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THE FINAL PUSH // Turned-off voters may not turn up

Published Jul. 6, 2006

As this long, tedious election year rolls mercifully to a close, the final fear harbored by the exhausted candidates is that you won't vote Tuesday.

President Clinton and Republican Bob Dole are still speaking to colorful, fervent crowds gathered each day for the TV cameras. However, they, and thousands of state and local candidates, know this campaign season has been met with a big national yawn.

"This time, I think you're going to see a real drop in turnout," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

Turnout spiked at 55.3 percent of the adult population in 1992, the best in two decades. Since then, 5-million voters have been registered through the motor voter law

But with polls all year showing an easy Clinton win, the Republicans fear their voters will be too discouraged to vote, while Democrats fear complacency.

In a last-minute blitz, the Republicans have used television and direct mail to remind voters that there's more to Election Day than the presidential race. Control of Congress is up for grabs. Dozens of races are so close, that they will depend entirely on who shows up at the polls.

"They Hope You Won't Vote This November 5th," reads a Republican brochure mailed to millions of homes. It uses Hillary Clinton and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy as liberal villains to scare out the vote.

The GOP is trying to counter a similar Democratic effort, begun months ago, that demonized House Speaker Newt Gingrich and tried to link all Republicans to him in television ads paid for by the AFL-CIO.

But voters have been tuning out all year.

TV viewership for the party conventions in August was at an all-time low, down 25 percent from 1992, and viewers for the debates dropped by one-third.

Network coverage of the campaign is down 40 percent, because of a lack of viewer interest. MacManus said people aren't even watching campaign commercials, they're "pushing the channel change selector as fast as humanly possible."

A survey by the Pew Research Center last month found only 24 percent of those questioned said they were watching the presidential race closely, down from 42 percent in 1992.

"If people feel that the government does not represent their interests or values very well, then the whole political process becomes something they don't have much confidence in. It's not meaningful," said Maureen Steinbruner, president of the Center for National Policy, a non-partisan think tank in Washington.

Voting might seem the logical answer. If you don't like government, change it. However, Steinbruner said people have stopped believing that it matters how they vote. "They've started to see everybody as this amorphous mass of politicians who will make promises and turn around and betray you," she said.

Negative ads only reinforce the notion that voters are choosing the lesser of evils. Women are especially pessimistic about the process.

Average turnout figures are based on the population age 18 and older and includes those who aren't registered. Of those Americans _ 196.5-million _ slightly more than half vote. Of registered voters, 78 percent turned out in 1992 _ 83 percent in Florida.

Florida has signed up 1.5-million new voters in the past two years, largely through motor voter, said David Rancourt, state supervisor of elections. But that won't necessarily increase turnout. These are people who made no effort to register; it was offered when they got their driver's licenses.

"You have a less active new cohort of voters," Rancourt said. "They will most likely vote at a lower rate than those who registered under the old system."

Florida elections officials estimate a turnout of about 67 percent among the registered voters, which is lower than the average 76 percent in other presidential years.

"With so many voters new in the system, we just aren't sure if they will show up to vote," Secretary of State Sandra Mortham said.

One factor favoring higher turnout is the number of absentee ballots requested. This election should mark a record high in the number of absentee ballots, Mortham said. She expects 10 to 15 percent of the ballots cast will be by absentee voters.

As always, turnout is best among older voters who were taught that voting and staying informed is their civic duty _ an idea, MacManus said, that has only recently been reintroduced in elementary schools.

But today's young adults can't relate, said MacManus, who wrote a book about generational conflict. "That generation is used to something new all the time _ new sitcoms, new ads, new cars. These candidates and even the ads this time are not new," she said.

For years, it has been assumed that non-voters are not as patriotic, or as smart, or as well-informed as those who make it to the polls.

But a study of non-voters this year by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University found non-voters are remarkably similar to people who vote and often are making a deliberate choice to stay home.

The study divided non-voters into five categories:

29 percent are college-educated, affluent, under 45, well-informed and optimistic about the future. They simply don't vote.

18 percent are well-informed and too angry to vote. They tend to be older voters who figure no one cares what they think.

12 percent are angry and uninformed, typically over 45.

27 percent are under 30, less educated, less affluent, less informed. They don't read.

14 percent pay no attention, have no opinions and generally aren't registered.

Nearly half of these non-voters say they see no difference between the political parties _ a major clue to their detachment.

"If the choices are tweedledee and tweedledum, why vote at all?" said C. Anthony Broh, a politics lecturer at Princeton University. "You have the same effect on policy by staying at home and not voting. So the parties have got to offer a difference on issues that you care about."

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, predicts the 35-year downward spiral in voter turnout will continue, despite the uptick in 1992, which he attributes to anger at the economy. (Others say it was a big youth vote for Clinton.)

In a report issued last week, Gans said only hope _ not anger _ will bring out voters over the long haul.

"Because of a variety of things _ the way we conduct our campaigns, the alignment of our political parties, the cynicism in the press and public, and the lack of civic values _ there is precious little of that hope around today," he said.