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2000 race puts voter apathy in past so far

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2000


WASHINGTON -- Search your memory. When was the last time you heard people complain that they were voting for a presidential candidate who's "the lesser evil" in the race?

Chances are, unless you hang out with an unusually negative, grumpy crowd, you have not heard that familiar lament among voters this year.

And perhaps that is indicative of what seems to be the most surprising development so far in the primary election campaign: A majority of voters seems genuinely satisfied with their choice of candidates for president.

I first recognized this phenomenon while talking to friends. During previous election years, when I have come home from a reporting trip on the campaign trail, my friends have said: "Oh, you poor dear. It must be awful for you, covering that terrible, boring presidential campaign."

But last week, when I returned home from covering the South Carolina primary, I found my friends were eager to hear my experiences. No one wanted to commiserate. They seemed genuinely intrigued by the contest between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain for the Republican nomination and, perhaps to a lesser degree, by the Democratic race between Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley.

I heard a similar story from Matthew A. Sciarrion Jr. from Staten Island, N.Y., a sightseer I met outside the White House on Friday afternoon.

Sciarrion, 31, who was visiting Washington for a leadership meeting of the Young Republican National Federation, said interest in joining the organization is at "an all-time high" because young Republicans are excited by the presidential race.

"People I know are having a tough time making their choice right now between McCain and Bush because they are both good candidates," said Sciarrion, himself a Bush supporter.

Voter enthusiasm for the candidates also is reflected in several recent polls as well as in what so far is a unusually high voter turnout in the primaries.

In a recent Gallup poll, 75 percent of voters interviewed said there is at least one "good" candidate in this year's presidential race. This compares with 57 percent in a similar poll in May 1996, and only 40 percent in January 1992.

Karlyn Bowman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says the apparent voter satisfaction with the choices in the 2000 presidential campaign is the direct result of two things: the unusual economic prosperity the nation is enjoying and the widespread perception that all of the major presidential candidates left in the race "seem to be up to being president."

Another good indicator of voter satisfaction, Bowman notes, is this year's lagging interest in third party candidates. Indeed, the battle between the forces of Texas billionaire Ross Perot and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura for control of the Reform Party has been viewed by most voters as something of an amusing sideshow that is virtually irrelevant to the election.

Turnout in the primaries so far has been extraordinary. In New Hampshire, about 396,000 voters cast ballots, up from 302,000 four years ago. In South Carolina, the turnout for a strictly Republican contest was 565,000, up from 276,000 in 1996. And in Michigan, a record 1.3-million GOP votes were cast, up from 276,000.

Not only was turnout up, but exit polls showed nine out of 10 voters in South Carolina and New Hampshire said they were fully satisfied with their choice of candidates. In the previous two elections, exit polls found only half the voters were satisfied with the candidates.

All four of the major candidates can take some credit for the higher turnout, but most of the credit goes to McCain. In Iowa caucuses, where McCain did not compete, the turnout among party regulars was lower this year than in 1996.

McCain supporters will tell you that their candidate is drawing more people to the polls because he has broad voter appeal. Bush supporters, on the other hand, will tell you that Democrats and independents are swelling the GOP primary turnout in an effort to cause havoc in the Republican Party. Either way, the turnout is being attributed to McCain.

No one is more surprised by this than McCain himself. Although he is a war hero with an appealing reform message, he had no idea when he set out to run for president that his campaign would capture the imagination of so many voters across the political spectrum.

"It's a phenomenon that's happening, not a strategy," admits Republican political consultant Richard Quinn, who ran McCain's campaign in South Carolina.

Unfortunately, because McCain is playing a bigger role than the other candidates in generating public interest in the 2000 presidential campaign, the higher primary turnout does not mean the dark days of voter apathy are over. There is no guarantee that voter turnout will continue to grow in November, particularly if McCain is denied the GOP nomination.

But the increased turnout in the primaries does suggest that voter apathy can be reversed if the two major parties get more serious about offering us a choice of qualified candidates, including some who break the old political mold.

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