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Many political scientists of diverse schools now see a microeconomic cost-benefit calculus in the decision to vote. Voting, while easy, does cost time and may require some sacrifice of income or leisure. Sorting out the candidates and issues also takes time and energy; these are "information costs. A strictly rational view would predict zero turnout, since if each person precisely calculated his or her costs and benefits, no one would vote.

Of course, in crude form this insight borders on the tautological: if someone does not bother to vote, the cost must not be worth the benefit. But when married to an analysis of voter traits, the cost-benefit view can be illuminating, since certain traits help voters to pay the "costs of participation. In Who Votes? Wolfinger and Rosenstone refined a standard proposition, namely, that "haves" are more likely to vote than "have-nots.

The more their years of schooling, the more likely Americans are to vote.


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By contrast, past a certain threshold level, income has no impact on turnout. While occupational status has a more powerful effect, it is nowhere near as great as the effect of education. Education appears to be so powerful a predictor because it promotes civic-mindedness and better enables citizens to follow politics and navigate the complexity of voter registration. Plausible as these propositions were, they also posed a puzzle.

Because the population has become better educated, turnout should have risen since Also, outside the South the average presidential turnout from to was about fourteen percentage points higher than average presidential turnout from to , yet twentieth-century Americans are better educated.

This approach links turnout to changes in attitudes, such as depth of partisanship and sense of political efficacy. Teixeira proposes that recent turnout decline reflects a crisis in the "system of the s," when the relatively strong partisan identities created in the s and s still persisted. In those years, voters had a high sense of political efficacy and consequently were willing to pay the costs of participation.

Political parties in the United States, unlike most advanced industrial democracies, do not work hard to mobilize voters. Compared to Europeans, few Americans are formal party members. America is unique in the registration burdens it places on voters. Nonetheless, the relatively strong partisan identities left over from the New Deal and a correspondingly high sense of political efficacy compensated for these obstacles to participation and helped to produce the modern turnout peak that occurred in Since , though, voters have lost their previous sense of partisan identity and political efficacy.

The American population has become more mobile, more single, and on average younger, all voter traits that tend to lower turnout. But Americans have also become better educated and more prosperous, which should increase turnout. In , for instance, about half the voting age population had less than a high school education; by only 26 percent fit into that category, and the number with 16 or more years of education had nearly doubled. So changing demographic traits could not fully explain turnout decline; changing attitudes, according to Teixeira, were the key.

Teixeira reports that in only about 15 percent of the voting age population reported agreeing with two standard statements used in surveys: "People like me don't have any say about what the government does" and "I don't think public officials care much what people like me think.

The percentage reporting strong partisanship dropped from 36 to 26 percent. Teixeira proposes that these attitudinal changes resulted in large part from the turmoil of American politics since and, to a degree, from the rising influence of the broadcast media. John F.

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Increasingly, media campaign professionals took control of the interpretation of events, and while television became more important, the percentage of Americans who read newspapers declined. Watching TV does not appear to be a perfect substitute for reading. When people read less, they are more likely to find politics confusing.

The net result of all these changes was lower turnout. The strength of Teixeira's analysis is conceptual and methodological. He takes into account the demographic approach of Wolfinger and Rosenstone and the work of others, such as Abramson and Aldrich, who emphasize voter attitudes.

In this new synthesis, political disorientation resulting from turmoil and from a decline in campaign newspaper reading overwhelmed the "upgrading" effect of demographic changes, such as greater education. The idea that turnout decline since reflects the erosion of an earlier "system," the system of the s, is a coherent way to make sense out of the diverse demographic, electoral, and political facts of the last three decades.

But where did Teixeira's "system of the s" come from? Why did political parties evolve into organizations that did not work hard to mobilize voters? What were the origins of personal registration and other electoral practices that increase the "costs of participation"?


