As Elections Go, So Goes Democracy

As Elections Go, So Goes Democracy


Are Campaigns Leaving Votes on the Table?

An analysis of surveyed voters in two highly contested senatorial elections suggested that campaigns may be leaving some votes on the table.

University of Arkansas political scientist Janine Parry and colleagues investigated how potential voters are mobilized and who would respond positively — if only they were contacted. The survey asked voters how often they vote — were they habitual voters, who always vote, or “seldom” voters, who only pay attention to the presidential elections? Seldom voters tended to be people with lower incomes and lower educational levels

A strong voting history continues to be the most reliable indication that someone will vote in an upcoming election. The senatorial campaigns focused on voters who go to the polls every election and to a lesser extent on those who vote often. In addition to less exposure to blanketed communication, like radio and TV ads, seldom voters were less likely to receive targeted contact in the form of direct mail, personal contact or telephone calls.

Parry and her colleagues found that while the campaign contact mobilized voters, it wasn’t as important for the habitual voters.

“Ironically, while the seldom voters were the most likely to be mobilized by campaign communication, they were the least likely to be contacted,” Parry said.

Parry’s collaborators were Jay Barth, Hendrix College; Martha Kropf, University of North Carolina, Charlotte; and E. Terrence Jones, University of Missouri, St. Louis. Their research results were published in the March 2008 issue of Political Behavior.

Every four years on January 20, the president-elect stands in the noon-day sun in front of the U.S. Capitol and promises to “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States” and to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” That Constitution defines who can be president and how to elect the president, but offers only a brief job description for the nation’s chief executive. How does he — or she — know what issues or policies to pursue on January 21?

University of Arkansas political scientist Todd Shields offers an answer, and a caution, in his new book, The Persuadable Voter: Wedge Issues in Presidential Campaigns, written with D. Sunshine Hillygus of Harvard University and published by Princeton University Press. Taken together, their study and the work of other university researchers suggest that some changes in the way we conduct elections may have serious implications for democratic life.

“Elections are the primary mechanism by which citizens in a democracy express their wants and desires to their elected officials, and it is through political campaigns that this interaction is managed,” Hillygus and Shields wrote.

Politicians and the public engage in a reciprocal relationship, according to Shields and Hillygus. Information about the voters shapes campaign messages, and those messages, in turn, influence the decisions voters make. This reciprocal relationship is dictated by the information each has about the other. To understand the health of the relationship between officials and the public, it is important to understand how information is gathered and delivered during election campaigns, to whom and to what end.

In researching The Persuadable Voter, Shields and Hillygus examined campaigns and candidates, primarily in the 2000 and 2004 elections. They drew on research in political psychology, political communication, voting behavior and candidate positions and used diverse data sources and methodological approaches.

In addition to Shields, several university faculty members have explored various facets of the election process:

Robert Wicks, director of the Center for Communication and Media Research in the department of communication, studies the candidate’s half of the reciprocal relationship: he has examined the Web sites of presidential candidates.

Political scientist Janine Parry has conducted a uniquely detailed telephone survey of voters in two contentious senatorial races, research with lessons for those interested in broadening citizen engagement. (See “Are Campaigns Leaving Votes on the Table?”).

Andrew Dowdle, also in political science, focuses on the pre-nomination period in presidential elections, and even more specifically on the pre-primary period.

Money Primary

Using data from the past eight presidential elections, Dowdle has studied what factors early in the campaign process put a candidate into the best position to become a party nominee. His research indicates that a strong showing in the Gallup poll and substantial cash reserves are positive predictors of a candidate’s primary vote share.

From 1980 to 2000, the candidate who raised the most funds early on — before the start of the primary season — tended to win the nomination. The emphasis then was on the big donors. The Internet is changing this, as indicated by the importance of small contributions to the campaigns of Howard Dean and Barack Obama.

“I was pretty much of a skeptic about the effectiveness of the Internet,” Dowdle said. “In the past, the money from small contributions typically has been too little, too late. Now you could almost manage a campaign off of these small Internet-driven contributions. They are a major source of revenue.”

My Campaign

The Internet has facilitated other changes. Thanks to sophisticated technology, polling and complex databases, candidates from both parties know more than ever about individual voters and can target voters with pinpoint messages.

