It’s hard to say what prompted Americans to stop caring about their president, but it might have been Richard Nixon. Voter turnout for presidential elections was north of 60% in the 1960s, but dropped to 55% in 1972 and has never climbed above that mark since. The cynicism may be nearing an end, however; huge turnout in many primary races, including the Super Tuesday contests in California and 23 other states, shows that the nation may finally have gotten over Watergate. As candidates from both parties relentlessly drive home the message that each will be an agent of change in Washington, voters have a glimmer of hope that they’re telling the truth.
It isn’t just the turnout numbers that are rising. Presidential debates this season have become mind-numbingly common. Each party has held about 20 since last April, most of them relegated to cable or local TV. Yet viewership has been surprisingly high. The Los Angeles Times/CNN/Politico Democratic debate on Thursday attracted the highest ratings of any primary debate in cable TV history -- 8.3 million people tuned in, enough to qualify as a modest hit even on a broadcast network.
There is undoubtedly more than one explanation for this. Turnout is usually higher when there isn’t an incumbent involved, and this is the first time since 1952 when there has been neither a president nor a vice president in the running. This election is also in part a referendum on George W. Bush’s leadership -- polls show that large majorities of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.Little wonder that “change” is the 2008 campaign watchword, one that even Republicans are adopting.
Yet more than anything else, it is the candidates themselves who are injecting rare excitement into the contest. On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee entices evangelical Christians, Mitt Romney hopes to be the choice of fiscal conservatives, Ron Paul brings up the libertarian wing, and John McCain ... well, the difficulty in pinpointing his position on the conservative spectrum probably explains his newfound popularity. He pleases many but satisfies few.
The Democrats have far narrower choices -- Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are all-but identical on the issues that matter. Yet it’s clear from turnout numbers that the Democrats are far more energized than Republicans, and it isn’t hard to see why: Electing either a woman or an African American man to the presidency would be a historic first, and these candidates carry that promise with grace.
More than that, though, these candidates have intrigued young voters. Savvy use of the Internet by their campaigns gets some of the credit, but much of the youth groundswell has been spontaneous and grass-roots. Generation Y, for whom Watergate might as well have happened in the Middle Ages, will pay the bills for their elders’ irresponsible handling of Social Security, the environment and the national debt. Their participation in this year’s election couldn’t be more welcome.