The End of Apathy?

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.

Tags: John Edwards, netroots, progressive movement (all tags)

Comments

20 Comments

Re: The End of Apathy?

There is a much greater demand for change than in 2003.  There is a widespread consensus that the war and the Bush/Cheney Admiinistration is a failure.  That consensus was developing but had not formed in 2003.  The interesting question to be answered in early 2008 is will the demanded wave of change sweep out "old" Democrats too.

by howardpark 2007-03-19 06:10AM | 0 recs
By what standard

do you judge Hillary to be "conservative"? I'd suggest you put her Senate record up against Edwards's and reconsider.

by andgarden 2007-03-19 06:11AM | 0 recs
Re: By what standard

Not conservative, just the most conservatively positioned in the race.

by Matt Stoller 2007-03-19 06:32AM | 0 recs
At the same time from where I'm sitting

it seems activists are waiting for the first head to head debates before they "committ"

At this time in the '04 cycle I already had a Dean bumper sticker on my car and meetup participation was growing month by month with a corresponding rise in the number of bumper stickers seen - and I live in MA and I was looking for Dean stickers.

I am seeing nothing yet and activists I talk to are open about waiting for June and the first NH debate;the size of the NH crowds are amazing and activists here are taking note.

by merbex 2007-03-19 06:14AM | 0 recs
Re: The End of Apathy?

I do not know if the money is online activism. It seems to me many people are more comfortable with the internet. It is easy, people already have pay pal from e-bay and Amazon and Google have online money services. A couple of clicks a few keystrokes. Bam it is done.

by cheflovesbeer 2007-03-19 06:38AM | 0 recs
Re: The End of Apathy?

The web is playing a huge role in politics these days.  

Interesting article on the web's role in the presidential race so far:

http://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB1 17426203668540945-9Ly48Fa1PRYbUOTHRQbWFO NuP8o_20070418.html?mod=tff_main_tff_top

by georgep 2007-03-19 06:50AM | 0 recs
Re: The End of Apathy?

this article blew my mind! wow! I didn't realize that hillary clinton HAD ONLY RAISED 81 DOLLARS on actblue!!

thanks!!

by heyAnita 2007-03-19 07:51AM | 0 recs
Level of apathy was

high?  not low.

by WA37 2007-03-19 06:53AM | 0 recs
News coverage still lags

After the inspiring Obama rally with a diverse and happy crowd of 10,000+ in Oakland, news coverage was still odd:

*SF Chronicle (main SF paper) reported top of p.1 that there was an unauthorized anti-Hilary you-tube ad (the old Apple ad), and Obama denied that it came from their campaign. A second story talked about the size of the crowd and included a few quotes. Photos of Obama and inside photo of the enormous crowd.

*Contra Costa Times reported on speech contents on an inside page with photos of Obama but not the crowd.

Press is still focused almost entirely on the 'horse race' of the contest and occasionally on the size of the crowds. Papers are not reporting much on the contents of the speech.

Obama was introduced by an Iraq vet, anad he was inspiring and hopeful. Obama's speech was personal, interesting, covered issues (broken healthcare system; economics and how the middle class is screwed and people get richer at the top;  how education is more difficult to achieve with declining loans, higher college costs, poor public education. We can't do anything good until we get out of Iraq, he said, pointing to  his legislation to start getting out in May 07.

Talked about a partnership with Oakland to do the things we think are important. End to the skepticism in DC. historically how people did not believe we could get rid of the British, get rid of slavery, get women the right to vote. Recognizing that we can get things done.

by MS 2007-03-19 06:58AM | 0 recs
Bush is in the tank

Republicans and Democrats alike have given up on this presidency. They want their next president now. Really, that's the biggest reason why interest in the race is so high at this early stage.

by tparty 2007-03-19 07:03AM | 0 recs
The End of TV

The way I read this, is this is the end of TV.
George Gilder wrote something I thought was really neat, I paraphrase:

Television is a medium where the individual is seated on a couch, and the advertiser assails them with 100 different things they may be nominally interested in, hoping that one or two will stick.

I wish I could quote him better but this was from the gilder report somewhere in the late 90's and frankly I can't seem to find the original. The idea was that TV is ineffecient.

The way I read this article by Matt, I have to question the basis of a lot of these campaigns. It seems as though the campaigns are asking us for millions - if not nearly billions - of dollars. And these candidates are saying to us, early on, that they won't be transparent in what they're raising. Furthermore, they're saying that in spending the money that the do report - they're going to spend it on something we ourselves can't track.

Its trivial for example, to check on an online campaign.  But broadcast TV spots, like the ones Uncle Howie did in Iowa - were spot purchased and literally millions of dollars spent - and none of us here in cyberspace ever saw them.

So what we're seeing here is that they are not really helping out, especially during the cash-rich final days of the campaigns.

For me, its a big plus to have the candidate open about what they're raising - and to have them open about how they're spending it because if they're spending it wisely - it should be open.

Television is a fairly corrupt industry; the players are all skimming money and taking payola on the side - generally 5% at a time. Especially the brokering of the coveted 'prime' spots and their related airtime. Broadcast lobbyists often resort to intensive pressure on candidates. These days, its becoming more and more apparent - esp. now that we see that in fact the saturation ads don't even work ! - that Television is a game that is played for the older vote, and the much more numerous and activist voters are online.

