Public Opinion, Voting, and Elections Public opinion lies beneath all voting patterns. That opinion rests upon family and community attitudes, together with mass media exposure, personal experience and religious ethnic background. In measuring public opinion we talk about such factors as intensity, latency, and salience. Our ability to measure public opinion (polling) has grown over the past forty years to be a highly sophisticated, accurate science. To an amazing degree, pollsters can now tell us what the American people think and feel before any election or at any specific point between elections. But, as all Americans know, no election is the final word. Not only do we argue over the true meaning of any specific election, we also believe that existing public opinion and voting patterns are subject to shifts in the public mood. No public opinion is set in concrete. No vote is the final answer, forever locked in place.
The ballot box lies at the very heart of the democratic political process. It is here that public opinion, interest groups, political parties, and movement culminate in decision making. But voting itself remains something of a mystery, although we now know more about it, thanks to recent research. Why do a thin majority of Americans cast ballots on election day? Why do nearly half of potential voters stay home? How do voters reach their political decisions? What, if any, long range patterns of voting will occur in the new century?
Elections are a crucial part of democracy. Over half a million persons hold state and local elected offices in addition to federal positions. Members of Congress are elected directly by voters, first in primaries and then in general elections. Incumbents in the House of Representatives are overwhelmingly assured of reelection regardless of their party (In 2002, 98% of incumbents running in the general election were victorious). There are generally fewer “safe” Senate seats, although incumbents retain an advantage in the upper house as well.
All congressional races are financed by the candidates. Currently much of this funding comes from PACs, which may leave the congressional recipients indebted to these contributors.
In the 1996/2000 presidential elections and 1998/2002 midterm elections, campaign finance was an important issue. Both parties spent considerable amounts of soft money. Passage of campaign finance reform legislation in 2002 was intended to ban soft money at the federal level and generally eliminate the undue influence of special interests on the electoral process (2002 was the last election that allowed federal "soft money."). Finally, the 2002 election was especially historic, given the fact that a strong GOP effort helped the party to a net gain of 2 Senate seats and 6 seats in the House. Usually, a president's party loses seats in midterm elections.
f. How did the Republican STOMP program mobilize voters in 2002?
g. What is meant by political socialization?
h. How influential is your family in shaping your political attitudes?
i. What institution ranks next to the family?
j. What happens if a young person has a conflict between parents and friends?
k. Why is the mass media (especially TV) important?
l. Why are religion and ethnic background important?
m. Why do adults sometimes shift their childhood attitudes?
n. Name an issue about which there is general consensus.
o. How do the attentive public and part-time citizens differ?
2. Participation: Translating Opinions into Action
a. How can a citizen participate in government other than voting?
b. Why is politics mostly a private activity for most Americans?
c. In which election is voter turnout the greatest and the lowest?
d. How can voting laws affect voting rates?
e. How have eligibility standards for voting been expanded by legislation and constitutional amendments?
f. Why and how is registration important to political participation?
g. How does one explain the surge in 2000 voting by African Americans?
3. Voting Choices
a. How does partisanship identification differ from party registration?
b. Who are the independents? How do they differ from partisans?
c. What are the positive aspects of candidate appeal? Give examples of candidates with positive appeal, negative appeal. Use the Gore-Bush 2000 race.
d. How important are issues in determining how a person votes?
e. How does the U.S. compare to other countries in the categories of registration and voting?
4. Elections: The Rules of the Game
a. Who determines the rules for U.S. elections?
b. When are elections held in the United States?
c. Explain: fixed term; staggered term and term limitation.
d. What effect does the winner take all rule have on our elections?
e. What is the Electoral College? How important is it?
5. Running for Congress
a. Why do campaigns for Congress vary so widely?
b. What are some similarities between campaigns for the House and the Senate?
c. How is the election process distorted today?
d. How does an emphasis on personality and negative campaigning detract from the true issues?
What is the recent success rate of Representatives who run for reelection?
Why do critics say we are electing “representatives for life”?
f. Why must most Representatives build a personal rather than a party organization.
g. What advantages do incumbents have in running for reelection?
h. Does a big budget assure election to the House?
i. Why are Senate races more difficult to win?
j. Why are Senate races of the future less apt to favor incumbents?
k. Does negative campaigning seem to be effective?
l. What strategies did the GOP follow in the 2002 election?
