- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Here’s another challenge for political strategists hoping to woo the public to their candidate’s cause as midterm elections loom: the timid voter.

Some Americans are too put off or even fearful of strident partisan divisiveness to reveal their political opinions, according to research released yesterday by Ohio State University.

What’s more, these apprehensive Americans are reluctant to publicly participate in a political campaign, via contributing money or working for a candidate, displaying bumper stickers or even calling in to a talk-radio show.

“The more political polarization there is, the greater the potential for conflict,” said Andrew F. Hayes, an assistant professor of communications and co-author of the study.

“In a polarized, hostile political climate some people decide not to participate because they’re afraid of the social ramifications of doing anything that might reveal their opinion to others,” Mr. Hayes said. “Some may be uncomfortable expressing an opinion, such as putting up a lawn sign for a candidate, when they know or speculate that their neighbors have a different political position.”

About a quarter of Americans fall into the fearful, “self-censor” category, according to the researchers, who cited myriad reasons for the behavior — from a sense of manners to fear of rejection to a lack of confidence in one’s beliefs.

“Politics has become the arena for screamers. People who want to talk rationally stay away from the public discourse,” said Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. “It’s understandable that people withdraw when 50 activist groups are yelling about their single pet issue. Ordinary people don’t want get caught in partisan crossfire.”

There are 142 million registered American voters; their turnout at the polls varies by election. Voter dismay is in evidence this season, however: Just 15 percent cast ballots in this year’s primaries — an all-time low, according to American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate. Turnout in presidential elections runs the gamut, from a low of 49 percent in 1924 to a high of 63 percent in 1960. There was a 60 percent turnout in 2004, compared with 51 percent in 2000, 49 percent in 1996 and 55 percent in 1992.

Meanwhile, those who keep their political opinions to themselves also are less likely to take part in public political activities, the OSU researchers found.

Based on interviews with 781 persons across the nation, the researchers found that timid citizens also were less likely to raise funds for or contribute money to a candidate or attend a political meeting. They also were reluctant to write to a newspaper or contact a public official about a political concern, call a public-affairs radio talk show or even talk about a particular candidate among friends or co-workers.

“People who don’t want to express their opinions in a hostile environment also engage in fewer political activities that may open their opinion to public view and scrutiny,” Mr. Hayes said.

The civic climate also has changed. What was once private is now public, particularly after campaign-finance laws were revised.

“You can go online and find out a lot about how your neighbors have donated to various political causes,” Mr. Hayes said.

Mr. Lichter also cited the role of the press in generating voter reticence.

“People witness politics in print and broadcast. Journalists don’t deny that the media overplays conflict. Louder and nastier means more coverage,” he said. “Typical citizens just don’t want to get mixed up in the mess.”


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