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Robert Bennett: Why the low voter turn out in 2012?

Published: Monday, Nov. 19 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

A sheet of "I voted" stickers waits for voters who have finished casting their ballots as poll workers check identification and sign in voters during the first day of early voting at the Washington County Administration Building in St. George, Utah Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012.

Jud Burkett, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Post mortems on the election are everywhere, but one fact I had missed until a pollster pointed it out during a recent panel discussion is that voter turnout in 2012 was well below 2008 and almost below 2004. President Obama was 7 million votes off his 2008 pace, and Mitt Romney got nearly 1 million fewer votes than John McCain. Their total vote was less than a million more than the Bush-Kerry total in 2004. Amazing, given the fact that the number of Americans of voting age has grown substantially in the intervening eight years.

The pollster was asked, "You've told us about the attitudes of those who did vote; have you polled those who didn't, to find out why?" His answer: "No, because it is impossible to get a representative sample of non-voters." While that may be technically true, survey work on the issue has been done. Some years ago, Harvard published a book titled, "The Vanishing Voter," which said there were two primary trends behind diminishing participation in American politics: a weakening of the role of political parties and a general denigration of politics in the media.

Why would weakening parties cause vote totals to go down? Because political parties exist to get out the vote. Everything they do is tied to the message — "Vote for our candidates." At one point in our history, using door-to-door canvassing methods, they had near-monopoly status as the primary, if not the sole, organizations in charge of getting people to vote. If you hurt their ability to do that, lower voter participation is a logical consequence.

The role of traditional party methods in elections started to fade with the rise of mass media. (I remember the outcry from old-line party leaders when Gen. Eisenhower's campaign started buying TV ads. "They are selling him as if he were a bar of soap!") Local party organizers were replaced by media consultants and pollsters. Then campaign finance reform laws further undermined parties' ability to control campaign budgets by limiting the amount of money individuals can give them. Large political contributions shifted to outside groups, such as the Super PACs of various ideological stripes who run nasty negative ads. Polls show that such ads can disgust many potential voters enough to make them stay home.

As for the media, journalistic negativity about politics and politicians is far stronger now that cable TV covers "the news" — even when there is none — 24 hours-a-day. Something must be put on the air to fill up all that time and ratings surveys show that audience attention is held more easily with stories that shock, disgust and arouse indignation. Ideological pundits attract big followings by ridiculing and belittling, with plenty of web sites on the Internet backing them up. Potential voters who are not ideologically in any particular direction tune all this out, convinced that both sides are nutty, and often stay home.

Here is the irony of the voter turnout story of 2012: One of the major factors contributing to the Obama victory was his get-out-the-vote apparatus, a modern, electronic version of the old party door-to-door canvass. Headquartered in Chicago, it took years and millions of dollars to construct. Exit polls suggest that the effect of all the super PAC ads was nil — "a huge waste of money" — because they washed each other out through overkill on both sides. As experts talk about turnout in future elections, will 2012 be seen as the pivot point when the job of getting people to vote began to shift away from mass media and back to the parties themselves?

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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