Why Voter Turnout May Hit Record Low In Campaign 1996

Sigh. The two young ladies slump back on the ledge outside the White House gate when asked about their interest in the election campaign.

"I liked the first debate," says Christina Smiley, a Bob Dole fan. But GOP vice-presidential nominee Jack Kemp "didn't keep my interest" in the second debate, adds the Alexandria, Va., resident.

Her friend, a Bill Clinton supporter, is more blunt: "I'm ready for it to be over. I'm sick of all the mud-slinging."

The only buzz these days about the 1996 campaign is the lack of buzz.

Viewership of the conventions and the debates is way off compared with four years ago. Network news time devoted to the campaign has plummeted, as has front-page treatment in major daily newspapers. The second and final presidential debate will offer one more test of public interest.

Among citizens who intend to vote at all, the percentage who have thought "quite a lot" about the election has declined from 63 percent four years ago to 48 percent now, according to a survey last month by the Pew Research Center here.

What's behind this development, and what will its impact be? Will Republican voters who have given up on Dole just stay home, hurting GOP candidates all the way down the ticket? Will Democrats also stay home, on the assumption that President Clinton has the race in the bag - a possibility that keeps Clinton deputy campaign manager Ann Lewis and Democratic candidates "down ticket" awake at night?

Political historians are looking at the possibility of the United States electing a president with fewer than 50 percent of eligible voters bothering to turn out. This has happened only twice in this century, in 1920 and 1924, when Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge were elected.

The only silver lining on the turnout question is that millions of new voters have registered since the last election, because of the "motor voter" law that simplifies registration. So even if the percentage who turn out is comparatively low, the raw numbers could be high.

But what's stunning about this year's election ennui is that just two years ago, the story was "angry white males" ready to throw the bums out of Congress. For the first time, the Speaker of the House of Representatives himself couldn't win reelection in his district. In one of the great political upheavals of the century, the Republican Party seized control of both houses of Congress.

Now, the discussion is polite: Maybe the Democrats can eke out a majority in one or even both houses of Congress. But somehow 1994's tsunami of political discontent has dissipated.

The lack of intensity this year is a result of several factors, say political analysts. A major piece, says Republican pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, is that "we're just in a nonhistoric, nongalvanizing time. We're not looking for major change."

The economy is performing well by traditional standards. The nation is not at war. The long-term problems the nation faces - such as the impending bankruptcy of Medicare and Social Security - are sufficiently far in the future that, in voters' minds, they haven't yet reached crisis levels.

But another piece of the explanation, says Ms. Fitzpatrick, has to focus on the sense of demoralization that many voters feel. "A lot of the sentiment that was out there in 1992 and '94 is still there, but many people aren't looking to politicians to make things better," she says. "It's part of the post-O.J. feeling that the system just isn't working," she adds, referring to the fact that many Americans believe O.J. Simpson literally got away with murder.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the Claremont Graduate School in California, notes that Clinton and the 104th Congress did, in the end, break their gridlock and get some things done. They passed a popular health-insurance portability bill, they raised the minimum wage, and set in motion a historic reform of the welfare system.

"Things are moving in a way they didn't appear to be moving in '92 and '94," says Ms. Jeffe.

But as for this dull presidential campaign.... Analysts say the media, the voters, and the candidates share equal blame for the lack of public interest. Clinton's been ahead of Dole in just about every opinion poll taken this year. He's running out the clock and taking no chances. Dole is hampered by the good economy and a stultifying campaign style. And Ross Perot, who four years ago was an entertaining and provocative newcomer on the political stage, has this year been cut down to size by an electorate that now holds him at arm's length.

Voters also have come to see the presidential selection process as so predictable and scripted that many believe it doesn't matter who's elected. A recent poll by the voter education service Project Vote Smart found that 30 percent of likely voters don't believe they will be directly affected by the outcome of the election.

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