Even at the height of the primary season, a majority of Americans said they were not paying close attention to the presidential campaign, according to a poll released yesterday by the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
The poll, part of the center's "Vanishing Voter" project, shows that only 13 percent of Americans were paying "a great deal of attention" and another 18 percent "quite a bit" of attention to the race in the week before the March 7 Super Tuesday primaries. The poll was conducted March 1 through 5.
More than 70 percent of respondents agreed with a poll question that "politics in America is generally pretty disgusting."
Marvin Kalb, the executive director of the Shorenstein Center's Washington office and co-director of the Vanishing Voter project, said that the poll results showed that Arizona Sen. John S. McCain's candidacy grabbed voters' attention.
"Starting in January there was a definite increase in interest," Kalb said. "That increase in interest rose rather dramatically after the New Hampshire primary...for a period of about three weeks until Super Tuesday. When it became clear that the two candidates were going to be Bush and Gore and that McCain and Bradley were pulling out, interest began to fall rapidly."
Tami S. Buhr, research coordinator for the Shorenstein Center, said the low numbers have to be looked at in perspective.
"Our polls are nationwide," she said. "The way the nomination process works, it's the opposite--a series of sequential elections. The level of turnout in these states show it was an exciting campaign when it got to your state, but nationwide, it still wasn't exciting."
Across the nation, 55 percent of those polled called the campaign "boring," while only 25 percent thought it was "exciting."
Buhr said that the Shorenstein Center team was surprised by the extent of the public affection for McCain.
Of those respondents who agreed that politicians are willing to say anything to get elected, 31 percent considered McCain an exception--10 percent more than any other candidate.
A quarter of those who said politicians do not deserve respect--26 percent--called McCain an exception, along with 27 percent for Texas Gov. George W. Bush and 28 percent for Vice President Al Gore '69.
Mattie J. Germer '03, coordinator of Harvard Students for McCain, noted that Bush and Gore have recently tried to claim McCain's "reformer" mantle.
Bush has called himself "a reformer with results," and Gore declared this week that campaign finance reform would be a central theme of his campaign.
But Germer said she doubts the two "establishment, legacy-oriented candidates" will succeed in attracting McCain voters.
"People are drawn to those issues, but it comes down to the idea of integrity," she said.
The Vanishing Voter project has tracked public interest in the campaign with a "voter involvement index," which combines the percentage of respondents who say they are interested in the race and who have talked, thought or read a news story about the campaign in the past week.
As of March 5, the index stood at 38 percent, a tie for the highest figure to date. Interest rose sharply after New Year's and began climbing steadily before the New Hampshire primary and then before Super Tuesday.
But Kalb expects the index to fall in the coming weeks.
"The fact that the numbers seem to correlate so closely with a single personality suggests that the American people were and now once again are essentially detaching themselves from the presidential campaign," he said. "It may induce a very low turnout in November, which I suspect is going to be the case."
The Vanishing Voter project is an unprecedented effort to track voter engagement--a yearlong series of weekly nationwide polls. Kalb said that no such project has ever been undertaken.
"What we are attempting to do is to put a stethoscope on the popular pulse," he said.
Buhr said the Shorenstein Center plans invite party leaders and the media to a conference in April to discuss the results of the study and issue possible recommendations for the 2004 campaign.