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Americans lament nasty politics but think civil campaigns are possible, study finds

A clear majority of Americans believe politics have become less civil since Barack Obama became president, and they say the nasty tone is not healthy for democracy, according to a public opinion study by an Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne professor.

Michael Wolf

Photo by James Whitcraft, IPFW University Relations and Communications

Michael Wolf

Print-Quality Photo

But the study also found strong optimism that civility in politics is possible. Questioned just days before the November 2010 election, nine of 10 respondents said they believe candidates can conduct aggressive but respectful campaigns.

"The American people overwhelmingly do think a candidate can run for office in an aggressive but respectful way -- they don't think negative campaigns are unavoidable," said Michael Wolf, associate professor of political science at IPFW. "That's an interesting result, and this was right before the election."

Wolf is co-author of the study with Daniel M. Shea, a political science professor and director of the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. It included three "waves" of surveys conducted in April, in September and in the four days before the election. The pre-election survey included 1,252 registered voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent.

Sixty-three percent of respondents in the Oct. 28-Nov. 2 survey said politics had become less civil since Obama took office -- up from 48 percent in April and 58 percent in September. Forty-six percent said the 2010 campaign was the worst they had seen; 26 percent said it was more negative than in the past, but they had seen worse.

Other findings include:

  • 64 percent of respondents said the negative tone hurts our democracy, 17 percent said it helps democracy and 14 percent said it had little impact.
  • 59 percent opposed the spending of "outside money" to influence campaigns, 12 percent supported it and 26 percent didn't have strong feelings.
  • Just over half said they got most of their news from television and nearly a quarter got most of their news from the Internet; only 13 percent got most news from newspapers.

Generally, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say politics had become less civil since Obama became president. But Democrats were at least as likely as Republicans to say the 2010 campaign was the most negative they remembered.

While both Republicans and Democrats said the negativism was bad for democracy, they blamed difference sources. Asked in the September survey, both sides held political parties responsible, but Democrats blamed conservative TV commentators and Republicans blamed liberal TV commentators.

Another survey finding might help explain why Republicans fared so well in the 2010 elections. Asked about the effect of the negative tone, Republicans said it made them more likely to get involved in elections, while moderate Democrats and independents said it made them less likely to get involved.

"The negative campaigning had a demobilizing effect for Democrats," Wolf said.

One possible explanation: Democrats said, by a 2-to-1 margin, that a politician should be able to compromise to get things done. Republicans, by about the same margin, said it's more important for a politician to stand firm on principle.

"The Republicans who want a candidate to stand firm are more open to being mobilized by negative campaigning," Wolf said. "For them, if you have to go negative in order to stand firm, that's alright."

So is the conclusion that Democrats are wimps and Republicans are zealots? Probably not. Wolf and Shea write in an article for the website that Democratic voters, with their party holding the presidency and a majority in Congress, were probably willing to compromise to advance their agenda. Republicans, locked out of power (until the election), had no reason to compromise.

"Put a bit differently, we believe it quite likely that this sort of phenomenon, where the out-of-power partisans are mobilized by attack ads, helped push Democrats to the polls in 2006," they write. "That year Democrats were probably in no mood to compromise and preferred politicians with principled stands against the Iraq War and aggressive opposition to the Bush administration."