Nonvoters in America 2012

A Study by Professor Ellen Shearer
Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications
Northwestern University

Survey Conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs

When Barack Obama was elected to a second term as president on Nov. 6, 2012, about 58 percent of the eligible voters participated in the decision – about 4 percent fewer than cast ballots in 2008. It was the first time turnout for a presidential election had dropped since 1996.

About 126 million Americans voted in 2012, but about 93 million didn’t, which begs the quadriennial question: Can a democracy survive without the active participation of more than 40 percent of its members?

That question is one that the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications has investigated since our landmark study of nonvoters in 1996: “No-Show ’96: Americans Who Don’t Vote.” That survey of 1,001 nonvoters identified five distinct types of nonvoters, all with different reasons for not voting and different ways of engaging in or avoiding civic affairs.

In 2000, Medill revisited the topic, surveying 1,053 people who didn’t vote on Nov. 7 that year and adding a sample of 859 voters. In addition to finding the same clusters, that research also identified Now and Then voters, an amalgam of the 34 percent of 2000 Election Day nonvoters who said they frequently voted and the 35 percent of 2000 Election Day voters who said they sometimes didn’t vote. This cohort indicated that nonvoting is not necessarily a chronic disease.

Now, in a 2012 post-election online survey of 1,170 nonvoters and 516 voters that I commissioned thanks to the generosity of the Proteus Foundation, it was clear once again that nonvoters do, indeed, reflect the stereotype of being younger, less educated, less engaged and less affluent citizens than voters.

But that monolithic description obscures important differences among nonvoters that are crucial to understand for those trying to better engage these citizens in the public debate and entice them into voting booths on future Election Days as well as for media organizations trying to find ways to engage and interact with audiences while offering the information they need to participate in public affairs.

This new survey has found six distinct groups of nonvoters whose members view politicians, the political process and parties, government and the news in quite different ways. The clusters are different compared with those found in 1996 and 2000, although there are areas of overlap. The most distinct difference was the appearance of the cluster I dubbed the “Active Faithful,” middle-income news consumers who are civically engaged and are very active in church and volunteer work and have very favorable attitudes toward religious institutions.

The 2012 survey does show, as did the 2000 Medill survey, that the nonvoter label clearly slips on and off a sizeable segment of the voting age population from election to election. While 42 percent of nonvoters in 2012 said they never vote, 31 percent said they vote now and then or most of the time. Meanwhile, 14 percent of voters said they hardly every vote or only vote now and then.

Summary Report 12-13-12 (pdf download)

Summary Report 12-13-12

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