Does Apathy Trump Political Divisions? | Commentary
In 2014, Democrats defended Senate seats in seven states where President Barack Obama lost to Mitt Romney by an average margin of 16.5 percent in 2012. In the end, after approximately $4 billion spent, Democratic candidates lost those races by an average margin of 15.7 points — about a 1 percent difference from the presidential two years earlier. Democratic candidates outperformed the president’s job performance in nearly all of these states, but it wasn’t enough. Voters still tied congressional candidates to the president, and presidential and congressional voting converged like never before.
Local politics have become increasingly nationalized, and split-ticket voting in House and Senate races appears like a thing of the past. Candidates and campaigns still matter, but swing voters are disappearing, straight-ticket voting is on the rise and partisan identities are becoming increasingly homogeneous.
According to a study out last month by Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster of Emory University, voters across the country are increasingly motivated by their animosity and negative feeling of the opposing party.
The evidence suggests a political divide is growing in America. But does the evidence suggest Americans are growing more political? Are we more or less focused on our political differences or other aspects of our lives? There are several indicators that suggest while our politics may be more divisive, perhaps people have turned away from politics and are less focused on it as part of their daily lives.
First, let’s look at voter participation. While voter turnout rates in presidential elections have stayed relatively constant — between 49 percent (in 1996) and 57 percent (2008) since Richard M. Nixon’s re-election in 1972 — this has been entirely due to increasing turnout rates among seniors. Participation among all other age groups declined, especially with those aged 25 to 44.
In 2014 we saw a dramatic drop, leading to the worst voter turnout in 72 years. In California, 5.9 million voters who voted in 2012 stayed home. In Virginia, a battleground state, nearly 1.7 million fewer voters went to the polls. In New York, where there were three statewide races and 27 House races on the ballot, less than 30 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
Second, growing public antipathy runs deeper than mere distaste for a do-nothing Congress. While it is well known that Congress’ approval ratings are at an all-time low, Americans are increasingly unfavorable toward the Supreme Court as well. Nearly half of registered voters now have an unfavorable view of the court — a stunning 19 point increase over the past 14 years.
Third, more Americans are eschewing traditional political identities, as the Emory report notes, choosing not to affiliate themselves with one of the two major parties and identifying themselves as independents. Younger voters are especially prone to self-identifying as independents. Pew has also showed that as both parties have fallen in popularity, the number of self-described independents has grown dramatically.
Finally, fewer people are consuming political news, even when adjusting for the medium and especially among younger Americans. Fewer Americans read newspapers, but readership online and in print is also lower among young adults 18-24 by about 10 points. Likewise, viewership for the State of the Union address has been steadily declining, while ratings for the Super Bowl continue to rise. Five times as many Americans watched the Super Bowl this year compared to the State of the Union.
Civic engagement, political participation, political news intake and party identification all appear to be declining. Americans may be more divided when it comes to our politics, but these trends indicate that Americans are turning away from politics.
Despite the growing animosity that partisans have for their opponents, most Americans are not obsessed with political discourse or engaged in day-to-day combat. They are spending their days elsewhere, and we should too. Policymakers and politicians should be speaking to what unites us — criticizing the policies of their opponents, not the people who advocate for them. It is not a prescription for healing our political divide or winning crossover votes, we may be too late for that, but it is a strategy that reflects the public’s exhaustion with politics as usual.
Matt Canter is senior vice president at Global Strategy Group, a political polling and public affairs firm. He previously served as deputy executive director and communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2014.