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Commentary: Political Patterns Can Be Predicted

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As the calendar turns to 2015, the national political scene is already focusing on 2016. As politicians set up strategies and start to explore their options the baseline concerns are who will vote and how will they cast their ballots? To answer these questions, one must look at patterns. Generally speaking, the party that does not hold the presidency scores some gains. This time the gains were substantial enough to turn the Senate over to the Republicans and to keep that party dominant in statehouses across the country.

Scholars have frequently ruminated about why people vote the way they do. In “The American Voter” published in 1960, the authors maintained that party identification was learned early and endured through a voter’s lifetime. Those adhering to a rational choice philosophy maintained that self-interest was the guiding principle behind voters’ choices, most often viewed as economic self-interest. Others stressed the importance of retrospective voting; “are you better off than you were four years ago?”

David Brooks of The New York Times has written that voting decisions frequently were not rational. Instead, they were a product of an individual’s history and emotions. In light of these various explanations of voting behavior, we can discern certain national patterns among those who voted Republican or those who failed to vote.

  1. Principal economic interests. The very wealthy, the corporate elite tend to vote Republican with regularity. They favor lower taxes, lower government spending except for the military and decreased regulation of business. They often fund Republican campaigns or PACs that support these values.
  2. Other business executives and professionals. Often in suburban or exurban communities, they favor lower taxes and fewer regulations above other interests.
  3. Social/religious conservatives. Often evangelical, their strong anti-abortion views lead them to Republican candidates. They also tend to oppose gay marriage. Religion is an integral part of their life. Their moral beliefs trump their economic circumstances.
  4. Tea Party supporters. These may include those with social conservative views. They have a strong anti-government bias. “Don’t tread on me.” They are often rural or sometimes exurban. They are uncomfortable with change and want to protect their freedoms and gun rights.
  5. Split ticket voters. Recent events influence their choices. In this case, an incomplete economic recovery, foreign crises, concern over the Affordable Care Act, and a growing list of bureaucratic snafus led them to the Republicans this time.
  6. Disillusionment with the president. Some wanted him to fail from the get go. Others were more inspired by “hope and change” but Washington gridlock and President Obama’s aloofness and seeming passivity either led them to the GOP or to the pool of non-voters.

The incessant ads, largely negative in nature, also may not inspire participation by some of the eligible voters. Cable news networks stressed the president’s falling popularity and played up the crisis of the day. Fewer people read newspapers or watch network news. Information becomes impressionistic in nature and impressions did not favor the Democrats. Hence, Republicans benefited from lower turnout in the Democratic base. Contests that had seemed close broke for the GOP.
Is this a harbinger for 2016? New events and their coverage will shape the election coming. The relentless examination of presidential candidates will help to determine the field. And the voters’ occupation, income, religiosity and habit will push them in various directions. The seeming indecision in the White House and the failure to get along with Congress hurt the Democrats this time around. That could change with the ball moving to John Boehner’s and Mitch McConnell’s court.

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.