Orientations on Public Policy Issues

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 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 election campaigns.

The term issue sometimes is used generally to refer to anything that is a source of conflict or contention, but we use the term more narrowly. 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 or whether income from capital gains should be taxed at a lower rate. Often the policy issues are more general, dealing with broad approaches to problems, such as whether the federal government should enact stricter environmental regulations or whether it should drastically reduce spending.

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; Lewis-Beck et al. 2008, 161-185). However, 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). Moreover, candidates often target specific groups and issues in an attempt to win the votes of partisans from the other party who disagree with their party's candidate on an issue of concern to them (Hillygus and Shields 2008, 1-17). For example, Republicans in recent past elections targeted Catholic working-class voters, using the issues of abortion and stem cell research to win votes from a group that traditionally has been considered to be pro-Democratic.

The presidential candidates in 2012 disagreed on many issues, as the section on the 2012 election outlined, although the campaign did not always stress all of these differences. The same could be said about other recent elections. Voters are provided with a choice in presidential elections. The interesting question is the extent to which voters accurately perceive candidates' 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 are useful information for an analysis of the role of issues in the 2012 presidential election.

References on Voting Behavior