- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Mystery is one of the great attractions of elections. Despite the pronouncements of pollsters, pundits and piles of projections, no one really knows which party will win a majority of seats in the House and Senate in November’s elections. The recent scandal caused by former Rep. Mark Foley only provides more accelerant to the bonfire of uncertainty.

And the stakes surrounding our collective judgment couldn’t be higher. Next month’s results promise profound implications for American politics and public policy. If Democrats win a majority in either chamber, it will signal a new era of higher taxes, more domestic spending, greater government control of health care, a push for protectionist trade policies and less funding for defense priorities. Of course, institutional constraints — like President Bush’s veto pen and super-majority rules in the Senate — will slow many of these changes, but pressure to move in this new direction certainly will rise.

While polls and prognosticators give us the latest horse race handicapping of who is ahead or who is losing ground, we know less about the rationale underlying the electorate’s decision-making process. In other words, what motivations drive these critical vote choices? It may surprise many that despite a host of efforts to nationalize the election, some recent evidence from a series of statewide Gallup polls suggests voters’ partisan identification (as it has for 50 years or longer) remains the most important variable determining why Americans vote the way they do. Moreover, in all the states surveyed, partisanship is strongest among Democrats.

In 1960, four political scientists — Angus Campbell, Phillip Converse, Warren Miller and Donald Stokes — published what became one of the most widely read academic treatises on voting behavior, “The American Voter.” Among their many important conclusions, one seemed particularly troublesome to conventional wisdom at the time. Sorting through a variety of factors influencing vote choice, such as a candidate’s views on issues or personal characteristics, the researchers found party identification was the most critical determinant in how Americans made electoral choices. In other words, voting for a candidate that shared a citizen’s party identification was more important than the politician’s views on issues or other personal characteristics.

This conclusion was somewhat jarring because it painted a picture of voters less rational than widely believed. Before publication of “The American Voter,” many thought voters cast ballots based on which candidate most closely reflected their views on issues or which ones possessed the most attractive personal characteristics. The notion that voters choose more blindly, because of attachments to one party or another, disturbed many who thought the domicile of American democracy rested on the foundation of a more rational, thoughtful electorate. For more than four decades, scholars have continued to debate the implications and interpretation of these findings.

Fast forward to 2006 and a recent Gallup Poll concludes that party is still the key factor in determining vote choice. Surveying six competitive Senate races (Missouri, Maryland, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Virginia), Gallup went beyond the traditional horserace question to determine who was ahead, and also asked: “Why would you say you are voting for this candidate?” The results would make the authors of “The American Voter” proud. In each of the six states, a plurality responded that they cast their vote “along party lines” or because they “usually supported that party.” Anywhere between 36 percent (Maryland) and 23 percent (Rhode Island) link their Senate vote to party identification.

The survey also shows consistent differences between Republicans and Democrats in using partisanship as a shortcut to vote choice. On average, Democrats are about 12 percent more likely than Republicans to rely on party identification as their main electoral determinant. Republicans say they are less likely to use partisanship in each of the six states, with Virginia showing the lowest difference between Republicans and Democrats (6 percent), and Rhode Island (17 percent) and New Jersey (14 percent) showing higher gaps. In all the states, the candidates’ views on issues or likes/dislikes about their personality or past performance are less significant.

Still, undetected political meteor showers will no doubt buffet the atmosphere surrounding this year’s congressional elections in the next several weeks. Yet despite these short-term fluctuations, there are other variables — like attachment to political parties — that have a more enduring quality and provide more evidence that whichever party locates and turns out more of its partisans will likely capture the congressional majority this November.


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