Knowledge about govemment and politic

C o i ng w itho ut Data: I nlorrnati o n
Drsprrn rrrE many kinds of information voters acquire in daily life, there are
large gaps in their knowledge about govemment and politics. To overcome
these limitations, they use shortcuts. In this chapter I examine how voters
use shortcuts to evaluate information, maintain running tallies about political parties, and assess candidates.
At the heart of gut rationality are information shortcuts-easily obtained and used forms of information that serve as “second-best” substitutes for harder-to-obtain kinds of data. Shortcuts that voters use incorporate learning frompast experiences, daily life, the media, and political campaigns. Because voters use shortcuts, low-information reasoning is by no
means devoid of substantive content. The three main kinds of shortcuts
voters use are shortcuts in evaluating, obtaining,land storing information.
Voters rely on the opinions of others as a shortcut in evaluating the information they have, because even when they do know about an issue, they
are unaware of many relations between govemment and their lives.r They
may not be able to evaluate news for relevance or veracity, and they may
not have appropriate standards for assessing the perfonnance of the govemment. Thus, even when they do have the facts about an issue, voters
turn to others for help with evaluation because they are uncertain about
the meaning of the news and want to know how others have interpreted
Voters use running tallies about political parties as shortcuts in storing
information and as shortcuts with which to assess candidates and legislation about which they have no information. They also use shortcuts to
evaluate candidates, assessing them from campaign behavior, personal
characteristics, and their relations with groups and people whose general
positions they know.
Whether for lack of complete information about government, lack of
theory with which to evaluate policies, or lack of information about the
;&!:,,.*;:ra*Going without Data
views and reactions of others, uncertainty is pervasive when voters think
about and evaluate govemment.2 It follows from the pervasiveness of uncertainty that campaigns are designed to give voters new information
about candidates and issues and to make new connections between specific problems and specific offices.
Interpersonal Influence as ern Information Shortcut
ln recent years, political campaigns have come to rely increasingly on a
research tool known as the “focus group.” Such a group usually consists of
six to ten participants and a moderator, who uses a few general questions
to steer the group into an extended discussion of the topic he or she is investigating. Whereas surveys are still heavily used to assess the state of
opinion in a population at any given time, many political researchers consider focus groups, which assess the thoughts of a small number of people
in depth, a better basis for predicting whether an issue will “ignite” in the
larger population with exposure.r For example, before George Bush’s
1988 campaign made an issue of Willie Horton-the murderer who was
lct out of a Massachusetts prison on a weekend pass, subsequently holding
a couple hostage and raping the wife-the issue was tested extensively in
Itrcus groups. Indeed, tapes of two focus groups which included discussions of Dukakis’s prison-furloughs program and his refusal to sign a law
rcquiring teachers in Massachusetts public schools to lead the pledge of allcgiance were shown to Bush to convince him to attack Dukakis on these
Of course, the fact that focus groups are more intensive than surveys is
rxrt in itself sufficient to explain why they are held in such high regard.
why hasn’t the demand for more intensive research led either to very long
surveys addressed to only one subject, or to long private interviews with
one person at a time? The answer is that small-group discussions can do
stlmething that surveys and private interviews cannot: they can reveal inchoate attitudes that people are usually reluctant to express unless they are
validated or reinforced by others.
The People’$ choice, the columbia group’s first voting study, found that
there were large variations in people’s levels of interest in politics and polit.
ical campaigns. Moreover, the concept of interest in politics was easily
comprehended by everyone and had extemal validity. Over the course of
the 1940 study, a question about political interestwas asked over 5,000
tlmes; only I percent of the time did respondents say they didn’t know or
weren’t sure how interested they were in the campaign. The questlon
“made sense to almost everyone and almost everyone had a ready an4′
46 Chapter Three
swer. . . . It is not surprising that people’s self-rating on interest stands up
well under a series of tests of consistency and validity. For being interested
is a clearly recognizable experience, as anyone knows who has been unable to put down a detective story or been bored to tears at a cocktail
party.”5 People who were interested in the campaign had more opinions
about politics, paid more attention to campaign events, and exposed themselves to more campaign communications. On an average day of the
political campaign, the researchers found that at least l0 percent more
people participated in discussions about the elections-either actively or
passively-than heard or read about campaign items.6 The two-step flow
of information means that many people receive their news indirectly, and
that many more validate and anchor what they have heard or read only
after they have worked through the material with others: “. . . Opinion
leadership is an integral part of the give-and-take of everyday personal relationships. . . . All interpersonal relations are potential networks of
communications.”T This means, above all, that campaigns matter even if
many voters know little about the issues or have little interest in the campaign:
Bychologists might say that the highly involved voters “live
on” their diflerences with the opposition; that is, the very
fact of difference provides them with a psychic energy with
which they continue to engage themselves politically. And,
in reverse, their deeper political engagement no doubt leads
themto see and feel differences with the oppositionto anunusual degree.
But, whatever the psychological mechanisms, socially and
politically the fact is that not all voters are needed to achieve
a sharp polarization into two parties . . . large numbers of
the latter simply “go along” with what is for them a more
artificial cleavage.8
Uneven levels of political interest and knowledge, then, mean that an
essential part of political dynamics takes place between voters. The
campaign and the media only send the initial messages; until these messages have been checked with others and validated, their full eflects are
not felt. Focus groups, as opposed to depth interviews or suryeys, capture
some of this two-step flow of information. They give researchers and
campaign strategists a chance to see whether discussion of an issue sparks
interest in it.
,,L$iifltl&i’,Gotng without Data
Fire Alarms and Police Patrols
jlrwnq began accepting “a priori” that people are not certain what they
It,tve learned from the media until they discuss the news with informal
u;rittion leaders.e His contribution was to generalize from findings about I
Ittlt’rpersonal influence to the broader category of information shortcuts. I
When a voter is unsure how to evaluate information, or doesn’t have
Itrlilrmation, relying on a trusted person for validation is, in essence, a
rltittcgy for economizing on information and resolving uncertainty. Ber’rtusc there is a two-step flow of information, a lack of citizenship data or
“lt’xtbook knowledge” understates the political impact that issues can
It,rvc and understates the public’s ability to make informed decisions
‘l’ltere are two ways to evaluate the effects of information. One way is to
rtrk voters directly what they know; another way is learn where voters take
lltcir cues. These two methods parallel the two approaches scholars have
ttst’tl to evaluate the influence of congressmen and their involvement in the
rrll,tirs of government. Scholars and reponers observing the behavior of a
H(tvcrnment agency often see no congressmen observing or interfering in
lls affairs. If they don’t detect a congressional presence they often conclude
tlrat the congressmen are not involved and are not effective. But conHt'(‘ssmen do not patrol the entire government looking for problems to
tolvc, like police detectives searching out criminalsi they wait for constitu-
(‘nls to set off alarms so they can race to the scene, like fire fighters. ro
(litizens do not patrol the government looking for problems either, but
tlrt’y pay attention to people who do. As W. Russell Neuman, director of the
( lrrrrmunications Research Group at MIT’s Media Lab, has noted, “Most
r llizcns don’t study the details but look at the bottom line. Are we atwar?
