government’s share of the nation’s wealth. Moreover, both years saw victories by Republicans, the party that traditionally raises and spends more money on elections. If campaign spending causes distrust in government, why has trust in government gone up only when the political party associated with raising and spending a lot of money on campaigns has won watershed elections? Could it be that money has little if any effect on trust in government?

More sophisticated analyses support that conclusion. Other factors affect public confidence in government far more than campaign finance, according to political researchers Nathaniel Persily and Kelli Lammie. They have found that Americans’ “confidence in the system of representative government”–specifically, their beliefs that government officials are not “crooked” and that government is “run for the benefit of all”–are associated with their positions in society, their general tendency to trust others, their beliefs about what government should do, and their ideological or philosophical disagreement with the policies of incumbent officeholders. For Persily and Laramie, any regressions indicate that “trends in general attitudes of corruption seem unrelated to anything happening in the campaign finance system (i.e., a rise in contributions or the introduction of a particular reform).” Other factors, not campaign finance, seem to cause declines in public confidence in government.

For intellectuals, television runs a close second to campaign contributions as the pathogen plaguing American democracy. Analysts note that most campaign spending goes to television ads and that campaigns have “turned increasingly hostile and ugly.” Attack ads, the argument continues, have “become the norm rather than the exception.” Aesthetics aside, critics have tried to link such advertising to declining turnout. Others claim that private financing of campaigns fosters negative ads and that limits on spending would improve the tone of public discourse.

What is a negative ad? The term rarely is defined explicitly. Pundits use it to mean any advertising that attacks or is critical of an opponent. “Negative campaigning focuses on the weaknesses and faults of the opposition: the mistakes they have made, the flaws in their character or performance, the bad policies they would pursue.” As two experts remark, “Negative campaigning is not lying and stealing and cheating; it is criticizing the opponent.” Positive campaigning, in contrast, emphasizes the merits of a candidate and the beneficial policies he or she would pursue. Looked at this way, negative advertising provides valuable information to the electorate. Some people believe negative advertising harms democracy by driving down voter turnout. Am they correct?

Given that voter turnout dropped in the early 1970s, we would expect campaigns to have turned negative at that time and remained so. Steven E. Finkel of the University of Virginia and John G. Geer of Vanderbilt University examined most televised presidential ads since 1960 and rated each as positive or negative. The fact is, advertising during presidential campaigns became progressively more positive from 1964-76, the latter year being the most positive in tone of any campaign from 1964-92. The year turnout collapsed, 1972, fell during the time of a rising tone of presidential campaigning. While the tone of presidential campaigning declined after 1976, turnout has remained essentially flat. In fact, the 1992 election featured both the best voter turnout after 1970 and the worst tone of all the years measured.

Put another way, the shin-pest decline ever recorded in the tone of presidential campaigns is associated with the largest rise in voter turnout in the 30-year period studied. Negative campaigning does not correlate negatively with turnout by eligible voters. In fact, the data suggest the opposite conclusion.

A moment’s reflection suggests several reasons why negative ads would boost turnout. First off, they contain relevant information for a voter, and scholars long have known that more knowledgeable voters are more likely to participate. Negative information helps voters discriminate between candidates and thereby gives them a reason to go to the polls. Finally. negative messages may stir up voters, creating more enthusiasm and involvement in an election and, perhaps, a desire to learn more about the candidates In addition, criticism of an opponent–particularly strong criticism–sends a message that something of substance is at stake in the election, that its outcome matters, and that this is a choice voters should care about.

Tough critical electoral advertising does fall short of the norms of the seminar room, but those norms am unrealistic for a nation in which most people do not care much about participating in politics. Voting involves costs and benefits to citizens. In the U.S., many people appear to believe that the costs outweigh the benefits. More citizens might vote if the costs of voting were lower. One major cost is gaining information about the candidates and issues at stake in an election. Negative ads provide relevant, critical information in a brief, easily grasped format. Far from being pathological, the brevity and tone of electoral ads lower the costs of voting.

