How and why we vote the way we do

Why do we vote how we vote? And I don’t mean this black swan election: I mean over time. Scholars didn’t really rally to this topic until the 1950s, when a couple thousand Americans told University of Michigan researchers, at length, why they liked Ike or were madly for Adlai. You’d think those findings would feel as remote as that grey-flannel decade. But here’s the wild thing: Voting behavior then looks a lot like voting behavior now.

Or so I learned in The American Voter Revisited” (University of Michigan, 2008) by Michael S. Lewis-Beck, William G. Jacoby, Helmut Norpoth, and Herbert F. Weisberg. It updates 1960’s “The American Voter,” which was based on those studies. But this time, voters were interviewed for the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. And a half century later, party affiliation is still the thing and remains a “perceptual screen” for selectively judging political events. Moreover, party attachment is “highly resistant to change,” much like brand loyalty.

One of the book’s themes sounds like something Mr. Sulu might’ve spied off the Enterprise: the “funnel of causality.” The widest part of the funnel is labeled “socio-demographics” (your class status, where you grew up). This tapers down to “party identification” (the vast majority of us stick with our parents’ party). Next comes “issues,” then “candidates,” with the narrowed funnel tip spilling out at “vote.”

The facilitating agent for all is “Time,” in that, over time, any factor can shift to change your vote, most likely those closest to the funnel’s spout. Take issues: Hoovervilles pushed enough Republicans to abandon Hoover. Or take candidates: Remember the 1990 Massachusetts governor’s race when even diehard Democrats fled John Silber after he snarled at news anchor Natalie Jacobson? Economics, war, and cultural sea changes also can change party affiliation en masse. In America, this means the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the civil rights movement.

My next book canceled many canards. You know how we fret, for instance, over modern low voter turnout? Actually, the data doesn’t show that voting rates have gone way down — it’s more that the list of ineligible voters (noncitizens, felons) has gone up. Plus US Census figures are more accurate now, and so older, sunnier numbers were based on foggier math.

That’s just one cool thing I took from the anthology Controversies in Voting Behavior (CQ, 2010) edited by Richard G. Niemi, Herbert F. Weisberg, and David C. Kimball. It pours out the funnel of causality too (aka the “Michigan model”) plus the “rational voter model,” which emphasizes issues over your background, and the “modern political psychology model,” which focuses on our deep-seated “origins of preferences.” These models inform 21 essays on everything from the Republican realignment of the South to our current political polarization.

Still more red meat is served up in Michael Waldman’s The Fight to Vote(Simon & Schuster, 2016). Oh, how we forget how skimpy our democracy once was! Only white male property owners could vote at first — a fraction of the populace —and in the Gilded Age, there were “pauper” exclusions for those on government relief, a dubious catchall that included striking textile workers in New Bedford.

It’s taken four constitutional amendments to broaden the franchise. The 15th, post-Civil War, extended the vote to nonwhite males. The 19th brought in women. The 24th banned poll taxes, which had excluded the poor (and was also used as a hurdle to trip up potential African American voters). And the 26th lowered the voting age to 18. Not so fast, though: In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated key parts of the Voting Rights Act. Getting and keeping voting rights, writes Waldman, “[has] never been a smooth glide.”

You’d think GOTV was some jaunty television network, but no: Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout” (Brookings Institution, 2015) channels and ranks GOTV strategies based on 100 studies conducted since 1998. It’s “evidence versus war stories,” as authors Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber say, and so their book is now the go-to reference for countless campaign workers eating cold pizza and sleeping under their desks.

So what does work? Old-school door-to-door canvassing, especially if the canvasser is the same ethnicity as the canvassed: On average, you get one additional vote per 14 contacts. Election day festivals pump up turnout, too, plus lively TV ads aimed at youthful voters (like Rock the Vote ads, starting with Madonna’s 1990 spot). What doesn’t work? Robo calls, nonpartisan leaflets, most direct mail.

If you’ve voted already or are waiting till Tuesday, wrap your head around this: We now boast a record high of 200 million registered voters — up 50 million from 2008 — which is over 60 percent of our population, with over 30 percent of the electorate made up of ethnic minorities. Three centuries, four amendments, and 44 presidents into the American experiment, that’s deeply amazing — and enfranchising.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@comcast.net

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