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From Confusion to Confusion: Issues and the American Voter (1956–1972)*

  • Michael Margolis (a1)


The authors of the American Voter concluded that the distribution of opinions on current issues was not very important for explaining the vote of the large bulk of the American electorate. Recent studies purporting to demonstrate the increasing prevalence of issue voting in the 1960s and early 1970s fail to present evidence to satisfy the criteria for issue voting upon which the conclusions of the American Voter were based. Worse yet, the evidence of these newer studies fails to satisfy even the studies' own alternative criteria for issue voting. The apparent “increases” in issue voting prove to be largely artifacts of the measures employed or misinterpretations of the evidence adduced. When it comes to translating his issue preferences into voting choices, the average voter remains as confused as ever



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My thanks to Paul A. Beck, Raymond Corrado, Charles O. Jones, David Nexon, Richard Niemi, Raymond Owen, Bert Rockman and two anonymous reviewers for comments on this paper. Special thanks to Raymond Hinnebusch for help with the data processing. The data were made available through the Inter-University Consortium for Political Research.



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1 Campbell, Angus, Converse, Philip, Miller, Warren, and Stokes, Donald, The American Voter (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1960) pp. 170174.

2 ibid., p. 182.

3 Ibid., pp. 183–87.

4 Ibid., pp. 173, 178–79.

5 Ibid. However, see Searing, Donald O., Schwartz, Joel and Lind, Alden E., “The Structuring Principle: Political Socialization and Belief System”, American Political Science Review, 67 (June, 1973), 415–32, for evidence that party identification did not serve very well to structure opinions of voters on issues in the 1968 election. In fact, Searing et al. did not find any set of political orientations that explained more than 15 per cent of the variance in voters' opinions on issues. (See Tables 5 and 6, p. 429.)

6 Pomper, Gerald M., “From Confusion to Clarity: Issues and American Voters, 1956–68,” American Political Science Review, 66 (June, 1972), 415–28.

7 Cf. Burnham, Walter Dean, Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 1970), chapters 4–7; Burnham, Walter Dean, “Theory and Voting Research: Some Reflections on Converse's ‘Change in the American Electorate,’American Political Science Review, 68 (September, 1974), 10021023; Miller, Arthur and Miller, Warren, Time Series on Selected Variables, mimeo (Ann Arbor: Center for Political Studies, March 1974) Tables 1-4; Weisberg, Herbert F. and Rusk, Jerrold G., “Dimensions of Candidate Evaluation,” American Political Science Review, 64 (December, 1970), 1167–85; Beck, Paul A., “A Socialization Theory of Partisan Realignment,” in The Politics of Future Citizens: New Dimensions in Socialization, ed. Niemi, Richard (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1974); Nie, Norman H., Verba, Sidney, and Petrocik, John R., The Changing American Voter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976), chapters 4, 10.

8 Key, V. O. Jr., The Responsible Electorate (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University [Belknap] Press, 1966).

9 See Campbell, Angus, “The Responsible Electorate” (review), American Political Science Review, 60 (December, 1966), 1007–08, for an example of a careful, gentle critique.

10 Key, V. O., “Public Opinion and the Decay of Democracy,” in Political Opinion and Electoral Behavior: Essays and Studies, ed. Dreyer, E. C. and Rosenbaum, W. A. (Belmont, Cal.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1967), p. 417. The essay originally appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, 37 (1961), 481–94 with quotation at page 487.

11 Key, V. O., Public Opinion and American Democracy (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1961), p. 558.

12 Ibid., p. 557.

13 Cf. Bachrach, Peter, The Theory of Democratic Elitism: A Critique (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967), pp. 4748; Walker, Jack L., “A Critique of the Elitist Theory of Democracy,” American Political Science Review, 60 (June, 1966), 286287.

14 Cf. Natchez, Peter B. and Bupp, Irvin C., “Candidates, Issues, and Voters,” in Rosenbaum, Dreyer and (2nd ed. 1970), pp. 433–34.The article is from Public Policy (1968), 409437; Thompson, Dennis F., “The Use of Social Science in Democratic Theory,” in Frontiers of Democratic Theory, ed. Kariel, Henry S. (New York: Random House, 1970), p. 408.

15 Cf. Berelson, Bernardet al., Voting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954), chapter 14; Almond, Gabriel and Verba, Sidney, The Civic Culture (Boston: Little, Brown, 1965), chapter 13; McClosky, Herbert, “Consensus and Ideology in American Politics,” American Political Science Review, 58 (June, 1964), 361–82.

16 See Kessell, John H., “Comment: The Issues of Issue Voting,” American Political Science Review, 66 (June, 1972), 459 for a listing of these publications.

17 Pomper, “From Confusion…” See also Pomper, Gerald M.Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System, What Again?Journal of Politics, 33 (November, 1971), 916–40.

