Background Readings

Audio Essay: Political Culture and Elections

Melinda Jackson, San Jose State University


  • Political socialization
What is your earliest political memory? Close your eyes for a few moments and think back to the first time you became aware of politics in some way. Perhaps you learned about the presidential candidates and cast a “kids vote” ballot at school during an election year. Maybe you attended a political rally or protest march with your parents or other family members. Or perhaps you recall vigorous debates over political issues around the dinner table as you were growing up, or a dramatic political event like the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Collage of Political Activism: Top left, a group of multi-generational Americans seek continuation of principles sought during the Civil Rights Era; top right, Rev. Abernathy and others on the Selma to Montgomery March ; bottom right, children celebrate at a patriotic parade; and bottom left, Hispanic Americans march in a May Day parade in San Jose, California.

Children begin learning about their country’s political system in the elementary school years with the introduction of concepts like the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance, and learning about political leaders like the local mayor, state governor, and US President. This process is called political socialization; it is an important part of passing on political culture, and securing the commitment and loyalty of the next generation of citizens to the nation.




Section 1: Political Socialization and Values

Section Question:

How do Americans become politically socialized, and how do they vote?


What does it mean to become politically socialized?


  • Ways of political socialization
  • Agents of political socialization
  • Political pundits
The main agents of political socialization are the family, schools, and community leaders. Media and political figures can also play a role. If you grew up in a family that discussed politics often and participated regularly in voting and other political activities, you had a head start on political socialization. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you ended up agreeing with your parents about every issue, or even that you share the same party preference, but you probably became familiar with democratic processes early on.
If your family was not as politically engaged, your first political socialization experiences may have been in school, with your teacher introducing concepts such as democracy, voting, and civil rights and liberties. It is very common for a presidential election to form the basis of an early political memory, due to their regular occurrence and the great deal of media attention they receive. Many schools also give children the opportunity to “vote” in mock presidential elections in order to learn about the democratic process first-hand.
In addition to mock elections, many schools also allow students to elect representatives to a student council or other advisory committee. These bodies typically have little independent decision-making power, but give students a formal avenue for communication with the school administration. In all of these ways, American children are socialized into some of our most fundamental political values: democratic decision making; the concept of one person, one vote; political representation; and majority rule.

Agents of Political Socialization

Mock Elections

First-generation immigrants, and second-generation children of immigrants, may follow a slightly different political socialization path. For immigrants, who come to this country at a variety of different ages, political socialization may represent a mix of influences from their countries of origin and the American political system. Many immigrants come to this country seeking greater political freedoms, economic opportunities, or both, and tend to adopt American democratic ideals quite readily. Children of immigrants also become socialized into American political culture relatively quickly, primarily through the public school system and exposure to American peers and media influences.
Community leaders act as another agent of political socialization. This may include authority figures in religious organizations, labor unions, neighborhoods, and interest groups. Local leaders play an important role in identifying, articulating, and organizing specific community interests and linking them to support for particular political parties or candidates. This often occurs through endorsements of candidates, or helping to organize volunteer and donation efforts on their behalf.
The media also plays an increasingly important role in shaping and defining political values for many Americans. Media personalities and pundits play a significant role in informing Americans about the issues of the day, even if their primary goal is often entertainment. Many Americans learn about the contours of our political culture from media commentators, although the views they present tend to be biased toward an extreme liberal or conservative viewpoint in order to increase ratings and entertainment value.
Finally, political leaders such as the president, vice president, secretary of state, congresspersons, governors, mayors, and city council members also receive frequent media attention, and help to educate the public about the political issues under debate and the positions of the 2 parties at any given point in time.

Presidential TV Campaign Ads


What general political values do Americans have?


  • Core set of values
  • Presidential TV campaign ads
  • The American’s Creed
  • Impediments to voting
  • William Tyler Page
  • Equality of opportunity
What do Americans believe in? It may often seem that America is a nation divided into “red” and “blue” states, liberal and conservative citizens, religious and secular communities, and geographical regions that embody many different political views. But in fact, as a result of strong political socialization processes, our political culture is defined by a core set of values that nearly all Americans accept: liberty, equality, and democracy. These core political values are so deeply shared that scholars refer to them as the American Creed.

