- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2004

Every election year the chattering classes bemoan the unfortunate state of American politics. To wit, the slow and steady decline of voter turnout, mixed with the alarming rise of “attack” ads, has produced a disillusioned electorate that is wary of the political system. If one listened to these naysayers, one would think that the Gauls were bearing down on the gates. Fortunately, as a recent Cato Institute report finds, the barbarians are nowhere in sight.

In “Three Myths about Voter Turnout in the United States,” John Samples, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Representative Government, has found that the “myth” of declining voter turnout is largely exaggerated and does not reflect the actual state of American civic-mindedness. To be sure, compared to 60 percent-plus eligible voter turnout in presidential elections during the 1950s, current turnout is low. However, as Mr. Samples highlights, to say that the trend is “slow and steady” is misleading: “[A]lmost the entire decline happened between 1968 and 1974,” Mr. Samples writes. In those years, voter turnout in presidential elections dropped almost 10 percentage points. Since then, however, turnout has kept relatively steady, oscillating between 61 percent (1992) and 51 percent (1996). In off-year elections, the data reads about the same, between 38 percent (1978 and 2002) and 42 percent (1982 and 1994).

As Mr. Samples notes, the pessimists attribute the lower turnout to a general malaise among the American electorate resulting from a rise in soft-money contributions. The report found otherwise. “Soft money contributions, recently banned by [the McCain-Feingold campaign reform law], were said to be the epitome of the influence of money on politics,” the report says. “The soft money exception to federal election law came in about 1979. Shortly thereafter, trust in government began to rise, which directly contradicts the conjecture that ‘big money’ causes mistrust in government.” Coincidentally, the two election years when Americans’ trust in government began to increase (1980 and 1994) were years that the winning candidates ran on conservative limited-government messages.

“For intellectuals,” Mr. Samples writes, “television runs a close second to campaign contributions as the pathogen plaguing American democracy.” Indeed, “ugly” campaigning has defined much of this election year. So, can we expect a lower-than-normal voter turnout? According to the report, absolutely not. Looking at the years when negative ads began to dominate, Mr. Samples finds exactly the opposite: “[T]he sharpest decline ever recorded in the tone of presidential campaigns is associated with the largest rise in voter turnout in the 30-year period studied.” The year was 1992 and the candidates were President George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Perhaps then the state of American politics is a matter of one’s personal opinion. At the same time, negative campaigning is part and parcel of American elections. One of the dirtiest campaigns ever was between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. For better or worse, American politics is as it has always been — and Americans seem to prefer it that way.

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