lr llre economy healthy? Most people entrust the rest to expens and sper l,tlists. What is important is that there are perhaps five percent who’are 4
rtt’livists and news junkies who do pay close attention. If they see that
iffit ing is seriously wrong in the country they sound the alarm and
llrt’n ordinary people start paying attention.”r I
(lhanges in the foSmat of television news over the last three decades also
lrtrrvide a two-step media flow of information. The pretelevision voting
cltttlies found that there was a two-step flow of influence in communicalkrtts; the impact of the media depended on how media stories were
Ittlcrpreted by informal opinion leaders. There is an analogy to this twortelt flttw for television itself: the impact of many events and campaign actlvltles depends not just on the viewers’ interpretations of the events, but
ntt lhe lnterpretatlons oilered by elite opinion leaders on television.llelevi47
48 Chapter Three
sion news provides commentary on speeches, proposals, and crises from
a variety of well-known political figures from whom voters can triangulate, just as they do with local opinion leaders. The late Claude
Pepper, for example, was known to senior citizens (‘At my age,I don’t
even buy green bananas”) for his defenses of Social Security, and was
always asked to comment on new Social Security Insurance proposals. No
coverage of an intemational crisis is complete without comments from
Henry Kissinger and Senator Sam Nunn. Such figures become well known
over time; their comments allow voters to mediate new information
and watch for “fire alarms” through the media as well as through conversation.
Richard Brody has studied the effect on viewers of elite interpretationpf
political events.12 Brody studied events that gave large short-term boosts
to the president’s popularity. Sometimes a large gain in presidential popularity appears to deff explanation. For example, the U.S.-backed invasion
of Cuba in 196l led to an ignominious defeat at the Bay of Pigs, but President Kennedy’s popularity soared after the debacle, for which he took full
responsibility. Brody has shown that seemingly incongruous situations
like this, when a president’s popularity soars after a humiliating fiasco, can
be explained by the response of elite figures to the event, as featured in the
media. If there is a crisis and the elite figures rally to support the president,
then the president’s popularity soars, fiasco or not. If the elites are divided
and critical, as after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the president’s popularity
can plummet, as it did for Lyndon Johnson.
T\,vo kinds of campaign situations wherein television coverage after an
event can determine the extent of mass reaction are similar to those Brody
has analyzed: (l ) situations wherein challengers present their positions on
issues, and (2) situations wherein ambiguous, possibly innocuous, remarks are made. When a challenger, in an attempt to demonstrate credibility and competence, releases details of his plans for defense or the budget
(for example), public response depends not on an understanding of the details but on elite reaction as reported in the media. For example, in L972 the
Democratic nominee for president, George McGovem, presented his tax
and defense plans to the media in an attempt to demonstrate their feasibility. When cabinet member after cabinet member in the Nixon
administration attacked the plans, and no major figures in the Democratic
party-neither well-known senators nor former cabinet members-stood
up to denounce the attacks as unfair or partisan, McGovern’s credibility
suffered. Likewise, when Ronald Reagan, campaigning for the Republican
nomination in 1976, presented plans for cutting the federal budget by l0
Going without Data 49
p(‘rcent, and the details were attacked by many during the primaries and
rlt’ll’nded by none, there was a similar reaction. McGovern and Reagan had
ttot organized enough elite support to counter the many cabinet members’
irllacks on their proposals. They had to defend against the attacks personnlly, which eflectively precluded them from spending their precious airtime
r tt t I he offensive. r 3 Of course, a president with little inlluence cannot mobilkc his office, and a challenger with elite support can fend oflthe attacks.
Also, if the elites are discredited, it does not matter if the challenger cannot
rnlly prominent members of the establishment to his side.
When a candidate makes careless or poorly worded statements, the publk’ rcaction often depends on whether news reports highlight these
lrrrrrments as significant or pass them by. In 1976, in discussing ethnic
ttelghborhoods in a newspaper interview in New York, presidential candirlntc Jimmy Carter used the curious phrase “ethnic purity.” Until it was
It’alttred on television several days later, there was no reaction to the
plrr.rsc from voters or opposing politicians.ra After it was widely publlt’lzcd, Carter had to spend several weeks of the campaign rebuilding his
lhrks to the black community.r5 Although some remarks are so revealing
wltctt reported in the media that no elite mediation is necessary-such
ar ,lcsse Jackson’s reference in a personal conversation to New York City
Ar “Hymieto147p”-11any statements do not register as significant to
ttl(,st people unless they are aware of how others evaluate the remarks
dr wcll. When citizens sample information about government, and
llrlerr t<l elites and “news junkies” who sound alarms, those who are most
rlltectly aflected by an issue absorb the information firsg for example,
rrttkrr citizens pick up news about changes in Social Security before others
tlo,ln lf the issue is one that can eflectively be connected with governlllent action and benefits that voters want, it will percolate through the
,lttst as fire alarms alert fire fighters to fires, saving them the effort of palrolllrrg to look for smoke, so do information shortcuts save voters the effort
tlf constantly searching for relevant facts. Since they are uncertain about
llte accuracy or meaning of information anyway, it makes more sense for
lltetn to act like fire fighters rather than like police-to use the information
thorlcuts provided by trusted local and national commentators, endorseFtetttr, and political conventions.
Whether a problem is “my problem,” “ovr problem,” “the country’s
prttblem,” or a problem at all depends on information about the concerns
lntl preferences of others, knowledge about government, and knowledge
ttf the posltlons of polltlclans and parties.
50 Chapter Three_
Party Identification
The Columbia researchers began their l94O campaign study with a view of
the voter as consumer-a person shopping for products, with price and
advertising exerting an immediate effect on choices. Their first study was
designed to assess t n attitudes and behavior,
and they expected that these effects ous. They
found, however, that these effects were much smaller than they had expected, in part because voters had entrench s. In 1940, there
was no inkling yet that this was an important concept: in The People’s
Choice, people voting for Roosevelt were called Democrats and people voting for Willkie were called Republicans. The 1948 study was the first
academic research project to ask a question that separated current vote intention from partisan habits and identifications: “Regardless of how you
may vote in the coming election, how have you usually thought of yourself-as a Republican, Democrat, Socialist, orwhat?”rT
This general recognition that voters had standing decisions about the political parties meant that each election did not necessarily present a new
choice. “For many people, votes are not perceived as decisions to be made
in each specific election. For them, voting traditions are not changed much
more often than careers are chosen, religions drifted into or away from, or
tastes revised.”rs Party loyalties were not easily changed. They reflected
past political battles that had shaped the ways in which voters thought
about politics and government. Thus:
In 1948 some people were, in effect, voting on the internationalism issue of 1940, others on the depression issue of
1932, and some, indeed, on the slavery issues of 1860. The
vote is thus a kind of “ry’-!gaverage.]’ of reactions to the
political past. Voters Efr t.* election remnants of issues raised in previous elections-and so there is
always an overlapping of old and new decisions that give a
cohesion in time to the political
* Partyloyalties reduced the effects of the media. tn lgk},forexample, the
media were overwhelmingly Republican, but Democratic voters read and
listened to more of their own candidate’s stories. The mechanism of selective exposure came into play; people chose the material listened to or read,
;TThffie interested and committed they were, the more likely they
were to read and listen to the material presented by their own candidate.
