- The American Voter, Revisited
Classic studies are defined by their enduring contributions. In the study of electoral politics, one such work is The American Voter. Published in the mid-20th century, it represents one of the first attempts by social scientists to bring rigorous empirical analysis to bear on questions of political behavior. The seminal framework outlined in that book – in which electoral behavior is viewed as being driven largely by party identification and candidate evaluations – has spawned generations of scholarship. Indeed, few works have left as indelible a mark on a research area as The American Voter has left on the study of American politics. But, almost a half-century later, have the changing dynamics of contemporary politics (in particular, rising political polarization) outgrown that framework?
In The American Voter Revisited, a team of well-respected scholars – Michael Lewis-Beck, William Jacoby, Helmut Norpoth and Herbert Weisberg – attempt to answer this question. They do so by faithfully replicating the approach taken by The American Voter – down to the organization of the book, including the titles of chapters, headings and sub-headings – with data from the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. One novelty in Revisited is the welcome addition of a "Commentary and Controversy" section after each chapter that discusses any subsequent developments in the thematic issues raised. But while the substance of Revisited may differ from its predecessor – gone are references to Eisenhower and Stevenson; in their place stand Bush, Gore and Kerry – its conclusions do not. That is, the authors of Revisited find that voters' decisions are still largely driven by their party identification, their evaluations of candidates, and – to a lesser extent – their issue preferences. In the parlance of modern political psychology, voters overwhelmingly choose to satisfice. They use as little information as possible to make the best decision possible.
Much of the book is directed at reinforcing this impression. Chapter by chapter, the authors demonstrate that the original framework in The American Voter still provides an apt characterization of voters in the modern political climate. Voters have starkly different views of the major parties and their presidential candidates and in ways that continue to map neatly onto party identification. Social groups still serve as powerful reference points for voters, and citizens remain largely uncommitted to strong policy positions. Yet some dynamics have changed. Whereas The American Voter found that citizens have poorly developed ideologies, Revisited suggests improvements. Today, taking a liberal (or conservative) position in one policy domain is more likely to correlate with taking a liberal (or conservative) position in another policy domain. In addition, the relevance of party identification [End Page 986] for fostering positive or negative impressions of candidates and parties has become even more important than in the 1950s.
By and large, however, the story in Revisited is one of continuity, not change. The conclusion by Lewis-Beck and his colleagues that the framework in The American Voter is still relevant for modern politics is noteworthy in no small part because the political environment has changed so dramatically since the original analysis. Compared to the contentious presidential elections of the past decade, the electoral contests in the 1950s were relatively quiet affairs. Given the drastic change in the tone and tenor of American politics, most scholars would have anticipated that the decision-making process of voters has changed. And indeed, when differences do occur in Revisited, as is the case with improvement in voters' ideological sophistication, the authors frequently cite the rise in polarization as an explanatory factor.
Herein lies the rub, however. A major critique of The American Voter focuses on its inattention to environmental factors. In fact, some of the major developments in scholarship on American politics that occurred after The American Voter are attempts to understand the importance of contextual effects, namely, the importance of social networks and party activities. Simply put, the framework in The American Voter, and by extension, Revisited, with its strong emphasis on social psychological factors, is not well-suited to...