Public Policy Issue Orientations

The role of public policy issues in elections is of particular interest to political analysts. Elections are widely justified as providing a means for citizens to influence governmental decisions by choosing among contenders for office. The assumption often is that the electorate will shape government policy by selecting candidates on the basis of their policy stands. When this phenomenon does not appear to be the case, political commentators often are quite critical. Indeed, we frequently hear complaints that the candidates in an presidential election are failing to clearly address the real issues. Equally common are complaints that the mass media fail to adequately treat issues in their coverage of presidential election campaigns.

The term issue sometimes is used more generally to refer to anything that is a source of conflict or contention, but that is not its meaning here. We are referring to public policy issues, meaning questions of what the government should or should not do. Policy issues involve conflict over the direction of government policy. Some policy issues in an election may be quite specific, such as the conditions under which abortion should be legal. Often the policy issues are general, dealing with broad approaches to problems, such as whether the federal government should increase spending on national defense or whether social security should be privatized in some fashion.

For a policy issue to affect the vote decision, voters must have opinions on the issue and must perceive differences between the candidates on the issue. Even on important issues, many voters will fail to meet these conditions. Some will have opinions that are too weak and unstable to provide a basis for evaluating the candidates, while others will not see any significant differences between the candidates on the issue (Campbell, et al. 1960, 168-187). But some voters will have definite opinions and clear perceptions of candidate differences, particularly when the candidates clearly articulate their differences (Nie, Verba, and Petrocik 1976, 164-173). The presidential candidates in 2004 disagreed on many issues, as the first chapter outlined, although the campaign did not always stress these differences.

The important question is not whether voters are provided with a choice; the question is the extent to which voters perceive candidate differences on policy issues and cast their ballots on that basis (Alverez 1998, 109-156; Merrill and Grofman 1999, 1-9). The data for this module contain measures of both how respondents felt about a number of policy issues and how respondents perceived the stands of the candidates on some of these issues, both useful items of information for an analysis of the role of issues in the 2004 presidential election.