Civic Values, United States and Global Median, 2015

Americans strongly support the civil liberties set out in the Bill of Rights, including freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion. Americans also believe in equality, although this is generally defined as equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcomes. Finally, Americans support democracy in the principles of one person, one vote; majority rule (with protections for minority rights); and government by the people, for the people.
We continue to debate what these values mean in practice, but Americans overwhelmingly agree on the basic principles represented in the American Creed. Current debates over civil liberties involve issues like racial profiling, government collection of individual data from cell phones and other electronic sources, and limits on political donations. All of these issues deal with the extent to which government should be allowed to monitor citizens versus the individual liberties that should be protected from government surveillance or interference.
Likewise, Americans support the principle of equality of opportunity in the sense that all individuals should be free to compete on a level playing field to achieve to the best of their capacity. This is the idea embodied in the “American Dream” of success built upon hard work and perseverance. But there is a great deal of current debate about the degree to which all Americans truly enjoy equal access to equal opportunity with regard to education, economic status, and political voice. Differences in access to opportunity based on race and ethnic background, and economic status are particularly salient in the United States today.

Federal Agencies that Ensure Equality of Opportunity: One way that America attempts to ensure equality of opportunity for its citizens is through legislation. Education, housing, and employment are key avenues to the American goal of giving equal access to resources and creating a level playing field.

Democracy itself is also a contested concept, with ongoing debates over voter eligibility for convicted felons, and voter ID laws requiring photo identification at the polls, for example. The idea of one person, one vote may seem straightforward, but the way that voting rights are defined in practice can vary from state to state, creating disparities across the nation. Some also argue that the increasing ability of wealthy individuals, corporations, and interest groups to donate large sums of money to political campaigns and unregulated Super-PACS has distorted the democratic process by giving more political voice to those big money donors.
These core political values of liberty, equality, and democracy are therefore part of an ongoing conversation in American culture. Changing social, political, and economic circumstances continue to bring different aspects of these principles into tension with current issues for each new generation of Americans.

Voter ID Laws, 2015


How do American vote?


  • Voting rights by state
  • Percent of adults who could name the branches of government
  • Frequency and number of elections
  • Ballot initiatives
  • Direct democracy
  • Open primaries
  • Closed primaries
  • Hybrid model primaries
  • Top-two primaries
  • Early primary states
  • Senate seats up for election
  • House seats up for election
  • General election
  • Midterm election
What do Americans (not) know? Many Americans do not pay a great deal of attention to politics, and perhaps not surprisingly, tend to have little knowledge of politics. For example, a recent survey of American adults conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that just over a third of Americans (36 percent) could name the 3 branches of the US government, while a similar proportion (35 percent) could not name a single one. Similarly, just over a quarter of Americans (27 percent) knew that a two-thirds majority vote in both the US House and Senate is needed to override a presidential veto. In the same survey, more than half of Americans did not know which party currently had a majority in the House and Senate.
Compared to other countries, Americans vote a lot. That is, we hold a lot of elections. When it comes to voter turnout, the United States lags behind many advanced democracies. But in terms of the number and frequency of elections, we are in the lead. Due to our federalist system, we elect representatives to local, state, and national levels of government. On top of that, we start with primary elections that determine the nominees who will go on to the general election. And in some states, voters can vote directly on policy through ballot initiatives and referenda, 2 forms of direct democracy.
Primary elections are the first stage elections in which voters choose among a field of candidates to select the party’s candidate for the general election. Primary elections are the first step in the election process, usually taking place between January and June of an election year.
There are 2 main types of primary elections in the US, with a couple of additional variations. Closed primaries allow only voters registered with a particular party to vote. In a closed primary system, only registered Republican voters are allowed to cast votes for their preferred candidate among the field of Republican primary candidates. Likewise, only registered Democratic voters are allowed to choose among the Democratic candidates on the ballot. In this model, one Republican and one Democratic candidate are selected by each party primary election to compete against each other in the November general election. Minor party candidates (also known as “third party” candidates) can also be selected by the voters registered with their parties in a closed party primary system, and appear on the general election ballot in November. Eleven states currently use the closed primary election model.
Open primaries allow registered voters to choose the party primary in which they wish to vote. Primary elections are still organized by party, with all Democratic candidates competing against each other on the same ballot, all Republican candidates competing on their party ballot, and so on, including any third parties that meet the qualifications to compete in a primary election in a given state. But the open primary model allows voters to “cross over” to vote in another party’s primary election if they choose. Eleven states currently utilize the open primary model.
Four states currently use a top-two primary model: California, Washington, Louisiana, and Nebraska (for nonpartisan legislative races). In this model, candidates from all parties compete against each other on a single ballot, and registered voters from all parties, as well as independent voters, may participate. The top 2 candidates from this primary election will advance to a “run-off” in the general election in November. Because all candidates compete on the same ballot, the top-two primary system may result in 2 Democratic or 2 Republican candidates competing against each other in the general election. In fact, this has happened in a small number of congressional races in California, which adopted the open primary system in 2010.
Congressional Primaries, 2015

