Voting Expert William Jacoby Knows How You're Going To Vote

As the polls grow tighter, more people wonder what the electorate will be thinking on Nov 4. OffTheBus posed that question to political scientist William G. Jacoby, a Michigan State University professor, and a research scientist with ICPSR at the University of Michigan. Jacoby, who recently served as editor of The Journal of Politics, is a specialist in mass political behavior.

OTB: As a political scientist, are you able to understand and predict the kinds of decisions people will make once they're inside the voting booth?

WILLIAM G. JACOBY: Yes, everyone has a fairly set routine when it comes to voting, so we can describe pretty clearly the choices you're going to make inside a voting booth. Most people decide who they're going to vote for long before Election Day. In fact, we can trace the decision you'll make on Tuesday all the way back to your childhood, to elementary school. That's the age when most people develop a psychological sense of party attachment that begins with your parents and how they voted.

Your parents' party affiliation remains with you for most of your life. People flirt with change, but rarely act on it. When someone finally does change, it's usually due to a political shock.

What do you mean by "political shock"?

JACOBY: The Great Depression is one example. More recently, the Vietnam War turned large numbers of young Republicans into Democrats. These political shocks -- or "realignments" as political scientists call them -- are rare. Some people think the Reagan Revolution is another example, but I disagree. Ronald Reagan rejuvenated the GOP, but he didn't turn large numbers of Democrats into Republicans.

When unique campaign issues or unique personalities come along, they too can overturn a person's party affiliation. For example, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, a military hero, was elected by Democrats who feared Korea and the spread of Communism. In 2004, Republican George W. Bush was elected thanks to Democrats who had concerns about national security. But by and large, the New Deal alignment created during the 1930s -- with some slight modifications along the way -- is still the party alignment we see today. It's an alignment based on class and social status.

A psychological sense of party attachment is always in the back of your mind. It's the default orientation: "All else being equal, I'm inclined to react favorably to that political party."

Are independents really as independent as they say they are?

JACOBY: No, not really. Many independents are new voters, people just getting into politics who like to think "nobody will sway me." But it rarely turns out that way. Most independents lean toward one party or the other. In fact, research indicates that these independent leaners usually vote in a more partisan way than some of the people who openly declare their party affiliation.

Most of the truly non-leaning independents out there have separated themselves from the political world, and usually do not vote at all. One of the benefits of party affiliation is that it pulls people into the political process. Partisanship leads to greater public participation.

What do you know about voters who are still undecided right before Election Day?

JACOBY: There are two kinds of undecided voters. The first kind probably won't vote at all. Or, if they do vote, they'll essentially flip a coin and cancel each other out.

The second set may say they're undecided to a pollster, but psychological factors from childhood are already in place to accurately determine their vote. Asking this group, "Have you decided how you are going to vote?" is not a very effective way to find out. Pollsters should reframe the question.

John McCain recently criticized the "gotcha" role of bloggers. Does the media affect voter behavior?

JACOBY: Senator McCain is wrong. The media has surprisingly little direct effect on voting behavior. People are surrounded by psychological screens -- such as their early affiliation with the political party of their parents -- and the media has a tough time getting through all these invisible screens. How many voters can the media influence? Research indicates the number is only one in three. Now, that's a large number overall, but probably a much smaller percentage of the electorate than the candidates imagine.

People who watch endless election coverage on cable television and read the political blogs are folks who are into politics, and these people already know how they're going to vote.

Will race be a factor on Election Day?

JACOBY: Race already is a factor. Senator Obama is running behind where other Democrats would be expected to be at this point, given the public's low opinion of the Bush Administration. On the other hand, we probably won't see much more in the way of a Bradley Effect on Election Day, because we're already seeing that effect now.

Racism still permeates a large component of white America, but today it's a different kind of racism. It's not deliberate -- it's symbolic. A majority of whites do not believe they're inherently superior. Research indicates they believe "we are all the same," but that certain demographic groups "aren't living up to their potential."

Is Barack Obama targeting young voters because they're more comfortable with racial diversity?

JACOBY: Avoiding long-standing prejudices is probably part of the success of that strategy. But, more generally, young people are simply more prone to persuasion. They have less baggage of any kind, racial or otherwise. At the same time, Obama's own youth -- especially relative to his opponent -- makes it very natural for him to target the younger segments of the electorate.

Obama seems to be running well across most demographic groups. All in all, I think he's playing up the traditional partisan loyalties pretty successfully, even taking into account any "drag" that might be due to racial feelings.

The Obama campaign took political branding and merchandising to a new level. Did this strategy make it "cool" to be a Democrat again?

JACOBY: I don't think Obama has deliberately tried to make being a Democrat cool, because for the most part, presidential candidates focus more on their own appeals rather than partisanship. Obama is riding a tide that rises from frustration with the wars, and the current economic troubles. Being the "out party" is good for the Democrats. They stand to gain without really having to sell themselves all that much.

Are the polls truly tightening as we get closer to Election Day?

JACOBY: No, I don't believe the polls are tightening. I think it's just statistical noise.