Availability of information plus a predisposition to consider it, rather than
availability alone, determined exposure.2o There was more Republican
Going without Data 5l
ntoney and more Republican propaganda, but there were enough Demot’ t’a tic conurrunications available to maintain the Democrats’ commitment
to their candidate.
It became clear over the course of the two studies that palty identificall.,n here were
rrrajor differences in the social composition of the groups supporting the
two candidates, and the differences in their social philosophies were “even
nrore pronounced than differences in their social composition.”2r
l)o identification, like reliance on informal
,,pinioiiffiwas in is
rklcs not mean t rientations;
Itt'<lr she simply deals with them in a more economical way. This perspecllvc emphasizes an attachment that depends on evaluations of past and
lirture benefits from government. In a simplified Downsian perspective,
parties are teams that attempt to gain elective positions through an appeal
lo the voters that is based on a platform composed of issue positions plus a
U:llSa ia*pgy.22 Eu.h uot.r, Do*.r urru r “verlr,rl image of the good society, and of the chief means of constructing such a
This immediately raises questions: If voters care only about the benefits
llrey receive from government, why do political parties devote so much
cllirrt to publicizing their ideologies? And why shouldvoterscare about parly ideologies? The answer to both qr.rtiorr ir thut b
If voters were not uncertain-if they were fully informed about govemrrrcnt and could assess how their own benefits would be affected by a
p,rrty’s platform-they would pay no attention to the party’s ideology.
‘l’lrcy would simply evaluate the party’s actual performance and proposals
Irr terms of their personal ideologies. As Downs put it, “When voters can
t’xpeftly judge every detail of every stand taken and relate it directly to their
rtwn views of a great society, they are interested only in issues, not philosophie5.”24
ldeologies are, irl efect, “samples of all the diferentiating stands” belwecn parties.25 Parties use ide es
l ember all
tlre past performances, and cannot relate all future policies to their own
lrenefits. Thus, Downs emp
i kleological differences between “Party ideologies can remaind-illy more efiective than the rest.”26
52 Chapter Three
When one party convinces voters that its position is demonstrably better
on some issue, the other party either adapts or fails to gain votes in the
Ideology is thus a mark not of sophistication and education, but of uncertainty and lack of ability to connect policies with benefits. The word
ideology is a loaded one in America, evoking the derogatory sense of
ideologues-people who have belief systems to which they adhere steadfastly. (As Clifford Geertz has noted, “I have a social philosophy; you have
public opinions; he has an ideology.”l27 Downs, however, was equating
ideology not with intellectual sophistication or moral rigidity, but with
simple shortcuts and loosely integrated views about what parties stand for
in the minds of voters. A party’s ideology and past performance matter only
when the voter cannot with certainty predict its future behavior from its
platform. Parties try hard to remind voters about their views of the good
society an e im-
,ouc f both
about current performance, or is uncertain of what the effects of a proposal
are, he or she reverts to default values.
But unavailability of data is not the only reason voters revert to default
values. They do this when they are so satisfied with their past choices that
they see no reason to collect any data. So long as the candidates’ actions
appear consistent with the generalized notion the voter attaches to a particular label, the voter can avoid the effort of keeping track of all the various
activities of government. As Downs put it, sometin\es voters have no data
because they do not expect a fair retum on their investment of effort:
Finally, some rational menhabituallyvote forthe same party
in every election. In several preceding elections, they carefully informed themselves about all the competing parties,
and all the issues of the momenq yet they always came to the
same decision about how to vote. Therefore they have resolved to repeat this decision without becoming wellinformed, unless some catastrophe makes them realize it no
longer expresses their best interests. [This habit] keeps voters
from investing in information which would not alter their
Since voters have limited information and diflerent priorities, parties
that seek their votes a.e bound to be coalit,pns that coordinate vote$rts
to pursue a set of collective goods. Although the coalition may exhibit stability over time, the basis of each individual’s attachment to it is utilitarian:
Gotng without Data
ll rlepends on the rewards received. Thus even when there is widespread
rrflrccment within a party on general goals, there is no reason to assume
that all voters have the same priorities, or that they pay attention to the
tdtne issues. This view of political parties as coalitions has two important
I t r r pl ications for understanding voting decisions.
lrirst, as noted earlier, the -rltr ttt
Hrggests that one should i6GE consensus of ittitudes across issues
ryf hin the p a
hlack Democrat who is both pro-civil rights and anti-labor, or even any
logical reason to suppose that he or she experiences any significant crossllressure when casting a vote for a Democrat. Rrrthermore, seeing the parlles as coalitions makes it illogical to assume that any significant number of
volcrs should be able to locate the party on some hypothetical “continllun” that summarizes party positions for all issues. Given the cost of
gnllrcring information solely for the purpose of making a vote decision, we
tltould not expect a consensus on issues within parties. Where candidates
ru'(‘cngaged in assembling a coalition of voters interested in only one issue,
ut’ rlnly a few issues, people in every coalition are ignorant of the candirlrtlc’s stand in many areas that are not central to their primary concems.
‘l’lrc implication for voting research is clear: unless voters are sorted accordlltg to the importance they attach to specific issues, one cannot expect to
llrrtl high levels of interest or of information.
Sccond, within every coalition there are people who disagree with the
cartdidate or the pany position in some area but still support the candidate
rrt’ lrarty. In 1964, for example, it was not essential for a black Democratic
volcr whose primary concern was civil rights to be familiar with Lyndon
,hrlttrson’s Vietnam policy in order to be an issue-oriented voter. Nor would
ll bc surprising today to find that advocates or opponents of right-to-life
lcgislation are totally ignorant about farm price-support policy or deficittcrluction proposals. However, when there are political primaries, there
are fights for control of a pafiy between its various intemal factions.
Changes in Party Idenffication
ll 1rarty idertificati al
tt! ies, then there should be feedback from a
votcris Cvaluations of current policieffi. on the other
It,rnd, if the only events that affect party identification are catastrophes on
the order of the Great Depression, party identification is only a running
t.rlly of publlc reaction to cataclysms, and party voting is voting that is un-
,rll’ected by the year-to-year turns of politics. When the authors of The
54 Chapter Three
American Voter inferred that there were no links between party identification and normal politics, they were looking at the apparent glacial stability
of party identification in America after World War II and the inheritance of
partisan identification from one’s parents.2e IL lhildren inherited3arty
identification from their parents and nothing short of a e could
it, there wasn’t mu itical content to vgting; partyvoting
were otherwise not being held accountable at the polls for their performance.
