Politics in America: Myth or Reality

In the media’s telling, a presidential election is in almost daily flux. Voters’ sentiments shift, often dramatically, in response to each new event: a change in candidate tactics, an evocative ad, a dramatic speech, a strong debate performance, and, not least, a highly publicized candidate “gaffe.” Entire news cycles are devoted to parsing the electoral implications of candidates’ rhetorical miscues: “you didn’t build that,” a claim that 47 percent of people “are dependent on government,” or even seemingly trivial mistakes such as a misremembered marathon time.

In our view, this media narrative—if not wrong—is very misleading. As our students and those watching our Professor Pundits videos have heard us say, we believe that voters are not so easily swayed, and that presidential elections turn on much more substantial matters. The history of past campaigns, the data on public opinion and voting behavior, and our understanding of how political activists and groups behave suggest to us that the voters’ political sentiments are both more stable and more rational than media accounts indicate. To illustrate our claim, we focus here on four key themes that we believe will shape this election in ways that the conventional wisdom may not appreciate.

It’s the Economy, Stupid
Much election coverage focuses on hot-button “social” issues—abortion, welfare reform, and gay marriage—that pundits believe divide voters along partisan lines based on gender, race, or other demographic characteristics. The media also spends considerable time discussing candidate qualities, such as likeability, as measured, for example, by which candidate voters would prefer to have a beer with. In contrast, we tend to discount these factors as major electoral influences.  Instead, when voters are asked to identify the issue that most concerns them, polls repeatedly show that the economy—particularly jobs, governmental spending, and the federal budget deficit—is by far the most important priority. Health care usually comes in a distant second, followed by immigration. Cultural or “moral values” issues, on the other hand, barely register on the list of voters’ concerns. This is why we believe this election will turn largely on how voters assess the state of the economy and to what degree they hold President Obama culpable for its middling performance during his first term.

Similarly, we do not find much historical evidence that candidates’ personalities are strongly correlated with election outcomes. Just because a voter might prefer to have a beer with one candidate does not mean she’s likely to vote for him. It is true that whether a candidate is viewed favorably or not does have some bearing on the race, but favorability ratings say as much about voters’ assessment of contextual factors, such as the state of the economy, as they do about attitudes toward the candidate. That’s why the most accurate election-forecast models are based largely on economic variables and not on other issues. To be sure, in a tight race, one can cite almost any issue as determinative. But in prioritizing electoral influences, we start with the economy.

Drowning in Campaign Cash
A new entity, the Super PAC, emerged in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC. Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts in connection with electoral races, so long as they do not coordinate their spending with the campaigns themselves. This is significant because it has rearranged how campaign money is spent, but it probably has not dramatically increased the likelihood that election victories can be “bought,” as many critics have claimed. First, the total percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on politics in the U.S. has remained stable over the last century despite numerous changes in campaign finance rules; this is unlikely to change any time soon. Second, evidence from past campaigns suggests that while lack of money can lose elections, a surplus of money is no guarantee of winning. Witness 2012’s most generous Super PAC donor, Sheldon Adelson, who was unable to “buy” the Republican nomination for his preferred candidate, Newt Gingrich.

Although large donors like Adelson have received most of the attention this year, we continue to see an increase in small-donor contributions of $10, $25, or $50. This year, the Federal Election Commission made it even easier to donate small amounts by approving technology that allows giving via text message. Reformers laud small contributions as more democratic than large ones, but small donors are also unrepresentative of the electorate at large. They are more likely to be white, male, and possess a higher income, and—importantly—they are also more likely to hold views on policy issues that are far from the mainstream. Those who collect most of their money from small contributors are candidates such as Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, and Vermont’s own Bernie Sanders—none of them is a moderate.

A Hopelessly Polarized Electorate
If there is one overriding media characterization of this election, it is that we are a deeply and increasingly polarized nation, an image indelibly captured in the ubiquitous red-state, blue-state electoral maps. That division, pundits tell us, is based on fundamental differences between Republicans and Democrats on a host of issues, from gun control to prayer in schools.  We believe this image is overdrawn. The mistake pundits make is to confuse a choice between two polarized candidates with a polarized electorate. It is true that candidates go to great lengths to differentiate themselves across a host of issues, and that these differences are based on very real and contrasting ideologies. However, as political scientist Morris Fiorina puts it, voters, while closely divided, are not deeply divided. Although they must choose between two very partisan candidates, most voters are moderates.

As we noted above, the moral values that attract so much media attention actually rank very low in voters’ priorities. Moreover, there is not much evidence indicating that red-state and blue-state voters differ significantly in their views on most of these “hot button” social issues. Aside from party identification, income remains the most consistent predictor of the presidential vote, with lower-income voters more likely to vote Democratic. Church attendance has become a better predictor of votes in recent years, but that may reflect the fact that presidential candidates are talking more about religious issues than it registers a change in voter opinions.

Health Care
We’ve been hearing all season long about Republican vows to repeal the Obama administration’s health-care law, and about Democratic vows to defend it. This campaign bluster obscures the fact that the main battles over the health-care law over the next few years will focus on the states. At the national level, Republicans are unlikely to have the votes to overturn the Affordable Care Act, but numerous Republican governors, including Rick Perry of Texas, Rick Scott of Florida, and Nikki Haley of South Carolina have promised to resist at least some provisions of the law. Indeed, over the summer the Supreme Court handed the states a powerful tool by ruling that states are free to reject the Act’s Medicaid expansion provisions.

It is no accident that the states are playing a key role in a controversial U.S. policy area. Congress and the White House often find that it is easier to get a bill passed if major conflicts are deflected onto the states. In the case of health care, Congress decided to let states set up insurance exchanges, for example, rather than fighting a battle over a single national model. One of the reasons that the U.S. federal system remains vital is that politicians in Washington repeatedly pass the buck to other levels of government. Alexis de Tocqueville famously wrote that there is hardly a political question in the United States that does not eventually become a judicial question. We would add that there is seldom a national policy debate that does not touch on a local policy debate.

We hope that most readers will find the picture we paint more reassuring than the media’s portrayal of an electorate whose vote can be bought by misleading ads, flowery rhetoric, and pleasing candidate personalities. To be sure, voters have neither the time, nor the inclination, to dig deeply into the weeds of policy platforms or candidate biographies.  But they can tell a lot by observing shorthand cues, starting with the presidential candidates’ party allegiances, that allow voters to infer the relative candidate positions on those issues, particularly economic ones, that really matter to them.   And the evidence indicates that voters choose accordingly, in ways that are consistent with both their own preferences but also with what they view as the best interest of the nation. That voters do so is, we believe, a sign that elections continue to provide an effective mechanism for choosing our president and for insuring that he—someday she—remains responsive to the collective will of the American people.

Matt Dickinson and Bert Johnson teach in the political science department.  Matt and Bert cohost the middmag.com video series Professor Pundits

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  1. The polarized image of America as a country divided between red and blue states is overdrawn but for the most part it only exists in the collective imagination of Americans, everyday most Americans realize that government consists of an active, if not overactive bunch of civil servants and representatives who will affect our nation consistently in one way or another; change happens.

    Brendan Ryan

    The Brendan Ryan Company
    Houston, Texas

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We hope to create a lively discussion on MiddMag.com and invite you to add your voice. Please keep comments civil and relevant to the news item at hand. MiddMag.com may remove comments that do not follow these guidelines.

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