By Michael M. Lazerow
Medill News Service
WASHINGTON – It’s not as if 49-year-old Nancy Koscher of Elkhart, Ind., doesn’t care about public affairs.
The owner of a small carpet-installation business, Koscher was forced to drop her health benefits almost a year ago after her insurance company raised premiums on her firm’s plans to more than $400 a month.
She is staunchly pro-choice, raises money for the Elkhart Red Cross chapter and closely follows her local school board’s decisions because she cares about her three grandchildren’s education.
A constant in American presidential politics in the fact that about half of all eligible voters stay home on Election Day. Since 1930 the average turnout in presidential elections has been 56 percent. The highest came in 1960, when 63 percent of the voting-age population, or 69 million people, elected John F. Kennedy the nation’s 35th president.
Koscher is one of an estimated 26 million Americans who contradict the popular stereotype of nonvoters as poorer, younger and less educated than voters, according to a Medill News Service poll for the Delaware State News.
Members of this group, which we call “The Doers,” in many ways look more like voters in their attitudes and characteristics than nonvoters.
They are educated and relatively affluent. They read newspapers and watch television news. They discuss politics with their friends and families. They write their local and congressional representatives.
But they didn’t vote.
The telephone survey of 1,001 likely nonvoters, conducted July 8-21, found that only 14 percent of nonvoters conform to the stereotype first defined more than three decades ago by Angus Campbell in the American Voter.
This group, which we call the “Don’t Knows,” largely ignores politics and public affairs, does not read newspapers and holds few or no opinions of government officials and institutions.
These groups are two of the five clusters of Americans identified in the poll as likely non-shows in November’s election. The others are:
The “Unpluggeds” (27 percent): These Americans are disproportionately young and unconnected to news events and public affairs. They are generally more skeptical than the Doers and are less likely to volunteer time to a charity.
The “Irritables” (18 percent): Avid information consumers, these Americans are angry. They are older than the Unpluggeds and the Doers, think the country is on the “wrong track” and overwhelmingly agree that “most elected officials don’t care what people like me think.”
The “Alienateds: (12 percent): They are angry like the Irritables, yet removed like the Don’t Knows. More than half of these Americans said they chose not to vote in 1992 even though 65 percent said the country had gotten off on the wrong track.
The groups, determined through a technique called cluster analysis, identified similarities and differences between segments of potential nonvoters. Though not every member of each group is identical, they share similar characteristics and attitudes that distinguish them from those in the other groups.
“The public debate now is based on a view of nonvoters that is not accurate,” said Dwight Morris, president of the Campaign Study Group, which administered the survey. “This poll addresses that and shows there’s not a single type of nonvoter.”
Some scholars worry that a declining voter base is indicative of a troubled society, one in which its citizens have lost their sense of civic responsibility.
“On the one level, as voter turnout goes down, the reservoir of volunteers for various things in our society erodes,” said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, who called voting the “lowest common political denominator.”
“And on another level it means our politics becomes increasingly dominated by the intensely interested, whether that’s big interest or narrow interest like pro- and anti-gun control and abortion,” he said.
Others are less worried.
“[Nonvoting] may reflect the declining quality of civic culture, but I’m not sure it puts us at considerable risk,” said Michael Traugott, director of the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan.
Taken as a whole, the group of nonvoters surveyed confirmed characteristics accepted by scholars for decades that the likely nonvoter is younger, poorer, less educated and less informed that the likely voter.
But some scholars said the poll indicated a widening of the socioeconomic gap in recent years.
“What we’ve seen the last couple of decades is that those demographic differences between voters and nonvoters have become exaggerated,” said Thomas Mann, an election scholar at the Brookings Institution. “It’s now the case that poor, less-educated people are even less likely to vote than they were before.”
But such a cursory analysis overestimates the rift between voters and nonvoters. A look at the attitudes of likely nonvoters shows they hold strong opinions, and many of them are not as divergent from voters as some might think, the poll revealed.
For example, likely nonvoters rated crime as the most important issue facing the country, an opinion which mirrored that of the overall population in a poll published in the New York Times in late June.
Sixty-five percent agree with the statement: “As Americans, we can always find a way to solve our problems and get what we want.” More than 50 percent agree that the federal government should play “an active role” in improving the lives of middle-income families.
“I don’t think that by and large these views are radically different from voters,” said Traugott, “although the nonvoters are somewhat more pessimistic.”
The most fascinating – and perplexing – group of nonvoters is the Doers, who tend to be more affluent and include fewer minority members than the other groups of nonvoters. These are also the most optimistic. Nearly 80 percent of them said they expected their family’s financial situation to improve over the next year.
Paul Rains of Cheyenne, Wyo., is a Doer. He regularly reads the Wyoming Tribune, watches CNN and volunteers at his 8-year-old son’s school.
Rains, 41, doesn’t vote because he says “the process is too involved” and public affairs don’t affect him.
