Floating Voters and Floating Activists: Political Change and Information

Article excerpt

Many studies document positive relationships between political information and campaign participation, but none investigates the relationship between information and interelection change in campaign participation. While studies of "floating voters" document negative relationships between information and floating, the author notes that activists are better informed than voters and investigates the relationship between knowledge and change in participation, comparing the process among voters and activists. The author shows low-information citizens enter and exit the electorate, while high-information citizens enter and exit the activist pool. The author concludes with an optimistic assessment of democratic change based on the theory that well-informed activists influence floating voters.

Keywords: floating voters; democratic change; political information; citizen capacity; political knowledge; interelection change; longitudinal change; campaign activities

Where others move slowly and predictably over time, gradually adjusting to a changing political environment but resisting sudden movements, the activists move, at least relatively, with lightning speed.

-Carmines and Stimson (1989, 110)

While the cross-sectional relationship between political knowledge, variously called interest, capacity, awareness, or information, and campaign participation has been well documented (e.g., Rosenstone and Hansen 1993; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995), a dearth of research explores the effect of political knowledge on longitudinal change in campaign participation. The relationship between knowledge and change among activists assumes theoretical importance if changing activists guide democratic sentiment and choice (Carmines and Stimpson 1989; Rapoport and Stone 1994). Even if most of the mass public lacks important information about politics (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996), activists tend to be well informed. Thus, the cross-sectional relationship between activism and information appears reassuring vis-à-vis a theory of activist change and enlightened democratic guidance. Activists tend to be well informed, and therefore they seem likely to be well informed agents of change. However, while activists fare considerably better on tests of political knowledge than citizens who do not get involved in electoral campaigns, many activists fall short of the democratic ideal of fully informed citizens. Furthermore, to the extent change among activists occurs primarily through new mobilizations and demobilizations, rather than through conversions (Herrera 1995; Rapoport and Stone 1994; Wolbrecht 2002), it is quite plausible that the very individuals who contribute to change among activists are drawn from a population whose informational shortcomings are well documented in cross-sectional studies (e.g., new mobilizations involve the previously inactive). In short, it would be a mistake to infer a positive relationship between knowledge and longitudinal change among activists from the positive cross-sectional relationship between knowledge and campaign activism.

Framed thusly, my research problem resembles that of the floating voter hypothesis, which posits that those voters who float between the parties from one election to the next, in terms of the party they support with their vote, tend to be among the least-informed members of the electorate (see Converse 1962/1966). In fact, the cross-sectional relationship between voting and information is similar to the cross-sectional relationship between campaign participation and information, and scholars studying the relationship between longitudinal change in vote choice and knowledge continue to debate whether floating voters are drawn disproportionately from the low end of the information scale. Since voting, like campaign activism, is a form of political participation, I take up both questions in this article.

Substantively, I discuss the electoral implications of the way information shapes change among activists and voters, respectively. …