The Conflicted Voter

One of the most persistent and defining features of American public opinion is that as a whole, the electorate is what political scientists call "symbolic conservatives" and "operational liberals." That is, when you ask them abstract questions they sound like conservatives expressing a dislike of big government. But when you ask them specific questions they sound like liberals, expressing support (and wanting to increase funding) for just about everything government does. The parties understand that, which is why Republicans tend to talk about principles and Democrats tend to talk about programs.

This extends to specific policy choices; most of the things on the agenda of Democrats have majority support. So why don't Democrats always win? The answer is complicated, and today, Kevin Drum points us to this odd result in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll: on most of the issues the poll tested, voters said they trust Democrats more than Republicans, yet when you ask them whom they're going to vote for in November, the two parties are essentially tied (and Republicans have an edge among those most likely to vote). First, check out these results:

And there are other questions that aren't represented there on which Democrats are doing just as well or better: "Americans say the Democratic Party comes closer than the GOP to their positions on climate change, by 18 points; whether or not to raise the minimum wage, by 16 points; gay marriage, by 14 points; and the issue of abortion, by 8 points. On one remaining issue, gun control, the Republicans have a slight, 5-point edge."

I'm sure Democrats look at the fact that there would seem to be a healthy number of voters who trust Democrats more on most issues and yet plan to vote Republican, and say, "Oh for pete's sake. What's wrong with you people?" Obviously, votes can be decided on the basis of many different considerations and "trusting" a party is only one of them. But this is a good reminder that voters aren't like you and me. Or most of them aren't, anyway.

If you're reading this web site, it's because you care a lot about politics. And once you've read it, of course, you've become spectacularly well-informed. You have a clear understanding of the various principles and policy positions that make up contemporary American liberalism and conservatism, and these ideas are tied together in a coherent system, so that if you favor a government guarantee of health coverage you probably also favor strong protections for workers, environmental protection, marriage equality, and safe and legal abortions. You have an ideology, and an understanding of how the two parties relate to it.

And that puts you in the minority among voters. Most people don't have an ideology with crisply defined borders. They have gaps in their knowledge, their feelings about the parties are fluid, and they're susceptible to persuasion. Which is why we have campaigns.

Think about it this way: Let's say there's a Senate race in your state. Is there some number of ads for the Republican candidate that I could make you watch that would eventually make you say, "You know what? I think I am going to vote for that guy"? A dozen? A hundred? A thousand? Probably not. If everyone was like you, campaigns would be pointless. But everyone isn't like you. So we have to suffer through the ads and the spin and the faux-controversies and everything else that makes up the glorious pageantry of democratic choice.