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    Money Talks

    Why They Don't Vote

    By Dwight L. Morris
    August 25, 1996

    By the time the last checks are written on the 1996 campaign, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole and the Republican and Democratic nominees contesting 435 House races and 34 Senate races will have collectively spent more than $250 million on television and radio advertising. They will have pumped roughly $60 million into printing and distributing glossy brochures, and spent nearly $20 million on polling to measure the quixotic moods of the electorate. The national Republican and Democratic party organizations will have spent perhaps as much as another $70 million on advertising, polling and persuasion mail in direct support of these candidates, and millions more in indirect support.

    If the past is any indication, roughly 88 million Americans will simply ignore this massive public relations blitz and decide that they would rather hit the mall or go fishing than take the time to cast their vote on November 5. According to a poll released last week by Northwestern University's Medill Journalism School and WTTW Television in Chicago, the problem is not that these no-shows are all stupid, detached from party politics, or hate government. (In the interest of full disclosure it should be noted that the poll was designed, conducted and analyzed by my firm, the The Washington Post Company).

    Many nonvoters are like Jason Caldwell, a 29-year-old roofer from suburban Kansas city. Caldwell doesn't hate politics, he loves it. He works on the campaigns of his favorite local candidates, helping to rally support by passing out bumper stickers and yard signs. He actively follows his Congressman's voting record and regularly fires off letters to register his opinions. But he made a conscious choice not to vote in the 1992 presidential and congressional elections, and he's not sure that he'll voter this November. "I didn't like any of the candidates, and I'm not going to vote for someone I don't believe in," he said.

    Kris Hoffland, a 19-year-old sophomore communications major at the University of Wisconsin, doesn't connect with any of the issues that are likely to find their way into television ads over the next three months. Hoffland says he reads a newspaper or watches a television newscast only two or three times each week. He did not closely follow the news about either the terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 American soldiers or the White House handling of FBI files on prominent Republicans. "The big platform issues aren't the ones that I have an opinion on," he explains.

    The last time Terril Printy voted for president she got so nervous that she pulled the wrong handle. It was 1988, and the lifelong Republican accidentally cast her vote for Democrat Michael Dukakis. The experience was so horrifying she hasn't voted since. "Experience has taught me a lesson," the 49-year-old resident of Montrose, Iowa noted. "Even when we vote, we have no control over what's going on in government."

    Kelly Michael Smith only watches the news when he can't find a good baseball or football game on TV. "I love my Mets, and the 49ers are the best," explained the 39-year-old single father from Dayton, Washington.

    Smith occasionally picks up a copy of his local newspaper, but between working various odd jobs, taking care of his 7-year-old son Skylar, and tracking the Mets and 49ers, he doesn't have time to monitor either local or national politics. "I'm too busy trying to survive," he laments.

    Although Smith has lived in the same house for more than two years, he is not registered to vote. And while his search for work has temporarily taken him to California, South Dakota, and Arizona at different times over that time span, he doesn't view his mobility as the major impediment to registering. "I've always had it in my mind that I should," he said. "I might just do it this year, but I've got so much going on right now."

    Maralynn McDonald, a 69-year-old resident of Oceanside, California, can no longer remember the last time she voted, although she can tell you that the last president she trusted was John F. Kennedy. Since she doesn't like her current alternatives, she has already decided against voting this year. "It's discouraging when you find out how [politicians] actually live and fool around and all that stuff," she complains. "They make it sound like they're trying to do something, but they never actually do."

    In short, while the poll found that likely nonvoters are disproportionately younger, less educated, and financially less well off than likely voters – all consistent with the stereotype of those who opt not to vote – the survey also showed quite clearly that nonvoters are a not a monolithic group. In fact, there are five distinct types of nonvoters:

    • Nearly three out of ten (29%) of the likely nonvoters can be described as "Doers." They are disproportionately young, even for nonvoters. Nearly half (48%) of all Doers are between the ages of 18 and 29, and another 32 percent are between the ages of 30 and 44. While 38 percent of all other nonvoters report 1995 household incomes of $30,000 or more, 55 percent of Doers had incomes that high. Fifty-five percent of Doers said they have attended college, including 23 percent who have a college degree. The comparable college attendance figure for all other nonvoters was 40 percent. They are more likely than other nonvoters to have contacted a federal, state, or local politician to express their views. They are also more likely to have written a letter to the editor of their local newspaper, attended a political meeting or rally, or volunteered their time to a charity or other non-profit organization. They are avid information consumers who follow politics regularly. Compared with other nonvoters, they have a relatively upbeat opinion about politicians, political parties and political institutions. Doers also tend to have a much greater sense of self-efficacy – 71 percent disagreed with the statement, "success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control."
    • Another 27 percent can be described as the "Unplugged." Like Doers, the Unplugged are disproportionately young – 81 percent are younger than 45, including 46 percent who have not yet turned 30. However, that is one of the only characteristics they share with the Doers. They are far less educated than the Doers, with 63 percent reporting that they have a high school education or less. They read newspapers and watch television news far less regularly than the Doers, and are much more likely to say they follow politics "hardly at all." They rarely discuss politics with family members or friends and are much less likely than Doers to have taken the time to write their elected representatives, contact their local newspaper to express an opinion, or volunteer their time to a charity. Although 13 percent claim to have voted in 1992 and 52 percent say they will definitely or probably vote in November, 68 percent are not currently registered to vote.
    • Eighteen percent are what we call the "Irritables." Like the Doers, Irritables are avid news and information consumers. With the exception of the Doers, Irritables say they follow what's going on in government and public affairs more than any other group of nonvoters. However, unlike Doers, they have a largely negative view of the politicians and political institutions that govern them. One-third (33%) of the Irritables are 45 years old or older. Other than the Doers, the Irritables have the second highest household incomes, with 48 percent earning $30,000 or more. Twenty-five percent of all Irritables have a college diploma, tops among the five clusters. Sixty-five percent of the Irritables think the country has "pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track.
    • Fourteen percent of the likely nonvoters can be classified as "Don't Knows." These are the truly information-deprived. They have little or no interest in politics and their answers to the questions in this poll usually represent complacency or a self-professed lack of knowledge. They are the least likely of all nonvoters to be registered to vote. Nearly one-quarter (24%) of this group is comprised of people who have not graduated from high school, with another 40 percent having a high school diploma. More than half of the Don't Knows (52%) reported 1995 household incomes of less than $30,000. Only the Alienated and the Irritables are older on average; 15 percent of the Don't Knows are between the ages of 45 and 64, and another 12 percent are 65 years old or older.
    • Only 12 percent of nonvoters can be described as "Alienated." More than half (52%) said they "chose not to vote" in 1992, and 31 percent told us they will "definitely not vote" this November. They had the most negative views of all five groups concerning politicians, political institutions, and the impact of elections. Only 11 percent of this group are college graduates. They are also disproportionately older, with 38 percent saying they are at least 45 years old. Sixty-three percent of the Alienated report 1995 household incomes of less than $30,000 – making this group the poorest of the five clusters, on average.

    Few, if any of these people are likely to be moved by the $400 million bombardment that the candidates and national party organizations are unleashing on them. Political strategists themselves suggest that among those who will vote, 80 percent have already made up their minds. What the next few months are about, what the entire $400 million advertising, persuasion mail, and polling blitz is about, is identifying and wooing that 20 percent of the likely voters who have not yet made up their minds – just 11 percent of the eligible electorate. And some say there is not enough money spent on politics.

    This article originally appeared on the PoliticsNow Web site.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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