In a mode that could be called “My Campaign,” today’s candidates operate on the level of individualized issue messages. As Shields put it, “Tell me the issues that are important to you, and I’ll tell you what you want to hear.”

There is a big difference between the national speeches that presidential candidates give on television news and the individualized messages that voters receive via direct mail, text messages or e-mails.

“A candidate’s national campaigning is very vanilla,” Shields said. “At a level below the media radar is an extremely segmented campaign. Both parties have so much information on people in the battleground state of Missouri, for instance, that a volunteer knocking on a door knows how many people have already touched that voter and which message to emphasize today.”

Campaigns also use the Web to slip in attacks on the opposition, without sullying the candidate.

“The closer the contest is, the more negativity comes into play,” Wicks said. “People remember negativity.”

In the 2004 election, Wicks found that 80 percent of the postings on the Web sites of the major party candidates contained an attack against the opposition. Although the Web sites did pay some attention to policy issues, they tended to focus on personality characteristics. The attacks typically came through surrogates — in news clips or in statements by both outsiders and campaign operatives — allowing the candidate to stick to the high ground.

Our Democracy

The full impact of the changing information environment is not yet known. In the case of the 2004 election, likely voters in the battleground state of Michigan were divided into dozens of separate micro-targeted segments, including “tax and terrorism moderates” and “terrorism and health care Democrats.”

“Different segments of the population were each told that some issue they cared about was a top priority of President Bush,” Shields and Hillygus wrote. “This type of segmentation means that any interpretation of what the election was ‘about’ will be incomplete, because there was in reality a multiplicity of policy agendas presented to the public and a multiplicity of different agendas supported by voters.”

In fact, Shields said, the days of a truly national election are gone.

“The notion that the president takes office with a mandate from the public is a joke in today’s presidential election,” Shields said. “The public is not voting on the same issues. Thanks to targeted messages, the campaign experience that I have as a white male will be very different than my neighbor, an African American mom.”

In a national campaign, a candidate must communicate the same message to all the voters.

“When campaigns attempt to reach out to the full electorate, a candidate must harmonize and synthesize interests, incorporating them into a policy message that resonates with the general interest of the nation,” Shields and Hillygus wrote.

The news media, too, have become targeted to specific audiences, particularly on the Web, where people return to the same news sites and blogs throughout the day. Shields noted that blogs are usually narrowly focused, often belaboring an outrage-of-the-week, such as who is or isn’t wearing a flag pin or the threat from immigrants.

“If I’m managing a blog site, my goal is not to make sure you are the most informed reader or sophisticated citizen; my goal is to make sure you come back tomorrow,” Shields said.

Shields pointed out that an uninformed or misinformed citizenry is not what the framers of the Constitution had in mind. Jefferson famously said that if forced to choose between a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

“He meant that he wanted sophisticated citizens, an electorate who could hold the government accountable for its actions,” Shields said.

Factions or Citizens?

In The Federalist Papers, James Madison cautioned readers about the “evils of faction,” whereby groups of citizens elevate their personal interests over the interests of the country or community.


“Both Jefferson and Madison would likely be shocked to find that recent changes in presidential campaigns may serve to both encourage factional thinking and fail to educate citizens about the most pressing concerns of the day,” Shields said. “Micro-targeting voters in battleground states and ignoring voters in non-battle ground states bring us closer to the very outcomes that Jefferson and Madison feared.”

When campaigns cater to factions, Shields and Hillygus conclude, the electoral process cannot serve the democratic ideal.

“Who wins this November is important to me, but there’s a bigger picture. As a society, are we improving our citizenship, are we becoming more sophisticated, or are we becoming more narrow and ignorant of what is going on?” Shields asked. “While the world is becoming increasingly interdependent, we’re becoming increasingly isolated. That’s not where I want to see us go.”

About The Author

University Relations Science and Research Team

University Relations Science and Research Team

Matt McGowan
science and research writer

Robert Whitby
science and research writer

Looking for an expert?

The University of Arkansas Campus Experts website is a searchable database of experts who can talk to the media on current events.

Trending Topics:
State and local economy
Environmental economics
Immigration politics

More on University of Arkansas Research

Visit the office of Research & Innovation for a complete list research awards and more information on research policies, support and analytics.

Connect with Us