Does Campaign Spending Depress Turnout?

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The LA Times' Cathleen Decker, whose Sunday column is a state treasure (full disclosure: she used to be one of my editors at the Times), makes a provocative point in yesterday's piece: that the nastiest and most expensive campaigns -- like the one just waged for the GOP gubernatorial nomination -- produce the lowest turnouts:

"Campaigns make a great show of getting out the vote; the customary photo op on the final weekend before election day is the candidate thanking volunteers who are working the phones to get voters into the polls.

"What that makes is the other reality; the television advertising campaigns, at least ones like this year's, exist to depress turnout.

"It is sometimes possible for the ads that swarm the television screens to gin up their own candidate's tallies. But their intent much of the time is to simply turn off the other guy's voters."

Decker quotes the scholar Curtis Gans and his extensive research. There is a contrary view in the academic world: that turnout has been relatively flat for the past three decades (and that it only seems to be going down because the population of adult residents who are ineligible to vote has grown for various reasons -- including greater immigration and larger populations of convicted felons, who are ineligible to vote in many states).

Either way, the results of California's elections are bad news. And it seems clear that, at the very least, greater campaign spending does not improve turnout -- and may reduce it.

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