Was there any notable change in political participation after Watergate?*

If there were changes, were these more noticible within a particular party or level of government and to what extent are the changes attributable to Watergate?

* I'm thinking of metrics like voter participation, party membership, candidate recruitment, donations, willingness to work in civil service or the legal profession, etc., but I'm not sure what metrics are actually relevant or are used by experts, so I defer to the answers and their references for how to measure this.

  • 12
    Every. Single. Bloody. Minor. Newsworthy. Item. Started. Being. Called. Scandal-du-jour-gate. Thanks, @Nixon.
    – user4012
    May 19, 2017 at 18:36
  • 2
    It's scandalous @user4012! I propose we call it gategate!
    – user11249
    May 25, 2017 at 12:01

2 Answers 2


This answer lists some of the statistics and metrics used to measure political participation.

First, let's define political participation:

Conventional participation: Activities that we expect of good citizens. For most people, participation occurs every few years at election time. People strongly committed to politics are more likely to participate on a regular basis.

Example: Conventional political participation includes voting, volunteering for a political campaign, making a campaign donation, belonging to activist groups, and serving in public office.

Source: http://www.sparknotes.com/us-government-and-politics/political-science/political-culture-and-public-opinion/section4.rhtml

Voter participation

Voter participation's the most useful way to measure political participation, especially voter turnout.

In the 1976 presidential election, voter turnout dropped 1.6% which isn't really significant. However, the number of voters who voted for the Republican candidate decreased by approx. 8 million while those who voted for the Democratic candidate increased by approx. 11 million. This shows that there's a huge swing towards the Democratic Party which is largely attributed to the unpopularity of Nixon and unhappiness that Ford pardoned him.

According to the Voter Turnout and Congressional Change article by Pew Research Center, it mentioned that the Watergate scandal might have caused Republican voters to sit out in elections.

Another way to produce a big change in Congress is a “one-party collapse,” where a huge number of voters from one of the parties simply sit out the election. That is what happened in 1974, when the dispiriting backdrop of the Watergate scandal led to a nearly 3-million vote falloff in the Republican House vote from 1970. The Democratic vote grew by barely 1 million. But the GOP drop off was so severe that it cost the Republicans nearly 50 House seats.

Party membership

As seen in the graph below, the number of Americans who identify themselves as Republicans started to decline from 1972 onwards while those who identify themselves as Democrats and Independents started to increase.


Source: http://www.people-press.org/interactives/party-id-trend/


Donations seemed to have dropped for both parties in the 1976 presidential election. However, this might be due to new laws created by Congress in 1975 to regulate the finances of presidential campaigns.

There are very specific laws governing how a campaign itself can raise money, which are enforced by the Federal Elections Commission, created by Congress in 1975 as the enforcement/compliance mechanism for campaign finance laws. As laid down by the FEC, corporations may not contribute to campaigns or national party committees (i.e., the Republican Party), and individuals are limited to $2,500 per candidate. The laws are similar for contributing to national party committees, although the personal limit is much higher, (currently) $30,800. And no, these personal donations are not tax deductible.

Regardless, it does show that campaign donations for the 1972 presidential election decreased and it increased in subsequent elections. Below shows the amount raised in the 1968, 1972, 1976 and 1980 presidential elections, adjusted for inflation.

Hubert Humphrey: $77.1 million
Richard Nixon: $168.9 million

George McGovern: $166.1 million
Richard Nixon: $339.9 million

Jimmy Carter: $135.8 million
Gerald Ford: $145.6 million

Jimmy Carter: $137.6 million
Ronald Reagan: $162 million


Source: https://theawl.com/how-much-more-money-do-presidential-candidates-raise-today-8bfcbcdd8960

In conclusion,

Many of the changes in political participation don't seem to be permanent. Many of the statistics and metrics showed that participation seemed to rebound in the 1980 presidential election and beyond.

  • What happened during the Reagan years to cause so many people to stop identifying as Democrats? That looks like an even bigger drop than the Johnson Civil Rights realignment.
    – J Doe
    May 25, 2017 at 14:51
  • Many of these are correlations. Do you have any reason to suspect that Watergate caused these things? May 25, 2017 at 19:30

Wikipedia has statistics on the turnout in each presidential election from 1828. Turnout in 1976 was exceptionally low at 53.6%. That was the lowest since 51.1% in 1948. However, turnout was not much higher in 1972 at 55.1%. Turnout was at least 59.3% from 1952 through 1968. Turnout did not exceed 53.6% until 55.2% in 1992.

Some guess that this means Watergate depressed turnout. However, I don't know of any actual polling on that. It would have been difficult to do, as you would want to poll the people who did not vote. So one either polls everyone and asks or has to delay until the people who voted can be identified. Even then, one has problems like the inability to count people who do not register to vote because of disillusionment with the system.

Why did turnout drop from 60.7% in 1968 to 55.1% in 1972? If we knew that, then we might have a better idea why turnout dropped to 53.6% in 1976 and stayed down. It seems unlikely that Watergate would have caused turnout to drop to 49% in 1996.

It's a reasonable hypothesis that Watergate caused lower turnout, but there isn't a lot of data supporting that. It would also be reasonable to think that any Watergate effect would fade over time. But whatever happened was more lasting. It could be two effects. One that applied in 1976 and another that lasted longer.

A possible source of a long term effect would be an increasing minority population as a share of the overall population. Minorities like blacks and Hispanics have historically had lower turnout (although black turnout exceeded white turnout in 2012 and some estimates say 2008 as well).

If someone had sufficiently granular statistics (Wikipedia doesn't), then we could see if the hypothesis at least fit the data. But we still wouldn't be able to conclusively say that Watergate caused a drop in turnout. We'd only be able to say that the data was consistent with that hypothesis. I.e. we'd only be able to say that we couldn't disprove it.

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