Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

A Policy-Oriented Electorate: Evaluations of Candidates and Parties in the Obama Elections Compared to the 1952-1980 Period

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

A Policy-Oriented Electorate: Evaluations of Candidates and Parties in the Obama Elections Compared to the 1952-1980 Period

Article excerpt

It is often said after an election that the people have spoken and scholars regularly debate what they have said. This article replicates Miller and Wattenberg's (1985) framework for analyzing what Americans said about the candidates and parties, using the transcripts from the 2008 and 2012 American National Election Studies (ANES). (1) We revisit the question of how voters frame their discussion of candidates and parties employing data from the Obama era. Our findings reveal remarkable changes since the time of the publication of The American Voter (Campbell et al. 1960). Whereas American voters once focused on results produced by the government, in the Obama elections they were much more inclined to try to guide future policies.

First, we describe the primary research question examined in this project and the expectations we have of the data. Next, we explain our sources of data, outlining the advantages and disadvantages of using open-ended data and the coding scheme. We then present our findings regarding candidate and party evaluations. Our emphasis in these sections is on the proportion of different types of evaluations, and we also assess whether respondents were considering candidates and parties in retrospective or prospective terms. We find that respondents' evaluations of both candidates and parties were far more policy oriented in the Obama elections of 2008 and 2012 than they were in the 1952-80 period. Finally, we examine and present voters' rationales and investigate who is most oriented toward policy arguments.

Research Question and Expectations

There have been many changes in the political landscape since 1980, and we investigate whether evaluations of candidates and parties during the Obama elections show change as well. Contributing primarily to the voting and campaign literature, our findings will show whether rationales are the same or distinct from previous elections. We hypothesize policy evaluations to play a greater role in 2008 and 2012 than in the years Miller and Wattenberg coded for a variety of reasons.

To begin, the composition of the electorate has changed significantly since the 1980s due to generational replacement. Of the voting age population in 2012, 56% were not old enough to have been eligible to vote back in 1980. Newer entrants into the electorate have been socialized in a much more polarized environment with regard to policy, as will be discussed below. In addition, they have acquired far more education than the people they have replaced. The greater level of education attained by today's electorate gives more people the ability to absorb advanced concepts, such as policy stands, as opposed to making a simple assessment of whether the nation is better or worse off (Abrajano 2005; Dalton 2008, chap. 1).

Furthermore, political elites have made learning about policies easier for all voters by sorting themselves into partisan camps that now clearly differ according to many policy stands. While there is much disagreement as to whether or not the electorate has become more ideologically polarized (Abramowitz 2010; Fiorina 2010), there is consensus that party elites have sorted themselves to present clear and consistent differences between the presidential nominees, as well as most congressional candidates (Hetherington 2001; Levendusky 2009). Whereas clearly conservative nominees, such as Barry Goldwater in 1964, or clearly liberal nominees, such as George McGovern in 1972, were once anomalies, now the electorate regularly chooses between polar opposites. In addition, Layman and Carsey (2002) show that clear conflict between the parties now occurs on multiple fronts, encompassing social welfare, racial, and cultural policies. Because choices in American politics are clearer now than they were in the period Miller and Wattenberg analyzed, we expect the public to give policy considerations greater weight in the Obama elections.

A final reason we expect policy evaluations to have increased since the 1952-80 period is that the information environment in which political campaigns take place has changed markedly. …

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