Students of voting behavior, picking their way through the election data from 1980 and 1982, are concluding that the American public is less "independent" and less automatically swayed by economic conditions than sometimes has been thought.
Of a score of voting studies presented to the American Political Science Association convention in Chicago last weekend, two of the most discussed papers challenged the ideas that voters are shedding their party ties and responding to their pocketbooks.
Gary C. Jacobson of the University of California at San Diego attacked the economic determinism notion in a paper that used results in the 1982 midterm House elections in an effort to prove that "economic issues exercise no simple mechanical influence over voting decisions."
In a separate paper, six political scientists, including Candice J. Nelson of Georgetown University, cited new evidence from 1980 to back up their controversial contention, first voiced in 1977, that "most professed independents are really closet partisans" when it comes to their voting and that therefore "the highly publicized decline of the party system revealed by growing proportions of independents is very much exaggerated."
The question Jacobson posed in his paper was why the Republicans lost many fewer House seats in 1982 than mathematical models, based on the president's popularity and the condition of the economy, had forecast. One such system had predicted that the recession-caused stagnation of real income and the slump in President Reagan's popularity to 42 percent support would cost the Republicans 58 seats--more than twice the 26 seats they actually lost.
Jacobson's answer essentially was that the Republicans, by operating as a party, were able to minimize the gains the Democrats could achieve through their reliance on the skills of their individual House candidates.
Because "national-level Republican committees have perfected . . . a direct-mail fund-raising operation capable of generating a healthy, predictable income regardless of the fluctuations in the political environment," Jacobson wrote, the GOP was able to raise $121 million for 1982 and to recruit and train promising candidates during 1981, "when the administration and party were riding high. So they were able to field a much more attractive group of challengers than would have come forward on their own once the economy began its nose dive.
"Only one of those challengers actually won," Jacobson said, but their aggressive campaigns meant the "money available to the Democrats was absorbed--unnecessarily, as things developed--by worried incumbents. As a result, many of these promising Democratic challenger candidacies were inadequately financed, and so ultimately came up short."
In the Watergate year of 1974, the last time Republican incumbents faced such tough political conditions, Jacobson pointed out that Democratic challengers had more money to spend, on the average, than did Democratic incumbents. In 1982, by contrast, Democratic incumbents spent twice as much as challengers did.
So the Republicans not only had a financial edge but a strategic advantage in the way their money was distributed. The GOP targeted about $2.5 million of late contributions to embattled incumbents; the Democrats squandered more than $6.3 million in unspent contributions to 32 incumbents who ended their campaigns with more than $100,000 each in the bank.
Because of their superior national organization and strategy, the Republicans were able to define the issues in 1982 in ways that maximized their chances of holding down their losses. The "stay the course" GOP advertising theme worked in two ways, Jacobson found.
"In districts with Republican incumbents, survey data showed the key question was whether the voter thought that Reaganomics would eventually help or hurt the economy . . . in districts held by incumbent Democrats, the most important economic question concerned which party could better handle inflation."
By focusing the debate on those issues rather than on the responsibility for unemployment or the current effects of Reaganomics, the Republicans managed to mitigate their disadvantages and escape with a relatively small loss, he said.
In their paper debunking the growing influence of political independents, the six political scientists focused on a less publicized part of the voter studies. Almost all polls ask voters to classify themselves as Republicans, Democrats or independents, then ask the independents whether they "lean" to either party or are completely independent. Over the last two decades, the proportion of self-identified independents has grown rapidly to the point that in most Washington Post-ABC News surveys of the past three years, the independents exceed the Republicans and come close to matching the number of Democrats.
But in the Post-ABC surveys, like others, most of the independents, when pressed, acknowledge a "lean" to one party or the other, and only a fraction insist they have no tinge of partisanship.
In the most recent survey, for example, completed in August, 35 percent of the self-described independents said they "lean" to the Republicans, 39 percent to the Democrats, and 25 percent say they have no lean at all. The "pure independents" constitute only 9 percent of the total electorate, as contrasted with the 36 percent who call themselves independents at first blush.
The crucial question is not terminology but behavior, and the six political scientists presented a variety of evidence suggesting that the "independent leaners" are more partisan than independent in their habits.
Excluding blacks from their tabulations because of their "stronger partisan Democratic identification," they found that the leaners "display an impressive tendency to vote for the candidate of the party they feel closer to," in both presidential and congressional elections.
"Indeed," they said, "they generally are more loyal to their party than those who classify themselves as the weak partisans."
They also found that the "leaners were as likely as weak partisans to vote in the presidential primaries in 1980," and that they overhwelmingly stayed in the primary of the party to which they said they leaned.
The other authors of the paper, in addition to Nelson, are Bruce E. Eith, Elizabeth Orr, Mark C. Westlye and Raymond E. Wolfinger, all of the University of California at Berkeley, and David B. Magleby of Brigham Young University.