During the 1950s, the distribution of party identification was relatively
stable from survey to survey, and this was consistent with the argument
that individual party identification was also stable when normal politics
prevailed. However, there was one University of Michigan Survey Research Center survey in which the same respondents were interviewed in
1956, 1958, and 1960. When this “panel survey” (a study in which the
same people are reinterviewed) was carefully reexamined, party identification was far less stable than had been assumed: During these four
“normal” years, one of every four respondents changed positions on a
D emocrat-independent-Republican scale. 3 o
These short-term changes in party identification (most of which are between independent and one of the two major parties) are also related to
voters’ evaluations of government policy performance and economic management. {gllis Fionna’s analysis of data from the 1956/58/60 panel
survey, and from another one coveringlgT2/74/76, shows thafgt q*gg it
the economy, domestic policy performanse, and suCh highly publicized
6″.”ffierar esident Itii”””A affectedlgtv
mi afties
Etrsponse to their evaluations of economic and political conditions and in
response to their evaluations of the perfonnance of the parties and their
candidates.32 Party identification is neither impervious to change nor devoid of oolitical content. In other words, there is feedback from issues and
l[ to partisan identification. Partisanship is a running tally of
ll, .rrrr.ttt party assessment.33
year-to-year changes in party identification reflect voter reaction to recent political events and have a clear and direct effect on voting. From 1916
through 1988, there is a strong correlation between changes in the distribution of the vote for Congress and changes in the distribution of party Changes in congressional voting prompt changes in party
identification, and changes in party identification prompt changes in con-
“”}jfuGoing without Data
grcssional voting. There is a mutual adjustment between po-lltical eJalrrations,[email protected]
Party Voting and Issue Voting
n as a generalized guide to
voting, and when do they vote because of a particular issue? &_enqw”gr
rlcllends on information and the incentives to gather it, as may be illustrated by the difference in voting patterns in the classic comparison belween farm managers and urban laborers.
ln The American Voter an analysis of farmers revealed “spectacular links
lrctween simple economic pressures and partisan choice.”36 An
lrrltrrmation-centered explanation of these “spectacular links” would folkrw these general lines: The collective nature of the vote means that there
ls low incentive for an individual to collect information solely in order to
(‘.rst one vote among many millions. Farmers, however, gather the inforrrration on their own businesses in great detail-not because they are
lrt’ttcr citizens, but because they are independent managers, and the inforrrration necessary for management is directly related to government policy.
What to plant, when to sell, and where to borrow are all decisions that
rlcpcnd on govemment policies at least as much as they depend on the
l.aborers, not being economic managers and thus having no incentive to
t’ollcct such information for their daily use, would be more likely to rely on
f t,rst government performance, and to use a party label as an information
rlrortcu| thus the greater sensitivity to economic fluctuations among farm-
(‘r’s, Further, since there was much more current information about
political performance among farmers than among laborers, farmers would
t’t’ly less on party identification and would have weaker generalized atlnt’hments to party ideologies, since they would always have current infortrrnli<ln on performance.
‘fhe Americry Voter interpreted the “spectacula{ links” in a reverse fashkrrt, saying that because farmers have weaker partisan identification than
tu u.ra rrot. ttr.
t,ascalsouffihereasaDownsianperspectiveempha- *iltilffi;
pany as an information shortcut when no other information
Itas bcen obtained, the Michigan approach emphasized that no i4bgnallort could be used , a party.
okrglcally barred from using it.
Chapter Three
and interest in the electorate, party
* idfit-Uficarion is profoundly politic4l.38 And when we accept the political
don is no longer whether issues matter, but whether it is new or old issues that matter.
Party Images
There are [email protected] from contemporary performance, in
aEaition to actual changes in party identification. One of them affects
voters’views of fto-:ggUlP .
ffier aFects views of how well parties pe{orm ditrerent tasks of goverflation, and crime. Unfortunately, preoccupation with the argument over
whether party is a purely psychological identification or a political yardstick has led academics to concentrate on changes in party identification,
when Republicans or Democrats became independents or identified with
the other party, and when independents began to identify with one of the
l6-teprerent different groups or handle different tasks are generally based
on issue-party assessments. Today, these party assessments are generally
fiEsured by asking voters questions like “Which party cares more about
farmers?” or “Generally speaking, which party do you think is better at
‘controlling inflation’?” I call these measures “party heats,” for they
directly assess the comparative advantages of parties on an issue; such
questions are now a staple of public opinion research.
Responses to these questions reflect feedback from political performance
to a voter’s conceptions of the parties which are not immediately reflected
in party identification. For example, a poor performance on inflation by a
Democratic president may weaken many working-class Democrats’ faith in
the ability of their party to deal with inflation. This may lead them to vote
for Republican presidents when inflation looms, but they may not change
their minds about which party’s ultimate views of the good society are
most compatible with their own.
Analysis of party images shows that voters reason about the relative abil.
ity of partieslo deal with different issues. They do not assume that the same
party is uniformly good at representing all groups or dealing with all issues.
Changes in voters’ party identification are genglSllv slq,w, often even
glu.iulr t
handle ilifferent plgblemwr whaClroups the parties stand for, can be
Gotng without Data
lrr 1988, for example, Americans by two to one thought Democrats were
lrcncr able to protect social Security. By two to one, they also thought
Itt’Pttblicans were better at controlling inflation and maintaining a
tll’ong defense. In general, Democrats are considered better at protecting
\ot’ial security, lowering unemployment, ensuring minority rights, and
;ttt’scrving the environment; Republicans are considered better at conIrolling inflation, maintaining a strong national defense, and fighting
r t llrtc. se
lrr chapter 2, I noted the irony of Voting’sspectacularly inaccurate prediclkrrrs about the possibility of a “woman’s vote” or a “senior citizen,s vote.,,
Morcover, the views of American adults about the relative merits of the
wills parties A..ut *itft *o-.”, ryen, and senior citizens demonstrate just
Itow able voteri are to -ake [email protected] about the parties
(rt’t, table l. f ;. feo the benefit of the
rhrttlrt, but there are limits to this willingness. Republicans and Democrats
rdy lhat the other pany is better overall only when the diference between
lltc lwo parties is well established, or an incumbent of their party has failed
lrarlly; it is far more common for a partisan, when asked about a perceived
f rdt’ly weakness, to say that he or she doesn’t know which party is better.
l’lrc amount of “benefit of the doubt” that people give their party varies
ftorrr issue to issue and reflects reasoning about past perfonnance.
‘l’lrcsc party heats emphasize that the benefit of the doubt that people
glve their own party is not open-ended; they do acknowledge poor perforfniltccS by their own party and strong performances by the other party.
llttts, in 1986 less than half of all Republicans believed that their parry
r att’tl more about senior citizens or women, and less than half of all Demor lrtts bclieved that their party cared more about men. Party assessments
tlt’ttttlttstrate information about government and reasoning about the parllt’s. l’arty heats are running tallies of past performance, not wishful thinktrrfr ,,r .’*presiont of tea
irrr yment, “Expectations about the party
lrnl t’apable of handling inflation and unemployment in the future depend
ulr f trdgments about.the parties’handling of inflation and unemployment
Itt tlte l)ast.”4o
Itl fact, it is precisely because party images do not all move together actonllng to an underlying level of general satisfaction, but vary so widely
Itottt lssue to issue, that party candidates for office try to increase the saliett|e ttf lssues where their party starts out with the largest advantage.
t ‘errrlldates addressing an issue where their party has a strong image have
58 Chapter Three
Tasrn J.l
Political Identification and Response to:
“Which political party cares more about . .”
