Low Turnout A Sign Of Burnout?

Are the American people tuning out of politics altogether?

I noted after Tuesday’s contests in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado that turnout in those contests was down across the board, continuing a trend that we’ve seen since the beginning of the year in every contest with the exception of South Carolina. This has led many pundits, and especially many Democrats, to speculate that Republican voters are less enthusiastic about the 2012 race than some might have anticipated, which potentially does not bode well for November. Today in the Wall Street Journal, however, Peggy Noonan notes that there are other signs out there that there may be something else going on other than disaffected Republicans:

There are some small indicators something else may be going on. Cable news ratings, which should spike in an election year, and which indicate interest on both the left and the right, are relatively flat, with mild increases here and there. Broadcast evening news ratings continue their gradual decline. One network anchor, on being urged to capture more of the joy and ferocity of the Republican contest, sighed. “Every time we show those guys, our numbers go down.” A major website operator tells me people aren’t clicking on political stories.

But it’s not confined to the Republican side. Look at President Obama’s State of the Union numbers. That speech famously blankets all television and radio networks. His first speech to a joint session of Congress, in February 2009, drew 52 million viewers. A year later the State of the Union had an understandable fall-off to about 48 million. In 2011, another fall: 43 million watched. A few weeks ago his 2012 State of the Union drew just 38 million. From 52 to 38: That’s quite a decline. And again, during an continuing crisis and in a presidential election year. As for the president’s interviews and other speeches, well, when was the last time you heard someone ask excitedly, “Did you hear what Obama said?”

Whose numbers are up? The NFL’s.

Maybe the story the political class is missing is not “They don’t like the Republican field,” or “They don’t like Obama.” Maybe the story is that people are tuning out altogether. Maybe they’re bored with politics, and most especially with politicians. Maybe they don’t think our government can’t solve anything. Maybe, even, our political class has done such a good job depicting the crisis we’re in that the American people, with their low faith in institutions, think nothing, really, can be done about it.

There’s a problem with trying to draw a conclusion based on television ratings, of course. With the constantly expanding menu of choices available on television and online, it’s somewhat inevitable that the audience for any particular broadcast will be lower as people go off in search of other offerings. Additionally, the ratings services don’t currently track people who watch cable news online or on mobile devices, which is segment of the population that is only going to grow lager. At the same time, though, something like the State Of The Union Address is broadcast by pretty much every cable news outlet, and every broadcast network so a drop off of 14 million voters over three years, and lower viewership in an election year when people are arguably starting to pay more attention to these issues may indeed be indicative of something other than Republicans who are annoyed at a crappy field of candidates.

There’s other evidence to support Noonan’s thesis that we’re looking at an electorate burned out on politics in general rather than something indicative of the only the state of affairs in the Republican Party. Public dissatisfaction with Congress is higher than it’s ever been, and the only direction that public disapproval of Congress seems to be moving these days is lower and lower. In the new Gallup poll, for example, Congressional job approval hit the lowest point it has ever been at since galup has been polling that question. Eventually, Congressman is likely to be as disreputable a profession as Mafia Hit Man, and at least Mafia Hit Men bring some canoli along.

You can also see evidence of public dissatisfaction in the bellwether Right Track/Wrong Track poll which, while off the highs it hit in November, is still higher than its been at any time in the Obama Presidency. Given the still fragile state of the economy it’s not surprising that Americans would still think that the country is heading in the wrong direction. but I think there’s more to it than that. For three years or more now, they have seen a Washington incapable of doing anything to address their problems. Three times last year, they saw Congress drag a budget dispute down to the wire because of an inability to either compromise or seriously address the issues facing the country, only to “resolve” it by reaching a deal that accomplished nothing but kicking the can even further down the road. They’ve seen a United States Senate that’s gone more than 1000 days without passing a budget and House Republicans who have embraced a no-tax orthodoxy that even their great hero Ronald Reagan would not (and did not) embrace. And they’ve seen a President who seems more comfortable being a follower than a leader. And through it all they see a stagnant economy and a world where they can’t be sure that their children will have a better life than they did. Is it any wonder that people are pessimistic about the future of the country, or that they might be coming to have a “to hell with it all” attitude about politics?

Barack Obama was elected President four years ago on a message of “hope and change” and a promise to change Washington. Those who had faith in that message were, by and large, naive in the belief that change could or would happen quickly. However, when they look around and see that nothing has changed at all, one has to wonder if they’re just going to conclude it’s not worth caring about this crap anymore.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. There is definitely a lot of “I wish” in that, and “world building” (to borrow a phrase from science fiction writers).

    The left’s comfort level with Obama may not be as high as it could be, but that does not really make it burnout.

    I mean, how’s this for the counter-narrative: “As the Republicans break themselves upon rocks of their own choosing, the Democrats coast comfortably …”

  2. DRS says:

    Well, I’d put it slightly differently, Doug. I’d say the American public is watching a President who’s more than happy to sit back and let the Republicans show they have no interest in governing, either as members of Congress or as Presidential candidates. I’m not sure what the White House budget for popcorn is, but it must have gone through the roof in the past year. Some members of the public will be annoyed at that, some will be equally amused; individual mileages might vary.

