Friday, August 19, 2011

Some facts about the American voter you may not know

We are rapidly moving into the campaign season for another presidential election.  As you follow news reports about the campaign and the AttackDemocrat and other political blogs, keep in mind the following facts about the American voter.  They are based upon a large number of studies by political scientists including The American Voter, an historic study of voting behavior published in 1960 and its follow-up The American Voter Revisited published in2008.

Here are the Facts about the people who go to the polls and who don’t:

  • Most Americans, most of the time, don’t pay very much attention to politics. Most Americans are uninformed, not just about specific political issues, but about their government and how it operates.  For example, in a March 2011 survey, only a little over one third of Americans knew that Republicans controlled the House and only a little over 40% knew who the Speaker of the House was.  Only a little over one half knew the approximate unemployment rate in the country even though unemployment was a major issue.  The attitudes of most Americans about most issues are “Non-attitudes.”  They neither know very much nor do they care very much about most political issues.
  • Only about 60% of Americans who are eligible to vote ever manage to go to the polls.
  • If you ask Americans if they voted in the last election, one in ten will say they did when they didn’t.  They will lie.
  • Most Americans are NOT politically active.  Only about 20% ever wear a candidate’s campaign button.  Only about 6% ever contribute money to a campaign and only 3% ever work for a candidate.
  • People are more likely to vote if someone personally asks, encourages or pressures them to do so.
  • The higher their education, the greater the likelihood a person will vote.
  • Registering to vote and actually voting are two different decisions.  Just because someone is a registered voter says nothing about whether they will actually vote.
  • Education and age have a big impact on registration.  The older and more educated you are the greater likelihood that you will be a registered voter.
  • You are more likely to self-describe yourself as being a Strong Democrat or Strong Republican if (a) both of your parents were members of the same party, and (b) your parents talked about politics often at home.
  • Once you identify with a particular party, you are likely to remain committed to that same party for life.  Your strength of identification may weaken but you are not likely to switch your allegiance.
  • The older you are the more likely you will identify with a particular party.  Few young people and first time voters express a strong attachment to a party but half of voters over the age of 75 do.
  • Party attachment is a taste you acquire with age.  People don’t express much interest in politics until they enter adulthood, get a job, buy a home, have kids, join social groups and begin to realize that political issues are important to them and their family.  At that point, they begin to form an attachment with a political party—usually the party of their parents. 
  • Once people form an attachment with a party, a kind of self-reinforcing selective perception kicks in that acts to reinforce their choice.  They will overlook or screen out negative information about their chosen party.  People experience what psychologists call cognitive dissonance when it comes to their choice of party.  They want to be consistent in their words or actions.  If they have expressed support for a particular party in words or deeds, they will experience extreme psychological discomfort in changing their allegiance.
  • People do not become more sympathetic with the Republican Party as they grow older.  In fact there is some evidence that they become more sympathetic with the Democratic Party.
  • The strength of a person’s attachment to the Republican Party tends not to change dramatically as they age.
  • The strength of a person’s attachment to the Democratic Party tends to increase with age.
  • A major realignment of party identification among the American electorate is rare.  It takes a major upheaval to significantly alter the distribution of party identification among the population.  Such a major shift in party allegiance has occurred only twice: in the aftermath of the Civil War when Americans shifted their allegiance to the Republican Party and in the aftermath of the Great Depression when Americans shifted to the Democratic Party.
  • There is some support for “cognitive madisonism” among a segment of the electorate.  These people consciously prefer divided government and will split their vote between parties in order avoid giving any single party control of both houses of government and the White House.
  • Most of the time people vote for candidates according to their party identification.  Issues usually do not matter. 
  • All three of the following must be true for someone to become a issue-driven voter:
    • 1. The issue must be recognized by the voter,
    • 2. The voter must take a non-neutral position; i.e, have a clear preference when it comes to the issue, and
    • 3. The voter must believe one candidate is more likely to work for his preference than the other candidate.
          Less than half of voters at any given time will meet all three of these conditions.
  • Dealing with issues is just too much bother for most voters, most of the time.
  • While most Americans don’t know very much about or have a fully formed opinion about most political issues, most will provide an answer in a public opinion survey if asked.
  • Only a small segment of American voters are ideologically consistent, always taking the liberal position or conservative position, across issues.
  • Conservatives are less ideologically consistent across issues than are liberals.  For example, self-identified conservatives who prefer activist governmental policies far outnumber self-identified liberals who prefer private sector solutions.
  • Republican candidates usually avoid references to specific policy positions because they recognize that conservative voters are typically “conflicted conservatives,” in other words they are conservative when it comes to general ideology but may agree with a liberal position when it comes to a specific issue.
  • Women no longer turn out in higher numbers when a woman is on the ballot because having a woman candidate is no longer a novelty.
  • While many people assume that most voters assign the incumbent President or his party responsibility for the state of the economy, in fact only 25% of voters do.  The rest place the responsibility for the economy elsewhere
  • Voters use a Retrospective approach when judging the economic performance of an incumbent president running for reelection.   In other words, they judge him based upon his actual performance.
  • Voters use a Prospective approach when judging the probably economic performance of a challenger or anyone who has not previously held the office of president.
  • Politicians influence public opinion as much, or more, than they are influenced by public opinion.  “Public opinion is NOT an autonomous and immutable force that politicians must discover and obey.  The will of the people is, instead, a rather pliable phenomenon; usually created by the very individuals and groups who claim to submit to it.”  Politicians create public opinion in much the same way manufacturers of consumer products create brand loyalties and product preferences. 

If you would like to learn more about the American voter, I recommend you read: Michael S. Lewis-Beck, William G. Jacoby, Helmut Norpoth, and Herbert F. Weisberg, The American Voter Revisited, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008.

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