Rep. Dem. Ind. All (7.\ f/’) f/”1 (7″1
Don’t know/no answer
Don’t know/no answer
Don’t know/no answer
2t 25
39 42
25 19
62 25 )5 J9
ll 49 2) 28
13 17 26 19
44 12 26
35 75 48
Source: CBS News/New York Times poll, April 1986′
Note: N : 1,601
the wind at their backs, whereas candidates addressing an issue where
their party has a weak image are running into the wind.
Changing issues changes the campaign, if not the outcome, because party images vary by issue. A particularly important change is between
concern with inflation and concem with unemployment’ As noted in
chapter 2, blue-collar workers are more sensitive about unemployment
than white-collar workers and senior citizens, while white-collar workers
and the elderly are more sensitive to inflation than blue-collar workers,
This makes it particularly hard in times of inflation (as in the period since
lg7:.,when rising energy prices triggered several inllationary surges) for
Going without Data
l)t’rnocrats campaigning forpresident. People know the social composition
oI the parties and that Democrats will be less likely to cut inflation, if doing
,,o rcquires raising unemployment. While Republicans are far more sen-
.,itivc to inflation than to unemployment, Democrats are equally sensitive
to lroth. This shows a group basis for the party-heat perceptions based on
h r rowledge of partisan preferences.4r
l’arty images have also been studied by analyzing responses to opent’trrlcd questions about the parties. Since the same general questions about
likt’s and dislikes of the two parties have been asked on the quadrennial
Mlt’lrigan surveys since 1952, this data can be used to study changes over
lltttt’ in party assessments. While the use of party heats is, I believe, preferrlrlt’, the other method, because of the continuity of questions since 1952,
lr v,rluable for the insights it provides about the relations between changes
In party images and changes in party identification.
tlsing the Michigan data, the analysis of the so-called issueless 1950s
ptovitlcs considerable evidence of the sort of feedback from performance
llr,rl allt’cts party images, and therefore voting patterns. The traditional aslrr’l,ttions between the Republican party and the depression, and between
lltr. l)cmocratic party and war, were not immutable in the minds of the
vrrlers. In their study of the 1956 election, Stokes, Campbell, and Miller
nnlcrl, “Four years of Republican prosperity destroyed the major part of a
hnn l(‘cn-to-one margin the Democrats had in the partisanship of these rerlxnrscs. After haunting the Republicans in every election since 1932,
Ittcrttrlrics of the ‘Hoover Depression’had receded at least temporarily as a
rlltct’f lirrce in American politics.”42 O\the other hand, they observed that
lllr, r’xltcrience of the first four years of the Eisenhower administration am-
;tllllerl and reinforced another set of associations: “References to war and
lrdle itt I 952 were pro-Republican or anti-Democratic by a ratio of greater
lhAn scvcn to one. By 1956, the virtual disappearance of comments favoraltlr to the Democrats or hostile to the Republicans had increased the ratio
fivF lltrrcs.”as
(lltatt8c’s in the images voters have of the parties are related to future
ghatrgcs in party identification. In analyzing the changing views of the polltlral parties from 1952 through I976 on the SRC surveys, and relating
€halrges ln party assessments to future changes in party identification,
llehard Trllling has written, “When party images reinforce past identificalktttr, lde ntifications are stable. When party images conflict with past idenllllcatlons, ldentlfications are likely to be altered.”aa Tfilling has also
thttwtr huw changlng lmages of the parties and the changing class struc59
:dF! :i*it
60 Chapter Three
ture of American society have together affected relations between the
political In 1952 more than two-thirds of all Americans were
working-class; by 1976 less than half the country was working-class.
Acceptance of the New Deal by Republicans made more working-class
Democrats willing to vote for Republicans, and acceptance of the New Deal
among middle-class Republicans made them more willing to vote for Democrats. This set of changes in society and the parties also means that
campaigns matter more, for there are now fewer voters with one-sided
views of the two pafties.
when General Eisenhower was elected president, many upper-income
and upper-status southern Democrats began to reassess their antipathy to
the Republicans, and the first cracks in the “Solid South” became apparent
even before the civil rights explosions of the 1960s.46 Throughout the
country when Eisenhower made no attempt to repeal New Deal programs,
Democratic antipathy to the Republican party was moderated. Further, as
moderate Republican governors, particularly in the Northeast, courted
unions and Catholics, the distinction between parties became less clear.
When Republicans accepted the New Deal politically and socially, Democrats were willing to vote for them.aT The overwhelming vote against
Goldwater in 1964 shows just how critical acceptance of the New Deal was
to the Republican party.
Evaluating Candidates
The candidates themselves have more importance in the American system
than in most other political systems. The American system vests power in a
single individual with no formal ties to his party. The unity of the executive
branch, the separation of the executive and legislative branches, and the
weakness of the American party system combine to give the American
president a degree of power and independence unknown in a parliamentary system.
Voters focus on the presidential candidate because American parties
have never been teams unified behind a single centralized source of control, like parties in some other countries, and the president has a large eflect
on his party’s programs. The American federal system is characterized by
widely dispersed patronage centers, local primaries, local fund-raising,
and local party organizations. Presidents, therefore, have wide latitude in
deciding what course to follow in ofrce.
There has been, throughout the century an antiparty strain of reformism
in America that argues for nonpartisan elections. Party labels, it is argued,
give to voters the illusion of informed choice while allowing them to ignore
Going without Data
ttnlx)rtant differences between the candidates on the newly emerging isqrrt.s of the day. Tiake away party labels, the reformers argue, and voters will
pay attention to the “real” differences between candidates onthe issues. In
rr.ality, however, voters evaluate candidates and form their images of them
hy using the same types of information shoftcuts they use to form their
vlews of panies, and issue positions are by no means their only criteria in
Voters care about the competence of the [email protected]’ ost gove.nment ac-ti rity
nrrrl because they care about what the candidate can deliver from qove,rnlllgtlt. They care about the policy preferences of the nominee, not just the
ltdrty’s platform, because parties are coalitions that exercise weak controls
ovcr presidents. And they worry about the character of the candidate,
alrout his or her sincerity, because they cannot easily read “true” prefernr(‘cs and because they care about uncertain future situations.
Competence versus Issue Proximity
Irr an ideal, two-party, parliamentary democracy, it is assumed that voters
Iu’.lctice “proximity voting”-vsfing for the candidate or party whose
position is nearest to theirs. Under this assumption, however, voters conEklcr all candidates and parties equally able to carry out their promises. In
rcrrlity, voters sometimes care less about candidates’ issue positions than
tlrcy do about which candidate can deliver the most on these issues, and
wlrich candidate can do a better job of simply managing and running the
H0vcrnment. In short, they care about competence.
(iompetence is a relevant dimension of candidate evaluation for three
t(.itsorlSl (l ) The candidate’s competence directly affects the probability of
Irls or her being able to deliver benefits from the system once elected.
(2 ) Much of what both the president and Congress do involves the general
nt.iltagement of the country. Since the voter has only limited information,
Ire or she may vote for a candidate who seems capable of managing the
allhirs of the country even if that candidate is not the “closest” to the voter’s
rpccific issue preferences. (3) Finally, if the candidate is elected, he or she
wlll have to solve many problems that no one can anticipate on election
rlrry. Competence in unfamiliar areas may be inferred from the perceived
nlrttlletence of the candidate in other, more familiar, areas.
