Friday, November 2, 2007

Decisions, Decisions: Elections and the American Voter

By Angela Stanley, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

As this November brings another set of elections in the midst of a 2008 presidential race that jumped the gun many months too early, I find myself wondering how people are going to decide what candidates should get their votes. Perhaps it’s easier at the local level by voting for familiar names and faces or maybe by not even voting at all since midterm and non-presidential elections tend to see less of a turnout than presidential elections. Regarding the 2008 presidential election, however, there are so many issues and candidates that could excite or frustrate the average voter, depending on where one’s level of interest lies, that it will be fascinating to see what actually does happen next November 2008.

There is no shortage of candidates from either side of the aisle who are all jockeying for as much of our support, and the limelight, as they can get. Descriptively, there is a variety from which to choose and I’m sure many could make the case for there being substantive variation as well. For the first time ever there are viable female and minority candidates that have a real chance of successfully winning their campaigns. If the candidates alone don’t elicit warm, fuzzy feelings perhaps their take on the issues is what will be the deciding factor for individuals—and there is no shortage of those either. From Iraq, to health care, to the environment, to social justice, the political landscape is like our own personal Baskin-Robbins where the selections are bountiful and the samples are free.

Despite the novelty of this election, it’s hard not to worry that people won’t be burned out by this time next year. With candidates entering the race months before they ever had in previous years and states fighting for earlier caucus and primary dates, this is the longest presidential election season we’ve seen in a long time. If we factor in other things like incessant candidate bickering; frustration with the current Administration; Iraq; the economy; the ever changing sexist, racist, or homophobic misdeeds of the week; and anything else that may personally put a damper on one’s day it’s hard to tell whether election fatigue will settle in or if these will be motivating forces that will keep people engaged and ready to participate in the political process.

I know the studies say the average American voter doesn’t know a whole lot about politics and that if there is a turnout around 50% (or over 40% if we’re talking about midterm elections) then we’re doing pretty good, but I tend to be a little more optimistic about voters. I hope that people really aren’t apathetic, unconcerned, uncaring, or uninformed for no good reason. I tend to think people are smarter than what most scholars believe. I also think there are reasons behind the political behavior of most but academics, analysts, and strategists alike are so unconcerned with the individual that they often miss the most valuable pieces of information. My concern is that the superfluous process of political participation and politics in general will overshadow individual political will. If 2000 and 2004 are any indication, people want to be involved. We just have to hope that all of the distracting side games being played don’t divert our attention from what is really important.

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