Short-Attention-Span Politics

by Carolyn Chase


ith a 108-page ballot, how much time will you be investing in your civic duty?

Ballpark, school bonds, gambling, growth -- we've got it all. They want our opinion on all of it -- at least the opinions of some of us -- in a take-it-leave-it festival of frenzy to thefinish on November 3rd.

It's mind-boggling to consider how we've arrived at this. There are 33 local initiatives on the ballot countywide. Almost every municipal jurisdiction has something going on. This is above and beyond the ten statewide initiatives and all the races for elected office.

Ten of the local propositions competing for voter approval are in the City of San Diego. After years of putting through insider deals, the City Council is allowing the voters of San Diego to have at least some kind of vote on some measures.

So a high-stakes game of attempting to get 60 seconds of the right kind of attention from a voter is unfolding.

What do voters care about? Do the people care at all? One political consultant has told me that the average voter only "thinks about politics five minutes a week -- if that."

But what happens when you query people at length about their political views?

Pollsters ask detailed questions over the phone, one-on-one, and track voter reactions to messages. They also sort people into categories based on age, sex, income and other pertinent facts. In-person discussions, or "focus groups," are convened with a professional moderator. You get together about a dozen folks from one area of the City and have them talk about the politics of the day. You watch in another room. It's not always pretty.

Fundamental cynicism and mistrust of the political process is the first most remarkable characteristic. You know the expression: the fog is so thick you could cut it with a knife? Well, the cynicism is so thick in America, you can't cut it at all. Our culture is suffocating in cynicism. It's the easiest thing in the world to say that something won't work. It seems impossible for people even to believe that we can evolve our way out of the problems of growth and environmental degradation.

Very few folks even believe that the ballot statements, by law, must be accurate. The arguments against are easier to believe. The arguments in favor face an uphill battle against the mountains of personal mistrust that any affirmative promises would be kept. The electorate is disinclined to believe that the endorsers' measures could really be working in favor of the public interest. And who can blame them?

Who do voters believe? They reported a tendency to believe non-profit groups over others. Personal networks seemed to matter. They all denied that they would believe any ads on television. (Given the amount of money that will be spent on TV, denial may be the operative verb here.) Overall, they stated a preference for printed material. Some folks listen to talk radio.

Will new technologies such as e-mail and the Internet matter to campaigns and the political process? Political expert opinions differ, except to agree they do not know yet how many voters will use Web sites or e-mail.

At least one prominent consultant is convinced it will transform politics as we know it. Eddie Mahe, a DC-based Republican political consultant calls the use of the Internet and email "the new word of mouth" and has stated: "We look back now at 1958 and can see the impact that television had on campaigns. From the future looking back, people will be able to see the impact of the Internet and email on campaigns in 1998 and especially in 2000 as at least as important and transforming as television was in 1958. The rules of campaigning and are being rewritten again right now."

Gary Jacobson, a political expert at the University of California, San Diego who studies Congressional elections, is more skeptical: "There has already been more free information available on candidates than most voters care to absorb. Web sites will attract the minority who would be interested anyway; participation in discussion groups, etc., will also attract just the political junkies. It is conceivable that the disjuncture between the activist minority and the apathetic majority will grow wider through this process of self-selection."

He adds: "What the new technologies may do is to make it easier and cheaper to mobilize broad-based special interest constituencies (reformers, environmentalists, anti- and pro-choice groups, etc.) through more efficient communications. This may make it easier to mount initiative campaigns, but it will not help sell them to the general public. That will continue to require mass media campaigning."

Which will it be? Likely some of both.

Volunteers already have taken Sierra Club endorsements and put them on a Web site where voters can print out an entire voter's guide for folks to take with them to the polls. In the era of the short-attention-span voter, services like this may add up.

Fundamentally, politics is about getting people to take sides. To take a stand and care about something. But on what basis?

Most people are busy with their lives and feel the system is too remote for them to influence. More information is not going to be the answer for them. Will new technologies increase either the number of "political junkies" or their impact? Time will tell.