Political Parties, Interest Groups, and Political Campaigns

By Ronald J. Hrebenar; Matthew J. Burbank et al. | Go to book overview

5
The Changing American Electorate

A key task of political parties is to mobilize the public to support party candidates at the ballot box. However, a changing electorate and its increasingly tense relationship with the parties makes mobilization difficult. The public does not overtly attack the parties and the candidates they choose but maintains a lengthy "open season" of criticism about them. For example, nearly half (49 percent) of the respondents in a recent poll stated that neither party was better able to control the top problem facing their community; 40 percent expressed a similar view about the top problem facing the country ( Times Mirror Center 1994, 29). When asked what it means to be a Republican, over half of those questioned in another poll said that Republicans are for "rich, powerful, moneyed interests." Democrats fared little better, as only one in five said being a Democrat means being "for working people" ( Broder 1990).

Citizens who do go to the polls continuously express anger or frustration about their choices, although an increasing number decide not to engage in such traditional activities as voting. Polling conducted in 1996 found that only 51 percent of voters were satisfied with the choice of presidential candidates; among nominal Dole supporters the dissatisfaction was even higher: Only 31 percent were satisfied with the choices available.

The electorate also shows its disdain for parties and candidates by either staying at home during primary and general elections or crossing party lines. The purpose of presidential primaries is to take the choice out of the party's "smoke-filled rooms" and give the electorate an important role in decisionmaking. Although primaries proliferated after 1968, participation by the voting-age population gradually decreased, reaching its lowest figure of 19.6 percent in 1992 ( "A Correction" 1992). Most of the decline occurred in Democratic presidential primaries, with participation falling to slightly less than 12 percent. Republican participation remained steady at

-93-

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