Principles of Politics Exercise


Goals of This Exercise

  • Illustrate the impact of family income on voter support for John McCain and Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.
  • Explore possible reasons why income might affect voter choice among presidential candidates.
  • Consider what other goals might motivate voters’ choices of presidential candidates.

Income and Vote Choice

Although other factors are important in determining voters’ affinities toward the two parties and their choice of presidential candidates, family income seems to have a predictable impact on presidential choice.

Voters with lower family incomes tend to vote Democratic while voters with higher family incomes tend to support Republican candidates.

Note that the Cable News Network (CNN) reported exit poll data demonstrating that Barack Obama fared better among lower-income voters and was either evenly matched or slightly less likely to win among higher-income voters.

Family Income and Presidential Support 2008

Examining the Rationality Principle

The Rationality Principle: all political behavior has a purpose. All political actors engage in instrumental acts designed to further their individual goals.

  • These data would seem to indicate that when lower-income citizens engage in the instrumental act of voting, they see that their goals are best achieved if Democrats win.
  • By contrast, higher-income voters tend to see voting Republican as an instrumental act to best further their goals.

Analyzing Voters’ Goals

Examining the figure, answer the following questions:

How might the respective images of the Democratic and Republican parties account for the apparent relationship between income and presidential vote choice?
What specific elements of the Obama and McCain candidacies and campaigns might also account for this relationship?
What are the limitations to understanding vote choice as an instrumental act based solely (or even primarily) on personal economics?

What Else Might Affect Presidential Vote Choice?

Factors other than income (such as the race, ethnicity, and gender of the voter) might be equally or even more important in determining presidential vote choice.

African American voters are far more likely to support Democrats than Republicans.

A gender gap exists whereby women are more likely to support the Democratic candidate while men are more likely to support the Republican.

What Other Issues Were Important in the 2008 Presidential Election?

In the 2008 election, many voters cast their ballots focused on issues other than their personal finances.

  • Party and ideology: In recent elections, partisanship has been a crucial factor in determining how citizens vote. According to CNN’s exit poll data, 89 percent of Democrats supported Barack Obama, and 90 percent of Republicans supported John McCain. The deciding factors in the election were that: (1) there were more self-identified Democrats than Republicans; and (2) Obama bested McCain among independents by 52 to 44 percent.
  • Age: Obama enjoyed significant leads over McCain among younger voters, winning the 18–29 age group by about 2 to 1 and also winning the 30–39 age group 54 to 44 percent. The two candidates tied among voters between 40 and 64. The only age group that McCain won was voters 65 and over.
  • The “values” vote: With Sarah Palin on the ticket, the McCain campaign sought to court the social conservative wing of the Republican Party (a wing of the party that traditionally has not favored McCain).

Examining the “Values” Vote

The presence of issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and stem cell research in a campaign can bring moral and values issues to the forefront for many American voters.

  • Republicans tend to win overwhelmingly among voters who claim that moral values are important in determining their vote choice.
  • Although morals and “values” can be demonstrated in many ways, the relationship between church attendance and presidential choice seems as clear as the relationship between income and the presidential vote.

Church/Religious Worship Attendance and Presidential Suport 2008

Answer the following questions:

Reflecting on the Rationality Principle (All political behavior has a purpose), how are we to reconcile the conflicting goals of economic voters and values voters? Some have argued that poor voters who vote Republican mistakenly voted against their “true interest.” Evaluate this claim. What is at stake in deeming something like income as opposed to religious values as a “true” interest?
Reflecting on both the Collective-Action and the Institution principles (All politics is collective action and Institutions structure politics), in what ways are religious affiliations a more likely catalyst for overcoming the impediments to collective action than are class affiliations?


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