Then there’s JoAnn Arrowood of Weaverville, N.C., an example of an older cluster of nonvoters – The Irritables. Like their name implies, they tend to be angrier than the Doers, but just as informed. Seventy-two percent of them say they read a newspaper at least four times a week.
Arrowood, 56 and married since 1961, keeps up with current affairs. She doesn’t vote, but she’s angry about taxes, the economy and inflation.
“Nationally, the economy is not really good,” said Arrowood. “Prices just keep going higher and higher. Taxes are almost impossible.”
While the Doers and Irritables are well-informed and generally interested in public affairs and politics, the Don’t Knows and the Alienated are not.
About 14 percent, or 9 million, likely nonvoters, represent a core group of ill-informed and uninterested nonvoters – the Don’t Knows. Forty-one percent of them “hardly” follow public affairs, and 65 percent read a newspaper less than four days a week.
When asked whether the country was on the right or wrong track, one in five Don’t Knows, no surprisingly, said they didn’t know or refused to answer.
Like Dottie Turner, of Rio Linda, Calif., they have decided to leave the democratic decision-making to others. In 1992, 58 percent said, they chose not to vote. And nearly three-fourths are not registered to vote.
Turner, 50, thinks the last time she voted was in 1972. But she doesn’t remember for whom she voted because it was “a waste of time.”
She doesn’t read a newspaper and doesn’t pay attention to politics and public affairs.
“I just don’t care nothing about politics,” Turner said.
Like the Don’t Knows, The Alienated are not news consumers. They make up the smallest of the five clusters, highlighting the fact that alienation is not the prominent factor on nonvoting.
But one expert, James Eisenstein of Penn State University, said alienated nonvoters would be the most likely not to have taken the time to answer the survey.
They are more likely to have a pessimistic view about government institutions and officials. Sixty-one percent said they have a favorable view of Congress, including 21 percent whose view is “very unfavorable.” No more than 11 percent in any other group expressed a very favorable view of Congress.
Kris Hoffland, 19, of Madison, Wis., is indicative of a younger group of nonvoters called the Unplugged, which comprise 27 percent of all nonvoters. Not one member if this group read a newspaper daily. Only 6 percent read a paper three or four times a week.
Hoffland, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, is more interested in the rock band Phish and snowboarding than in who’s elected president.
“I’m working and going to school trying to make enough money to get by and be successful at school,” said Hoffland, who has a summer job at an engineering company in Madison.
“I don’t think the older candidates can sit down and see how screwed up things are and see it from the perspectives of someone who’s trying to figure it out,” he said.
One reason Hoffland and other younger Americans don’t vote is cultural.
“It takes a while to develop a sense of attachment to a community, certainly to a point where you become an explicit taxpayer,” said Traugott, who expects many younger Americans like Hoffland will vote when they are older.
Experts have said for decades that inconvenience and mobility are among the leading reasons people traditionally give for not voting.
“We need to keep in mind that the United States is a relatively difficult place to vote because of the requirements of registration and because our population is a highly mobile population,” said Traugott of the University of Michigan.
Yet the poll uncovered little consensus among nonvoters about why they may not vote.
Twenty percent said they didn’t vote in 1992 because they were not registered. Another 12 percent said they didn’t like the candidates, and 12 percent were not old enough.
Mobility did not seem to be a major reason people don’t vote either: 66 percent of the likely nonvoters have lived at their present address for more than two years. And only 14 percent of the likely nonvoters said they were not registered to vote because they recently moved.
The most common reason people gave for not being registered was that they “don’t care much about politics,” which was given 21 percent of the time.
Walter Dean Burnham, a government professor at the University of Texas, argues the dwindling voter participation is a result of weakened political parties. The Democratic party, he said, he shifted from a “class, ethnic, ward organization, doorbell ringing type of politics toward the new wine-and-cheese liberals.”
This thesis was supported by the poll, which found less than half of all likely nonvoters had favorable opinions of both parties. Forty-six percent described themselves as independents and 32 percent think there’s not much difference between the two parties.
But 54 percent of likely nonvoters, like Rains of Cheyenne Wyo., don’t think there should be a third major political party or didn’t feel strongly either way.
“I don’t believe we should have any more parties involved because it makes it more complicated,” said Rains, 41, a subcontractor who says he earns $31,000 in a good year. “Look at Israel, they have so many different parties that they can never get a majority to decide anything.”
Gans also cited the decline of party identification as a reason people don’t vote. But he is adamant that television is destroying the civic fabric of the country by making people “spectators and consumers of politics rather than participants and stockholders.”
He refers to what he calls “the atomizing effects” of television on society.
More than half of the likely nonvoters read a newspaper less than four days a week. But 68 percent reported watching the evening news at least four days each week.
In the end, if nonvoters share similar views and characteristics with voters, does it matter that people don’t vote?
“Because our surveys indicate that if all the nonvoters turned out at the polls, the outcome of the election would not have been altered,” said Mann of the Brookings Institution. “I think we have a claim to say our government is not falling apart.”