Harvard professor thinks election most important since 1932

By Laila Ballout
On October 29, 2004

As Election Day nears, the day when the impact of the deluge of papers imploring students to vote will be measured tangibly, UNH recently launched one more get-out-the-vote effort as part of the current-issue series sponsored by the MUB. Harvard professor Thomas Patterson expressed his belief that this election is arguably the most important election since 1932

Patterson, an acclaimed author, opened by giving a lecture inspired by his 2002 book entitled "The Vanishing Voter." He noted that in most elections, when Americans are asked if it truly matters who is elected, one third respond "yes."

In this election, positive responses have doubled.

"This year brings the prospect of a higher tier of turnout," he said. According to Patterson, it is anticipated that turnout rates will lie in the high 50s and perhaps even reaching the 60th percentile.

One factor he said contributes to the interest in the current election is the stark increase in partisanship: 90 percent of Republicans believe George Bush is doing a good job, while only 10 percent of Democrats agree.

In 70 years of Gallup polls, there has never been such a large disparity.

When trying to decipher voter trends, Patterson has analyzed the impact of many forces. Negative impetus lie in the "news media's tendency to tear down politics and politicians".

During the 1960 presidential election, three-fourths of the news regarding both candidates was positive. This number narrowed to one half during the 1970s and since 1988, no national election has garnered more than 40 percent positive press.

These figures are indicative of a move away from relevant news toward issues that make better stories.

For example, during the six weeks before this year's first presidential debate, a heavy portion of news coverage focused on the Vietnam and National Guard records of the respective candidates. While both events influenced the lives of the candidates, neither bears any direct correspondence to the decisions that a politician makes, nor the decisions that a voter must make, according to Patterson.

Patterson noted that behind the visceral verbal battles of events 30 years old, lies the funding provided by the immense monetary clout of interest groups. Often these groups are more concerned with brute power than the best means to propel their cause.

For example, there are over 250 environmental lobbyist organizations, of which many have assumed most put their money towards either the Kerry or Nader campaigns. However, in all elections 90 percent of lobbyists place their funds with the incumbent candidate. The logic behind this derives from the knowledge that 98 percent of incumbents win.

Patterson said that politically, these organizations are less interested in getting the candidate they support to win than they are desirous to have influence with the victor after the election. This powerful sway has in many citizens' opinions reduced the importanc of the individual vote. The professor's figures state that when Americans were asked whether they believed their vote or money had more influence, 80 percent responded that money was more influential.

It is true that the campaign finance reform act sought to reduce the influence of special interest groups, however, there was a significant loophole, he said. This election has seen money being poured into campaigns via 527 groups. These groups accept campaign money and launch partisan ad campaigns such as those led by George Soros and Swiftboat Vets for Bush. He said this practice is also better for politicians because any untruths spread are funded by these groups which are separated from the camps of the candidates themselves enough to provide a communication cushion.

Furthermore, according to Patterson, people no longer merely take a foray into politics for a term or two. Rather, politics has become a career for the ambitious; this has shifted much of politician's efforts into a continual campaign for re-election and away from civic duty. This leads to practices such as those exhibited by the Bush campaign in 2000 against John McCain, in which pollsters called potential voters asking the question "If you knew that John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child, would you vote for him?"

Patterson felt that beyond these disappointing changes, there are many encouraging signs. For example, new voter registration this year is anticipated to present figures double those from 2000.

Also, while faith in the news media is rather low, Web sites and blogs have assumed some of their watchdog duties, according to Patterson, and notably, it was via blogs that word spread of the spurious National Guard document reported by Dan Rather. This "horizontal, grassroots communication" both evidences to voters that there are "other people who care," he said, and it provides a little levity; "some of the best campaign humor is from e-mails."

To further raise voting statistics, Patterson proposed the civic education should be introduced in the school curriculum at a younger age and he'd "like to see the voting age drop to 16" so that schools could organize movements to vote, thereby demystifying the ballot and hopefully beginning to put students on the path of lifelong voters. He believes that this would trump the polls that give clear data that Americans who do not vote in the first three elections they are eligible for will likely never vote.

When asked why he was giving speeches, the professor stated that he fears the United States will pay a great price if moves aren't made to push voting in the "early eligible years".

As final advice, Patterson provided "if you've got a wavering friend, take your friend to the poll with you."

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