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The Great Voter Tune-Out of 2012

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, June 21 2012

Youth voter turnout, 2012 vs 2008 primaries (courtesy Jason Rzepka)

It's the "'meh'-ing" of the president, says Roger Simon. "The 2012 campaign is the smallest ever," says another headline in Politico. All over the political landscape, signs abound of a dismal political season.

No one seems to want to read stories about Mitt Romney, Buzzfeed reports, noting that online traffic to a variety of political websites from the conservative Daily Caller to the center-liberal Atlantic to their own buzz-machine is a tenth of the attention flowing to stories about President Obama. And lest lefties take heart in that factoid, consider the results of a straw poll taken earlier this week at the Take Back the American Dream conference, where half the progressive leaders in attendance said they were "less enthusiastic" about the election than they were in 2008.

Youth engagement in particular is down. As MTV's Jason Rzepka pointed out in his plenary talk at PDF June 12th, turnout by young voters in the 2012 primary races was a fraction of voting levels in 2008. This is not surprising given the lack of a Democratic primary battle this time. And efforts like MTV's soon to be launched Fantasy Election just might help make a few college-age kids a bit more involved, though you can only "gamify" a bad game so much, and if politics isn't saying much to young people, it's not surprising if many of them tune it out too.

Now the Pew Research Center For the People & The Press is out with a meaty new survey that confirms that voter engagement with the 2012 election is down compared to the campaign of 2008. Last time around, at this point in the race, 63% of registered voters polled said they were "more interested" in the election than previously; that's now dropped to just 48% saying they're more interested than four years ago. That is, one is six registered voters have tuned DOWN their interest in the presidential battle compared to four years ago.

The percentage saying they're following the election very closely has also dropped, from 46% in June 1008 to just 37% now, Pew reports. These numbers are still higher than earlier benchmark surveys from 1992 through 2004, but they're a clear indication that the steady rise in voter engagement that began in 2000 has not just leveled off, it's dipping.

For those of us who thought the rise of the interactive web might generate a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle of increased voter involvement in politics, these are sobering facts. Let's admit it. We're living through a new tune-out from politics right now.

What's going on? Roger Simon argues the campaign just needs a high-voltage attention-getter, and dwells on that old favorite of DC insiders, a surprising vice presidential move, such as replacing Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton. Please, wake me when that chatter is over.

Veteran reporters like Todd Purdum and political consultants like Mark McKinnon blame the hyper-insularity of the media coverage, and there's no doubt that a great deal of the political press is spending most of its attention on itself and the inside-Twitter squash game being played by both campaigns. As MacKinnon told Politico:

“This election may be remembered as the Bitter Twitter campaign. On the main issue of the economy, where the battle will be fought, it appears as if Obama’s ideas have largely been exhausted and that Romney doesn’t want to risk any bold new proposals, so we are likely to see the next [few] months as a furious and relentless exchange of messages that aren’t much longer or deeper than 140 characters.”

MacKinnon is right to bemoan how widespread Twitter use by politicos and the reporters who cover them has just intensified what has already been a closed conversation. Now instead of the proverbial "Gang of 500" celebrated by Mark Halperin, we have a gaggle of 5000. To be sure, Twitter's interactivity allows for more open give-and-take than the old game of political infighting, but the plugged-in participants in "Bitter Twitter" win by entertaining each other, not by seriously engaging a larger audience.

But I think the twitterization of America's political media explains only a tiny bit of why so many voters are turning off, again, from the elephant-and-donkey show. Rather, I see three reasons for the shift.

First, compared to 2004 and 2008, when new technologies of communication and collaboration disrupted the old order of campaigning, today's presidential campaigns believe they have remastered the art of voter manipulation and thus they have stopped being interested in sharing power with voters. And while the voters still crave genuine engagement with their (purported and would-be) representatives, we can tell when we're being used as props.

Second, it's not just the economy stupid. It's the recession along with a residual sense that the class of people who caused the crash not only have escaped punishment, they're now flooding the process with more cash to keep their status quo. I don't think we can talk about the Great Tune-Out without recalling the electric surge of public interest and political conversation generated last fall by the Occupy Wall Street protests. For a few months, American politics seemed to be opening up to a broader set of issues than are usually raised by two major parties that are both deeply beholden to Wall Street and corporate America. But that ended after an auspicious display of state police power.

The so-called "Occupy Effect" on the news is over, if you haven't noticed. There were just 52 mentions of the word "inequality" in the headline or lead of stories in major US newspapers in May, compared to 125 back in December 2011, according to NEXIS. When the news shrinks, so does public attention.

And that gets to my last point. The Democratic and Republican parties aren't necessarily interested in maximizing the number of voters who participate in the process. Right now they seem to be focused on engaging a mythic middle voter who hasn't made up his or her mind, rather than mobilizing many new voters or people who have given up on the two-party process. And most of our media does a good job of hiding this fact.

Take the polling business. Almost every question about people's current presidential preferences is what pollsters call an "aided" question. It starts with words like ""If the general election for president were held today and the candidates were Barack Obama for the Democrats and Mitt Romney for the Republicans, for whom would you vote?" That wording nudges people gently into one of two columns, and obscures the fact that many voters actually don't have an opinion or like neither choice.

Back in 2008, the GWU Battleground Poll made an exception, and regularly asked an "unaided" version of that question, which went "If the election for President were held today, and you had to make a choice, for which candidate would you probably vote." Lacking a directed choice, a stunning one out of five voters named neither Obama nor his opponent John McCain, in the August 2008 version of that poll.

What should this tell us? I think it says that people want more choices, and they want more discussion of bread-and-butter issues affecting them that go to the reality of how economic power works in America today. When a candidate or party offers that to them, interest will rise again.

This post has been corrected. It is intended to reference Mark McKinnon, the political consultant, not Mark MacKinnon, the Beijing bureau chief of the Globe and Mail. Sorry, Marks.