Slinging the mud

Political scientists Kenneth Goldstein and Paul Freedman have studied negative ads by using a commercial database that identifies where and how often a campaign commercial appears. They coded each ad in the 1996 presidential race as positive, purely negative, or contrast (ads that have positive information about their sponsor and negative claims about his or her opponent). They also obtained data about when and where the ads ran and the television viewing habits of individuals in various parts of the country.

They found that positive ads have no effect on turnout but “negative ads have a significant and substantial mobilizing effect.” The increases in turnout brought by negative ads more than offset the decreases caused by the overall volume of ads. More concretely, Goldstein and Freedman looked at the progressive effects of negative ads on the likelihood that an “average voter” would go to the polls. Overall, exposing the average voter to heavy doses of negative ads would, all things considered. increase his or her likelihood of’ voting by over 10%. Exposure to lighter doses–an “average” exposure, for example–would bolster the probability of voting by three percent.

Social scientists have become quite skillful and sophisticated at measuring the effects of advertising on citizens. Their conclusions about negative ads are clear: They do not not harm American democracy or its political culture. If negative ads did not exist, fewer people might well turn out to vote. If negative ads did lower turnout, what could government do? Some people contend that Americans should consider the tradeoff between free expression and voter turnout. suggesting that government regulation of ads may be warranted. Citizens may want to consider that, but any government regulation of negative ads would involve controlling the content of speech, which the First Amendment forbids.

Even if we bracketed the constitutional questions, some research suggests that boosting turnout through ad regulation would require distinguishing “useful negative information” (which boosts turnout) from “shrill mudslinging” (which discourages voting). Should government be given the power to distinguish good and bad negative ads? Would not “mudslinging ads” simply be defined as those that effectively criticize the individuals or groups who have the power to regulate campaign advertising? That likely outcome highlights the wisdom of the phrase “Congress shall make no law” in the First Amendment. If negative ads were a public problem–and the evidence says they are not–the best policy response would be criticism and shame, coupled with vigorous media reporting and evaluation of campaign advertising.

Limits on negative ads also would make American elections less competitive. Any limits on attack ads inevitably favor incumbents. Those who already hold office begin their reelection campaigns with enormous advantages in name recognition and resources. Incumbents also benefit from the value voters put on experience. They do not lose unless challengers find some way to become known in a district and to call into question the incumbent’s record. Challengers may use positive ads to make their names more recognized by voters, but calling the incumbent into question requires criticism that is sharp and memorable. Challengers certainly hope to convince people of their own virtues, but they are not likely to get far without directly undermining support for the incumbent. Not surprisingly, researchers have found that 18% of voters could name something they disliked about an incumbent who won reelection; in contrast, in districts where incumbents lost, 46% of voters could name a reason to dislike the officeholder.

A study of Senate elections makes a similar point. Researchers Richard Lau and Gerald Pomper looked at races from 1988 to 1998 to see who used negative appeals to voters. Taking all things into account, they found that challengers in general, candidates in open seat races, Republican candidates, candidates with less money than their opponents, and candidates facing negative campaigns were more likely than everyone else to use negative appeals. These conclusions suggest that negative ads are a tool for candidates facing an uphill battle–individuals likely to lose unless something changes. Challengers and candidates with less money (often the same persons) obviously need some weapon to fight their battles. Negative ads are that weapon.

Many things are taken for granted in American politics–and none more than the belief that voter turnout has decreased steadily over the past 30 years, largely as a result of a noxious combination of big money and negative ads. Voter turnout is lower than it was in the 1960s, but almost all the decline came between 1968 and 1974. General data as well as careful studies of the causes of voter turnout indicate that neither campaign finance nor negative advertising has alienated voters and kept them away from the polls. No justification exists for limiting the rights of citizens to donate to campaigns or fund political advertising as a way to promote voter turnout.

John Samples is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Representative Government, Washington, D.C.

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