Oompetence, then, is a measure of ability to handle a job, an assessment
ul’lxrw effective the candidate will be in ofrce, of whether he or she can
“get thlngs done.” Many aspects of government are noticed only when
rornethlng goes wrong, and in many other areas, maintaining minimal lev6t
62 Chapter Three
els of performance is far more important than policy change. The voter as
prudent investor is right to be concerned about the competence of the
When James “B9SS” Curley of Boston was reelected mayor from his prison cell, Jerome Bruner surveyed Boston voters to discover the secret of
Curley’s SucceSS. The voters, he found, were aware of Curley’s sins, but
many-including proper Bostonians who disagreed with Curley’s issue
positions as well-were voting for Curley because none of the candidates
with more desirable issue positions and better reputations appeared capable of controlling government and getting things
General Dwight Eisenhower’s victory in 1952 was largely a result of his
perceived competence to deal with the issues of the moment. At the height
of cold-war tension, with the nation apparently stalemated in a war in
Korea against -Red China,” a man regarded aS one of the most successful
military leaders of World War II (and known to be considerate toward enlisted men), a man who had been head of NATO and a university president,
was “perceived as a person peculiarly able to cope with the nation’s international problems.”50
In a world of complete infornration about the past, even with uncertainty about the future state of the world, voters could assess the competence of
the candidate by assessing how well he or she had dealt with past administrative and legislative problems, and then extrapolate from that
performance to how the candidate would manage the affairs of office. But
most voters take information shortcuts to avoid this long and arduous process. They do not seek out detailed information about how the candidate
has managed government and delivered benefits. Instead they use shortcuts to assess competence, which is itself an information shortcut. They
;ssess tfr,e d;didate’s competence on the basis of data that is new and easy
to process, particularly information from the party conventions and the
political campaign. The convention allows voters to hearwhat other, more
familiar, political leaders have to say on behalf of the nominee; the campaign exposes the candidate to voters in complex and fast-breaking
situations. As they watch the candidate handle crowds, speeches, press
conferences, reporters, and squabbles, they can obtain information with
which they imagine how he or she would be likely to behave in office.
There is a natural inclinationto associate information shortcutsbased on
campaign behavior with the television era, during which there have been
several well-publicized examples of campaign events that affected candidate ratings and votes. The most dramatic example from recent campaigns
was in 1972, when Senator George McGovem, the Democratic nominee,
..i.tni’&;ii4″aGoing without Data
lurt t’onsiderable ground because he appeared weak and indecisive in han-
,lllrrg the revelation that Senator Thomas Eagleton, the nominee for vice
prr.sitlent, had received electroshock treatments. When McGovern wavet r’r l, tnany of his supporters concluded that he simply was not competent to
lrr’ prcsident.5r More recently, GovemorMichael Dukakis became the butt
nl ;okcs and received much ridicule for looking out-of-place and foolish in
tlrc lrclmet he wore when he went for a ride in one of the Army’s new
l+urks, in an attempt to appear more familiar with defense issues.
( i,ttttpaign behavior mattered to voters, however, well before television
tr’ltlrtt’cd radio and newspapers as the dominant medium in American nallrrrr.rl politics. During the 1948 camp aign, Governor Thomas Dewey made
utrt’ornplimentary remarks about a workingman, a railroad engineer who
Itarl rrrade a blunder with Dewey’s campaign train. All knowledge of these
r arrrgraign blunders came from radio and print media, and thus did not
Itavc the visual immediacy associated with television. Yet when a national
rnr v(‘y asked respondents, “Do you think there was anything special about
llr’wcy that made some people vote against him?” 26 percent of the rerpurrrlcnts referred to Dewey’s campaignbehavior, and among respondents
wlto nctually voted, the proportion referring to Dewey’s campaign behavkr was 3l percent.52
Wlrat matters to voters when they assess competence can be expected to
vruy with the concerns of the moment and with how they view the office
ftrt which they are voting; thus honesty mattered more after Watergate,
irttrl rrrilitary leadership experience mattered more during the Korean War.
Ncvct’t heless, voters also assess candidates’ competence from past behavior
rilrl liom political campaigns.
Policy Preferences and Sincerity
Vtrlr’rs use information shortcuts to assess candidates’ policy preferences.
Mt lt eovcr, as we shall see in a moment, because of the problems of lear4ing
wltnt Wll.lltltc lntrue lpreferences prelerences ofI candidates?re candlctates are in mcompromise Compromrse situations, Srtuations, oidetq,s.
llerttographic facts provide a low-information shortcut to estimating a
r attrlltlatc’s policy preferences (though not to evaluating past public perfortttattr’c). Characteristics such as a candidate’s race, ethnicity, religion,
gettrler, and local ties (hereinafter, “localism”) are important cues because
lhe voter rtbserves the relationship between these traits and real-life behavIrtt as part of’his daily experience. Where these characteristics are closely
nligrrerl with thc intcrcsts of the voter, they provide a basis for reasonable,
Chapter Three
accessible, and economical estimates of candidate behavior.53 It has often
been noted that the use of demographic cues in voting probably plays a
more important role in American campaigns than it does in those of more
homogeneous countries.
There is a good deal of survey data to suggest that when voters believe
govemment is closer to thffffiare more likely to beGiE-They gef their
meney; n the
,@otethatissooftendisparagedasirrelevant.5aActually, it is an example of low-information rationality: using an easy-toobtain cue to assess a candidate’s positions. Particularly on distributive issues-which neighborhood to tear up for a highway, where to put the
toxic-waste dump, where to build a prison, an airport, or a park, whether
to allow offshore drilling, where to disburse patronage-localism may be
an effective orientation for the voter to use in trying to predict a legislator’s
preferences. In addition, localism is of some value in determining the capabilities of the candidate. When a candidate is in some sense a neighbor,
the voter at least has a better chance of knowing whether he or she is a
blatant crook or an obvious fool. Given thg problems of expensive, scarce,
and unreliable information about the candidates, the voter is more likely to
have confidence in a neighbor with a local reputation for competence.
Further, because voters are necessarily uncertain about what a candidate
the candidate’s supporters. Endorsements from feminists, blacks, Christian
ions, military veterans, and many other demographic groups make a diference. This process of inferring the candidate’s
policy preferences from his or her demographic characteristics is the political equivalent of screening job applicants by reading their r€sumds instead
of by evaluating their work, which would take more time and effort. Television appearances and televised convention proceedings offer quick visual
clues to the candidate’s support groups, and thus make it harder for candidates to pretend to be all things to all people. “If they are supporting him,” a
voter may ask, “how can he be good for me7’When candidates become
aware of such an attitude, they try to change it by offering low-information
cues that encourage support for demographic reasons. Thus the black mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, reminded voters of his experience as a
policeman; the wealthy George Bush talked of his down-home love of
pork rinds and horseshoe pitching; and Michael Dukakis, the governor of
Massachusetts-a state thought to be liberal and therefore soft on defense-went for a ride in an Army tank.
