MEADVILLE, Pa. – Nov. 19, 2010 – Building on its April 2010 survey on the growing incivility in politics, the Center for Political Participation (CPP) at Allegheny College, in conjunction with Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW), today released the findings of new polling data that suggests Americans see politics as increasingly nasty and that the current political tone may be harmful to our democracy. Still, an overwhelming majority believe that passionate but respectful campaigning is possible.
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 Barack 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,” said Professor Daniel M. 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,” said 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.”
A majority of voters (64 percent) polled in November said that the degenerating tone of politics is unhealthy for our 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 our 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,” said 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.”
Does their perception of negativity in politics have an impact on voters’ willingness to get involved? Thirty 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 said 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 said. “It would make sense that some of these ads actually revved up GOP voters.”
This recent wave of polling for Allegheny and IPFW was conducted by SurveyUSA between Oct. 28 and Nov. 1, 2010. In all, 1,252 registered voters were contacted, yielding a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent.
For a complete set of the data, along with cross tabulations and graphic displays of the results, see: http://www.allegheny.edu/novemberpoll. The survey findings from the September poll, along with charts and cross tabulations, can be accessed at: www.allegheny.edu/septemberpoll. The April 2010 survey, “Nastiness, Name-calling & Negativity,” is available at www.allegheny.edu/civility.
About Daniel M. Shea
Daniel M. Shea, Ph.D., is a professor of political science and the director of the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College. He has written or edited some 14 books on party politics, campaigns and elections, youth participation and media in politics, and he has published dozens of articles and chapters. Two of his most recent books are “The Fountain of Youth: Strategies and Tactics for Mobilizing America’s Young Voters” (2007) and “Living Democracy” (2010).
About Michael Wolf
Michael Wolf, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science at Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne. He researches American and comparative political behavior and public opinion. He co-edited (with Laura Morales and Ken’ichi Ikeda) the 2010 book “Political Discussion in Modern Democracies: A Comparative Perspective” from Routledge. Wolf has authored or co-authored more than a dozen articles, chapters and research reports for political science journals, books, encyclopedias and scholarly organizations.
About the Center for Political Participation
In October 2002, Allegheny established the Center for Political Participation, a national center dedicated to encouraging greater political involvement among young people by fostering an appreciation for the vital link between an engaged, active citizenry and a healthy democracy. Seeking new strategies and mechanisms for promoting political participation, the Center has established programs for three audiences: Allegheny students (campus activities), scholars nationwide (scholarly research) and citizens of the wider community (educational outreach). In November 2007 the Center founded the Soapbox Alliance, a group of institutions that are committed to ending the practice of holding closed campaign events in campus facilities. Former President Clinton endorsed the Soapbox Alliance in a speech he made at Allegheny on April 19, 2008.
About Allegheny College
Founded in 1815, Allegheny College is a national liberal arts college where 2,100 students with unusual combinations of interests and talents develop highly valued abilities to explore critical issues from multiple perspectives. The 32nd oldest college in the country, Allegheny is one of 40 colleges featured in Loren Pope’s “Colleges That Change Lives” and is also featured in “Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College That Is Best for You” and Peterson’s “Competitive Colleges, 400 Colleges That Attract the Best and the Brightest,” among many other guidebooks.
About Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne
Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne is the largest public university in northeast Indiana, offering more than 200 prestigious IU and Purdue degrees and certificates. More than 14,000 students of diverse ages, races and nationalities pursue their education on a 662-acre campus. IPFW combines challenging academic programs with student-centered flexibility at an affordable price. The university’s exemplary standards in teaching and research provide unparalleled value for career preparation and professional development in an ever-changing global market. The university’s commitment to service makes it an economic, cultural, and societal leader in the region. IPFW is an Equal Opportunity/Equal Access University accredited by The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.
How the Poll Was Conducted
This SurveyUSA poll was conducted by telephone in the voice of a professional announcer. Respondent households were selected at random, using a Random Digit Dialed (RDD) sample provided by Survey Sampling, of Fairfield, Conn., unless otherwise indicated on the individual poll report. All respondents heard the questions asked identically. The reports includes: the geography that was surveyed; the date(s) interviews were conducted and the organization(s) that paid for the research. The number of respondents who answered each question and the margin of sampling error for each question are provided. Where necessary, responses were weighted according to age, gender, ethnic origin, geographical area and number of adults and number of voice telephone lines in the household, so that the sample would reflect the actual demographic proportions in the population, using the most recent U.S. Census estimates. In theory, with the stated sample size, one can say with 95 percent certainty that the results would not vary by more than the stated margin of sampling error, in one direction or the other, had the entire universe of respondents been interviewed with complete accuracy. There are other possible sources of error in all surveys that may be more serious than theoretical calculations of sampling error. These include refusals to be interviewed, question wording and question order, weighting by demographic control data and the manner in which respondents are filtered (such as determining who is a likely voter). It is difficult to quantify the errors that may result from these factors. Fieldwork for this survey was done by SurveyUSA of Clifton, N.J.