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Political scientist debunks three common myths about American voters

A Red and Blue Nation?: High voter turnout helps the Democrats. Late-deciders vote for the challenger. Political polarization has left the American electorate deeply divided between “red” and “blue” states. Right? Wrong.

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High voter turnout helps the Democrats. Late-deciders vote for the challenger. Political polarization has left the American electorate deeply divided between “red” and “blue” states.

Right? Wrong.

Turn on any cable news channel during an election year and you will find these and many other popular misconceptions about American voters often repeated by political pundits, says Dr. Daron Shaw, associate professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin who serves on the advisory board of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation and also has worked as a strategist for the 2000 and 2004 Bush election campaigns.

Daron Shaw

Daron Shaw, associate professor of government, serves on the advisory board of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation.Photo: Christina Murrey

“Unfortunately, many of the conventional wisdoms parroted by the media are either contentious or flat out wrong,” Shaw says. “They’re based on faulty assumptions, limited data, or lack of historical context. And the way the media sometimes characterize shifts in political behavior–such as polarization or swing voting–doesn’t do justice to the true dynamics at work.”

Frustrated by the media’s perpetuation of inaccurate analysis, Shaw and two colleagues, Karen Kaufmann from the University of Maryland, and John Petrocik from the University of Missouri, decided to set the record straight with their book “Unconventional Wisdom: Facts and Myths About American Voters” (Oxford University Press, 2008).

The researchers drew upon more than 50 years of historical data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) and the University of Michigan’s Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research, to identify long-term trends in voting behavior and debunk many of the myths that contribute to popular misunderstanding about who votes and why.

“Our hope is that this book contributes to a measured analysis of voting behavior and trends, and gives the media, and the voting public, a more accurate picture of the nation’s political landscape,” Shaw says.

Another way Shaw injects an academic perspective into the media’s election coverage is through his role on Fox News Channel’s national decision team. On election night, he analyzes polling data provided to the media by the National Election Pool, pointing out trends and advising the network when to make calls.

Since joining the decision team in 2002, Shaw has gained a new appreciation for the tough decisions journalists have to make under tight deadlines.

Cover jacket for Daron Shaw

“Unconventional Wisdom” (Oxford University Press, 2008), by Karen Kaufmann, John Petrocik and Daron Shaw, examines facts and myths about American voters. 

“Reporters need to tell stories about the election, and they often don’t have the luxury of time for thoughtful analysis,” Shaw says. “Many of them have decades of experience in the trenches. But, in focusing on election stories that have high news value, the media tend to underemphasize the stability of our system in lieu of more sensational stories, which can have negative consequences for public discussion.”

So the next time you turn on the television and are confused by conflicting messages from political analysts, here is the antidote. Read on as Shaw breaks down three of the biggest myths about contemporary American voters and reveals the real story behind election day behavior.

Myth 1: Americans are deeply polarized

Since the 2000 and 2004 elections, the red state versus blue state metaphor has become entrenched among political commentators. Journalists are fascinated by the idea of a polarized American electorate because it suggests a great story of an epic battle between conflicting worldviews, Shaw says. In reality, the story is much more complex than Americas are led to believe.

“The concept of polarization implies that Americans increasingly hold extreme views: that there are a bunch of people on the liberal side and a bunch of people on the conservative side and very few people in the middle, which is not the case,” Shaw explains.

According to data from ANES on self-professed voter ideology, moderates make up nearly 50 percent of the population, conservatives constitute about 30 percent and self-identified liberals about 15 percent.

“When we’ve examined American’s opinions on a range of issues, we find they are actually very centrist,” Shaw says. “For example, if we ask people, ‘Is the war in Iraq good or bad?’ there is polarization along predictable lines. But, if we ask a question like, ‘Should we pull the troops out tomorrow, or bomb Baghdad?’ very few people will choose either of these extreme options. Instead, they’ll most often choose a middle ground solution, such as a slow withdrawal.”

In other words, people’s response to political parties and political candidates may be polarized, but they are not polarized in terms of their preferences for public policy, Shaw says. Demonizing one’s political opponent is nothing new to American politics, but at the core, American voters remain firmly grounded in the center of the policy spectrum.

Purple America

A county-by-county rather than state-by-state analysis, such as this “Purple America” map of the 2004 presidential election created by Robert Vanderbei of Princeton University, provides a more nuanced interpretation of how the country voted, Shaw says. 

“We need to be careful about constructing these red and blue archetypes because that’s not a costless portrayal of politics,” Shaw says. “The way the media characterize the system can negatively influence people’s attitudes and reduce participation.”

Myth 2: Swing voters swing elections

Two myths about swing voters that have earned recent attention in the media are that they have easily identifiable demographic characteristics and a strong influence on an election outcome. But the notion that “soccer moms” or “NASCAR dads” will play a decisive role in a given election is flawed, according to Shaw.

While swing voters and swing groups make for entertaining stories, it is unclear there is a coherent sociology to swing voting, Shaw argues.

“Most political scientists view swing voting behavior more as a function of a person’s individual psychology than a demographic classification,” he says. “Plus, there is no empirical evidence that these groups are disproportionately likely to swing. And, in highlighting the reputed interests of specific swing groups, the media encourage candidates to focus disproportionate amounts of time on the concerns of a relatively small portion of voters.”

Historically, the majority of Americans have maintained strong political party affiliations, Shaw says. And, data from ANES since 1952 show the number of people who think of themselves as either Republican or Democrat is as high as it has ever been.

“An election campaign for the most part is about activation, not persuasion,” Shaw explains. “Activation is about reminding people why they’re a Democrat or a Republican. The problem is the concept of activation is not the sexiest story of the election, so journalists tend to write about people who defect from their party and over-report the experiences of a small group, which distorts our understanding of the political landscape.

“Many Americans may feel uncomfortable with the partisan postures of their parties and their candidates,” Shaw adds. “But voters are still loyal members of their respective parties. Party affiliation continues to be a primary shaper, if not the primary shaper, of election behavior.”

Myth 3: Voter turnout favors Democrats

The truism that high voter turnout favors Democrats and low turnout favors Republicans has guided campaign strategists for years, Shaw says. That’s why Republicans usually spend election day praying for rain, media outlets like to report.

UT Votes sponsors a Get Out the Vote rally

Students don patriotic garb at a 2006 Get Out the Vote rally sponsored by the non-partisan UT Votes and the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation. Learn how you can get involved in get-out-the-vote efforts on campus.Photo: Melissa Huebsch

However, in a mature democracy such as the United States, feelings about the candidates and the issues in a general election influence voter turnout differently each election year. Sometimes these feelings and issues help Democrats and other times they help Republicans, Shaw argues.

Based on data from ANES, Shaw found that last-minute voters tend to reflect the prevailing political winds, and do not consistently favor Republicans or Democrats. For example, they voted for Reagan in 1984 and Clinton in 1996, and they split between Bush and Kerry in 2004.

That does not diminish the importance of get-out-the-vote efforts, Shaw warns. If one party mobilizes its supporters while the other does not, the former is more likely to win. But, mobilization often provokes counter-mobilization, which increases turnout without either side improving its relative position, he adds.

Although historically neither political party has consistently benefited from turnout, Shaw predicts high voter turnout will likely help Democrats this year.

“The prevailing winds appear to favor a Democrat in 2008,” he says. “It’s possible that [John] McCain will do well in a tightly contested election that’s driven by the candidates and the issues. But it’s more likely that [Barack] Obama does better.”