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 2012 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, 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 — such as 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 small ones. Issue orientations fall 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 attitudes and orientations is important for a full understanding of voting behavior.

The attitudes and orientations that affect voting behavior are related to a number of social and demographic characteristics. Thus, social groups differ in their voting patterns. Some of these differences have existed for decades, but others represent more recent developments. The most important social and demographic factors in recent elections have been:

  • Race and ethnicity. Minority groups, especially Blacks, are more Democratic in their voting than are Whites.

  • Social class or socio-economic status. Those who are better off in income or socio-economic status are more Republican than are those who are worse off.

  • Religion. Those who are more religious are more Republican than those who are less religious. In the past, White Catholics and Protestants differed considerably in their voting, but that distinction has declined in significance.

  • Region. Voters in the South, Great Plains, and Rocky Mountains regions are more Republican, while those in the Northeast and on the Pacific Coast are more Democratic.

  • Gender. Women are more Democratic than are men.

  • Marital status. Married individuals are more Republican than are single individuals.

  • Age. Younger voters are more Democratic than are older voters.

Electoral Dynamics

Election results often change dramatically. A lopsided victory for one party may be followed by a landslide for the other party. Electoral changes can be divided into two types: short-term and long-term.

Short-term 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 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. Changes in the party system since the end of World War II have not been as rapid and dramatic as what occurred during these earlier critical realignments, but the American political party system has been significantly reshaped over the past several decades.

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 in the party system 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, socio-economic status, gender, marital status, and age are 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 allows us to explain individual election outcomes and to understand electoral dynamics.

Suggested Readings

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 H. Flanigan and Nancy H. Zingale. 2012. Political Behavior of the American Electorate, 12th ed. Washington: CQ Press.

A more advanced discussion can be found in:

  • Abramson, Paul R., John H. Aldrich, and David W. Rhode. 2012. Change and Continuity in the 2008 and 2010 Elections. Washington: CQ Press.

References on Voting Behavior