18 RePass, David E., “Issue Salience and Party ChoiceAmerican Political Science Review, 65 (June, 1971), 389400.

19 Arthur, Miller, Warren, Miller, Alden, Raine, and Thad, Brown, “A Majority Party in Disarray: Policy Polarization in the 1972 Election” (a paper delivered at the 1973 American Political Science Association Meeting, New Orleans). A revised version of this paper appears in the American Political Science Review, 70 (September, 1976).

20 For the reader's convenience, these tables are reproduced in the appendix to this paper.

21 Kessel, p.463.

22 The change of focus of the medical cate question from government “to help people get doctors and hospital care at low cost” to “government insurance plan which will cover all medical and hospital expenses” further militates against exact comparisons with Pomper's data. The question of job guarantees, however, is more nearly comparable. Its 1972 form maintains phrases identical to those used in 1964 and 1968 to identify the issue as “the government in Washington should see to it that every person has a job and a good standard of living.”

23 RePass, p. 400.

24 Not only do increasing proportions of the electorate as a whole report “no difference” between the parties on the most salient issues over time, but so do increasing proportions of southern whites, non-southern whites and (since 1964) blacks. Moreover, these increasing proportions are found regardless of the specific content of the most salient issue. See Black, Merle and Rabinowitz, George, “An Overview of American Electoral Change: 1952–1972” (a paper delivered at the Southern Political Science Association, New Orleans, November 1974), tables 10-12.

25 RePass's Table 6 is included in the appendix.

26 By the same token, the explanatory power of party identification–accounting for the votes of approximately one person in 14–is by no means impressive. See the discussion of Miller et al. below for comparable figures on the decline of the power of party identification as an explanatory factor in accounting for presidential votes.

27 Indeed, a large number of RePass's voters satisfy at least three of the four prerequisites for issue voting discussed above: (1) they have an opinion on the given salient issue; (2) 60 per cent perceive differences between the parties on the issue; (3) and by definition of salience, they all care about how the issue is resolved. We lack information only about whether or not the voters are aware of the current government policy concerning the issue.

28 Boyd, Richard W., “Popular Control of Public Policy: A Normal Vote Analysis of the 1968 Election,” American Political Science Review, 65 (June 1972), 429–49.

29 These are weighted averages: see Boyd, pp. 448–49.

30 See Converse, Philip, “Of Time and Partisan Stability,” Comparative Political Studies, 2 (19691970), 162–63 for another discussion of this point.

31 The relevant figures are reproduced in the appendix.

32 On the correlation of issue position with candidate orientation and party identification, see Campbell, Angus and Stokes, Donald E., “Partisan Attitudes and the Presidential Vote,” American Voting Behavior, ed. Burdick, Eugene and Brodbeck, Arthur (Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1959), pp. 353371; Jackson, John E., “Issues, Party Choices and Presidential Votes,” American Journal of Political Science, 19 (May 1975) 161–85; and Kirkpatrick, Samuel, Lyons, William, and Fitzgerald, Michael, “Candidates, Parties and Issues in the American Electorate: Two Decades of Change,” American Politics Quarterly, 3 (July 1975), 315339. On the association of ideological identification with party identification, see Free, Lloyd A. and Cantril, Hadley, The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion, (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1967), pp. 137142. In the revised version Miller et al. employ a “stage-wise” multiple regression. This controls the order in which variables enter the equation, but it still does not solve the problem of multicollinearity. See Draper, Norman and Smith, Harry, Applied Regression Analysis (New York: Wiley, 1966), pp. 173–77.

33 Schulman, Mark A. and Pomper, Gerald M. develop such a system in “Variability in Electoral Behavior: Longitudinal Perspectives from Causal Modeling,” American Journal of Political Science, 19 (February, 1971), 118. Using a seven-variable theoretical model based upon that presented by Goldberg, Arthur, (“Discerning a Causal Pattern Among Voting Data,” American Political Science Review, 60 [1966] 913922), Schulman and Pomper demonstrate that the influence of issue position upon the vote has not only increased in magnitude from 1956 to 1972 but that it has also increased relative to the influence of party identification. Nonetheless, the influence of issues remains rather modest: the direct path coefficient from issue position to vote increases from .060 in 1956 to .223 in 1972; the indirect coefficient increases from .042 to .108; and the entire seven-variable regression explains 55 per cent of the variance in 1956 but only 48 per cent in 1972. Also: Cf. John E. Jackson (passim) for a nonrecursive model, which, though based only upon the 1964 SRC election data nonetheless argues that issue position causally precedes party affiliation.

34 Kelley, Stanley Jr., and Mirer, Thad W., “The Simple Act of Voting,” American Political Science Review, 67 (June, 1974), 572–91.

