Friday, July 13, 2012

Inattentive Publics and Voting by Impression

Originally published in Red Racing Horses.

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"I had a lot of supporters who didn't agree with a single thing I said."

I had the opportunity to speak to Debra Medina a few days ago. Medina, a former Chair of the Wharton County GOP and a 2010 Republican candidate for Governor of Texas, is notable for coming out of nowhere in 2010 to win 19% in the primary against Texan political juggernauts Governor Rick Perry and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. Medina is a longtime supporter of Rep. Ron Paul. Paul supporters are not 19% of the Republican electorate in Texas- did she have a certain amount of broader support from Tea Party types? Her answer was intriguing.
I had someone say to me a couple weeks ago that I had a lot of supporters who didn't agree with a single thing I said. That when you know these people supporting you Debra, they don't know anything about what you stood for politically or they don't agree with you. They saw a personality that they like, they saw just an everday Jolene standing up and challenging the establishment politicians with some degree of intelligence and credibility. That was attractive to them, and they didn't bother with the minutiae of what that candidate believed.
Medina had a very specific platform focusing on a broad restructuring of the tax base, eliminating the state property tax and expanding the sales tax. However, her particular points were less important than the dynamics of the race in question. Perry and Hutchison were spending tens of millions to saturate the airwaves in negative ads, and a strong debate performance on statewide television left Medina looking like a solid conservative and a citizen candidate untouched by the mudslinging. Her platform was less important than how she came across to voters.

Consider the last two Illinois gubernatorial races. In 2006 the third party world was surprised when Carbondale attorney Rich Whitney won 10% of the vote. Did this mean the Green Party, with a very specific set of ideological goals, was on the rise in the state?

The state affiliate is one of the strongest Green parties in the country, but Whitney's showing does not tell the whole story. Buoyed by his strong showing in 2006, Whitney ran again in 2010, opening offices, working with down-ballot Green candidates and generally running an active campaign. Nevertheless, he won only 2.7% of the vote this time around.

How could a stronger campaign with an anti-incumbent mood fall so short? My theory is that Whitney's 10% in 2006 was more anti-major party than loyalty to the Green political agenda. To be sure, Whitney ran strong with liberals, winning 15% of them according to exit polling. However, he also won 11% of moderates and 8% of conservatives, a group which should have been opposed to him in theory.

However, their support makes more sense if construed as a protest vote bucking the major parties rather than support for the Green agenda. Thus, Whitney actually looked like he could win 10% again in 2010, especially after two summer PPP polls showed him floating around that number in the race. Yet PPP failed to include his other minor party opponents in the polls, independent (and former Democratic Lt. Gov. nominee) Scott Lee Cohen and Libertarian Lex Green. Those two candidates won 3.6% and 0.9% of the vote, respectively, adding up to 7.2% total for minor party candidates. In this race Whitney pulled 0% of the conservative vote but still retained 4% of liberals and 4% of moderates, which makes sense when an independent or Libertarian provided better choices for conservatives looking for a protest vote. Policy mattered to a certain extent; conservatives this time around did not vote for Whitney. But in 2006 they had no other option; ideology was less compelling than the need to lash out at the major parties. It was not Rich Whitney's compelling platform that won him voters; it was anger with Illinois politics.

Policy does motivate some people. Small numbers of voters (attentive publics in the language of political scientist R. Douglas Arnold) actually bother to learn about the system and issues and make educated choices. Go to a party convention and you are dealing with all attentive publics- all of these people were engaged enough to become active with a political party. In states like Minnesota, New York, Utah, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania  and others that provide a convention with the ability to endorse a candidate, party activists who are more motivated by issues have greater sway over nominees (and in effect who wins elections).

Nevertheless, most voters are part of the inattentive public: more impulsive in their voting behavior, preoccupied with pressing matters like work, relationships, and the like and less actively concerned with political activity. While these folks can be transformed into attentive publics at times, that process is unpredictable and hard to manufacture on the part of the politico. Nevertheless, it is possible: tactics like Mediscare from either party are designed to tap into this phenomenon, and ads work to 'frame' a narrative or set an issue high on a voter's list of priorities when they walk into the voting booth. Still, with so many races on the ballot, it is difficult as a voter to construct a detailed list of policies explaining why you voted the way you did; personality and presentation are as much of a frame as any given policy issue at the ballot box.

These inattentive publics tend to turn out more during presidential years (with more media coverage and general publicity than off-year elections), making firmer choices in high-profile races like President and relying on less information the further down the ballot you go. So they may split their ticket when they see a name they vaguely identify as a moderate, maverick or independent thinker. Or they may vote for someone like Whitney who they have never heard of to protest a major party. They may vote straight ticket because their parents always voted Republican or Democratic. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what motivates these voters. So it makes sense that voters are not relying upon a candidate's specific and nuanced position on restructuring the tax base. They don't have to agree on the policy; it's enough their candidate is an "intelligent and credible" lady not named Perry or Hutchison.

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