Sunday, February 1, 2009

Why People Don't Vote Down Ballot

This country saw a huge increase in voter registration this year, and even bigger increases among younger voters, people of color, non-college voters, as well as college students, and unmarried women. These groups of newly registered voters are politically progressive and disproportionately Democratic. The problem progressives faced in 2008, just as in prior election years, is that not all of this energy was transferred to down ballot races.

A recent EMILY's List survey conducted by Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group shows that 65 percent of younger people believe whoever is elected President will make "a lot of difference" in their lives; this number drops to 32 when asked about Governor and 26 percent when asked about Congress.

Nationally, approximately 15 percent of voters fail to complete their ballot. In recent research, GQR looked at drop-off ballot voters, voters who indicated they may not finish the ballot. They accounted for 13 percent of the electorate, but this number increased sharply among younger voters, African Americans, lower income, and less educated voters. In fact, 59 percent were either Democratic or lean-Democratic voters. What this means is that from one-fifth to one-quarter of the most progressive voters regularly do not mark their down ballot races. This is a problem that Democratic Candidates face in Collin County as well as nationally.

Here is the EMILY's List study report:

In order to understand why voters drop-off, and also to test possible messages to encourage down ballot voting, EMILY's List commissioned two pairs of focus groups among newly registered voters in North Carolina. These groups included African American and Caucasian young people who were screened to only include those who registered to vote this year and identified as either Democrats or Obama voters. As is always the case with focus group research, the results are qualitative and not statistically significant. Nonetheless, the results, in concert with other quantitative data, provide real learning on how to engage newly energized voters to vote down ballot.

In this research, EMILY's List measured the potential impact of various approaches to encourage down ballot voting including (1) linking other candidates to Obama, selling them on the notion that every leader needs a "team" behind him, (2) probing their support for straight party ticket voting, and (3) exploring more comparative approaches where the message attacked Bush and his down ballot allies and remind these voters that Bush may be gone, but his ideas and policies could outlive his administration. Generally speaking, this messaging was tested as potential Internet and television ads, rather than a message battery, an approach that better reflects how voters experience political messaging in the real-world. The study used story-boards rather than fully produced advertising.

Main Findings

  1. Disengagement with the down ballot among some voters is real. These young people impressed us with their ability to recall very specific details about Barack Obama and his plans for the country. For example, several participants could recite his plan for dealing with student debt and his plans for the economy, energy and education. They knew all about his background and all of them watched the convention speech. But they knew almost nothing about candidates running for other offices. Less than half could identify who was running for Senator and Governor; fewer knew who was a Democrat and who was a Republican. Most details on what issues and themes the statewide candidates advocate in their campaigns were lost on them entirely. What is striking about this outcome is that several of these candidates have been up on television for several weeks prior to these groups.
  2. People resist the idea of casting an uninformed vote. Consistent with other research that we have conducted among young people and other under-represented groups, such as unmarried women, the disincentive to vote down ballot is less about "my vote won't matter" or "this office does not matter," than the concern they will vote for the "wrong" candidate. It may not be enough, even for these strong Democratic and pro-Obama groups, to simply know the party label of down ballot candidates. Importantly, their threshold for "knowing" a candidate was fairly modest. One participant recalled walking into the polling station during the primary and talking to a candidate running for school board. This woman noted only that she was a teacher. For this young person, that was enough and she completed the primary ballot.
  3. Straight party ticket voting is not attractive for many in the groups. In some states, one obvious solution to the down ballot problem is "pulling the party lever." However, young people in both groups resisted the straight-ticket option emphatically. It violated their own sense of autonomy and would mean voting for someone they do not know anything about, which is the reason why they resist voting down ballot in the first place.
  4. Young people do understand that the other offices are important and have a greater direct impact on their lives. However, this is not a top-of-mind perception among many participants in our groups. As noted above, they know almost nothing about other candidates running for statewide office. When reminded of the importance of some of these other offices, not only to a would-be Obama administration, but also to their own lives, there is a bit of an "oh yeah" moment. This is something that needs to be reinforced.
  5. Young people understand implicitly that Barack Obama needs a "team" and needs allies down ballot to change the country. To state the obvious, transferring top-of-the-ticket energy down ballot should involve specific references to the Democratic nominee. In stopping drop-off among progressive targets, candidates need to be linked to Obama. The concept of a "team" is powerful, but it is also important to understand that this is not simply about partisanship. For many newly registered voters, electing a "Democratic team" is less appealing than electing a team that will address their issues and concerns.
  6. There are some risks associated with using the Obama brand. These risks emerged in reactions to some of the advertising where young people found the linkage to Obama either disrespectful in some cases or irrelevant in others.
    • Obama's standing as the head of the ticket needs to be respected. In one treatment, the ad asked young people to vote for the candidate for senator, governor and then, President. Participants noted the order and found it off-putting that Obama was identified last.
    • The link between Obama and down ballot candidates needs to be explicit. One treatment began with an image of Obama, but the copy and rest of the ad focused more on down ballot candidates. Some in the groups accused the ad of a "bait and switch," enticing them to look at an "Obama" ad that was really about other candidates.
    • Also, reflecting the Obama campaigns field efforts, the Obama image and likeness is ubiquitous in the lives of young people and people of color. This is particularly true online. Many say they get an e-mail from the Obama campaign or one of his allies just about every day. While the image and standing of this nominee represents a very strong brand, it is also a bit over-exposed.
  7. As is obvious for anyone dealing with many new registrants and newly energized voters, reaching these voters is very difficult. They are less likely to watch network television, do not really read their mail and one quarter of young people do not have a land-line telephone. Unmarried women are more likely to move. People of color are less likely to have a consumer history that puts them on consumer lists. The media environment is also noisy and crowded. Young people in particular live under a riot of stimuli from television, the Internet, PDA's and cell phones. They are online all day, rely on texting to communicate with their friends and spend hours on social networking sites.

