A national panel survey and four identical polls in battleground Senate and House races, all concluding shortly after election day, found that voters viewed the 2002 election as far too negative, with too many campaign television ads and too much political direct mail.
More than three-quarters of the study participants said they thought the quality of campaigns had declined, while nearly the same number said they had stopped paying attention. However, voters widely embraced President Bush, whose final week campaign push strengthened his approval ratings.
These are the findings of an intensive study conducted by the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy (CSED) at Brigham Young University.
Using a panel survey approach where the same random sample was first interviewed early in the campaign and then re-interviewed at mid-campaign and again on election day (or shortly thereafter), CSED can assess for the first time how voters reacted to "the perfect storm" of this campaign season -where the candidates, party soft money, and interest group issue advocacy converged and inundated voters with information.
Besides a national survey, CSED also collected data in the Arkansas and Missouri Senate contests, as well as in the Colorado 7th and Connecticut 5th congressional district elections.
The surveys found that President Bush's popularity did not diminish during his high profile campaigning and even increased nationally and in at least some of the states he frequently visited.
The President's popularity also appears also to have transcended voter concern about jobs and the economy - the issue voters consistently identified as most important. And this, as roughly three-quarters of all voters routinely said they were not pleased by the state of the economy.
Meanwhile, issues Democrats campaigned on aggressively - Social Security and prescription drug coverage - were cited by very few as those most important when asked to name the one issue that most influenced voting decisions.
Other issues such as the conflict with Iraq, the environment, abortion and gun control were also infrequently mentioned by voters. Only education-and to a much lesser extent, taxes-polled high among issues most important to voters (after jobs and the economy).
"The 2002 election was not about 'issues' so much as personalities," says David Magleby, director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. "Most notably, this election was about the public's assessment of President Bush and their assessment of individual candidates in competitive races."
The Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy
(*~*http://csed.byu.edu*~*) is an academic center operating under the auspices of the Department of Political Science at Brigham Young University (*~*http://www.byu.edu*~*). CSED was organized in 1998 and its research is sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts (*~*http://www.pewtrusts.com*~*).
Many battleground states were subject to massive amounts of political advertising on television during the midterm campaign. Nationally, voters said they saw nearly 8 ads per day in the last week of the election. During this same week, respondents in Colorado 7, Arkansas and Missouri-all highly competitive races-reported seeing between 12-13 ads per day on television.
Other forms of political advertising, including direct mail and radio ads, were also prevalent this cycle. Over the last week of the campaign, the average person across the nation was likely to receive two to three pieces of House and Senate election-related mail per day. This compared to the over four pieces the average person in Colorado 7 was said to receive during the same period. Radio ads, while widely used, were reportedly not as common as those on television.
It is important to note that email, a growing communications avenue, remains relatively unused as an election advertising medium. Roughly three-quarters of respondents in the four competitive races reported receiving no email communications at all during the campaign.
Respondents in all four of the races studied indicated that there was simply too much information. Greater than two-thirds of respondents reported that when confronted with this barrage of political communication, they simply stopped paying attention.
In three out of four battleground races studied, respondents saw the 2002 campaign as more negative in tone than other recent races. In Colorado's 7th congressional district, an astounding 70% of voters said the race was more negative than in the past.
Blame for this negativity, according to respondents in the battleground contests, lies with interest groups and the parties much more so than the candidates. And when asked whether the quality of campaigns has declined as elections have increasingly involved parties, interest groups and soft money, nearly eight in ten voters said yes.
President Bush's approval in both the national and battleground surveys hovered above 60% throughout the campaign. As the race wore on, Bush's barnstorming did not diminish his popularity, as his national approval actually increased over the final two weeks of the campaign.
When asked to identify the most important issue they took into consideration when deciding how to vote, one-in-four voters in the national panel study consistently pointed to the economy/jobs. Education was the second most frequently mentioned issue of concern. Between 40 and 50 percent of all respondents in wave 1, 2 or 3 of the study identified either the economy/jobs or education as the most salient issue they took into consideration when making their voting decisions.
Despite a strong emphasis on Social Security by Democratic candidates, only three percent of voters said this was the most important issue to them. And prescription drug coverage for seniors, a lightening-rod issue in 2000, was only named by two percent of voters this year. Also forgotten were the corporate scandals earlier this year, with only one percent of voters naming this as the most important issue.
"While the issues most important to voters were the economy and education, issues that historically should have helped Democrats, they seemed to lack national traction," said Magleby. "Republicans appeared to effectively inoculate themselves on these issues and turn the electorate's attention toward a popular war-time president and individual candidates."