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Founding Principles: American Governance in Theory and Action (Chapter 9--Electoral Behavior and Voter Turnout)

14 minutes

(Describer) Titles: Founding Principles - American Governance in Theory and Action. Chapter Nine: Electoral Behavior and Voter Turnout. Outside....

Welcome back to beautiful Brunswick, Maine, to Bowdoin's lively main quad, and to Founding Principles, our series about how American government works. Last time, we started to talk about elections-- focusing on the way House, Senate, and presidential elections work. For elections to really work, we need voters to show up and take part. We want to think about who voters are, how they behave, who turns out to vote, what guides their choices, what are campaign ads really getting for their money? I'm Andrew Rudalevige, professor of government, and I approve this message.

(Describer) Against a parchment background, title: Chapter Nine - Electoral Behavior and Voter Turnout.

You might be forgiven for thinking elections are like the Super Bowl. The teams go back and forth. There's a compelling narrative where the underdog triumphs or the champion chokes. Then key moments will make it to the highlight reel. Lots of game-changers where what seemed inevitable suddenly became impossible and the other way around. In the political arena, the media often cover elections the same, especially with the Internet and social media. Game-changers abound. In fact, one journalist identified 68 different episodes during the 2012 election that were described that way. From Mitt Romney's performance in the first debate to the special forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the term was used almost 20,000 times in the ten months before election day that November. Some of these were important events, but none actually changed the outcome of the election and certainly not by themselves. For all the sound and fury, all the game-changers, the game itself-- poll results-- didn't move around much in the long term. Despite the conventional wisdom of pundits, that makes sense when we think about what we know about how people decide to vote. One key element, of course, is party identification. Primary elections can be quite different from general elections I'm talking about. If candidates are from the same party, other factors have to become important. People use party labels as a shortcut-- an informational cue to tell them about other things. If Candidate X branded herself a Republican, you don't have to know anything else to have a sense of where she stands on different issues. That's especially true in today's politics with little overlap between the two parties. A number of voters call themselves Independent. Far fewer go back and forth between parties, election to election, or go down their ballot any given year. Mostly they lean towards one party. Different groups have become aligned with political parties. Group identity can also get tied into political identity in ways that are lasting, though hardly unchangeable. If you know someone is a Democrat, you can be sure he will be voting democratic. Further, people tend to see many other things through that same partisan lens. Is a given candidate honest, likeable, competent or a despicable liar who climbed into the gene pool when the lifeguard wasn't looking? That depends whether that candidate is from your party or the opposition. Even straightforward facts may get interpreted using a partisan worldview. For instance... It could be a strong economy if your party's in charge. If not, it must be people are so depressed about the economy, they're not bothering to look for work. We find certain issues do have a big impact on election results. The economy is foremost among them. In the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan asked voters whether they were better off now than they had been four years ago. He thought they would mostly answer no. When he ran for reelection, he hoped they would mostly answer yes. He turned out right both times. Either way, it's the right question. If you look at economic performance, it is a strong predictor of the two-party vote for the incumbent party. In a chart like this, most points--election results-- fall close to a linear pattern-- the better the economy, the better the party in power does. This is true, even if you use economic measures from before election day-- the spring of that year. To track this, look at approval of the incumbent. That incorporates how people feel about economic performance, but also other issues that matter to them viewed through their partisan goggles. Not surprisingly, this too gives strong linear results. The more people like the president, the more likely they are to vote for the party, even if the incumbent is not running again. Looking at it this way shows that voting is mostly retrospective. It looks backwards at performance rather than forward, based on campaign promises and platforms. Which makes sense, if you think how hard it is to translate promises into results, even in the best of circumstances. If we can do a good job of predicting the election results in the spring of an election year, does the campaign matter at all? If both sides are equally well-funded and equally competent, it might not matter much, at least not to the overall distribution of the vote. That's a big if at the congressional level. The campaigns are trying several things with the millions of dollars they are spending on rallies, yard signs, and TV ads. One is simply to remind people there's an election coming up. Even in a good year, only six of ten voters show up to the polls. The pomp of the campaign is to generate energy around the election. At the same time, the candidates want to prompt voters to activate their preexisting preferences. That's why I like the Republicans. Send me a bumper sticker. The candidates want to shape the way people perceive key elements of the campaign in ways that will be favorable to them. They set the agenda, frame the issues, and prime voters to think about issues the electorate should think about in the first place. In the 1992 election, President Bush wanted people to think about foreign policy in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War and vote for him on that basis. Governor Bill Clinton, by contrast, wanted people to think about the national economy and Bush's less-extensive record on domestic policy. Both ran ads pushing those points. Exit polls from the election showed 87% of those who felt foreign policy was the key issue in the campaign voted for Bush. Unfortunately for Bush, only 8% of