“What political forces are involved in the Presidential election?” – The Party System In order to best understand the political forces involved in a presidential election, it is necessary to delve into the intricacies of the American political party system, and how these forces interrelate. Political parties essentially exist as a means to an end for politicians, who use them as a vehicle to advance their own agendas; parties are not created in a vacuum, but instead happen as a result of these politicians’ drives and goals (Aldrich 4). The primary parties involved in American presidential elections are the Democratic and Republican parties, effectively creating a two-party government which consistently vies for the presidency every four years.
In the 1970s and 1980s, political scholarship was far more nuanced, as there were not as many distinct divisions between Democrat and Republican; Burnham (1970), in his development of descriptive theory, notes the advent of American political parties as broad builders of coalitions and aggregators of interest, instead of being representatives of party outcomes. Older scholars like Key (1955) would examine the specific political culture and attributes around particular elections, like those of 1896 and 1928; this practice continues to this day with scholars such as Abramowitz and Saunders (1998), who examine the Reagan years using NES panel data to gather info on voter ideology and party identification. While this assessment of elections as case studies for the contemporary perception of political parties is still in practice in modern political scholarship, greater focus in subsequent years has been placed on the polarization of party politics and their role in voter party identification.
Presidential election periods are substantially informed by the political climate in which they occur. The era of the Reagan presidency in the 1980s, for instance, led to a sense of polarization that heavily informed the political culture of the time – Democrats lost a number of conservative supporters, and the entire southern voting bloc largely left the Democrats because of this polarization (Abramowitz & Saunders, 1998). Because of the substantial changes in economic and foreign policy that Reagan introduced (deregulating the economy, lowering taxes, escalating the War on Drugs, and condemning labor unions), combined with his tenure overseeing the end of the Cold War, Reaganite politics became extremely popular, thus informing his succession by his Vice President George H.W. Bush (Abramowitz & Saunders, 1998). This type of political sea change heavily informs future elections; if the incumbent’s party is well-received, it is likely that the successor will be a member of that same party and vice versa.
Partisanship is a substantial factor in presidential elections, but not as much as may be predicted (Erikson, Wright and McIver, 1993). While state partisanship has a different impact depending on the type of election, presidential elections in particular place a greater emphasis on state ideological identification than party identification – Presidential candidates are sometimes more likely to receive votes based on their political ideas than whether or not they identify with their party. To that end, voter identification of a conservative or liberal ideology (and their perception of the candidate’s alignment with them on their issues) is more important than political party when voters self-identify, and this consequently extends to their affiliation with a presidential candidate (Conover and Feldman, 1981). Partisan voting is an increasing trend, and has been for the past six elections (Bartels, 2000). Since the mid-1970s, there are a greater number of ‘strong party identifiers’ who will vote along party lines no matter what; to that end party identification is perhaps the most important factor in deciding a presidential election, as most voters will have already decided which candidate to vote for based on party alone.
This partisanship also extends to the search for presidential candidates among party members in the Senate and state government, as narrative becomes increasingly important as a political factor in presidential candidacy. Candidate narratives often form from "a sophisticated pattern of transmission from past elections and interactions among and between people in the current election" (Popkin 1994, 71).According to Burden (2002), governors have a much better chance of receiving a presidential candidacy due to their ability to single-handedly take credit for major policy outcomes, whereas Senators must be more collaborative and gracious with credit. Party affiliation remains extremely important in these policy issues, as candidates who switch parties can be perceived as either distancing themselves from their home party or attaching themselves to a different party, respectively, depending on the perception of the person witnessing this shift (Stapel and Schwarz, 1998). These factors allow narratives to be created about candidates based on their party identification, which is utilized as a default value that inherently colors the way a voter will evaluate them (Popkin, 1994). The importance of the party is most evident on the campaign trail, as the campaign itself strengthens connections between political issues and the office of the candidate’s party, as well as widens the divide between the perception of candidates’ stance on issues (Popkin, 1994).
The American party system plays a substantial role in the outcome of presidential elections, given its ability to frame an issue and/or candidate towards a voting bloc that already allies itself with that issue or party. This creates a default value for a voter base to judge a candidate on; if the candidate passes that judgment with enough voters, they will likely win the vote in an election.
