Nelson Mandela once said, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” While we make countless choices throughout our lives, there are some that always engender fear and uncertainty, such as governmental elections. The presidential election cycle has developed a set of candidates that are extremely different, and have proven extremely hard to choose between. Most citizens in the United States are eligible to vote, but what leads a person to register to vote, to go vote, and to vote in a specific direction?
In order to understand why people vote a certain way, we must first examine who exactly is voting. Yeshiva College Professor of Sociology Amy Stuart outlines four voting demographics: sex, age, race, and socioeconomic status. She points out that women’s voting rates have been higher than those of men, as seen in the 70.4 million women versus the 60.7 million men that voted in the 2008 presidential election. This is interesting, given that women’s suffrage was granted much later than universal male suffrage. Additionally, this trend is surprising considering that women are much less likely than men to participate in all other areas of political engagement, such as donating money or volunteering in a campaign. However, this finding can be explained in light of the fact that voting is anonymous and more confidential than other forms of political activism.
Age indicates that older citizens are more likely to vote than younger citizens. Race indicates that whites have voted in higher numbers than minorities, though this statistic may be changing. During the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, the Democratic Party worked hard to register new voters, particularly African Americans. The results of their efforts were staggering—the proportion of black voters ages 25-44 who voted in the 2008 presidential election was 64.0% versus the 59.3% in the 2004 election. In this age bracket, black voting numbers surpassed white voting numbers; white voting numbers actually fell from 63.5% in 2004 to 62.1% in 2008. According to a video released by the Washington Post in June 2016, Asian Americans have been the fastest growing minority in the United States. Even though their political participation has historically been low, remarks by both candidates about China and globalization may prompt Asian Americans to approach the polls in larger numbers.
Socioeconomic status is divided into two subcategories: income and education level. The higher the level a person has of both, the more likely they are to vote. However, these subcategories are themselves very closely correlated to one another, so this conjecture should be taken with a grain of salt. These demographics compose a candidate’s “social background.” The more similar a candidate’s social background is to the average voter, the more likely they are to vote for that candidate. This integration of sociology and psychology gives us one idea as to how people cast their vote.
But what are the determinants of the purely political parts of voting? Political scientists say that these are party identification and election issues. Party identification refers to the political party with which an individual identifies. People will identify with a party for several reasons: a psychological attachment to a certain party, identifying with the party’s focal issues, or the party’s development over time. Psychological attachments are usually established during youth and either symbolize rebellion or agreement by affiliating with or against their family’s party of choice.
Voting based on issues is divided into two categories: prospective and retrospective. Prospective voting is voting based on a candidate’s imagined future performance. It’s easy to understand what a candidate promises to do in the future. However, this can become problematic since political inconsistency is rampant in our society. In contrast, retrospective voting is based on evaluation of past performance. This seems to provide a holistic method of deciding who to vote for. The main drawback is that it requires a lot of time and resources to conduct the research.
Political scientists determine that if the general electorate is informed, candidates’ characteristics and election issues will hold more weight in deciding which candidate wins. If the electorate is not informed, party loyalty will determine who wins the election with up to 90% accuracy. The United States electorate in general is considered a non-informed one. However, this should not discourage people from participating in the political process. It is never too early to conduct research for the next election season, which will occur in November 2018 when all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 33 of the 100 seats in the Senate will be up for election. Through this process, our votes will be cast in a more authoritative and confident manner. And maybe then, our vote will reflect our hopes rather than our fears.