The November midterm elections left many Americans seeing red over the declining amount of civil discourse in political campaigns, according to a survey conducted by the Center for Political Participation (CPP) at Allegheny College, in conjunction with Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
The SurveyUSA poll, conducted by telephone, took a Random Digit Dialed sampling of 1,252 registered voters, yielding an approximate 2.5 percent margin of error. Four days before Election Day, 63 percent of respondents felt the civility of political campaigns took a nosedive since the 2008 presidential election.
The 63 percent proved a sizable increase from prior polls. In April, a random sampling of 48 percent felt civil discourse had deteriorated, which grew to 58 percent in September.
“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.”
The majority of those polled feel the decline is civil discourse harms democracy, but the numbers varied across racial groups. For example, African Americans and Hispanics were less likely to feel that negative campaigns harmed democracy.
Negative campaigns do not help political apathy, either. Thirty percent of those polled felt that negativity made them feel less engaged in the political process, particularly Independent and Democratic sample members. Republicans, however, said negative campaigns made them more inclined to take action.
Another gripe focused on the idea of “outside money” from interest groups used to inundate areas with campaign mailers, phone calls and other material. Little less than 60 percent of those polled found the practice irritating and often negative.
“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.”
Despite the shifting numbers and declining opinions, nine out of 10 registered voters feel politicians can run completely clean campaigns devoid of aggressive behavior if they tried.
“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.”