3. Running for the President
a. How are most delegates to the national convention selected?
b. Why do Iowa and New Hampshire loom so large in the delegate selection
c. How have recent conventions been decided in advance?
d. Of what value is the party platform?
e. How is the candidate for vice president selected?
f. Why do parties continue to have conventions?
g. How do you run for president of the United States without political party
h. What factors are considered by candidates in planning their fall campaigns?
i. How do campaigns resemble marathons?
j. What is the impact of Presidential Debates?
4. Money in U.S. Elections/2002 Campaign Finance Reform Legislation
a. Cite the major scandals involving campaign money.
b. Why do the costs of campaigns continue to rise?
c. Why is PAC money so controversial?
d. How do we now finance presidential campaigns?
e Why was so much soft money spent in the 2002 election?
f. What is issue advocacy advertising? Why were these ads popular in 2002,
especially among senior groups? How did the 2002 reforms constrain the ads?
g. Why have restrictions on campaign spending not been extended to Congressional races?
h. What were some criticisms of the FECA?
i. What was accomplished by federal finance reform legislation?
j. Why is bipartisan campaign finance reform so difficult to achieve?
5. Improving Elections
a. What advantages are claimed for the party primary system?
b. What are the alleged disadvantages?
c. Why might a national primary be better?
d. Might national caucuses be better?
e. Should direct election of the president be substituted for the electoral college?
f. Is reform of the electoral college likely?
g. How can the voting process be reformed? What is "e-voting"?
Part II — Glossary PARTY IDENTIFICATION - An informal and subjective affiliation with a political party that most people acquire in childhood.
PUBLIC OPINION - A cluster of views and attitudes held by a public on a significant issue. Since any complex society has many groups, it is more precise to talk about publics, sub-publics, and public opinions than about a single public opinion.
ATTENTIVE PUBLIC - The informed and knowledgeable segment of the population.
POLITICAL SOCIALIZATION - Process by which we develop our political attitudes and values.
AUSTRALIAN BALLOT - A secret ballot printed by the state.
TURNOUT - The proportion of the voting-age public that votes.
VOTER REGISTRATION - A system designed to reduce voter fraud by limiting voting to those who have established eligibility by submitting the proper form.
CANDIDATE APPEAL- How voters feel about a candidate's background, personality,
Leadership ability, and other personal qualities.
WINNER-TAKE-ALL - An election system in which the candidate with the most votes wins.
SINGLE-MEMBER DISTRICT - An electoral district in which voters choose one official.
PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION - An election system in which each party receives the proportion of legislative seats corresponding to its proportion of the vote.
CAUCUS - A meeting of party members.
INTERESTED MONEY - Contributions by individuals or groups in hopes of influencing the outcome of an election and subsequently influencing policy.
SOFT MONEY - Money contributed to a state or local party for party-building purposes that does not have to be disclosed under federal law.
ISSUE ADVERTISING - Commercial advertising on radio and TV advocating a particular position on an issue, paid for by interest groups and designed to influence voter’s choices.
INDEPENDENT EXPENDITURES - Money spent by individuals or groups not associated with candidates to elect or defeat candidates for office.
ELECTORAL COLLEGE - A group of presidential electors from each state chosen by the people to elect a President and Vice President. Each state is allotted as many electors as it has senators and representatives in Congress.
NATIONAL PARTY CONVENTION – A national meeting of delegates elected in primaries, caucuses, or state conventions who assemble once every four years to nominate candidates for president and vice president, ratify the party platform, elect officers, and adopt rules.
Part III — Pretest 1. Public opinion is best thought of as
a. the will of the people.
b. a diversity of opinion within a particular population.
c. media reflection of public attitudes.
d. voter attitudes.
2. An institutional barrier that blocks people from voting is
a. distant voting booths. c. unattractive candidates.
b. registration. d. lack of party competition.
3. The most homogeneous of all groups in molding political opinion is
a. school. c. church membership.
b. work. d. family.
4. Which of the following was most apt to vote Democratic in recent elections?
a. Jews c. White Protestants
b. Blacks d. Catholics
5. The major force in the early socialization of children is
a. television. c. school.
b. family. d. playmates.
6. The most influential factor in forming the attitudes of children is
a. intelligence. c. class and race.
b. psychological and genetic traits. d. family and school.