    This leaves the Internet as the best option for reaching many of these voters, but progressives need to understand its limitations. Almost everyone in the groups belongs to a social networking site, mostly "Facebook," and "MySpace," but they tend to ignore ads on the sites. Only a handful ever recall clicking on an ad or even seeing an ad on a social networking site. Most of these ads, they say, are about mortgages and dating sites that do not have anything to do with them.

There is no perfect solution to reaching some of these voters. It will likely require some combination of television and Internet advertising. In terms of message, there are approaches in the groups that worked well and others that did not work well.

What Worked

Speaking to the issues and priorities of newly energized voters. Republicans who complain about the "celebrity" appeal of Barack Obama just do not get it. Many voters, of course, are drawn to Obama's sweeping language, his history and powerful oratory, and what his election means for this country socially. In the end, however, he also speaks to their issue concerns. Young people are consumed with their acute economic vulnerability. In a recent (August) Greenberg Quinlan Rosner/Democracy Corps survey of young people, we found that 80 percent described paying off their debts as a very important goal in their lives, a higher number than getting married, having children or even getting a good job. Polling shows similarly acute economic anxiety among unmarried women and people of color, as well as college students, who will have degrees and debt, but limited job aspects.

This research suggests that the approach needs to be substantive. Among the most successful treatments tested in the groups was an ad called "Challenges" where young people in the ad recounted some of the issues they were facing and the plans of Obama and down ballot candidates for addressing those issues.

Using images that remind people of themselves. Young people are drawn to images of other young people -- people who look like them, not the traditional image of older politicians or older voters. One of the most successful images was an young woman with an American flag in the background. This treatment was used in a separate test where we asked participants which ad they would most likely click on after being shown several difference images. In contrast, another ad poked fun at the older (conservative) generation ("Stick it to the Man"); the groups liked this message, but many admitted they were unlikely to click on an ad featuring an older bald man that is "probably trying to sell me a mortgage."

Empower people to research down ballot candidates. In testing spots, young people like to see spots that featured web sites they could to go to learn more, though this is not just about going to the campaign websites or other partisan sources. Rather it is about Wikipedia and "youtubing" and other "independent" sources of information. In testing materials for registration efforts among other groups, we have similarly seen positive reactions to efforts making it easier for voters to learn more. The young people in the groups demonstrated considerable skills at researching candidates online. Moreover, in terms of language, they use the word "research" intentionally, rather than "learning about" or "educating themselves."

What Worked Less Well

Avoid approaches that are overly cute. Voters are in a serious mood and believe this is a historic election. Approaches that seem too trite fall short. One ad that we had high hopes for featured a decked out Duke University fan and a decked on University of North Carolina fan. (While they "disagreed on lot of things, they agreed on the importance of coming together and voting for Democratic candidates. . . ") Young people understood the concept, but found the analogy of a sports rivalry to this historic election somewhat inappropriate.