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  • Burnham and his school trace the collapse in turnout since to a long historical shift in electoral politics. By the mid-nineteenth century, the professional party politicians who began to revolutionize American politics in the s were producing an average presidential turnout of 74 percent, up from 25 percent at the beginning of the century, when the electorate was much more limited.

    That achievement was all the more remarkable in light of rapid population growth. Turnout in non-presidential elections was also very high, apparently averaging about 68 percent. Through torchlight parades, festivities, and marching companies, party professionals created a politics that made partisanship the crucial determinant of an adult's political identity During political campaigns they involved entire communities of men, women, and children in a continuous, public display of partisanship. The Civil War -- in part a war between the Democratic and Republican parties -- only deepened the hold of partisanship.

    In post-bellum decades partisan identity was so strong and deep in Northeastern and Midwestern states that political independence in an adult male was widely considered effeminate. A wildly partisan press reinforced such attitudes. As Kleppner argues, ethnicity and small-town and religious values also reinforced partisanship, since parties, at the state level, often consciously sought to appeal to different religious and ethnic groups by staging legislative quarrels over temperance, parochial education, and Sunday closing laws.

    Not surprisingly, presidential turnout reached record highs during these decades, between 78 and 82 percent, even as the voting age population expanded. While there was vote fraud, most analysts do not believe it was so widespread from to as to account fully for the difference between nineteenth- and twentieth-century presidential turnout. Indeed, since parties were competitive, they had strong incentives to monitor each other and to keep fraud to a minimum.

    By the s three key groups came to see this highly participatory political system as dangerous. Because American electoral democracy so effectively mobilized ordinary people, it had always potentially threatened concentrations of wealth. That potential threat became more palpable at the end of the nineteenth century as disaffected economic groups, such as the Knights of Labor and farmers' alliances, turned to electoral politics, culminating in the Populism of the s. To antiparty reformers and to Protestant, middle-class Americans, the ubiquity of patronage and the emphasis on spectacle and display also seemed a threat to rational government.

    They wanted to reduce the role of parties and rely more on disinterested, nonpartisan administration to cope with the strains of urban life, industrial disorder, and immigration. Finally, to conservative Southerners, a vigorous, unfettered party politics endangered the stability of the South's social hierarchies. From to both white and black presidential turnout in the South was at least as high as it is now and probably higher, despite violence and other efforts to restrict turnout.

    The Populist strategy of building a class-based, cross-racial coalition of poor farmers threatened conservative Democrats and their economic allies. Through gradual changes on a number of fronts, the groups that were dissatisfied with high participation prevailed. In the pivotal election, the Democrats embraced some of the Populist rhetoric but lost the White House for nearly two decades. The ensuing realignment left the Democrats strong inside the South, but Republicans strong in every other region, and as a result created enough regional one-party dominance to reduce popular interest in politics, particularly state and local elections.

    The reduced stimulus of less party competition weakened the hold of what Kleppner calls "party norms" on the electorate. Turnout dropped. The elections of also set the stage for attacks on earlier electoral traditions. The sway of the two parties in their different regions made it easier to change the rules of electoral politics. In the South, after the collapse of Populism, Bourbon Democrats were free to revive white supremacist violence and to push blacks out of politics. But the new rules they imposed, including poll taxes and literacy tests, excluded poor whites as well.

    Outside the South, new rules also made participation more costly. Legislatures established personal registration during workdays. At that time workers had neither an eight-hour day nor an hour off for lunch. Between and the percentage of counties outside the South with personal registration jumped 72 percent, according to Kleppner.

    Nor did legislatures require registration opportunities to be fairly distributed by neighborhood. As Piven and Cloward stress, personal registration depressed worker presence in politics, so that rational politicians increasingly directed their appeals to middle-class concerns. In turn, the absence of populist or collectivist appeals continued to discourage worker involvement in politics until the New Deal. These new provisions for referenda, recalls, party primaries, and nonpartisan elections changed the previous partisan simplicity of politics.

