Materials developed by-
K. D. Kennedy
Political Science Department
College Of San Mateo

Lesson Ten: Voting Patterns

ReadingTest Material DiscussionLinks

Reading Assignment:
O'Connor and Sabato, Chapter 13, (pages 459-508) and Chapter 15 (pages 547-580)

Final Exam Material

These are clues to the multiple choice questions on the final from this chapter:


The Demographics of American Elections

"Demographics" means the dividing up of American voters into census type categories to see if there are significant differences. And to no one's surprise there are. Most of the groups we study are simply "categoric" groups, i.e. categorizations of voters where the categories are not categories of choice. One does not choose one's race, age, gender, or education (in the sense that once you have graduated from college you can't "un-graduate" yourself. The is one common category that political scientist use that is not merely categoric, but involve a choice, that is political parties. It is no accident that political party is the most predictive category over a wide range of groups because it reflects the choice about political objectives that we share with the "parties". If we find ourselves out of place, we can change our party by simply re-registering to vote. The traditionally weak American political parties have almost no control over their members, cannot expel them, can barely control the nominating process (because of primaries) and in the information age do not control the flow of information going to the citizen. Nevertheless, political party will predict 75% of all voting all by itself (actually in recent years the figure is higher). Political party members are actually more consistent voters too. And finally, the stronger the political party affiliation the more likely a person is to have a greater amount of political information. An "independent" therefore, is less likely to vote or to be well informed about political issues. I remind you that the word used is "likely". We are talking statistics here and that means there will be some party members who are ill informed and some independents who are among the most well informed. But, statistically speaking the opposite is likely to be true.

One of the most interesting changes in recent years has been the development of the "gender gap". That phrase is used to indicate the difference betweem the way men and women vote. While there was always some difference in both direction (party) and turnout, the last five elections have shown a growing difference between men and women, particulary among younger men and women. Among all women (52% of the population) the Democratic party has enjoy a typical (though not constant) advantage of 5-8% in presidential elections. This would be devasting for the GOP (nickname of the Republican Party: stands for "Grand Old Party", ironically the younger of the two major parties) were it not for another aspect of the "gender gap". The GOP recognizes this problem, but it is a tough one to fix. Remember, we're not dealing with "dumb" people here, if something was easy to "fix" they would have done it long ago. Being more appealing to many (not all) women is not difficult to do, just change your party's stands on abortion and big government, but in doing so you would have given up what your party stands for and probably lost other powerful groups within your party.

But the Democrats have an equally bad if not worse problem, i.e., they haven't carried "white males" (about 40% of the voters) since Lyndon Johnson (1964) and currently lose that large group by 8-17% typically. Its not really difficult to see why. What does the Democratic pary offer to white men, affirmative action (not very helpful), take money from them (taxes) to give to someone else, the abortion issue, largely irrelevant to men except to completely exclude them from the decision process. I think you get my point. The Democratic Party would have to change "too much" and it would lose other groups to be very attractive to white males. My point in all of this is that both major parties appeal to certain "segments" of the population and are having difficulty making inroads into the other party's turf.

As you look at some of the categories the census uses to describe voting patterns , note the difference in voting turnout between "presidential" (1980,84,88,92,96,00) and "congressional" (or non-presidential) years (1982,86,90,84,98, 02). Ask yourself why this occurs and what is the effect on outcome. Coincidentally, this would make a good major paper topic for an advanced class.

One further thing to look at in our elections has to do with elections that immediately follow presidential elections, e.g. 2002 after the presidential 2000. Usually (almost always) the party that wins the White House will lose seats in the House of Representatives in the next election, there are only a couple of exceptions to this in the whole last century. The average loss of seats is about 20 (out of 435) with a variation of about 5 to 60 seats. Here is my prediction. The loss by the GOP in 2002 will be on the high side 20-40 seats (returning control back to the democrats) and could (less likely) be "historic" 40-60 seats. Remember, Democrats lost 58 seats in 1994. Two variables could intervene. One, the economy continues to do well. This will reduce the loss for the GOP though it is hard to see how they won't lose control of the House. The second variable is weird, namely more Clinton scandals (hard to imagine more) in which case all bets are off. Among political scientists it is becoming clear that as bad as some GOP members of congress acted (against the public opinion polls) and as weak as both candidates (Bush and Gore) were, the elections was Clinton's to win or lose. I believe the consensus will grow on this point. Clinton lost! When the Democrats can't carry West Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas, Florida isn't the issue. Watch for the results in 2002. What about the Senate? It will probably go back to the Democrats too, but for different reasons, namely the GOP has twice as many seats up for election. The Senate doesn't follow the "off year" rule because there a far fewer seats and the outcomes are more affected by individual contest factors.

Further Reading

A classic work on the way voters act over the long haul, it has the virtue of being relatively brief. Did you (if you are a Democrat) ever wonder why Reagan won so easily or (if you are a Republican) why Clinton was so popular? Try this:
Key, V. O., The Responsible Electorate, 1966, Harvard University Press

Check out the movie "Primary Colors". See if you can figure out who Kathy Bates is playing. (Clinton lovers and haters will like John Travolta as Clinton. Oh...and remember, its just a movie, not real history.)

For a movie critical of the press, see "Absence of Malice", with Sally Field, Paul Newman, and Wilford Brimley at their best.


This area contains links to sites that have material that applies to the subject. The text sites are included as the first links.

The text site
The text site
The Federal Elections Commission
CNN's all politics
Voter research
U.S. Census voting patterns
Presidential voting maps
U.S. political historic images
CNN's 2000 results by state
Electoral maps by year by state


K. Kennedy