Going without Data
When voters watch a candidate perform on television, making promises
,rrtrl taking hard-line rhetorical positions on issues, they question if there is
r (f llgruence between avowal and actual feelings-whether the candidate’s
rttltport for a cause represents a genuine personal commitment or only a
t’,ltnpaign tactic.55 We care more about Sincerity and character when we
,1t'(‘uDC€rtain aboutwhat someone will do. As Aristotle noted, “We believe
good men more readily and fully than others; this is true generally whatt’v(‘r the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible
+rrrtl opinions are divided.”56 This is often the case in daily life, when we
tttttsl. make evaluations with limited information and no theory to guide
tts. How do we choose a new baby-sitter for our young children when we
lllllst make an emergency trip? How do we choose a nurse for a critically
alling parent who lives at the other end of the continent? We want to hire
r’tttttpetent people, but without the time or resources to evaluate their past
perlirrmance, we must make a judgmentbased largely on clues to personal
t lt,tracter, from a conversation or from what our friends tell us; will this
ll(‘rson do what we would like to have done? Delegation in such situations
Irrvolves emotions and values and bondq bet tu.rllrul empathy and understanding, deciding who shares one’s own
t’rltt(‘crns. A voter wonders, therefore, about whether a candidate cares
alrout people like himself or herself.
When voters estimate a candidate’s preferences they take account of
rlttt’t’rity-whether the candidate really cares about their concems. Ber rtttsc it is difficult, for example, to assess whether a compromise bill was
llte bcst that could be done, or whether a politician reneged on his commitlltt’ttls, they take shortcuts: they estimate [email protected]
ftottt private morality and character, assuming in the absence of better inf,rrrrra eir constituents like they treat their own
rltouscs and children.
Itt 1940, the elaborate methods used to assess the effects of the media on
llte ltresidential votoproduced no positive results. In that year, with Frankllrr l). Roosevelt running for a third term against Republican Wendell
Wlllkle, only 8 percent of all voters changed their minds at any time during
llte slx-month period from May through September.5T This result is a strikItlg clemonstration of the fact that when the voter estimates competence,
lltere ls an asymmetrybetween candidates. Forcandidates who are incumhelrts.clr who have spent a long period of time in a prominent position,
66 Chapter Three
voters can make judgments about competence based on observation of
” acttJal” behavior.58 An incumbent has dealt with “real” events; the challenger can be judged only by talk and by those events he or she
“manufactures.” Thus public estimates of a challenger’s competence must
be based on how he or she talks, looks, and campaigns-criteria that are
susceptible to more varied interpretation than the incumbent’s actual job
performance. Not for nothing were people who challenged a king called
In general, incumbents deal with acts of state, and challengers deal with
media events. Presidents adopt Rose Garden campaign strategies so that
evaluations of them rest on their records as presidents, not on their images
as campaigners.5e When President Richard Nixon elected not to campaign
against George McGovern in l972,his decision was based on just such reasoning. Nixon’s aide H. R. Haldeman told him (as recorded on the White
House tapes revealed during the Watergate investigation),
So little is known about McGovern, you’ll have a better
chance of changing people’s minds about him. To start with,
you got 40 percent of the people who will vote for you no
matter what happens . . . and you got 40 percent of the
people who will vote against you no matter what happens,
so you have got20 percent of the people in the middle who
may vote for you or who may not and that 20 percent is what
you’ve gotta work on. Getting one of those 20 who is an undecided type to vote for you on the basis of your positive
points is much less likely than getting them to vote against
McGovern by scaring them to death about McGovern; and
that, that’s the area we ought to be playing.6o
Because voters do not directly observe so much of what government
does, an incumbent president-no matter what his rating in the pollscan claim credit for such things as keeping the nation out of nuclear war
and preserving the basic structure of government.
Incumbents are increasingly attacking their opponents as risks because
increases in education and the decline of party inlluence make incumbency the focal point of the campaign.6r President Ford’s 1976 campaign
hammered away at how little was known about Jimmy Carter, and President Carter’s 1980 campaign in turn did everything it could to raise doubts
about what would happen with Ronald Reagan’s finger on the nuclear button. In 1988 George Bush’s strategists made essentially the same
arguments: as Newsweek explained, the vice president “had to go bareknuckle against Dukakis. . . . It was going to be a lot easier, a senior
Going without Data,rtcgist said, to raise the other guy’s negatives than to lower his own;
ll llush could not pump himself up, he could at least tear Dukakis
‘l’hc victorious general, of which Eisenhower is the only twentiethr r.rrtrrry example, is an exception to the rule that challengers are known
rrr,rhrly from campaigns. Having performed notable public service in an
dtena where his behavior is well publicized and closely watched, he may
wrll lre better known and more carefully evaluated, and feel more familiar
lo llrc electorate, than the incumbent.
‘l’hc asymmetry of incumbents and challengers holds for elections to the
Scrratc and House of Representatives as well. Because incumbents are gener nlly better known, the competitiveness of campaigns is more affected by
r lr,rllcnger spending than by incumbent spending. Incumbents may, and
grrrcrally do, spend more money than their challengers, but the marginal
r(‘lrrnl on money spent by challengers is much higher than that on money
rpt’rrt by incumbents. Elections are competitive when challengers have
srrllit’icnt money to convey themselves and their messages to voters.63
Candidates, Parties, and Issues: Divided Government
ll lr,rs become a near-permanent feature of American politics that the
lft.prrblicans own the White House and the Democrats own the Senate and
lkrrrsc of Representatives. Republicans have controlled the presidency for
twerrty-eight of the past forty years. Sr”.. n ugu” *ut.l.. rtlrcnrrure, the Republican party has achieved virtual parity with the
ll,’rrrocrats i
pulrlican control of the presidency and parity in party identification,
Irowcver, Democrats own the Congress. Democrats have controlled the
llrrrrsc of Representatives for all but four years since I9)2, and the Senate
lrrr all but ten years since 1940.
l{epublicans argue that the popular will is most accurately expressed in
grlrsitlcntial elections. They charge that the Democrats own Congress ber rutsc c<lngressional seniority and gerrymandering have isolated Congress
ltorrr the electorate and deprived the people of the fair chance to express
llrclr will that they have in presidential elections. The Republicans look for
w.rys to climinate the incumbency advantage in orderto gain control of the
lkrrrse. Dcmocrats counter that the will of the people is most accurately expressetl in congressional elections, that they have been deprived of the
presklency by primaries which resulted in unattractive candidates as their
rrornlnees, and that they were outspent by Republicans who could use
tlrelr rhoney to buy the White House. Democrats look for rules changes so
68 ChaPter Three
their primary campaigns will produce candidates better able to capture the
presid.ency, and for ways to nullifii the Republicans’financial advantages.
partisans of each party are arguing that defeat of their pet agendas or candidates is proof of the corruption and incapacity of the system. They are
arguing that elections do not work. They are wrong.
Gary Jacobson has refuted Republican arguments: incumbency is not responsible for Democratic advantages in congressional elections. In openseat elections since 1968,the GOP has made no gains in Congress.6s Democratic arguments are wrong as well. Democratic troubles begin with the
changing nature of American society and the difficultproblems of reconciling interests within the Democratic coalition. As noted above, the fact that
white-collar voters are more sensitive to inflation while blue-collar voters
are more sensitive to unemployment gives the Democrats a more difficult
balancing act to achieve on national economic policy.