    When members of Congress in the s voted to greatly enlarge their personal staff, they argued that the additional personnel were needed to offset the executive branch's domination of policy information. However, an estimated 50 percent and more of congressional staff resources are devoted to public relations, constituency service, and other activities that serve primarily to keep House members in office.

    Competition is the lifeblood of a democratic election, and when it dries up participation suffers. In many of the House districts in , there was no campaign to speak of, and the news media provided little or no coverage. Voters in these districts were deprived of an opportunity to learn of the issues and the candidates and, on Election Day, to cast a meaningful vote.

    Analysts offer varying estimates of the effect of uncompetitive House races on turnout, but a percent decrease is a reasonable figure.

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    Seated senators and governors find it harder to use their office in a way that ensures reelection, and these positions often attract challengers who are well heeled or well known. Close competition for these offices in a dozen states supplied excitement and interest to the election. The turnout average in these states was higher than it was in Yet competitive races have become an anomaly The trend in House races is matched by what has been taking place in state legislatures.

    As these bodies have become more professionalized with larger staffs and salaries, their members have been able to use the advantages of being in office to stay in office and to turn politics into a lifelong career. In , there were--continuing a trend--a record number of uncontested state legislative seats. Many voters are also effectively disenfranchised by the way in which presidential primaries are structured.

    Front loading of the nominating schedule--the placement of a large number of state contests near the front end of the process--has led presidential hopefuls to raise and spend tens of millions on these early contests in an effort to secure nomination with a decisive victory on Super Tuesday One effect is to make money the king of the nominating process. Not since John Connally in has the candidate who raised the most money before the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire lost a nominating race. Bush and Gore's Super Tuesday victories in completely devalued the yet-to-be-held presidential primaries and caucuses in other states.

    Turnout in those states was a third lower than that in the early-contest states and would have been next to nothing if nominations for other offices were not being contes ted. Our Vanishing Voter surveys revealed that residents of the late-scheduled states were also much less likely to talk about the campaign and to follow news about it.

    They were also less informed about the candidates and issues. In the s, when the nominating schedule unfolded a state at a time until the final month or so, the races lasted longer, money was less influential, and residents of nearly all states had a chance to cast a meaningful vote. Turnout nationally was twice the level that it is now. In the presidential general election, Americans' opportunity to be part of the action is determined by the Electoral College.

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    Although this feature of our constitutional system has always distorted the process to some extent, the fact that today's campaigns are based on money rather than volunteers has exaggerated the effect. Unlike volunteers, who work within the communities where they live, money can be targeted and withheld at will. During the general election campaign, there were no ad buys and no candidate visits in Kansas, a lopsidedly Republican state.

    In neighboring Missouri, which was a battleground state, there were eighteen candidate visits and millions of dollars were spent on televised political advertising. In , residents of battleground states had a voting rate that was 3 percentage points higher than that of residents of other states.

    In fact, although the overall voting rate in was somewhat higher than it had been in , turnout actually fell in nine states, all of which were safely in the Bush or Gore column. Residents of these and the other noncompetitive states also talked less about the campaign and paid less attention to election news than did the residents of battleground states.

    The issue of whether voters have a choice includes the clarity and significance of that choice. Here, too, the situation is less favorable than it once was. There was a long period in American history when elections were waged on economic issues powerful enough to define the two major parties and divide the public. These issues stemmed from Americans' deepest hopes and fears and had the power to cement their loyalty to a party and draw them to the polls.

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    That era ended with the triumph of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, which along with Lyndon Johnson's Great Society put in place government programs that greatly reduced the sources of economic resentment and insecurity that had fueled party conflict. A safety net for the economically vulnerable was in place, as were policy mechanisms for stabilizing the economy. An electoral majority that could be easily rallied by calls for economic redistribution no longer existed. As the impact of economic issues on voting behavior weakened, a large set of less comprehensive issues emerged. Civil rights, street crime, school prayer, and welfare dependency were among the earliest of these issues, which were followed by abortion, the environment, education, global trade, and others.

