Not only do Americans see politics as increasingly noxious, but that growing level of nastiness is dissuading Democrats and independents from showing up on Election Day, according to the the third, and most recent, poll on civility in politics from the Center for Political Participation (CPP) at Allegheny College.
Some 63 percent of respondents in the latest civility poll, conducted during the last four days leading up to the November midterm elections, believe politics has become less civil since President Obama took office nearly two years ago. This is up from 48 percent in the April survey, and up from 58 percent in a second poll conducted in September, two full months before the midterms.
“You have to remember,” says Daniel Shea, director of the CPP, “our first wave of polling was done immediately following the health care reform vote. Things were rather hot in Washington. The dramatic increase in the perceptions of negativity since then is stunning. Things have gotten even worse.”
A full 46 percent of registered American voters in the November poll said this year’s election was the “most negative they had ever seen.” An additional 26 percent said that it was “more negative than in the past,” but they had seen worse. Only 4 percent said that campaigns were more positive than in the past.
“Sure, memories are short and it’s common for all of us to think the most recent election was the worst,” says Shea. “But these polling results are powerful. Nearly three out of four people believe this election was one of the nastiest they have ever seen.”
Some 30 percent of all registered voters questioned in the poll reported that the tone of the midterm elections made them less interested in becoming engaged in the process. Independents and Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to say they were less interested due to the tone. Indeed, a majority of Republicans who say that the 2010 election was the most negative they had ever seen said the uncivil tone would actually push them to participate. Additionally, African-Americans—who on the whole are loyal to Democrats—were much more likely than all Americans to say that negative campaigning made them more interested in getting involved in elections.
Another sore subject for voters was the role that so-called “outside money” -– through which interest groups not located in a particular district flood a race with ads, mailings and phone calls — has played in campaigning. Just less than 60 percent of respondents oppose this practice. Democratic respondents were more opposed to outside money (69 percent) than independents (57 percent opposed). A majority of Republicans (51 percent) also oppose this practice.
“It’s a bit early to know with certainty, but early evidence suggests a strong majority of outside money was aimed at helping the GOP retake control of Congress, and a vast majority of these ads were hard-hitting and negative,” Shea says. “It would make sense that some of these ads actually revved up GOP voters.”
A majority of voters (64 percent) polled in November say that the degenerating tone of politics is unhealthy for U.S. democracy. Only 17 percent think the tone of campaigns is healthy for our democracy, while 14 percent think the tone has little impact on democracy. Eighty-seven percent of Democrats who viewed 2010 as the most negative election said that incivility in politics hurts our democracy. Independents and Republicans also see a detrimental effect, with independents at 78 percent and Republicans at 72 percent.
Although a majority of African Americans and Hispanics believe the negative tone of campaigns hurts American democracy, these groups (55 percent black, 50 percent Hispanic) were less likely than whites (67 percent) to consider this as harmful to democracy.
Even so, the November poll finds that voters remain optimistic about candidates’ ability to run positive campaigns. Nine out of 10 registered voters believe it is “possible for candidates to run for office in aggressive, but in respectful ways.”
“This percentage actually grew by 5 percent from our mid-September poll,” says Michael Wolf of Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne, co-author of the study. “Just because the public views campaigns as brutal, particularly this year’s, doesn’t mean they think it has to be that way. At least for now there remains some optimism out there.”
The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.