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Richard Morin

Voters: Take a Chill Pill

By Richard Morin
The Washington Post
Sunday, October 10, 2004; Page B05

I hope the extra $20 bucks in your paycheck is worth the craptacular job you're doing. Kiss your reputation goodbye, though it's my guess you never had one. I for one am glad to see the demise of print media, you've all become such cheap whores for the Republican party.

-- From an e-mail reacting to my Oct. 5 news story on President Bush's lead over Sen. John Kerry in a recent Post poll

_____Unconventional Wisdom_____
The Politics of Terrorism Warnings (Or, Who's Afraid of Orange Alerts?) (The Washington Post, Sep 5, 2004)
Living on the Edge (The Washington Post, Aug 22, 2004)
The Politics of Fun (The Washington Post, Jul 25, 2004)
Previous Columns
E-mail Rich Morin at morinr@washpost.com.

Whoa, now. It seems that nearly everybody's an excitable boy or girl this election year. Indeed, experts already are claiming that this year's presidential contest ranks as one of the most passionate in recent U.S. history. But there's a positive side to all this harrumphing about the toxic tone of the campaign -- it's seems likely to produce a higher turnout on Election Day, according to recent Washington Post surveys and researchers in voting behavior.

"It is almost inconceivable that people will not come out," Curtis Gans, executive director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, said recently in an interview on C-SPAN. "It is an emotional election. It is . . . a big picture election." Gans suggests turnout could be 7 to 10 percentage points higher than the 51 percent recorded in 2000 -- a level not reached since the 1960s.

Two powerful forces are spicing up this presidential race: enthusiasm and anger. While neither Bush nor Kerry are loaded with natural charisma, they have managed to spark what may be record levels of zeal among their partisans, recent surveys have found. That's one reason why public opinion polls have found interest levels running 10 to 15 percentage points higher than at a similar stage of the campaign four years ago.

More than nine out of 10 Bush and Kerry backers say they're "enthusiastic" about their candidate -- and 57 percent of Bush's supporters and 50 percent of Kerry's partisans call themselves "very enthusiastic" about their choices.

Neither the 1996 or 2000 contests ever came close to evoking that level of enthusiasm -- and there are still three weeks of hard campaigning left this year.

But there's another emotional factor in this campaign: While large numbers of partisans are cheering on their champion, a large percentage are booing his opponents. And rather loudly, at that.

About half of Kerry voters said they were dissatisfied with Bush's policies -- and nearly half reported being "angry" about the president's performance, a level of resentment that has kept Kerry competitive even when he was under heavy partisan attack during the dog days of August.

Bush voters aren't nearly so peeved about Kerry's proposals. One in five said that Kerry's policies make them angry. Another six in 10 said they were dissatisfied but not particularly angry with the Democrat's plans.

Part of the emotional pitch this year stems from leftover bad feelings on both sides from the bitter conclusion to the 2000 election. Part of it is the importance of the issues on the agenda: war and peace, the economy and jobs, international terrorism. Part of it is due to the polarizing effects of spinmeisters on both side of the partisan and ideological divide, and their take-no-prisoners style of discourse. Little wonder then that six in 10 in a recent Post-ABC News poll said this election easily ranks as the most important of their lifetimes.

Whatever the cause, the impact of anger on political activity can be profound, says George Marcus, a political science professor at Williams College in Massachusetts. In one recent study of students, he found that anger motivated them to seek out information that confirmed preexisting beliefs -- their emotional state literally "changed the way they processed information," he asserted, making them more likely to ignore contrary information and attack those who don't share their beliefs. (And it apparently inspired at least one fevered partisan to coin that wonderfully angry word "craptacular.")

Marcus also predicts that this year's big issues, combined with the level of enthusiasm and partisan anger, will bring out more voters. "Both of these emotions increase turnout," he said. "These are robust emotions that have potent effects."

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