The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Issue Attention and Presidential Elections

Wed, August 31, 2011

L. Matthew Vandenbroek, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Government, has an article forthcoming in “American Politics Research” about the interaction of issue attention and partisanship in presidential elections. In “Lost Our Lease: Issue Attention and Partisan Defection in the 2008 Presidential Election,” Vandenbroek argues that voters’ assessment of the economy mattered less than how much attention voters paid to the economy.

The key theoretical issue is that partisanship bounds voters’ rationality, such that voters are likely to pay the most attention to issues which paint their preferred political party in a favorable light and shy away from issues which do the opposite. But, when partisan blinders fail to divert voters’ attention, partisans defect and vote across party lines.

During the 2008 presidential election, nearly all voters, regardless of partisanship, agreed that the economy had tanked, but John McCain’s vote was bolstered by Republicans who de-prioritized the economy. This demonstrates how voters choose the candidate they feel will perform best on the issues, but only the issues most important to them and on the issues as they interpret them to be, with both factors heavily filtered by a partisan lens.

The 2008 election also demonstrated, however, that defection becomes increasingly likely when a party’s positions and performance on important issues contradict a voter’s party identification – Republicans who prioritized the economy in 2008 and paid a lot of attention to it were most likely to defect and vote for Barack Obama.

Vandenbroek’s dissertation, supervised by Daron Shaw and Nicholas Valentino, draws upon recent work in psychology and, in part through a series of laboratory and nationally representative experiments, advances a theory that disgust with politics causes many people to abstain from elections, irrespective of resources such as education and income.

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