At this same time, avoid images that are visually boring. The most important test of any outreach here is simply getting noticed. Advertising that looks flat on the screen will not get noticed.

For people of color, avoid race-specific appeals. In one of the more striking findings of the groups, African American young people resisted treatments that seemed "too black" to them. In fact, some of these treatments offended them. They much preferred treatments that showed a diversity of voices, Caucasian, Hispanic and African American young people talking about common problems and common solutions.

This finding goes to the heart of what Obama represents for people of color. While these young people convey obvious pride in the Obama's accomplishment, for many young people, Obama represents a celebration of the diversity of America. He is not their presidential candidate, but our presidential candidate. The young people in the groups spoke, often quite movingly and in considerable detail, about what Barack Obama could do for "my country."

Why do a third of Americans fail to vote? The answer, says Pennsylvania State political scientist Eric Plutzer, may stem from habit: If people don't start voting as young adults, they may never get comfortable doing so. Conversely, if people start voting young they likely remain habitual voters for live - a good omen for the Democratic party after Obama motivated so many young people to vote in the 2008 election cycle.

About 30 percent of adults are habitual voters according to Plutzer. Plutzer says, "They vote in presidential elections, midterm elections, school board elections. They vote even when elections are not expected to be close."

A second group—some 35 percent of us—are registered to vote. These "periodic voters" generally vote in presidential elections but may not hit the polls for other elections. A third group, also about 35 percent of adults, aren't registered to vote.

Says Plutzer, "Most young citizens aged eighteen to thirty fall into the unregistered group." Using data from several dozen nationwide voting surveys, Plutzer has tried to figure out why some young adults mature into habitual voters, others become periodic voters, and some never develop the voting habit at all.

"Young Americans may relocate for college, their first job, or their first mature love interest," Plutzer notes. "When young people move into an apartment, they make sure they have electricity, phone and internet service, and cable. Registering to vote isn't at the top of their to-do list.

"For many, voting is an unfamiliar task: They don't know where the polling place is, they may have no idea who represents them in the state legislature, and they're unlikely to have strong feelings about local issues such as school taxes or zoning." Voting for the first time may loom as an unpleasant experience. "They imagine they'll walk out of the voting booth bewildered as to whether they've cast intelligent votes for county sheriff, state representative—even U.S. senator."

Low civic involvement among younger Americans isn't new. A presidential commission appointed by John F. Kennedy discovered that young citizens registered a disturbingly low turnout rate during the 1960 election. "That generation is now mostly retired," notes Plutzer, "and they show a high voter turnout rate today." In the same way, today's civically detached generation probably will "make the transition from abstainers to habitual voters," Plutzer says.

His research has focused on factors that help speed up or delay that transition. The single most important factor is coming from a politically active family. Says Plutzer, "If your parents are habitual voters, the chances of you voting before age twenty-five are much higher." Other factors include attending college ("College graduates are better able to absorb and understand political information, link it to their own values, and come to believe their vote can make a difference") and living in a stimulating political environment.

Research by Penn State graduate student Julie Pacheco has found that young people in highly competitive, "battleground" communities or states tend to vote earlier in their lives. "They're exposed to many political stimuli," says Plutzer, "and are more likely to be personally contacted by a political organization." Unfortunately, the number of battleground states has dwindled as our nation has become increasingly politically polarized and as partisan gerrymandering of Congressional districts has reduced the number of competitive elections for the U.S. House of Representatives. "If young adults don't see their votes as meaningful," Plutzer says, "they're much less likely to vote."

Plutzer concludes that people learn about the political world "by participating, not reading." Simply bombarding young adults with information won't throw the switch. Says Plutzer, "The informational approach is like telling my six-year-old daughter that she shouldn't play baseball until she understands the 'infield fly rule.' But if she goes ahead and participates in baseball, she'll gradually learn the rules, the terminology, even the trivia.

"It's the same with politics. Convince a young citizen to vote, and he or she will read the newspaper differently, recognize the names of people on the ballot when they're mentioned on television or by a neighbor, and eventually become highly informed. Get them to the polls once, and they will likely vote again and again."

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