Event Summary: A Look at the American Electorate

September 17, 2004

A Brookings panel of experts today discussed the polarized American electorate and assessed how intense feelings of party loyalty could play out in the upcoming presidential election.

Princeton University Professor Larry M. Bartels began the discussion by presenting data demonstrating the strong relationship between political partisanship and voting behavior.

“Voting behavior is more partisan than at anytime since the data became available,” Bartels said. “Partisanship has a big impact on people’s perceptions of the political world.”

The intense polarization of the current presidential campaign has figured prominently in political analysis, and the panelists were quick to ponder how the political divide has been reflected in national polls and, most notably, how it would affect the Nov. 2 election.

Panelists said that serious answers to such questions, however, were tough to find, since there are good reasons to be skeptical about many of the national polls. Emory University Professor Alan Abramowitz cited examples of polls in which the polling sample favored a particular party. His arguments gain traction in light of the recent release of two polls with drastically different polling numbers for candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. Abramowitz reminded members of the audience that right before the 2000 presidential election, Vice President Al Gore was ahead by 10 percentage points in the polls, yet only won the popular vote by a narrow margin.

Wall Street Journal Political Editor John Harwood said that, while flaws and discrepancies in national polls are to be expected, polling results-however accurate-can have serious consequences.

“It’s important to see that you’re up,” Harwood said. “In the current case, Democrats get portrayed as a bunch of morons who don’t know what they’re doing and it sows confusion. For Bush and the Republicans, it raises confidence and has a huge political effect-even if the numbers aren’t truly reflective of the national pulse.”

After examining the polarized political climate, Brookings Senior Fellow Tom Mann wondered if there was anyone left who was truly independent, and if swing voters truly exist.

“Is there any more room in the system?” Mann asked. “Is the partisanship so strong that the right candidate, even with the right conditions and the right pitch, can’t appeal to the opposite side?”

Panelists attempted to answer Mann’s query by examining both Bush’s and Kerry’s campaign strategies. The consensus was that both campaigns have placed greater emphasis on turning out the vote of their base, rather than embracing bipartisan campaign messages.

“The overwhelming emphasis is on voter mobilization instead of persuasion,” said Yale University Professor Donald Green.

According to Bartels, appealing to just the base voters is not necessarily a wise tactic.

“Convincing a voter to come out to the polls and to vote for your guy yields you one vote,” Bartels said. “Convincing a voter to come out to the polls and vote for your guy instead of the other guy, yields you two votes.”