WASHINGTON -- The first installment of a two-year Harvard study of presidential voters called "The Vanishing Voter Project" has come up with the altogether unastonishing finding that voter interest and involvement peaks when the campaign action is hot and falls when it cools off.
To find this out, the study conducted weekly national polling of 1,000 respondents from mid-November to mid-April, funded with a first slice of a $900,000 grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government. To nobody's surprise, voter involvement, hovering around 20 percent at the end of last year, climbed to around 35 percent in the period covering the Jan. 24 Iowa caucuses and the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary on Feb. 1.
After a brief dip thereafter, voters who said they were paying some attention to the nominating process resumed a higher rate of interest again through the Super Tuesday avalanche of primaries on March 7, after which 46 percent expressed some form of voter involvement. But within days, the figure plunged back to levels almost as low as they were when the election year began.
From this predictable phenomenon, the study concluded that "critical events clearly play the key role in stimulating public involvement." With the nominations wrapped up by Super Tuesday, further primaries became meaningless and voter interest responded accordingly. Which only seems to show that voters don't look to presidential campaigns very much as educational exercises when the candidate horse race is over.
What is more disturbing is that even when the campaign was lively and interesting -- notably when Sen. John McCain was making a surprisingly strong challenge to Texas Gov. George W. Bush and there were record turnouts in nine Republican primaries -- more voters reported they were bored by the campaign than excited. The week of the New Hampshire primary, for example, 31 percent of those surveyed said it had been an exciting period while 42 percent rated it boring.
This ho-hum attitude carried over to the television debates during the primaries. For the 24 such debates, audiences were very small, in part because the commercial networks didn't carry any. Worse, the survey found that two-thirds of all watchers said they switched channels after viewing only "some" or "a little" of the debates.
Another entirely unstartling finding was that the more news coverage given to the elections, the more voter involvement occurred. The study noted that as the major contests approached there was more "horse-race" coverage -- who was ahead and who was behind -- at just the time of peak opportunity to educate voters on the issues. This is a familiar lament of academia that isn't likely to produce any real change in the competitive environment in the news media and among candidates bent on being winners, not educators, at that stage.
Perhaps the most disturbing finding in the study was an expressed preference, by nearly 2-1, among voters surveyed for a national primary over the existing nominating system. Such a one-day nationwide primary would virtually assure the nominations of the best-known and most well-heeled candidates, with no events leading up to it to whet voter interest and involvement and no opportunity for "buyer's remorse" if a disastrous choice were made.
Republican and Democratic officials considering changes in the process for 2004 warned in a panel discussion that as things are going now, a "de facto national primary" could be in the cards as more states left without a voice this year rush to hold their primaries earlier next time, exacerbating the already heavily front-loaded calendar.
Less drastic alternatives also are being considered, the most interesting of which is a so-called "Delaware" plan whereby the smallest states would vote first and the largest last, spread over five separate primary dates. No candidate would collect enough delegates to clinch the party nomination until later in the process, thus -- theoretically at least -- enfranchising more states than now.
One wonders from the findings of the Harvard study, however, whether voters care much one way or the other. In all, the survey paints a bleak picture about voter interest and involvement in the world's greatest self-governing nation.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).