“Why do Americans so badly want to address issues, like immigration and health care, yet can never really seem to satisfactorily resolve them?” - Political Culture This particular issue requires exploration of American political culture, which encompasses the relationship between the electorate and the government as it relates to the issues the public expects the government to address (Elkins & Simeon, 1979). In essence, the inability for Americans to truly satisfactorily address and resolve controversial issues like that is deeply entrenched in a partisan, divided political culture that is steeped in ideology and identity politics, perpetuated by a media that seeks to keep these controversies afloat for the sake of attention and ratings. Furthermore, this serves to obfuscate the real reasons people take a particular stance on an issue; voters readily cite the principles and values that are held by the current political culture when citing their preferences in public policy, showing a huge influence of the culture in the individual decisions of others (Feldman et al., 1992). By keeping the American people divided by ideology and a confrontational political culture, issues do not get resolved in exchange for, essentially, being able to feel ‘right’ about something against someone who is ‘wrong.’
The scholarship surrounding political culture has largely revolved around cautionary exploration of the political culture’s influence on voters. Elkins & Simeon (1979) note the ambivalence and complexity of culture as a series of control mechanisms that govern behavior, mostly revolving around premises or assumptions (129). Scholarship on this arena typically revolves around ethnographic or qualitative comparison of national political cultures as a geographical group, or alternatively sociopolitical cultures, such as the “culture of poverty,” religious subcultures, and more (Elkins & Simeon, 1979). While this sort of entrenched demographic analysis is the keystone of early scholarship, with the increased culture of polarization scholarship has focused much more on the “culture war,” or the perception of one (Fiorina, 2005). Political scholarship focuses slightly more on theoretical frameworks and models to explain overall cultural trends and how they overlap with other cultures; older scholarship focuses on how isolated groups maintain their own culture, while globalization and greater interstate and national communication has necessitated a closer look at how each group perceives the other group (a major contributor to polarization) (Fiorina, 2005).
There is quite a bit of evidence to demonstrate a rising mistrust of government, in addition to declining voter turnout and social capital (Fiorina, 2002). Fiorina (2002) argues that America is much different now than it was half a century ago for these same reasons, with the political culture having changed to become far more polarized. Politicians and political activists are said to “"weigh policy concerns more heavily vis-a-vis electoral considerations than their counterparts of earlier generations" (Fiorina 2002, 20). Because politicians have fewer changes to provide material rewards to the public, a greater emphasis has been placed on ideology and identity politics. Material rewards used to be a major incentive for people participating in politics, including receiving jobs out of a sense of patronage; however, with a more watchful media eye, politicians can no longer do that, and the material incentives of graft are greatly diminished.
According to Fiorina (2002), "ideological incentives took up most of the slack" for these tangible rewards political parties could offer their participants, leading to political activism for its own sake. "People who went to meetings or worked in campaigns because their jobs depended on it were different from people who now do so out of ideological zeal" (Fiorina 2002, 24). As a result, political actors have to grow more radical to get noticed, pushing the two political parties (and their subsequent identities) to opposite ends of the political spectrum (Fiorina, 2002). To that end, people who participate in the political culture only serve to facilitate this increasing divide in the American people, leading to an us-versus-them mentality that makes it impossible to agree on a solution to major issues. This plays heavily into self-identification as a conservative or liberal; individuals base their perception of the ‘other side’ on how they evaluate the symbols they are associated with (e.g. conservatives with the NRA and gun culture, liberals with Occupy Wall Street and Hillary Clinton) (Conover and Feldman, 1981). This sense of easy judgment based on symbols further perpetuates the ideological divides that occur between political stances.
This conflict benefits the constantly perpetuating political culture: "If participants hold more extreme positions and have little to lose materially by prolonging controversy, then conflict will be more common" (Fiorina 2002, 25). As this relates to the issues that individuals purport to hold a great interest in (abortion, gay rights, etc.), Fiorina (2002) argues that the raising up of these issues is more symbolic than anything; activists choose easier, more vocal targets over the ones that would be most helpful to the American people in order to court controversy and remain relevant. By taking a ‘side’ on an issue, political opponents are not considered to have a legitimate point; this prevents compromise and forward momentum, activists opting instead to shout at the other side from a superior moral position instead of enacting true change.
The media heavily contributes to this perception of a ‘culture war,’ in which Americans are continually confirmed by the mass media to be deathly opposed to each other politically, thus perpetuating the cycle of conflict. Fiorina (2005) also argues that, without the media’s role in perpetuating the ‘culture war’ myth, it would not exist; voters across party lines, state lines and more actually agree on a large number of political issues (21). However, these groups are prevented from engaging in the political culture in a moderate manner because of the guiding from political elites and activists that prompts them to resist ‘the other side’ at all costs. Because of this increasing radicalization of political controversies, moderates tend to tune out of these issues, making the vast majority of participants in political culture the radical ideologues who are able to shout loudly about their respective political agenda (Fiorina, 2002). This stalemate has led both elites and the masses to abandon true politics altogether, in favor of either using other means to enact change (e.g. the courts) or simply ignoring politics completely.
