Art & Commerce: Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Do voters vanish because elections bore them?
In this presidential election year, we are embarked on a bold experiment in democracy. This may come as a surprise, since the drone of this presidential campaign, already in its fifth month, hardly qualifies as mildly interesting, let alone bold. But that’s the point. Never before has the nation’s electorate been asked to endure the politicking of two uncontested presidential nominees for the better part of a year.
Can democracy withstand a campaign so excruciatingly long that voters die of boredom long before election day?
How boring is this campaign? So boring that, since John McCain dropped out, pundits have been reduced to months of feverish speculation as to who will be the vice presidential candidates. So devoid of substantive differences between the Democrats and Republicans, the latter party doesn’t plan on mentioning its opponent at the convention later this month.
Instead, the Republicans plan what sounds like an Up With People concert, thus confirming the public’s suspicion that there really is nothing at stake in the presidential election. So why campaign for so long?
At the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, scholars have been investigating voter ennui in a research study called the Vanishing Voter Project. Leaving aside the sticky matter of the study’s title, which presumes the results in advance of the research, the weekly surveys the center has been conducting since last November suggest that the voter, if not vanished, has gone on vacation.
The center’s “voter involvement index”–or, more accurately, noninvolvement index–peaked around Super Tuesday at an unremarkable 45 percent and has limped along ever since in the mid-teens to mid-20s.
According to center figures, as of early July, 34 percent of those surveyed did not know who they would vote for. This is in stark contrast to many other polls which show only 5 or 6 percent undecided. But we can hope the center’s figures are more accurate, since its research also shows that anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of respondents have no idea where Bush stands on gun control or Gore on school vouchers, indicating it may be a tad premature for Americans to have made up their minds.
The lesson of these numbers is that today’s presidential race is much like the hockey season. For months, the National Hockey League teams battle, scores are kept and rankings of the winners and losers compiled. But like election polls, the results are meaningless, telling us nothing about who the champion will be. No one but the hockey wonks pay attention until the playoff season begins.
This campaign’s “regular season” would be meaningless but for one thing: money. The budget of a small Third World country has been poured into a campaign that no one is watching–and the commercials have hardly begun.
The moneyed parties that foot the bills are the only ones whose interests are served by endless electioneering. And the more bored and distracted the voter is, the more they like it.
Remember when the presidential election “officially” began on Labor Day? The tradition was established in the days of smoke-filled-room politicking at the once-decisive late-summer conventions.
Why are the conventions held in late summer? Because with all due respect to the Highest Office in the Land, the American people don’t need more than two months to decide who should be president.
Sixty days is ample time for voters to tune into the stump speeches, evaluate the candidate bios, clue into the issues and check out the commercials, while eight months is a mind-numbing, criminally expensive bore.
Thus, the blissful ignorance about the presidential campaign exhibited by a large majority of voters may signal a dangerous, deepening indifference to electoral politics.
Or, it may be an exhibition of good sense–harried citizens facing endless demands on their attention wisely husband their resources until the playoffs, when it really counts.
This assumes that as Election Day nears, voters will begin to focus. It is also possible, though, that citizens will be so inured to the background chatter of presidential politics that they’ll never be roused.
Since there has never been a contest as long as this one, no one knows. The bold experiment, like the Energizer Bunny, just keeps going and going. K