Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Winners, Losers, and Election Context: Voter Responses to the 2000 Presidential Election

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Winners, Losers, and Election Context: Voter Responses to the 2000 Presidential Election

Article excerpt

Elections are sometimes seen as legitimizing institutions, promoting system-level support among citizens by allowing them to have input into the political process. However, prior research has found that this is less true among supporters of losing candidates, who often exhibit lower levels of political trust and satisfaction with democracy. We analyze NES survey data from 1964 to 2004, as well as surveys from Florida and the nation following the controversial presidential election of 2000, and find that (1) losers exhibit lower levels of political trust, satisfaction with democracy, confidence that government is responsive to citizens, and in early 2001 were less inclined to extend legitimacy to the newly elected president; (2) losers also are more likely to endorse "rationalizations" as explanations of the election outcome, to be less satisfied with the choice of candidates offered in the election, and to perceive the electoral process as unfair; and (3) voter interpretations of the election mediate the relationships between winning/losing on the one hand, and trust, responsiveness, and satisfaction with democracy on the other. These findings suggest that the so-called legitimizing function of elections is far from a universal phenomenon.

Elections are at the core of democratic politics. At least in principle if not always in fact, they provide citizens with a chance to express their policy views and priorities, to participate directly in the political process, and to hold elected leaders accountable for their actions (Kornberg and Clarke 1992; Katz 1997); as a result, elections are seen as legitimizing institutions that protect the system by generating popular support and by helping to "confine mass political action to routine, peaceful channels" (Ginsberg 1982: 7). There is, however, an important catch to the argument being made here: According to Ginsberg, "[t]he formal opportunity to participate in elections serves to convince citizens that the government is responsive to their needs and wishes" (7) (emphasis added; also see Rahn, Brehm, and Carlson 1999).

The catch, of course, is that this probably does not happen as often as one might hope. In particular, it seems unlikely that voters who support the loser(s) in an election will be as quick as those backing the winner(s) to agree that their voices have been heard. This should be especially true whenever, for example, candidates obscure the real issues by opting for either general platitudes or negative attacks, voters are unhappy with the electoral choices available to them, or doubts exist about whether the election itself was conducted in a fair and honest fashion. Indeed, prior research indicates that winners and losers do not always respond with equal enthusiasm either to the election outcome, or to the institutions and processes through which that outcome was rendered. Across a variety of settings in advanced industrial democracies, supporters of winning candidates tend to have higher levels of system support than do those who support the losing candidates (Ginsberg and Weissberg 1978; Clarke and Acock 1989; Nadeau and Biais 1993; Anderson and Guillory 1997; Noms 1999; Nadeau et al. 2000; Anderson and Tverdova 2001; Anderson and LoTempio 2002; Anderson et al. 2005; but also see Rahn, Brehm, and Carlson 1999).1

Moreover, it seems that political institutions help to shape the magnitude of differences between winners' and losers' levels of support. In inclusive systems, where governmental power is shared through federalism, coalition formation, or separation of powers, for example, losers apparently take some solace from the fact that their partisan representatives have real (though limited) influence in policymaking. In contrast, exclusive systems customarily produce much wider gaps in support between winners and losers, as the latter are effectively shut out of meaningful governmental influence at least until the next election occurs (Anderson et al. …

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