The American political culture is essentially unable to truly settle down and resolve its differences, as no material gains can be made in politics from coming to political solutions. The political culture only has ideological capital to offer, leaving the biggest incentive for becoming involved in political action to perpetuate this sense of identity politics. This approach keeps activists fighting on one righteous side of a conflict, constantly battling against another political position they feel is wrong. Because both sides are evenly matched, and no one is willing to back down, no true change can be made in resolving these issues.
“What are the most important factors for explaining a president's victory?” - Voting Behavior
Finally, in order to explain the major attributes that help to bring about a president’s victory, it is important to look at voting behavior and how these trends are catered to by candidates in a presidential election. When viewing a president’s victory, the factors that coerce voters to decide in a particular way are vital to understanding how this president convinced the people to elect him. Lewis-Beck (2008) notes that modern voters in this political climate vote largely based on their party affiliation, how they evaluate candidates, and how they feel about particular issues (though this last attribute is less important than the others).
Scholarship in this area of political science is heavily informed by the seminal 1960 work The American Voter by Campbell et al. (1960), in which a study of election survey data was used to determine trends in voter ballot decisions. This led to the development of the Michigan model of voter choice, in which voters were simply thought to vote along with their parents’ party. Kernell’s model of ‘negative voting’ was established in the 1970s to help explain the concept of increased focus on the incumbent president’s performance as an indicator of party effectiveness, which then creates an appropriate response from voters in the midterm elections. However, with the aforementioned Reagan era and the culture of polarization, voter scholarship changed to accommodate this new culture (while still keeping the essential method of studying NES data as a barometer for voter selection and preference). Lewis-Beck et al. (2008), for example, revisited Campbell et al.’s summation of voter behavior in light of this increased polarization in The American Voter Revisited, using the same format and method of analysis to perform this comparison. Interestingly enough, he found that, despite this polarization, American voter still roughly vote using the same metrics they did in Campbell’s era. To that end, American political science scholarship has placed a greater focus on polarization of political parties and voters, though they still come to similar conclusions regarding voter motivation and party affiliation.
Satisficing is a common behavior among voters – in essence, they will choose a lesser option as satisfactory because it is available, and voters will try to make the best decision they can using as little information as they can (Lewis-Beck, 2008). To that end, a president’s political or ideological identification goes a long way toward getting the votes of others who self-identify as such – this plays into the aforementioned identity politics that seemingly permeates American political culture.
One other possible explanation for presidential victory is the perception of the sitting party of the incumbent president – Kernell’s “surge and decline” thesis attempts to explain the ongoing trend of a president’s given political party experiencing sharp decline in midterm elections following the election of a popular president. In essence, as a president is elected, and his campaign promises inevitably fail to translate into workable solutions, this lack of faith and decline in popularity is shown by a decidedly lower turnout in midterm elections. This can then also boost support for the President’s position and party by the time the next presidential election occurs, as the midterm decline in party political power has still not led to the underlying issues being addressed or resolved, which brings out the President’s approvers come election time: “for each of the items eliciting general political interest, the President’s approvers – not his disapprovers – were the more politically involved” (Kernell, 1977). In essence, dedicated voters will still approve of the President’s policies, the less interested only coming out when there is hope of an actual addressing of the problems being held up as persistent and unchanging.
Visibility is also a substantially important factor in determining a presidential election – candidates who stay in the public eye and court the general public are more likely to get nonvoters out to vote for them (Baum, 2005). Recent years have shown many presidents appearing on talk shows and other forms of entertainment media in order to appeal to the politically uninvolved; on these shows, politics are rarely talked about, they are less critical of the other candidates, and are treated favorably by the host and presented in a positive manner. This has a substantial effect on low-information voters, who learn about candidates primarily from these non-political avenues of advertisement for their election and make them feel invested in a candidate, regardless of any knowledge of their politics (Baum, 2005).
Presidents are thought to become less popular over time, as their disappointments and deviation from campaign promises grow; this can affect future wins in second-term elections (or a loss for the president’s home party). However, time is seen to be less of an issue than the specific political disappointments themselves, which can have an effect on voters (Kernell, 1978). The chronic problems of a presidency can add up depending on the severity of the event, having distinctly linear and correlative effects on how the American public will perceive them or their party.
While these aspects of voting take a typically dim view of the American voter, there is still hope for considering the American voting public a wise and discerning people. According to Key (1966), it is important to have faith in the electorate, stating that “voters are not fools” and that they will change their vote and choice of candidate based on their actual political preferences, instead of identity politics. The number of swing voters (i.e. people who switch candidates) in second-term elections is consistently high, indicating an ability for people to see beyond party affiliation and vote on the issues or their perception of a candidate as being qualified for the job (Key, 1966).
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