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An odd up-and-down in the presidential race

Civic trust

Distrust of government is at a record high but turnout in many primaries is higher than normal.  Why voters say one thing to pollsters and do another.

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Democrats in Idaho fill a Boise arena for the March 22 caucus that saw record breaking voter turnout.

Kyle Green/Idaho Statesman via AP

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Their mouths say “no.”

Yet their voting says “yes.”

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That’s the best description of an odd phenomenon showing up in America’s 2016 presidential race.

Overall trust in government – among both Republicans and Democrats – has steadily reached a record low in recent years. Only 19 percent of Americans say government can be trusted to do what is right, according to a late-2015 Pew poll. Three-quarters are dissatisfied with the way government works, finds a CNN poll. Another revealing point: The number of voters claiming to be independent of party affiliation reached a record high last year, at 41 percent.

“We do have an issue that we’ve got to address, and that is, Americans don’t trust government like we used to,” President Obama said in December.

But here’s the flip side:

Voter turnout in many of this year’s state primaries is higher than average. Republicans are showing up to vote at a rate not seen since 1980. For Democrats, the turnout has been as high as that in 1992, with the exception of 2008 when Barack Obama first ran. Wisconsin’s primary turnout in April was the highest since 1972.

And for all the distrust of Washington and for all the anger in both the Democratic and GOP campaigns about a “rigged system,” the Internal Revenue Service does not seem worried about “tax morale,” or the willingness of Americans to pay their due to Uncle Sam. (The last IRS study, in 2006, showed a compliance rate of 83 percent, or 85 percent after a paper poke from the IRS.)

The reality of high turnouts in 2016 – as opposed to rising negative views of government – may have many causes. Candidates find it easier to drive voters to the polls, especially with social media. The races have been more competitive than expected. And the two “outsiders,” Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, present an image of a new kind of politician and each makes bold promises that draw many marginalized voters.

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Or perhaps the best way to read polls about Americans being “down” on government is that they still want to be “up” about fixing it. Between lips speaking to pollsters and hands marking ballots, a civic duty still kicks in. Many voters remember trust in government starts with trust in the responsibility to be a citizen.