Voting Behavior

The most interesting questions about an election are not concerned with who won but with why people voted the way that they did or what the implications of the results are. These questions are not always easily answered. Looking only at the campaign events and incidents will not suffice. The unique aspects of the election must be blended with a more general understanding of electoral behavior to create a full explanation. We thus need to discuss basic concepts and ideas used in the study of voting behavior as a basis for analyzing the 2008 results.

Two major concerns characterize the study of electoral behavior. One concern is with explaining the election result by identifying the sources of individual voting behavior. We attempt to understand the election outcome by understanding how and why the voters made up their minds. Another major concern in voting research emphasizes changes in voting patterns over time, usually with an attempt to determine what the election results tell us about the direction in which American politics is moving. In this case we focus on the dynamics of electoral behavior, especially in terms of present and future developments. These two concerns are complementary, not contradictory, but they do emphasize different sets of research questions. For our purposes, these two concerns provide a useful basis for discussing key aspects of voting behavior.

Sources of Individual Voting Behavior

On what basis do voters decide how they will cast their ballot? Several basic factors can be identified as reasons for choosing a candidate in an presidential election. A voter may choose a candidate on the basis of one or more of the following considerations:

When voters are asked what they like or dislike about a specific candidate--i.e., what might make them vote for or against that candidate--most of their responses fall into one of the above three categories.

These orientations and evaluations in turn are influenced by two more general attitudinal factors:

Party identification and ideology are more general, long-run factors that influence voting behavior primarily by affecting the attitudes that are more immediate to the vote decision in a particular year.

The various factors that influence the vote decision vary in their stability over time. Evaluations of candidate qualities and government performance are distinctly short-term forces, capable of substantial shifts from one election to the next. Party identification and ideology are much more stable in the short term. Not many voters change their party identification or ideology from one election to the next, and the changes that do occur often are fairly small ones. Issue orientations fall somewhere in between. While the specific issues crucial in presidential elections can change dramatically, as can how the voters evaluate the presidential candidates on the issues, many basic policy questions (e.g., defense spending, social welfare programs, abortion) stretch across several elections, with partisan differences remaining relatively constant.

The various attitudes and orientations that influence voting behavior in presidential elections are interrelated. Understanding the interrelationships among these factors is important for a full understanding of voting behavior.

Electoral Dynamics

Election results often change dramatically. A lopsided victory for one party may be followed by a landslide for the other party in the following election. Electoral changes can be divided into two types: short-term and long-term. Short-run changes are the result of fluctuations in factors that are specific to an election, such as the characteristics of the candidates or the condition of the economy. These short-term factors may be moderately favorable to the Democrats in one election, strongly favorable to the Republicans in another, and evenly divided in a third.

Long-term shifts result from alterations in basic loyalties and represent changes that last beyond a particular election. The most significant long-term change occurs when there is a critical realignment of the party system, which refers to a relatively rapid, fundamental, and durable alteration in the pattern of party loyalties held by the electorate (Burnham 1970, 1-10; Sundquist 1983, 1-14). Critical realignments occur infrequently; the last major upheaval of the party system occurred in the 1930s, and before that in the 1890s and 1850s. Of course, in any time period there is some change in party loyalties, but only rarely is it substantial enough to qualify as a critical realignment.

The New Deal realignment of the 1930s reshaped the American political party system. Some of the current differences between the parties can be traced back to this realignment. However, there have been important developments since the 1930s that have altered the nature of the party system. The more recent developments have not been as sweeping in their scope nor as abrupt in their effect as what occurred in the 1930s, but the cumulative impact of these developments has been substantial.


A number of attitudinal and social factors are related to individual voting behavior. Among attitudinal factors, assessments of the personal characteristics of the candidates, evaluations of government performance, orientations on specific policy issues, party identification, and ideology are the primary determinants of candidate choice. For social factors, race, religion, region, social class, gender, marital status, and age appear to be the characteristics that have most closely related to voting over the past several decades. Examining how these factors are related to the vote in particular elections both allows us to explain individual election outcomes and to understand electoral dynamics.

For Further Reading

Good introductory discussions of elections and voting can be found in the following books, both of which are written for an undergraduate student audience:

Alan Abramowitz. 2004. Voice of the People: Elections and Voting in the United States. New York: McGraw-Hill.

William Flanigan and Nancy Zingale, Political Behavior of the American Electorate, CQ Press, 2010.

A somewhat more advanced discussion can be found in:

Paul R. Abramson, John H. Aldrich, and David W. Rohde, Change and Continuity in the 2008 Elections, CQ Press, 2010.


Abramson, Paul R., John H. Aldrich, and David W. Rhode. 2007. Change and Continuity in the 2004 and 2006 Elections. Washington: CQ Press.

Alverez, R. Michael. 1998. Information and Elections. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Bartels, Larry M. 2002. "The Impact of Candidate Traits in American Presidential Elections." In Leaders' Personalities and the Outcomes of Democratic Elections, ed. Anthony King. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Black, Earl, and Merle Black. 2002. The Rise of Southern Republicans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Burnham, Walter Dean. 1970. Critical Elections and the Mainspring of American Politics. New York: W.W. Norton.

Campbell, Angus, Philip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes. 1960. The American Voter. New York: John Wiley.

Fiorina, Morris P. 1981. Retrospective Voting in American National Elections. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Green, Donald, Bradley Palmquist, and Eric Shickler. 2002. Partisan Hearts and Minds. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Hillygus, D. Sunshine, and Todd G. Shields. 2008. The Persuadable Voter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kiewiet, D. Roderick. 1983. Macroeconomics and Micropolitics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ladd, Everett Carll, Jr., and Charles D. Hadley. 1978. Transformations of the American Party System, 2nd ed. New York: Norton.

Layman, Geoffrey. 2001. The Great Divide: Religion and Cultural Conflict in American Party Politics. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lewis-Beck, Michael S., William G. Jacoby, Helmut Norpoth, and Herbert F. Weisberg. 2008. The American Voter Revisited. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Lublin, David. 2004. The Republican South. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Merrill, Samuel III, and Bernard Grofman. 1999. A Unified Theory of Voting. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, Warren E., and J. Merrill Shanks. 1996. The New American Voter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nie, Norman H., Sidney Verba, and John R. Petrocik. 1976. The Changing American Voter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nimmo, Dan, and Robert L. Savage. 1976. Candidates and Their Images. Pacific Palisades, CA: Goodyear.

Page, Benjamin I. 1978. Choices and Echoes in Presidential Elections. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Prysby, Charles. 2008. "Perceptions of Candidate Character Traits and the Presidential Vote in 2004." PS: Political Science and Politics 41(1): 115-122.

Saunders, Kyle L., and Alan I. Abramowitz. 2007. "The Rise of the Ideological Voter: The Changing Basis of Partisanship in the American Electorate." In The State of the Parties, 5th ed., ed. John C. Green and Daniel J. Coffey. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Seltzer, Richard A., Jody Newman, and Melissa Voorhees Leighton. 1997. Sex as a Political Variable. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Stonecash, Jeffrey M. 2000. Class and Party in American Politics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Stonecash, Jeffrey M., Mark D. Brewer, and Mack D. Mariani. 2003. Diverging Parties. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Sundquist, James L. 1983. The Dynamics of the Party System, rev. ed. Washington: The Brookings Institution.

Wald, Kenneth D. 1987. Religion and Politics in the United States. New York: St. Martin's Press.