by M. Saffa Lamin, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science

 

It’s that time again for voters throughout the U.S. to make a decision about the future of the nation – and arguably the world – by choosing between contending candidates representing, primarily, the two major parties. For the vast majority of voters, elections are by far the only form of participation that they engage in, precisely because of the myriad ways in which the outcome can affect their lives, but also because it is the least costly and most accessible avenue available for all eligible citizens to participate in the political process. Let’s consider the main influences on voter choices during presidential elections, as well as the factors that may decide this year’s election.

 

The 2016 election has been rather interesting thus far, and it will no doubt be the subject of a considerable body of research when all is said and done. The stakes are high because there is no incumbent on the ballot, which gives the nominees of both parties equal odds of winning the election. Moreover, based on the outcome of the primaries, the general election will likely be a contest between a successful businessman with no prior experience in government and a public servant with a long record of service at various levels of government.

 

So, how will the voters decide between the two candidates? What factors will voters take into account when making their choices? The first and most obvious consideration for the majority of voters is party identification. Simply put, the majority voters who identify as Democrats or Democratic leaning will vote for the Democratic nominee whereas those who identify as Republicans or Republican leaning will likely vote for the Republican nominee. According to the New York Times, in 2012, 92% of Democrats voted for President Barack Obama whereas 93% of Republicans voted for Mitt Romney. These numbers are reflective of the trend since the 1980s, in which the majority of voters based their choice on party identification, and voted for the candidate representing their party.

 

It is important to note that party identification is a function of socioeconomic characteristics and sociological variables such as age, gender, ethnicity, religion, and more. Clearly, since the last partisan realignment in the 1960s, there has been a gender and generation gap, which has led to the majority of women, less socioeconomically endowed, and younger voters voting for the Democratic candidate, while the majority of the more affluent, older, male, and white voters cast their ballots for the Republican nominee. Moreover, in 2012, 55% of women, 93% of African Americans 71% of Hispanics, 73% of Asian Americans, and 60% of voters aged 18–29, voted for President Barack Obama. At the same time, 59% of Whites, 56% of men, and 56% of voters ages 65 and older, cast their ballot for Romney.

 

Although these sociological and socioeconomic breakdowns show a pattern over the past 40 years, this election could be different in the sense that, for the first time in history, a woman may be a major party’s candidate for the presidency, and, at least since the past two election cycles, the first African American president, who won with very high support among minorities, will not be on the ballot. It will make a huge difference in the electoral outcome if Secretary Clinton’s candidacy could mobilize women as well as other minorities to vote for her on the grounds of her historic candidacy, among other reasons. Similarly, if her candidacy fails to excite those groups or causes them to withdraw, the outcome of the election could be greatly altered in favor of the Republicans.

 

In addition, ideology, which correlates positively with party identification, will be another key factor on the minds of voters when they make their choice for the presidency. The majority of voters who identify as liberals also identify as Democrats and are, therefore, more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate. Similarly, the majority of voters who identify as conservative also identify as Republican and are, therefore, more likely to vote for the Republican nominee for president. In fact, according to New York Times exit poll, 86 % of liberals voted for Obama whereas 82% of conservatives voted for Romney in 2012.

 

This election cycle is not likely to be too different in terms of the role of ideological orientation in influencing voter choices. There has so far been huge turnout at rallies and primaries for the candidates that have articulated stronger ideological positions on the left as well as on the right. Assuming that voters stay engaged on both fronts, the ability to appeal to voters in the middle -- those who do not base their policy positions or choice of candidate on ideological orientation or partisan attachment – could be key in this election. This, therefore, seems to be a perfect time to retest the validity of the median voter theorem, which holds that candidates who align their policy positions with moderate voters are more likely to win elections because the majority of voters tend to favor moderation rather than extremism. Clearly, the bases of both parties are fairly mobilized, which could cause voters in the center to withdraw from the process altogether.

 

The next obvious deciding factor for voters is the policy positions of the candidates. The two key policy areas that tend to concern voters most are the economy and national security, and candidates are debating both issues this season. Traditionally, Republicans fare better on national security while Democrats fare better on the economy. However, this year’s presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s strength is the economy, having created hundreds of thousands of jobs and run a successful real estate company, while the likely Democratic candidate’s strength is national security, due to her service as a senator and secretary of state. Having said that, a lot could depend on who can convince the electorate not only of their expertise but of their opponent’s weakness in their own area of expertise.

 

In addition to considering all of the above, voters also evaluate the candidates based on individual characteristics, such as trustworthiness, charisma, emotional connection, values congruence, and more. There is no doubt that likeability plays a profound role in politics. A recent case in point is the way voters responded in poll after poll that they liked 2000 presidential candidate George W. Bush more than they liked his opponent Al Gore, because “he looks like some someone you can drink a beer with.” In a very close election, voter preference for Bush on the basis of likeability was no doubt one of the factors that tilted election in his favor.

 

Throughout the primaries, Trump has been attracting mammoth crowds and, although Clinton has not been attracting similar numbers, Senator Bernie Sanders has been matching Trump in terms of generating excitement among the base of Democratic voters. In the end, the favorability rating of the candidates –  which according to the ABC News/Washington Post Poll of May 15, 2016, is at 9 % and 23 % for the likely Democratic candidate and the presumptive Republican nominee respectively – could be a key consideration in the decision-making process of voters, especially independent voters and those with weak partisan attachment.

 

Electing a president is the most important civic responsibility, and the majority of voters take it very seriously. In choosing a president this year, as in other cycles, voters will no doubt vote on the basis of subjective criteria such as party affiliation, ideological orientation, and candidate characteristics, while a minority will base their choice on objective criteria such as the policy positions of the candidates. Ultimately, the candidates need to mobilize their bases but also appeal, personally and on the basis of policy, to voters in the middle in order to maximize their chance of winning. That likelihood could be enhanced in the case of the candidate who drives turnout, which has since the 1960s fluctuated between 52–62 %, among supporters.

 

This essay is based on a lecture Dr. Lamin delivered in POLS 201 on Public Opinion and Voting in Marcus Etheridge and Howard Handelman’s “Politics in a Changing World: A Comparative Introduction to Political Science.”