voters felt that way. Twenty-eight percent thought the economy was the most important issue; another 19% that health care was. Among that larger pool, Clinton won comfortably. Candidates might argue who should get credit or blame for the state of the world. When the economy is stalled, a lot hinges on whether voters should blame the incumbent president or his predecessor and give the incumbent credit for making things better, even if they're not. Occasionally campaigns don't want to-- or don't feel they need to-- talk about issues at all. In 1984, Ronald Reagan touted, "Morning in America." In 2008, Barack Obama said, "Yes we can!" Back in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower ran almost above the party system. As the American hero of World War II, Eisenhower banked that plenty of voters would get to their polling place and say, "You know what, I like Ike!" That doesn't always work though. In 1972 Senator George McGovern, behind in the polls, wound up making appeals to his fellow Democrats more or less on the basis of party identification. The result was one of the biggest blowouts in American electoral history-- not for McGovern. Republican Richard Nixon won instead. Let's finish up by thinking about voter turnout. If you tally the amendments added to the Constitution, especially after the Bill of Rights was adopted, an impressive proportion ensure full citizenship and protect voting rights. Suffrage limits, based on property or wealth or race or gender or age or place of residence, have all been eased over time. For much of American history, there were legal--and illegal-- barriers and threats set up against groups of voters, especially African Americans. There are certainly ongoing arguments that relate to this about state-level efforts to enforce voter ID laws. But over time, the American electorate has become immensely more inclusive. On the other hand, the numerator of voter turnout has not kept up with the denominator of voter eligibility. In the late 19th century, party machines got 80% or more of the all-male, mostly white, over 21-years-of-age electorate to the polls. In recent presidential elections, by contrast, turnouts have been more like 55% to 60% of the much larger pool of now-eligible voters. In midterm congressional elections, that figure is much worse. Less than 40% turnout is not uncommon. By the time you work down the food chain to municipal primary elections, it's not unusual to see one of every six or seven voters show up. Why is voter turnout so low? For one thing, American voters usually must register in advance. Other countries don't require this step. American elections are usually on Tuesdays during the week. Other countries hold them on a holiday or weekend. Instead of one election every five years, American federalism and the rise of primary elections means there are a lot of elections to turn out for. Committed voters might find it hard to stay informed about everything and everyone on the ballot. There are pretty clear patterns about who does and doesn't vote. Lower levels of turnout are associated with such factors as age--younger people vote less; income--poorer people vote less; education--less-educated people vote less; stability--people who move a lot, who are unmarried, don't own a home, they vote less too. For example, in the 2014 congressional elections, someone with a bachelor's degree was 2 1/2 times more likely to vote than someone who didn't finish high school. Remember, overall turnout was just over 36%. But 60% of the elderly voted. Only 23% of those under 35 bothered to do so. Think of it this way. People who vote are those who can. They have higher socioeconomic status. They want to. They're invested in their community or have a commitment to a party or candidate. Or those who are asked to-- mobilized by a campaign, or by a friend. In the U.S., that tends to mean selective mobilization. Parties don't try to get everyone to the polls-- only those they think will support their party. Some argue that low voter turnout is not a problem. It suggests contentment with the system perhaps, not estrangement from it. Those who don't vote tend to know and care less about politics than those who do. That much is true, and to be sure, we want an educated electorate. But we would do better to educate voters rather than diminish their role. Voting is a social act as much as a self-interested one. It's a big deal for candidates and elected officials. It's an important statement of citizenship. It serves as a barometer-- measuring the very health of our democracy. In short, voting matters. Who votes matters. And better yet, voting is habit forming. So a quick piece of advice, you should vote.

(Describer) Back outside...

Voting is not the only way to participate in the political process. A vote is a blunt instrument. It doesn't tell politicians what you want them to do. Next, we'll think about ways people can participate in and communicate with their government. See you then. Accessibility provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

(Describer) Titles: Written and Preformed by Andrew Rudalevige, Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of Government, Bowdoin College. Editorial and Production Assistance by Abigail McBride and Scott Schaiberger. Special Thanks to Clayton Rose, President, Bowdoin College. Special Thanks to Barry Mills, President Emeritus, Bowdoin College. A logo depicts a lower-case letter E in a purple shield with 1880 just above it. Beside it, title: produced by Emerson Productions. Bowdoin. Accessibility provided by the US Department of Education.

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In this episode, Dr. Andrew Rudalevige examines electoral behavior and trends in voter turnout. Through a study of foundational documents like the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, students learn about how the right to vote has changed over time, the forces that push people toward and away from the voting booth, and the power of political ads to shift public opinion. Part of the "Founding Principles: American Governance in Theory and Action" series.

Media Details

Runtime: 14 minutes

Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 1
13 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 2
13 minutes
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Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 3
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Episode 4
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Episode 9
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Episode 10
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