35 Ibid., p. 574. If the voter does not favor any candidate and does not have a party affiliation, no prediction is made. For a logically similar model (with similarly high accuracy) based upon candidate thermometer ratings, see Brody, Richard A. and Page, Benjamin, “Indifference, Alienation, and Rational Decisions: The Effects of Candidate Evaluations on Turnout and the Vote,” Public Choice, 15 (Summer, 1973), 119.

36 Among those whose net likes and dislikes did not cancel each other out, the accuracy of prediction was 89 per cent; among other voters–those whose votes were predicted on the basis of party identification alone–it was only 56 per cent. Calculations are made from 1972 SRC/CPS election study data.

37 The net sum of likes and dislikes of Nixon correlated with his thermometer ratings at .65 (least squares linear correlation). Net likes and dislikes of McGovern correlated with McGovern's thermometer ratings at .63. Net likes and dislikes of parties and candidates correlated with thermometer ratings of Nixon and McGovern at .62 and – .64 respectively. (N = 1372). Of course if we choose to correlate net likes and dislikes with mean thermometer ratings, we can do much better. (See the argument on pages 38–39 above.) Net likes and dislikes of Nixon correlate with his mean thermometer ratings at .98! The same high level of association is found between net likes and dislikes of McGovern and his mean thermometer ratings. (N = 7 in both cases). Overall, the net likes and dislikes of candidates and parties correlate with mean Nixon and mean McGovern thermometer ratings at .96 and –.98 respectively (N = 25).

38 Cf. Converse, Philip E., “Change in the American Electorate,” The Human Meaning of Social Change, ed. Campbell, Angus and Converse, Philip (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1972); Harris, Louis and Associates, Confidence and Concern: Citizens View American Government (a report to the Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations of the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Relations) (Cleveland: Regal Books/King's Court Communications, 1974), chapter 1; Miller, Arthur, “Political Issues and Trust in Government: 1964–1970” “American Political Science Review, 67 (September, 1974), 951–72; Lipsitz, Lewis, “On Political Belief: The Grievances of the Poor,” in Power and Community: Dissenting Essays in Political Science, ed. Green, Philip and Levinson, Sanford (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), pp. 142–72; Verba, Sidney and Nie, Norman, Participation in America, (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), chapter 20; Jennings, M. Kent and Niemi, Richard, “Continuity and Change in Political Orientations: A Longitudinal Study of Two Generations,” American Political Science Review, 69 (December, 1975), 13161335.

39 Both Miller, “Political Issues and Trust…,” and his critic, Citrin, Jack, “Comment: The Political Relevance of Trust in Government,” American Political Science Review, 68 (September, 1974), 973988, agree that those with low trust in government tend to see the major political parties as failing to offer suitable policy choices. Although neither suggests that citizens with low trust currently share common issue positions, a common hostility to the status quo could provide the base for public support of an issue not yet put forward. Alliances of the cynics of the left and right (Miller's interpretation), or of partisan groups dissatisfied with current policies (Citrin's interpretation); formed in order to bring down moderate centrist governments are not uncommon. Weimar Germany, the French Third and Fourth Republics, and Italy's current government provide classic examples. In the United States the McCarthy victory over Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire primary is attributed to exactly such an alliance. Those who voted against the Johnson delegates were both hawks and doves who objected to the “moderation” of the Johnson administration's policies toward the war in Vietnam. Moderation itself had become an issue. Cf. Converse, Philip E., Miller, Warren E., Rusk, Jerrold G., and Wolfe, Arthur C., “Continuity and Change in American Politics: Parties and Issues in the 1968 Election,” American Political Science Review, 63 (December, 1969), 1092–93.

40 Miller et al., Table 4

41 Cf. Field, John Osgood and Anderson, Ronald E., “Ideology in the Public's Conceptualization of the 1964 Election,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 33 (Fall, 1969), 380–98; Pierce, John C., “Party Identification and the Changing Role of Ideology in American Politics,” Midwest Journal of Political Science, 14 (February, 1970), 2542; Luttbeg, Norman, “The Structure of Beliefs Among Leaders and the Public,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 32 (Fall, 1968), 398409; Nie, Norman and Andersen, Kirsti, “Mass Belief Systems Revisited: Political Change and Attitude Structure,” Journal of Politics, 36 (August, 1974), 540591.

42 See Tables 2 through 4 above and also Nie and Anderson, pp. 586–87.

* My thanks to Paul A. Beck, Raymond Corrado, Charles O. Jones, David Nexon, Richard Niemi, Raymond Owen, Bert Rockman and two anonymous reviewers for comments on this paper. Special thanks to Raymond Hinnebusch for help with the data processing. The data were made available through the Inter-University Consortium for Political Research.

From Confusion to Confusion: Issues and the American Voter (1956–1972)*

  • Michael Margolis (a1)


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