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Why Are Americans Less Involved in This Year's Election?

Why Are Americans Less Involved in This Year's Election?

As noted by my colleague Jeff Jones in his recent review, Americans' collective thought given to this election is lower than has been the case in the two most recent midterm elections in 2010 and 2006. Likewise, enthusiasm and self-reported motivation to vote are also down. The differences are particularly large compared with 2010, with a drop of 13 percentage points in thought given to the election, 18 points in motivation to vote and a drop of nine points in enthusiasm.

At the same time, as we all know well by this point, Americans have extraordinarily negative views of Congress across a variety of measures. Thus, we can say that this negativity is apparently being transmuted by voters into apathy rather than action. One might hypothesize that voters would be energized to vote in an effort to get rid of members of Congress and effect change. Instead, we find that Americans, on a relative basis, are in fact not displaying any unusual signs of heightened interest in the election - despite their high level of disdain for Congress.

There are many reasons why this anomalous situation exists. We know that Americans can be very negative about the body of Congress as an institution, yet at the same time are much more positive about its individual members -- particularly from their local area. That paradox helps explain -- at least in part -- why incumbents in general get re-elected in overwhelming numbers. It may also explain a lack of interest in elections in general, since there is relatively little emotion (the mother's milk of politics) involved in routinely re-electing one's nice, local member of Congress.

But there may be several other reasons why interest in this particular election is down.

As Jeff Jones pointed out in his analysis, this is an election in which the public doesn't have a clearly obvious way to change things with their vote -- given that control of Congress is divided. In 2006 and 2010, the public could focus its disdain on the one party that controlled both houses of Congress -- the Republicans in the former, the Democrats in the latter. Now, with Republicans in control of the House and Democrats in control of the Senate, it is more difficult for voters to know whom to blame, and therefore more difficult for them to figure out if voting for a Republican or a Democrat would bring about the most change.

It's also important to note that there is no one single, overarching problem this year that can serve as a focused motivator for Americans. As I noted, emotion drives politics and turnout, and a clear focus on a dominant issue provides an easy way to shorthand what's involved in an election and, in turn, engender collective emotions. But, at this point, Americans' perceptions of the most important problem facing the country are splintered. Our latest October update provides a long laundry list of problems volunteered by average Americans, ranging across the economy, dysfunctional government (more on that below) and then a list of single-digit concerns including healthcare, immigration, the federal deficit, declining ethics, education and more recently Ebola and the situation relating to Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq. The highest individual problem mentioned (the economy in general) gets just 17% of mentions. Economic problems overall net out at 38%. Lots of issues, but none dominate.

In 2010, by contrast, what was really bothering Americans was the economy. In fact, fully 69% of the most important problem mentions in October 2010 dealt with the economy, almost twice what it is now. Plus, although it didn't show up in the open-ends to a great extent, conservative Americans in 2010 were focused on their reaction to the recently passed Obamacare legislation. Back in 2006, the dominant problem was the war in Iraq, garnering 28% of all mentions, making it the single most important problem mentioned. In 2006, economic concerns netted out at only 19%, half as much as is the case today.

So, the theory goes, in 2006, Democrats in particular had a galvanizing issue in the Iraq war, which functioned to increase their emotional motivation to get out and vote, and in 2010, Republicans were motivated by their concerns over the economy, coupled with a reaction to the Obamacare plan that had been passed earlier that year. This year, the issues are more spread out, and that means a lack of concentration of effort on one issue that could serve as an emotional rallying focus point for voters. Hence, relative apathy.

Finally, I would say it's reasonable to entertain the hypothesis that Americans may be less interested in the elections this year than in the previous two elections because they have reached the point where they don't believe their vote for a specific person, of either party, is going to change much. As noted previously, the second most frequently mentioned individual problem in the country today, according to the people, is dysfunctional government. The way government works and does not work also ranks high on the list when we measure the importance of a series of problems to this specific election. We recently asked Americans what the new Congress should do after the dust settles from this election and the new crop of people take over in January. Americans are most likely to say that the new Congress should figure out how to work together, how to get things done and how to listen to and represent the people. These are not specific issues, but general procedural concerns. In other words, the people are more interested in the broad issue of fixing government than any particular, more partisan issue.

All this makes it possible that voters think it may not matter who controls Congress, since they doubt that a lot will change as a result. The people feel that Congress is broken, and most likely feel that it tends to stay broken as elected representatives come and go. So it's certainly possible that some voters are less than overwhelmingly enthused about voting this year, because they care less about the issues dividing Republicans and Democrats, and care more about the big picture concern of fixing the institution as a whole.

In 2010, the stars were aligned differently. The Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, both of which had passed the Affordable Care Act, there was a great deal of dissatisfaction with the state of the economy, and dysfunctional government was lower on the list of most important problems. Now, there is a divided Congress, no one dominant problem to generate emotion, and record levels of concern about the government and Congress in particular -- all of which may be contributing to the lower interest in the midterm election that we are seeing so far this year.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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