    If your question was serious, then I’d say part of it is because of the loudness of the Republican nomination process since last summer which has reminded people that a presidential election takes place over an 18-month period when most voters would like a much shorter time frame. Voters have had an exhausting four years economically and would like some “downtime” (not the best term but I can’t think of another; suggestions welcome) from instability, and to be left alone for a while.

    Another reason might be the lack of serious new faces on the scene. I believe that one reason both Obama and Palin generated enthusiasm in their respective voter groups was because they were new and unfamiliar faces to most Americans. Hilary was not a stranger, and Edwards was the last Democratic VP candidate. New faces hold out at least the possibility of new ideas. It would have been interesting if the Republicans had attracted lesser known figures to their campaign – it might have had the same effect. Right now the newness depends on Santorum and Paul, both of whom talk more in terms of going back to a better era rather than forward to a brighter tomorrow.

    Mantle of Reagan, indeed.

  3. James H says:

    Eventually, Congressman is likely to be as disreputable a profession as Mafia Hit Man, and at least Mafia Hit Men bring some canoli along.

    At least Mafia Hit Man leaves the canoli. Congressman eats it and demands more.

  4. Vast Variety says:

    What I think is going on is that both parties have spent the better part of the last decade so demonizing each other that people are starting to tune out and say hell with it. The brinkmanship game that has been playing out in the House is the result of that demonization.

  5. DRS says:

    No, James. They leftthe gun. They tookthe cannoli. Great scene.

  6. ALB says:

    According to GSS data, people today are more interested in politics, pay closer attention to politics, and participate in political events more often than they have in the past twenty-two years (when recording of most of these started). I think these data points argue against the claim that people are getting political burnout.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    segment of the population that is only going to grow lager.

    Typo. I believe you meant to say:

    segment of the population that is only going to grow drink lager.

  8. WR says:

    When the Queen of the Hacks — who was famously caught on MSNBC praising Sarah Palin as a bold new star and the guarantee of McCain’s election while the camera was on and immediately, once she thought the mikes were off, calling Palin a disaster who would doom the ticket — can’t do any better than “it’s not that there’s no enthusiasm for Republican candidates, it’s across the board,” the righties are in serious trouble…

  9. Boyd says:

    I’m guessing some statistically significant fraction of the drop in SoU viewership is due to people like me, who are going to read extensively about what the President said and what it meant, and will catch noteworthy excerpts on video, all after the event is long over. Why sit through the whole, boring thing when you can read it/read about it/watch key passages later?

  10. Barb Hartwell says:

    I don`t think it`s burn-out I think it`s embarrassing for them to watch. I`m talking about Republicans of-course. They hate Obama so much, (I cannot for the life of me know why) they will wait until they find THE CANDIDATE and just vote for him. Then will tell everyone later how much they wanted someone else.

  11. An Interested Party says:

    However, when they look around and see that nothing has changed at all, one has to wonder if they’re just going to conclude it’s not worth caring about this crap anymore.

    Certainly the eventual GOP presidential nominee will hope that this is the case, as he will need all the help he can get in the fall election…no wonder Noonan is pushing a similar argument…speaking of Our Lady of the Dolphins…

    Maybe they don’t think our government can’t solve anything. Maybe, even, our political class has done such a good job depicting the crisis we’re in that the American people, with their low faith in institutions, think nothing, really, can be done about it.

    Notice how she doesn’t mention that much of the blame for this can be laid at the collective feet of the party she is a part of…

  12. walt moffett says:

    Or maybe among some, the plight of this young man, shows not much has changed despite soaring rhetoric. Or there is a possibilty that the current crop of R candidates don’t inspire or a case of WTF after electing a skid load of R’s last year. Lots of possibilities all of which may be widdling in the wind.

  13. john personna says:

    @walt moffett:

    That is exactly why we need a basic National Health.

    I don’t need equal medicine for everyone (the genuinely “left” position?), but I do want the basics (the current “centrist” position?).

  14. Tillman says:

    Ah yes, Peggy Noonan, the woman who famously said, “Sometimes in life you wanna just keep walking.”

  15. Tillman says:

    It’s not a thesis, it’s a contention. Maybe a claim. Certainly a half-argued declaration.

    Things have changed, contra your world-building. I just don’t feel like looking up Andrew Sullivan’s piece to show what specifically.

    Also, another instance of the meme “both parties are to blame” which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

  16. walt moffett says:

    @john personna:

    Unfortunately, a national health service was not on offer.

  17. Brummagem Joe says:

    Noonan performing her usual role at the misinformation recirculating WSJ ed page is rationalising the disastrous turnout at the GOP primaries/caucuses by saying it’s a generalised problem because of reduced viewership of cable shoutfests. Doug while trying to be more sophisticated essentially goes down the same road as portraying this as an issue of national malaise rather than what it very obviously is. Demoralisation and schisms in the Republican party. But that would too simple wouldn’t it Doug? After all the Democratic president is showing absolutely no leadership so it stands to reason attendance at Republican primaries is down. Who would be stupid enough to suggest otherwise?