The End of Apathy?
by Matt Stoller, Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 05:50:55 AM EDT
Tens of thousands of people at Obama rallies? Packed houses in Iowa and/or New Hampshire for Clinton, Edwards and/or McCain a little less than two years from an election? As Atrios notes, this seems rather, well, different. I remember phone-banking in January, 2003 for John Kerry and having New Hampshire voters scream at me 'it's a year away, leave me alone!' And in 2000, the level of apathy at least among my friends was stunningly low. Politics just didn't seem dangerous, and it didn't seem like it was a route for change.
Something is up.
Twenty months before the 2008 election, 73% of those surveyed by NBC and the Wall Street Journal say they're following the presidential race closely, an interest level approaching the 86% who said they were paying close attention just one month before the 2000 presidential election.
Here's a comparison, from a study on voter participation rates done in the Spring of 2000 called the Vanishing Voters Project.
"You can make an argument for a long campaign," acknowledged Patterson, "but our data show it's a disincentive." During the second week of the project's polling -- a full year before the election -- only 5 percent of Americans said they were paying "a great deal of attention" to the campaign. Roughly 60 percent said they were paying "little" or "no" attention. By week three, despite heavy news coverage, Americans' interest in the campaign actually declined.
This is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Still, here are some interesting nuggets from 2000.
43 percent thought that the outcome of the presidential election would affect their lives "only a little," or not at all. (Feb. 4-9)
When asked how much influence they thought people like themselves had on government, the biggest response was "only a little" at 31.7 percent. (Nov. 11-14)
It looks like a combination of disempowerment and deprioritization of politics crushed turnout in 2000. In 2004, voters began paying attention to a sustained campaign, and an activist class on the left grew and organized independently of the political party and media structures. Today, voters are used to the high intensity contest years out. I don't have any statistics on political activism for 2008, but I'm going to guess that the segment of the population engaging in it has grown dramatically. We'll see what happens when the candidates report their Q1 numbers. Despite a largely undistinguished set of internet campaigns, I'm going to guess that online donations have exploded. Hillary Clinton, the most conservative of the Democratic candidates, is getting lots online. Barack Obama and John Edwards, positioned slightly to the left, are probably getting in huge quantities of online small dollar cash as well.
I know a fair number of online fundraising experts, and they all say that transparency in fundraising is a really powerful tool. Say how much you want to raise, say why you want to raise it, ask for it, and show how much you've raised so far. Rinse, repeat. None of the candidates are doing this. Clinton has come the closest with her million dollars in a week, and Edwards did well with Coulter Cash (he blew through the $100K target but didn't announce it for some reason).
That these campaigns are not working their online fundraising channels as well as they will later in the season, even as they bring in massive numbers of small dollar donors, suggests that a new and dramatically expanded hunger for a way to participate in politics is real. We could see between 5-10 million donors in the political system this cycle, which is around 1-3% of the country's population. That's huge. Americans are paying attention, and an increasingly large number are getting involved. If that translates, like it did in 2004, to a post-Presidential election involvement in local politics, we're looking at a political system with different levers of power.
UPDATE: I'll note that I'm taking online donations as a proxy for political activism in general, and not netroots activity. I'm not sure where the line is between the two, and perhaps we should consider Actblue totals netroots activity. I don't know. We're open to any ideas on how to measure the marginal impact of the netroots. My sense is that netroots direct reach is smaller than we think though the indirect reach is wider and influential than we assume. But that's just a gut feeling.