7. Which group tends to be more liberal on both economic/non-economic issues?
a. Catholic c. atheist
b. Jewish d. Protestant
8. In 2002, both parties were launching major efforts to register/mobilize
voters for 2004 from which rapidly-growing ethnic or racial group?
a. Asian Americans c. Hispanics
b. African Americans d. Arab-Americans
9. The most important factor in winning a congressional race is
a. personal contact. c. press coverage.
b. TV time. d. money.
10. Recent presidential conventions have been noteworthy because
a. the winner was known in advance.
b. major rivals made a down to the wire finish.
c. excitement ran high.
d. philosophical differences were deep.
11. The political strength of congressional incumbents has made modern elections
a. highly competitive. c. uncompetitive.
b. political party contests. d. strictly rational contests.
12. The campaign reform law of 1974 was chiefly concerned with
a. campaign finance. c. nomination procedures.
b. media coverage. d. delegate selection.
13. To attain the presidency, a candidate must achieve two goals. These are
a. have the largest number of delegates prior to coming to the national convention, and then obtain a majority of the popular vote.
b. be nominated at the party convention, and obtain a majority of the electoral votes.
c. be nominated at the party convention, and obtain both a majority of the popular vote and the electoral vote.
d. be nominated at the party convention, and win a majority of the popular vote.
14. A recent movement for change in the electoral system has pushed for
a. fixed terms. c. term limitations.
b. staggered terms. d. uniform terms.
15. In the event that no presidential candidate receives a majority of the electoral vote, the president is chosen by
b. financial support. d. all of the above
16. A “permanent Congress” is a result of
a. advantages held by incumbents. c. redistricting.
b. direct mail. d. direct primaries.
Part VI — Political Dialogue:
The Clash of Issues and Ideas
1. “The Democratic Party is no longer the majority party in presidential elections but then neither is the Republican Party.” Discuss.
2. Suppose we were to enact a law on compulsory voting and fined every voter $25 if he failed to cast a ballot. Would such a system strengthen or weaken democracy? Who does not vote at the present time? Are there any ways of expanding the percentage of voters without using penalties? Is there a case for nonvoting? Should we expand the electorate to the point where over 90 percent of all eligible voters vote on election day?
3. In the 1980 Presidential election, all TV networks announced the winner before polling places had closed on the West Coast. Allegedly, some potential West Coast voters reacted to this news by staying home, thereby causing the defeat of many Democratic candidates. Should TV networks be prohibited from making such announcements in future elections? If a ban is imposed, is freedom of speech being restricted? In addition, discuss the impact of the networks in the 2000 presidential election, especially their early call of Florida for Gore, then subsequently for Bush, then claiming the state was “too close to call.”
4. Present several controversial issues raised in this chapter in a debate format:
a. Resolved: Public opinion polls should be eliminated or at least restrained because they tend to abort discussion on public issues and public candidates and because they tend to induce in public officials an attitude of fellowship rather than leadership.
b. Resolved: That government should establish a national public opinion research center which will survey the public on all significant issues relating to national policy.
5. As an innocent bystander you become involved in a discussion centered around the topic, “better brains for better politics.” A speaker in the group complains that the average person votes his prejudices, his private interests, his ignorance. “Look at the absurdity of the present situation,” he says, “You spend four years in college and your vote is not worth any more than that of the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.” To correct this, the speaker proposes a system of weighted voting which would reward the diligent and the informed citizen. His plan calls for a program of multi voting in which:
a. Every qualified citizen would have one vote.
b. Every qualified citizen would receive an additional vote for higher education; one vote for each of the following degrees: associate of arts (junior college); bachelor's degree; master's degree; doctor's degree.
c. Every qualified citizen would receive an additional vote for distinguished citations—starred scientist; Pulitzer prize winner; Nobel prize winner; Who's Who listing, etc.
d. Every qualified citizen would receive an additional vote for each creative achievement such as writing a significant book or making an important invention. A national board would determine whether the achievement could be classified as “creative.”
How would you respond to the speaker's proposal?
What fallacies or errors do you see in his assumptions?
6. Evaluate each of the following proposals as to their impact on the presidential election process:
a. Restrict state primaries to a time framework (5-10 months) before the
b. A single national primary four months before the final election.
c. A mini convention 2 months before the November election dedicated only to writing party platforms.
d. A general election in November with the winner being determined by the national popular vote.
e. A general election in November with a winner in each Congressional district receiving one vote (plus two votes for carrying the state).