Taking matt in fact, at Face value, the implicit criterion he applies for being an activist, is to donate online.  I think our generation (or tribe)  sees this almost as a given. And well we should!

by heyAnita 2007-03-19 07:45AM | 0 recs
Re: The End of TV

ROFLMAO - finally found a real analysis of the folks in teh campaigns!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f45K8Jh14 -k

by heyAnita 2007-03-19 08:12AM | 0 recs
Re: The End of Apathy?

I don't know that this has so much to do with declining apathy (though there is certainly some of it going around), or the fact that this is the first time since god-knows-when (i'm sure someone will chime in) that we don't have an incumbent VP running. The fact that the nomination is wide open on both sides could be contributing to the higher-than-usual interest.

It's probably a combination of both factors.

by Tod Westlake 2007-03-19 08:02AM | 0 recs
transparency in online fundraising

Although the candidates may not be displaying transparency in their fundraising mini-campaigns exactly as you describe, I think it's interesting to note that Edwards is being 100% transparent with his total online fundraising numbers by using ActBlue. In fact I would argue, that's the ultimate transparency because they can't manipulate the release of fundraising numbers (updating a numbers raised meter) selectively to manage a specific fundraising drive. I suppose they still have ways, but it's much harder when your totals are updating in real-time for everyone to see. He may not have announced that they blew by the 100K mark for the Coulter Cash ask, but someone could've figured out themselves if they did by visiting ActBlue.com.

by clockwerks 2007-03-19 08:21AM | 0 recs
Re: transparency in online fundraising

Edwards only raised 60k on Actblue, but raised 300k online during the week of the Coulter Cash thing.  He's getting some online donations on Actblue, not all.

by jallen 2007-03-19 11:45AM | 0 recs
Bush/Cheney Great for the Left

If this turns out to be a long-term trend, I think we'll have to look back and say that the best thing that happened to American democracy in the early 21st century was Bush/Cheney. Reagan and Clinton were so smooth and comforting, we could all just go on with our lives and let the insiders do that voodoo that they do so well. Bush/Cheney woke us up to just how awful government can be when we're not paying attention. I think this campaign has started so early because there is so much disgust with Bush/Cheney and an interest in finding their replacement ASAP.

That being said, I think this two-year-long campaign can't help but produce a backlash of apathetic exhaustion from the vast majority of Americans who are preoccupied with their lives and not actively involved in politics. Which will give the activists (on both sides) more power. The only question is whether they have more activists than we do.

It also gives me hope for a second group of fresh reinforcements jumping into the race in the Fall. I think a Clark vs. Hagel matchup in 2008 would be a great contest.

by ProgressiveChristian 2007-03-19 08:31AM | 0 recs
Re: The End of Apathy?

A few things...

1. Volunteerism in general amongst young people has been on the upward trend over the years.

  1. People really, really want the Bush presidency to be over.
  2. I think what happened during Katrina really hit home for people, even those who had no connections to the regions hit. You watch what happened, and you can't possibly say, "government doesn't really affect my life" or "who the president is doesn't affect my life." Katrina was something people saw coming. It was the type of thing that governments should be prepared for given that devastating hurricanes have hit the US before.
  3. Bush makes people worry. Seriously, has there ever been a president who has looked like he'd break everything he touched? I think people still do want a president who they'd like to have a beer with, but now, folks are makign it clear that they want a president who they'd like to have a beer with after work hours, not during.

by Newsie8200 2007-03-19 09:18AM | 0 recs
Re: The End of Apathy?

In 2000, everything was going swell, and government was (for the most part) working.  As people looked at their lives, there was really no need to worry about politics because Clinton would take care of it.  That sort of mindset continued on to the Bush Administration, and gave Bush tremendous power a time.  Every attack was assumed to be partisan because that's what happened with Clinton.

But, of course, that changed.  The scandals of today are far more substantive, and are often killing people.  People care more because politics matters more.  

That's not the only reason, of course.  Politics is now a more interactive process (or at least, political discussion).  But we all knew that.

by Jim Treglio 2007-03-19 09:52AM | 0 recs
Re: The End of Apathy?

The unrest of the middle class flows from their increased realization that the end of America as they know and love it is at hand.  The 2008 election is for keeps.  Unless the public is unified and inspired to go after dependence on imported oil and runaway healthcare/retirement costs, the ship of state will founder on the reefs of a confrontation with China over oil and a meltdown of the dollar under multi-trillion dollar entitlement deficits (see 2006 GAO Financial Report for the US).  According to this report, each full time worker's share of US losses exceeds $2,500 per month.

The internet is the key to awakening the middle class to the fact that they are in control of their destiny.  For as little as two or three dollars a month, given to candidates who will address these issues, they can break the grip of big oil, big pharma and big insurance on our government.  Now its time to educate the candidates as to where our real dangers (and opportunities) lie.  

Those who toil to strengthen the political clout of the internet are our unsung heroes -- for they mark the path to a bright future for all.

by microsrfr 2007-03-19 10:38AM | 0 recs
Re: The End of Apathy?

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by davidlagato 2007-05-24 11:37PM | 0 recs

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