Another Peek Inside the Brain of the Electorate

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By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008

So a bunch of academics decides to revisit one of the defining books of modern American politics, a 1960 tome on the electorate. They spend years comparing interviews with voting-age Americans from 2000 and 2004 to what Americans said during elections in the 1950s. The academics' question: How much has the American voter changed over the past 50 years?

Their conclusion -- that the voter is pretty much the same dismally ill-informed creature he was back then -- continues a decades-long debate about whether Americans are as clueless as they sound.

Reader, before you send that outraged e-mail, consider that you may be an exception. You, of course, are endlessly fascinated by the debate over domestic wiretapping, but it's possible your neighbors think FISA is a hybrid vehicle. In fact, it's quite possible your neighbors are Republicans only because that's what their parents were, and ditto for the Democrats across the street. They couldn't even mumble a passable definition of "liberal" or "conservative."

"You could get depressed," says the University of Iowa's Michael Lewis-Beck, one of the political scientists who wrote "The American Voter Revisited," released last month and inspired by 1960's "The American Voter."

Or not. Talk to other academics and it's unclear if we should be depressed at all. Many political scientists agree that the American voter doesn't always present well. Asked directly about certain issues, like whether he prefers diplomacy to military action for resolving international conflicts, he may profess ignorance or use some phrase he heard on television. Or she might say, when asked why she likes a candidate, "Oh, I just like the way he talks."

The question that political scientists have pondered for decades is: If a person can't name the staples of liberal ideology, or can't talk coherently about foreign affairs, or cares only about a few issues, or changes his opinion in response to information that he can't remember later, might he still be able to make thoughtful choices in the voting booth?

How much credit do we give our most precious resource, the American brain? Is it half-empty or half-full?

Americans "don't sound the way the high priests of culture want them to sound," says Samuel L. Popkin, author of "The Reasoning Voter," who tends to give voters more credit rather than less. "They use their own language. They process a lot more than they can recall in interviews. They have a lot better sense of who's on their side and who isn't than they're often given credit for."

One thing that's certain is that Americans are consistent. They've had difficulty articulating their opinions in ways that satisfy political scientists for decades. When "The American Voter" was released almost 50 years ago, it caused quite a splash. (Subsequent political scientists began referring to its authors with awe as "the four horsemen.") "The American Voter" was thick with statistical tables and a wonky theory called the "funnel of causality," all revealing that Americans have what William G. Jacoby of Michigan State University calls "incoherent, inconsistent, disorganized positions on issues."

The New York Times wrote about the book's findings when it came out, noting the role that Dwight Eisenhower's "strong personal appeal" played in helping him win the presidency in 1952 and 1956. His Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson, spent a lot of time discussing issues of foreign policy, the paper wrote, but it turned out "the public was largely unaware of his positions."

Some academics criticized "The American Voter" for depicting voters as "fools," while others suggested the voters were not so much fools as, uh, "cognitive misers." (Aren't academic euphemisms the best?) The book spawned all sorts of follow-ups, like a rebuttal called "The Changing American Voter" and a rebuttal to the rebuttal called "The Unchanging American Voter."

Four years ago, Lewis-Beck and Jacoby and two other political scientists decided to take on "The American Voter" once more. They used the same methods to crunch the data and even organized the book the same way. (They had to eliminate the chapter on the agrarian vote, though, because there aren't enough farmers left anymore for a usable sample.)

"The American Voter Revisited" is chock-full of depressing conclusions, couched in academic understatement. In-depth interviews conducted with 1,500 people during the two most recent presidential elections revealed that the "majority of people don't have many issues in mind" when they discuss voting, Lewis-Beck says. Sometimes they say they're attracted to a candidate because "I just don't think we should change parties right now." They tend to inherit their party allegiance from their parents, and those beliefs tend to stay fixed throughout their lives, he says.

"For many people," the authors of "Revisited" write, "dealing with political issues is too much of a bother."

"If they know they're Republican and have been happy that way, they'll stay Republican," says another of the book's four authors, Herb Weisberg, who chairs the political science department at Ohio State University. Even for those voters who do rethink their allegiance to a given party -- because, say, the party in power has fouled things up -- "if times get better, they'll get back to where they were," Weisberg says. Their attachment to party is more emotional than intellectual, Lewis-Beck suggests, akin to their feelings for sports teams.

But wait, says Amy Gershkoff, who wrote her Princeton dissertation on issues and voting behavior and now advises left-of-center campaigns on how to target voters. She's got her own sports metaphor. Just as Beltway junkies know far more about policy issues than the average voter, baseball junkies know far more statistics than she does. But she still loves to watch the Yankees.

"Even though I can't rattle off the batting averages of every person on the team and every person on every other team doesn't mean that I can't derive pleasure from the game," she says.

In other words, Gershkoff says, she knows enough. Many Americans vote primarily because of one or two or three issues, she says. They might care a whole lot about health care or prayer in schools and not at all about foreign policy, and maybe that leaves them sounding dumb when they're asked about Iraq. But they know enough about the issues they care about, and that's what they vote on.

And how do they gather what they know? Popkin, whose own studies suggest that Americans' awareness of issues has been growing for decades, argues that voters use shortcuts to make judgments about the candidates, relying on things like endorsements, the advice of friends, and the candidate's party. So what if they forget much of what they've learned, so long as they absorb the lessons?

"If I say to you, 'What did the guy you didn't marry say to you in bed?' " and you can't remember, "does that mean you didn't enjoy it?" Popkin says.

Lewis-Beck says writing the book was a bracing experience for a political junkie. He's the kind of guy who tries to forecast elections the way fantasy baseball fans try to forecast players' performances. He writes papers with such titles as "Split-Ticket Voting: The Effects of Cognitive Madisonianism."

"A lot of people don't care about politics, okay?" he says. "They just don't care."

Or they care just enough.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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