7. Describe the strategies you would use to win a congressional seat.
8. Debate whether the debates staged between presidential contenders have been useful to voters.
9. Explain why Congress has refused to provide federal financing for congressional elections.
10. Analyze criticisms of the electoral college system and the alleged advantages and disadvantages of various reform proposals.
11. When is an issue ad an election ad?
12. Review the methods of campaign financing in Britain and Canada.
Part VII — Political Science Today 1. As the chapter suggests, the role of the family is quite important to the overall political socialization process. Try to think about your own childhood and the kind of political environment to which you were exposed. Did your parents talk about politics often around the dinner table or on numerous family occasions? Or were political events and personalities hardly mentioned? Did your parents disagree about politics? Were they members of different political parties? Do you currently identify with the party of your parents (assuming they both belonged to one party)? Finally, what specific political values and/or assumptions do you think were learned from your family? It might prove interesting to talk with other classmates about their early political socialization experiences.
2. Do you consider yourself a political liberal or conservative? Assuming that you are in your first or second year of college, do you think your political views will change by the time you graduate? Why/why not? Talk with seniors at your college to determine whether their political views have changed during their college experience. Why/why not? Note your findings in a one-page summary.
3. As a corollary to item 3, do you think citizens should be fined for refusing to vote on election day? Would fines increase participation across the nation or would they be counterproductive? (See the chapter table on “Registration and Voting in the World’s Democracies”.) Is the choice to not vote a form of voting? Again, debate the question.
4. Toward which political issues of the day do you feel the public would have high levels of salience and intensity? If you contrasted your age bracket with the age category of your parents or even grandparents, how would the list of issues change (or would they)? As an experiment, compile a list relevant to you and your classmates, then ask your parents and/or grandparents which issues would be viewed as important by them. You may find that age differences are frequently linked to different sets of opinions or even what issues are worth thinking about.
5. Admittedly, money plays an important role in modern political campaigning. But does the campaigner who always spends the most money necessarily win? Try to find examples of campaigns from recent political history, preferably at the congressional or senatorial level, where the candidate who was actually outspent emerged victorious anyway. In those races where this phenomena occurred, analyze why money, by itself, was not enough to insure victory.
6. Note that with the current structure and operation of the Electoral College, it would be possible for a presidential candidate to receive a majority of the national popular vote but not a majority of the electoral vote. Consequently, should the Electoral College be changed or even abolished in order to prevent this outcome? Why not merely abolish the Electoral College and simply elect the man or woman who receives the most popular votes—period? A provision could be inserted that no candidate could be elected (assume a third party candidate was running) unless he or she received at least forty percent of the popular vote. If this did not happen, then there would be a national runoff between the top two vote getters.
Would you favor or oppose this plan? Try to cite your reasons for your viewpoint. Reviewing appropriate text sections will help you.
7. What political, economic, and social factors influenced the outcome of the 2002 election? Find one or two articles written in November of 2002 that attempted to explain the GOP gains in Congress. Similarly, what factors influenced the 2000 presidential election? Research newspaper or magazine articles published in November/December of 2000.
Part VIII — Data Analysis 1. The motor voter bill enacted in 1993 was designed to encourage voter registration. However, registration does not automatically translate into participation. Turnout has not increased due to the law. Check national news sources for data and commentary about the November 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2002 election voter turnouts. Was the impact of the motor voter bill discussed? If so, what observations were presented?
Review previous Gallup polls. In which presidential elections between 1944-2000 were the pollsters most or least accurate in predicting the presidential winner? What campaign and voting factors do you think caused the greatest accuracy problems for polling organizations?
3. Review the disputed results of the 2000 presidential election, especially in Florida.
4. Utilize national publications which reported on voting data for the 2000 Presidential election. Based on the information, what types of observations were made in post-election commentaries? Do the same for the 2002 election.
5. Review the data from Figure 9-1, “Seats Lost by the President's Party in National Midterm Elections for the House/Senate, 1938-2002.” How many seats did the Democratic Party lose in the 1994 but gain in the 1998 Congressional election? What factors were responsible? Similarly, what were the seat gains for the GOP in 2002?