The potential for to-the-bastions drama in last week’s primary election was hard to miss: A population supposedly enraged at government had the chance to register its vengeance at the ballot box. Republican candidates pressed the notion, vowing to take the country back were they fortunate enough to win the party’s nominations after nasty primary contests. With Democrats, too, dismayed at the state’s state of affairs, the prospects for a public revolt seemed enticing.
Reality, as usual, fell far short. Frustration took the day off, parking on the couch rather than taking part in a democratic assault on the body politic.
“In a period where people were talking a lot about who has energy and who does not, the result is that the entire electorate does not,” said Democratic political veteran Bill Carrick. “The biggest statement that was made … was ‘I don’t really care enough to vote.’ ”
The Field Poll, in a pre-election statement, had predicted that only one-third of California’s registered voters would cast ballots. That may end up being wildly optimistic; as of Friday, with some ballots still being counted at registrars’ offices, only 25% of registered voters had taken part.
Counting those who are eligible to vote — not just the registered ones — Tuesday’s showing drops from the tentative count of 25% to an even worse 15%. Thus, it was possible for a ballot measure to win with the approval of about 8% of voting-age citizens, and nominees to be selected by even fewer in multi-candidate contests.
This is not necessarily unusual in the state. In the East, prognosticators figure that bad snowstorms or monsoon rains will deter voters. Here, all it seems to take is a glimmer of something better to do — a sunny day, a good movie, a utility closet in desperate need of rearranging.
Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, expressed surprise at just how low the turnout had fallen. He had thought that more Republicans might show up than Democrats, given that Republicans had heated primaries in the top races and many of the Democratic contests were invisible. Instead the typical happened — more Democratic votes than Republican, but a paltry number in any case
“I guess I was expecting a little more,” he said.
Much of the blame, it turns out, rests with the primaries themselves. Campaigns make a great show of getting out the vote; the customary photo op on the final weekend before election day is the candidate thanking volunteers who are working the phones to get voters into the polls.
What that masks is the other reality: the television advertising campaigns, at least ones like this year’s, exist to depress turnout. It is sometimes possible for the ads that swarm the television screens to gin up their own candidate’s tallies. But their intent much of the time is to simply turn off the other guy’s voters.
“All things being equal, if you have large television campaigns based on attack ads, tit for tat, that tends to depress turnout,” said Curtis Gans, head of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University in Washington, D.C.
Gans has studied voting, and lack thereof, for decades. Going back years, he said, the nastiest campaigns have resulted in the lowest voter turnouts.
This election year certainly fit that bill. Money by the scores of millions was spent on television ads. Besides their ubiquity, the impression they left in the closing months of the campaign was almost entirely negative — in the governor’s race, Republicans Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner whaled away at each other; in the U.S. Senate race, Republican Carly Fiorina took off after her primary challenger, Tom Campbell.
Democrats were in the mix at the lower levels; the attorney general’s contest featured $12 million of contestant Chris Kelly’s money, much of it used to level assaults at the eventual winner, Kamala Harris. The top-of-the-ticket Democratic contestants, gubernatorial nominee Jerry Brown and Senate incumbent Barbara Boxer, surely would have been in there as well had they not had free rides.
Brown, in fact, made his own contribution to negativity when he compared Whitman’s advertising campaign to the Nazi propaganda effort led by Joseph Goebbels, one of Hitler’s top aides. Brown did not contest the quotes, which were published on a San Francisco news website the day after the primary, nor did he apologize for them. Whitman’s campaign termed the remarks “deeply offensive.”
If those who decided not to vote were making an affirmative judgment that the political process is not worth their time, the ads were not the only factor. Both California and the nation are in the midst of a lengthy decline in voting, broken only occasionally by elections in which fear or hope drive the numbers temporarily up.
“People have turned against government, people have less faith in government, less hope that it will do something; people are less educated about government, people are fragmented physically and in terms of communication,” Gans said, ticking off an assortment of reasons for the downward spiral. “Every year you have fewer and fewer young people growing up in households where parents vote or discuss politics.”
In California’s statewide elections, turnout in the primary has slumped from almost 54% in 1974, the first time Brown won a nomination for governor, to less than half of that this time.
Voting officials have tried all sorts of mechanisms over the years to buck up turnout. They have made it easier to register, easier to vote by mail; they have engineered all sorts of jump-into-the-pool encouragement campaigns. And still the numbers go down.
“I think that turnout is always going to be less than what everyone would hope for,” said Shannan Velayas, a spokeswoman for the state’s top elections official, Secretary of State Debra Bowen.
As for why most voters stayed home, Velayas hazarded a guess — between the special election last year and the statewide elections of the past several years, a lot has been asked of them, she suggested. “It’s tough to say, exactly.”
Each Sunday, The Week examines implications of major stories. It is archived at latimes.com/theweek.