Ironically, while members of both political parties tend to explain divided govemment in candidate-centered tenns-congressional incumbency on one hand, and poor campaigners on the other-the root cause of
divided govemment is divided views about the politicaffiie-s. neopte
the two
offices with diflerent problems and issues, and they rate the GOP higher on
issues with which the president deals. Recall that Republicans are seen as
better in dealing with foreign policy, national defense, and inflation, and
Democrats are seen as better in dealing with Social Security, domestic programs, unemployment, minority rights, and the environment. Party
images are an important source of information which voters use to assess
the candidates for whom they vote. Republicans win the White House because inflation, foreign policy, and national defense are all more important
to voters when they vote for president than when they vote for legislators.
Democrats win Senate and House races because people care more about
domestic issues, Social Security, and unemployment when they elect
Divided views of the party are based on voter reasoning about the differences between the job of the president and the job of the legislator, on
one hand, and the images of the two parties, on the other. As John Petrocik
notes, “Most voters recognize the policy strengths of the parties and respond to them.”67
The Growing Importance of Campaigns
Divided govemment attests to both the limits and the impoftance of
.-e.leri*;*.;Gotng without Data 69
Divided government’s roots in the different issue strengths of the two parlies attest to the limits of voter manipulation-the limited ability of candirlatcs in either party to use clever campaigns to obscure their historic perlirrmances with smoke and mirrors. Candidates’ ability to stake out positklns at variance with past pafty performance on long-standing issues is
lnformation about past party performance is still important, however.
‘l’hc information shortcuts about party identification and party perforlllance on different issues serve as reality tests against which campaign
drguments are tested. The relative weights of party and candidate will vary
lxrth among issues and among offices. Candidates matter most where party
[email protected],then,dependonreaSoningaboutparllcs and candidates, which in tum depends on voters’ use of information
rtlrout party performance on issues and information about which issues are
lllosl. relevant to diflerent elections. Such information use and reasoning
drc connected to a campaign’s ability to make connections between candirloles, offices, and issues.
‘l’he early voting studies suggest that modern mass-media campaigns
rltrluld have larger efects than the campaigns of the l94Os. At that time, a
vttlcr’s strength of conviction was related to the political homogeneity of
Itls tlr her associates. Most voters belonged to politically homogeneous sot’l,tl groups; the social gulf between the parties was so wide that a majority
ol’voters had no close friends or associates voting differently from them.6e
A rlccline in the political homogeneity of primary groups should lead to
weaker conviction among voters and therefore allow more latitude for the
Ittllucnce of the mass media. The political cleavages that exist today cut
lll(lrc across social groups, which means that voters are typically in less honr()gcneous family, church, and work settings.To
All voting studies have found that edueatiqn is one of the prime indicalo!.s of voter ability to process information generated by campaigns and 1}1s
lll.lss media. In the 1940s, fewer than one in eight voters had been to collcgfi6Eay nearly half of all voters have been to college. In the 1940s, over
40 lrcrcent of the electorate had never reached high school; today this figttt’e ls l0 percent. This increase in educational level, then, gives greater
polential import to political campaigns. The broadening of the electorate,
rllrcussed in chapter 2, means that voters are following more national and
Ittlernational issues. One striking example of this is the development of
;rnrtf lmages based on the party’s ability to deal with the problems of
nratters least; the less well image, the more sensitive
to the candidate.6s
70 Chapter Three
women and senior citizens-two groups for whom it was not expected in
the 1940s that distinctive voting patterns could emerge.
The more educated the electorate, the greater is its ability to follow news
about national and international politics; the more issues the electorate
follows, the more varied the images of the parties will be; the more varied
the images of the parties, the more the choice of issue matters.
Democrats and Republicans today are generally much more willing to
consider a vote for the other party’s candidate than was true in the past.
Further, a larger proponion of the electorate has no party loyalty at all, and
even the “standing decision” of party members to vote the party line is not
as firm as it used to be. In the l94os, fewer than 25 percent of the voters in
the entire country had ever voted for more than one party’s candidate for
president. Tioday, over 60 percent have voted for both Democratic and Republican candidates for president.Tr The extent of cross-party voting
emphasizes just how much more politically fluid the country has become.
Whatever their level of education, voters use information shortcuts and
cost-saving devices in thinking about parties, candidates, and issues. They
use shortcuts to assess ideology, platforms, individual competence, and
character. This leads to an asymmetry between the challengers and the incumbents, and to the explicit assumption that the election begins centered
on the incumbent and his or her present performance.
Campaigns make a difference because voters have limited information
about government and uncertainty about the consequences of policies. If
voters had full information and no uncertainty, they would notbe open to
influence from others, and hence there would be no campaigns. In reality,
voters do not know much about what government is doing or is capable of
doing. Thus they are open to inlluence by campaigners who offer them
more information orbetter explanations of the ways inwhich govemment
activities affect them.
Howevef, the shortcuts that voters use also limit the effects of campaigns.
Before public opinion studies of voting, conventional wisdom held that
“rational, independent voters” gathered and absorbed information,
weighed alternatives, and made up their minds just before they voted. Because voters were assumed to gather and assess information, it was
expected that voting would be affected primarily by the information to
which they were exposed. Therefore, it was assumed that voting was a
choice easily manipulated by “propaganda.” But instead of direct media
effects on rational voters without memory there is a sophisticated pattern
:;[email protected]
Going without Data 7l
ill lransmission from past elections and interactions among and between
pcollle in the current election.
Vtlters also use information shortcuts when they assess candidates. They
Irlllnate a candidate’s policy stands from demographic traits of both the
r rrtttlidate and his or her supponers. They estimate a candidate’s sincerity
rrtrrl adherence to promises not by evaluating past behaviorbut by extrapolntlrrg from private morality to public morality. Voters care about the
;tct’stlnal competence of the candidate-his or her ability to deliver benellts. They assess overall competence because they do not understand all the
Itoblcms the president must deal with, and they do not make individual
frrtlgrnents in every case of what the president can do. when assessing
r onlPetence, they also economize by judging campaign behavior, instead
ul rt’scarching the candidate’s past governmental performance.
‘l’ltc focus on information shortcuts implies several assumptions about
wlt.rl kinds of information are easiest to obtain and process. These assumplkrrrs include: (l) It is easier to assess the real world than to make
ltt r rf t’ct ions about the future . (2) Itis easier to track a party by remembering
llr vlcw of the good society than by trying to examine its past performance.
( f ) (lurrent data are easier to use-and therefore are treated as more rele- vdlll-than past data. (4) Personal morality is easier to understand than
iltrlllrrtional morality. (5) It is easier to assess an individual,s competence
lltalt to assess his or her legislative performance. (6) Candidates can be unrl(‘l’sl(x)d if their demographic traits are known. And (7) candidates can be
f ttrlgctl by who their friends and supporters are. In order to examine these
ortttttrptions and look more closely at how people process political infornrdtlon, chapter 4 explores the relevant findings of cognitive psychology.

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