Event Summary: How Much Do Issues Influence the Vote?

October 15, 2004

In a campaign that has been dominated at times by such sideshow distractions as John Kerry’s tan, the mysterious “Bush bulge,” and rumored Botox injections, substantive differences on serious policy issues have frequently been crowded out of the national debate.

It was fitting, then, that the Brookings Institution held a roundtable discussion today that focused on the question, “How Much Do Issues Influence the Vote?

Although panelists agreed that a candidate’s position on various policy issues still plays a significant role in garnering votes, the attacks on September 11, 2001 fundamentally changed how voters select their presidential candidate.

“Issues matter less in this election than most in recent memory,” said USA Today‘s Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page. Page cited a recent CNN/USAToday/Gallup Poll in which voters named leadership, by a margin of 46 percent to 39 percent, as a more important quality in a candidate than their positions on various policy issues. This stands in stark contrast to similar polls taken during the 2000 election, in which voters placed issues solidly ahead of leadership.

“September 11 reminded people that you can’t predict what your president will face,” Page said, “and it is more important that you have a president whose judgment and leadership you trust, rather than what they might do on health care and other issues.”

Page said that the focus on leadership this time around could be seen in Republican “flip-flopper” attacks against Senator John Kerry, and at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

“The whole idea of ‘flip-flopping’ isn’t about the issues,” Page said. “It’s about [Kerry’s] leadership skills and his steadiness.” Page added that Democrats aimed to make their national convention a “war convention” even though “it wasn’t about war at all—it was about [Kerry’s] leadership, and they used his experience in Vietnam to demonstrate that.”

Although “flip-flopping” charges against Kerry succeeded in shaping voter’s perceptions about the Massachusetts senator, more recent attempts by Republicans to paint Kerry as a “Massachusetts liberal” aren’t likely to resonate as well, said University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Byron Shafer.

“The term ‘Massachusetts liberal’ is a term that is long gone,” Shafer said. “It’s inside baseball. If you even know what he’s talking about, you’re too old … It’s like saying you’re a Bryan Democrat.”

Panelists agreed that particular positions on various policies are less important than how candidates frame their stances.

Northwestern University professor Benjamin I. Page referred to a recent study by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations in which Americans, on the whole, supported statements on foreign policy that more closely matched Senator Kerry’s than President Bush’s, despite the fact that most Americans view President Bush as more decisive and strong on foreign policy issues.

Part of the reason for this disparity, Benjamin Page said, was due to the Republican’s historical advantage on foreign policy. But the Bush administration’s ability to frame the difficult situation in Iraq in a more positive light has helped them retain credibility.

“Perceptions and beliefs make a lot of difference,” Page said. “Being relentlessly upbeat seems to be helpful.”

Panelists also wondered whether or not voters were educated enough on the issues—and the candidates positions on those issues—to make informed decisions.

“There are clearly a large number of voters who aren’t paying sufficiently close attention to either have well-thought out positions of their own on these issues or—even if they have their positions figured out—to have figured out what the candidate’s positions are,” said Larry Bartels, a professor at Princeton University.

Susan Page echoed Bartel’s sentiments, citing as evidence a recent Annenberg study suggesting that voters did not have an accurate view of the candidates positions.

However, Shafer took exception to polls and studies suggesting that Americans are woefully uneducated, and said that history proves that Americans ultimately make smart, informed decisions when they vote.

“The fact that two-thirds of Americans can’t find Belgium, for instance, doesn’t mean they can’t make an intelligent choice for presidency,” Shafer said.

Since the November presidential election is the first since September 11, 2001, the dynamics are unknown and unique.

“This is a different kind of election,” said Susan Page. “We don’t have much confidence in the election models that have worked so well in the past.”