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Roper Center to analyze media influence on uncommitted voters (Released: 4/15/96)

by Luis Mocete, Office of University Communications.

STORRS, Conn. -- The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and the Institute for Social Inquiry at the University of Connecticut is conducting original research on the media's effect on undecided voters.

Many students of American politics say this year's presidential election could be historic. Some suggest that Republicans might establish themselves as the dominant party, while others feel that, with independent bids from established political figures such as Ross Perot, the election may usher in an era of political independence.

Increased dissatisfaction with politics has made voters critical and more prone to vote for change. According to Ken Dautrich, associate director of the Roper Center, voters have become more educated and less bound by loyalties over the years.

"Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s more than two-thirds of the American public was either Democrat or Republican," said Dautrich, also an associate professor of political science. "Over the past three decades there has been a 30 percent shift in people who do not have an allegiance to a particular party."

Because of the large number of undecided voters heading into this year's election, the Roper Center was interested in conducting research on voters who are weighing the issues. The center turned to the Freedom Forum, a non-profit foundation dedicated to studying the role of media in society. The research will monitor the formation and change of opinion of non-committed voters throughout the course of the campaign.

This group of people will be very interesting to study, because they will influence the outcome of the election, said John Barry, associate director of the Roper Center.

After a number of key periods during the campaign (the California primary, the national conventions, one or two presidential debates in October, the weekend before the election and the day after the election), the Roper Center will measure the impact of campaign events and media influences on the attitudes of swing voters.

The number of studies done in the 1960s and the early 1970s concluded that the media do not have much of an effect on influencing voters, Dautrich said. That has changed today because there are many people who are not faithfully aligned to political parties.

The result of this change has seen many voters not trusting the Democrats or Republicans to provide them with information on the presidential campaign, so they are turning to the media.

To determine how undecided voters were obtaining their information early in this year's campaign, a national survey was conducted with 2,000 voters before the New Hampshire primary that will measure voter opinion for this project. According to that survey, 67 percent said they obtain their information from the media.

Dautrich believes the information the public is getting from the media will more likely be used since voters are not depending on the party labels as a voting cue. But just because swing voters are getting their information from the media does not necessarily mean they are satisfied with the information they are receiving, he said.

The vast majority of these voters are interested in stories about issues and how the election may effect them, Dautrich said. Instead the media are providing the public with stories such as the candidates' personal lives which is not very useful to the uncommitted voter.

By profiling these voters, Dautich will identify issues most important to them, assess their attitudes toward candidates, assess their feelings toward the parties and possible independent movements.

Examining these undecided voters is extremely important in light of their potential impact on American politics, he said. Not only will our research provide us with an opportunity to examine these effects, but it builds in the possibility of conducting long-term post-election follow-ups near the 1998 and 2000 national elections in order to assess how swing voters have moved over the long haul.

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