Where Have All the Voters Gone?

tags: presidents



Mr. Patterson is the Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The article is derived from his recently published book, The Vanishing Voter (Knopf, 2002).

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.

 




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Angel Latina Gassett - 3/12/2005

explain five political parties in the united states and how each is different from each other


Bud Wood - 1/10/2004

The usual baloney promulgated by the political system which needs all the support that it can get.

It just doesn't make much difference who or what gets in office. The results are more of the same.

But no, I'm not apathetic. I am looking for the time when no one shows up at the polls and the perverted system fails totally.


Lila Rhodes - 10/18/2003

The presidential candidates are already on television thirteen months before the general election. It becomese a very Chinese- water-torture of repetition before we finally arrive at the election. Could it be that by next fall many potential voters will be so nauseated by the over-coverage that they will be saying "A curse on both your houses?"


Robert Klassen - 11/22/2002

Ah, but I do what I can without participating in political crimes against mankind. I write books that favor economic government, instead of institutionalized force and fraud.


Alvin Lowi, Jr. - 11/22/2002

Mr. Patterson fails to notice that Americans actually vote more regularly and enthusiastically nowadays than at any time in theirs or anyone else's history. They do so without any hypothetical class distinctions and in a purely democratic manner in a process in which all participants may and usually do win to some degree. This arena of power is the economic marketplace where consumers rule producers as opposed to being ruled by politicians and their client factions. Politics has become passe because people are increasingly aware that politics is merely a masquerade and they are choosing more practical and less dangerous affections. In truth, politics never could deliver on its promises regardless of the "issue," and more people are beginning to realize the political participation only encourages more of the same.


Stephen Thomas - 11/22/2002

If you refuse to participate in politics, then how can you expect to see any change in your favour? If you do not vote, then there is absolutely _no_ chance that you'll ever have your opinions heard. And writing a letter to your Representatives won't help...after all, they don't represent you. Are you content to sit back and grumble about how pathetic and hopeless the situation is, totally abstaining from the one conceivable mechanism for change? If anything, that's resigning to your fate of "war, welfare, injustice, the police state, and the American Elite." Do you really want to brand yourself as such a coward? It seems to me there's plenty that upsets you...why not channel your energies into motion for change? Don't give up; there's a movement out there for you that needs your help.

At least vote for write-ins, for crying out loud. That's the least you could do. Or when voting is completely removed from the dwindling list of rights afforded to American citizens, you won't know what you've lost.


Robert Klassen - 11/22/2002

I refuse to sanction forced redistribution of wealth. I refuse to sanction war, welfare, injustice, the police state, and the American Elite. Therefore I refuse to participate in political government; I refuse to vote.


J. Morgan Kousser - 11/22/2002

There's one big data problem with the turnout decline thesis: Michael McDonald and others have pointed out that the surge in immigration since 1965 has added many non-citizens to the denominator usually employed to determine turnout. If they're excluded from the denominator, then the turnout decline since 1960 is much more modest. Which denominator did Patterson use?
There's also a striking paradox. In the 50s, there was much less difference between the parties in Congress or the state legislatures than there is now. Not since Reconstruction have the parties differed so systematically on so many issues. Yet many voters seem to see less difference than voters used to see, not more. Is this because recent pundits sneer at all politicians and networks and newspapers don't report as much about Congress and legislatures as they did in the 30s and 40s?


Paul N. Hehn - 11/21/2002

Most of what Professor Patterson says is true, but does not tell the whole story.
Most glaring is the feelling on the part of many people--particularly the lowest strata of American society--that
most people in that class --and others as well-- feel the two parties are the same virtually and that whatever happens their situation will not change. Electoral politics holds no interest for them. It may very well have exhausted its possibilities.
Probably the arena for social change has shifted to the streets. That's what occurred in the 60s. Iraq may
provide the next great battleground for social change This time it will be economic, hence more difficult. I notice that Lapham the editor or publisher who runs the Atlantic Monthly and who seems to have a social conscience referred to those who actdually run the country as "the Oligarchy." By that he meant the corporate power now running the country in an invisible way. That's the r eal problem--we are run by an oligarchy. And they have their think tanks and other intellectual
armament rationaizing why that's as it should be.


James Thornton - 11/19/2002

Not voting is casting a vote for the status quo.


James Jefferson - 11/19/2002


This piece raises important questions and fails to answer them.
Maybe the sequels will.

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