It has long been established that negative campaigns discourage voter turnout. Political mudslinging doesn’t just hurt the targets of the attacks. It turns people off, which results in less voting, especially by those who are least inclined to vote—“shrinking and polarizing the electorate,” as political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Stephen Ansolabehere put it in their classic research on the subject.
More recent research on the effects of negative campaigns has yielded mixed results, and political consultants still lean hard on negative campaigning to motivate the base. But what seems clear is that a large swath of voters who do not identify strongly with either political party are inclined to avoid politics as campaigns get dirtier and more personal. That’s a significant effect in the Trump era.
Obviously, low voter turnout is better for Republicans than Democrats. It’s an effect the Republican Party has pursued, through voter I.D. laws, limited voting hours, confusing rules on how to register and vote, and scare tactics including jailing people for voting and putting up billboards in urban neighborhoods threatening people with prosecution for improper voting.
Perhaps no voter suppression tactic is as powerful as stoking voters’ general sense of apathy, hopelessness, and disgust.
But none of these tactics is as powerful as stoking voters’ general sense of apathy, hopelessness, and disgust, which keeps the United States at the bottom of the list of developed countries for voter turnout. Almost 60 percent of eligible voters chose not to participate in the last midterm elections—far more than can be accounted for by any overt voter-suppression efforts.
This is the backdrop to the 2018 midterms, and to the whole Trump Administration, which is essentially one, long negative campaign.
As the November elections approach, the Republicans are gleefully embracing Trump and polarizing events like Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation battle—actively reveling in voter alienation and disgust.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tauntingly thanked the protesters at the Kavanaugh hearings for energizing the Republican base.
“It’s been a great political gift for us,” McConnell told The Washington Post. “I want to thank the mob, because they’ve done the one thing we were having trouble doing, which was energizing our base.”
What McConnell didn’t say is that the Republicans’ efforts to hang onto their one-vote majority in the Senate as well as their control of the House depends on a fired-up base and a disaffected majority that doesn’t show up to vote.
It’s not that angry, ranting, entitled white men are overwhelmingly loved by the American electorate.
Kavanaugh was already one of the most unpopular Supreme Court nominees in history, before he faced charges of sexual assault. He was confirmed despite the fact that the public’s view of him only became more negative after his second hearing and testimony by his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.
But the sheer ugliness of the hearings, along with a barrage of bad news during Trump’s reality TV show presidency—the attacks on women, people of color and immigrants, the destruction of U.S. diplomacy, trade wars, tariffs, and policies that exacerbate the damage from climate change, civil-rights rollbacks and immigrant roundups—have a depressing effect on the majority of inconsistent voters, who already have doubts about their ability to make a difference in our democracy.
As Ansolabehere and Iyengar observed:
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“On the one hand, media propaganda can often shore up loyalists to vote for their traditional party; on the other hand, that same propaganda is increasingly peeling off a band of citizens who turn from independence to apathy, even antipathy, toward our political institutions.”
Midterm turnout has been declining steadily since the 1970s, reaching a new low in 2014 of 41.9 percent.
Recent polls show increased voter motivation on both sides ahead of this year’s polarizing midterms, which could help the Democrats. But the same polls also show that independents are less motivated to vote.
The Republicans, meanwhile, are leaning into their strategy of turning people off. They not only want to polarize the electorate and turn Americans against each other (“divide and conquer” as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker put it), they want to undermine our faith in our political institutions and democracy itself. Since Ronald Reagan, the Republican message has been that government itself is the problem and that the best thing for the public interest is to defund, deregulate, and disempower the public sector.
Pushing back against that message is the only way out of the downward cycle of less and less voter participation and worse and worse political leadership.
Perhaps 2018 will be the year that voter disaffection and apathy finally hit bottom and begin to turn around. Perhaps it will be the year that the majority of Americans including women, people of color, the non-rich, and the immigrants who are targets of Trump’s scariest attacks, join forces and fight back.
There has to be a tipping point.
In Wisconsin last month, armed federal agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted an unannounced sweep, snatching a total of eighty-three immigrants from workplaces and homes, sowing terror in local communities and tearing families apart.
Local officials in Madison denounced ICE’s tactics and pledged to help immigrant families. “They are not police. They are federal agents who are using their authority to come into a local situation,” said Madison Mayor Paul Soglin. “And that deception is one of their many lies that they continue to perpetrate, which is designed to create confusion and to worsen an already bad situation.”
Christine Neumann Ortiz, executive director of the immigrant-rights group Voces de la Frontera, told reporters that she sees a direct connection between her group’s voter-registration drive and the ICE raids which targeted many of the areas where activists have been conducting a door-to-door effort to register new voters.
There has to be a tipping point
Families are afraid to answer their doors after the raids, Neumann-Ortiz said, for fear their loved ones will be snatched. Many households are comprised of a mix of documented and undocumented residents. The intimidation was deliberate, she said.
“We cannot afford to be intimidated,” Christine Neumann-Ortiz declared, pledging to double down on her group’s effort to get out the vote. “We invite voters across Wisconsin to defend immigrant families.”
Inspiring leadership, and aggressive organization, are the best hope we have to turn the tide against the cynical politics of the Republicans and Donald Trump.