    All were important, but they intersected with each other in confounding ways. None had the reach or the endurance of the economic issues. As a result, the issues of one election were usually different from the issues that had dominated the previous election or would be at the forefront in the next one.

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    How could the political parties create cohesive and enduring coalitions out of this mix of issues? The short answer is that they could not do so. The issues were too crosscutting and too numerous for either party to combine them in a way that could easily satisfy a following. By the s, self-described independents accounted for a third of the electorate. People also found it increasingly difficult to think and talk about the parties.

    Americans were better educated than they had been in the s, but they had a harder time saying what the parties represented. In the s, fewer than one in ten had nothing to say when asked in polls what they liked and disliked about the parties. By the s, three in ten had nothing to say. Since then, political parties have not recovered their prominence. The two major parties are now relatively weak objects of loyalty and thought, and the decline in party loyalty and identification has diminished Americans' concern with election politics.

    Like any other emotional attachment, party loyalty heightens interest and commitment. For its part, party awareness reflects people's ability to recognize what is at stake in election politics and the options available to them. Americans who today have a party loyalty and awareness of the parties have a voting rate more than twice that of those who call themselves independent and who cannot find words with which to describe the parties.

    This was true also in the s; the difference today is that the percentage of citizens in the high-voting group is much smaller and the percentage in the low-voting group is much larger than in the s. The change in party politics helps to explain why, disproportionately, the decline in participation has been concentrated among Americans of low income. Although a class bias in turnout has been a persistent feature of U.

    The voting rate among those at the bottom of the income ladder is only half that of those at the top. During the era when the electorate was divided by basic economic issues, working-class Americans were at the center of political debate and party conflict. They now occupy the periphery of a political world in which money and middleclass concerns are ascendant.

    In , low-income respondents were roughly 30 percent more likely than those in the middle or top income groups to say the election's outcome would have little or no impact on their lives. The change in party politics also helps to explain why candidates now have trouble crafting a message that voters find compelling. Candidates have never had so many communication weapons at their disposal, yet they have never found it so hard to frame their message.

    As Franklin Roosevelt's voice crackled into living rooms through the vacuum-tube radio, his pledge to "the forgotten man" had a persuasive power that today's media consultants would envy. Listeners didn't have to be told what FDR had in mind or to whom he was speaking. Campaign messages today are strikingly different in the range of issues they address, the contradictions they contain, the speed with which they turn over, and the small percentage of voters with whom they resonate.

    After their defeat in the midterm election, Democratic leaders were roundly criticized for failing to put out a message that captivated voters.

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    However, Democratic politicians are neither stupid nor apolitical. If a simple and compelling message were readily availab le, they would have seized it. Such messages are today quite rare. If Republicans could not rely on their perennial "let's cut taxes" pitch--which is now closer to a fight song than a true governing philosophy--they would face the same problem. A century ago, James Bryce worried that the growing complexity of American society threatened the parties' ability to forge and mobilize a cohesive majority Social complexity is now orders of magnitude greater and has clearly overtaken the parties.

    The consequences include a lower rate of electoral participation. Uplifting Campaigns, Anyone? Beginning in the late s and early s, control of an election campaign began to shift from the political parties to the candidates, largely because of television and refinement in techniques of mass persuasion. Americans were initially thrilled by the chance for a close-up look at the candidates and their campaigns. Theodore H. White's The Making of the President, , topped the best-seller list. However, Americans have come to dislike nearly everything about the modern campaign.

    The new style has brought out aspects of politics that were once largely out of sight. Ambition, manipulation, and deception have become as prominent as issues of policy and leadership. But politicking, like sausage making, is best viewed from a distance. More specifically, why do some people turn out to vote while others do not?

    And, once voters are at the polls, what CQ Press Your definitive resource for politics, policy and people.

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