Hybrid model primaries represent some combination of the open and closed primary models described above. Exact rules vary from state to state, and in some states requesting a party primary ballot serves as your official declaration of party voter registration. Twenty-four states currently use some form of hybrid model for their primary elections.

General and Midterm Elections

Primary elections take on additional importance in the presidential election cycle, with the states that hold their primaries early receiving greater attention from the candidates. The presidential primary election calendar is determined by the national party organizations, but traditionally the Iowa caucuses (an in-person discussion-based voting process) and New Hampshire primaries have always been the first of the election year, therefore receiving a disproportionate share of attention from presidential candidates of both parties. Generally speaking, the earlier in an election year a state’s primaries are held, the more influence they will hold over the outcome. However, in a very close primary election contest, states that vote later may hold more sway over the final outcome.

The elections that take place in November every 2 years are called general elections. In a presidential election year, the general election receives great attention in the US and throughout the world. In midterm election years, when the presidential race is not on the ballot, there is often less media attention and lower voter turnout. Midterm elections are still important, however, as all members of the House of Representatives, one-third of the Senators, and numerous state and local offices are up for election every 2 years.




Section 2: Elections in America

Section Question:

What are the unique qualities of American elections?


How does the Electoral College system work?


  • Electoral College
  • Determining the number of Electoral College votes
  • Senate elected by state legislatures
  • Makeup of the Electoral College
  • Battleground states
  • 270/538 Electoral College votes
  • Unit rule vs. proportional rule
The US presidential election follows a unique process called the Electoral College. When the Founders drafted the Constitution, they set out different voting procedures for each of the elected branches of government. The House of Representatives was elected directly by voters in specific geographic districts: the Senate was elected by the members of the state legislatures: and the president was elected by an entirely different body called the Electoral College.
The Electoral College is made up of electors from each state. The number of electors each state receives is based on its total number of representatives in Congress, that is, the number of members it has in the House of Representatives, plus its 2 senators. For states with very small populations such as Wyoming and Rhode Island, which have only one member in the House of Representatives, the Electoral College amplifies their influence in the presidential election by adding their 2 senators, for a total of 3 Electoral College votes. For large population states such as California and Texas, the addition of 2 senators to a large number of representatives in the House (53 for CA, 36 for TX), does not increase their political influence significantly.
The Electoral College reflects the compromises that the Framers of the Constitution struggled with in regard to issues of representation, in that both population size through the House of Representatives delegation, as well as equality among the states through the Senate are taken into account. In practice, however, it is neither the largest nor smallest states that hold the most important sway in the Electoral College; it is the “battleground states” that may determine the ultimate outcome of the presidential election in any given year.

Electoral College Votes Allotted by State and District, 2012

A great deal of attention is focused on the “red” vs. “blue” states in the Electoral College map in every presidential election. But in fact the most attention is reserved for the handful of states — usually 8 to 10 — that will make the difference in reaching the magic number of 270 Electoral College votes for one candidate or the other, and thereby determine the winner of the US presidency.

The total number of Electoral College votes is 538. This is made up of the 435 votes based on the membership of the US House of Representatives, plus the 100 votes from the Senate. Another 3 Electoral College votes are given to Washington, DC. This is provided for by the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution to ensure that residents of the nation’s capital are represented in presidential elections. A majority of 270 Electoral College votes is therefore needed to win the presidency.

Nearly all states follow the unit rule, meaning that they award all of their Electoral College votes to the candidate who wins the most votes in that state. This is truly a “winner-take-all” system, in which the candidate with a plurality of the vote takes the entire electoral prize for that state, while the second place candidate gets nothing.

Pivotal States, Presidential Election, 2012


How do campaigns strategize with the Electoral College vote?


  • Differences in the popular vote vs. the Electoral College vote
  • “Red” vs. “blue” states
  • Swing states
  • The Electoral College in the 2012 presidential election
  • Changing the Electoral College
  • The Electoral College in the 2000 presidential election
A striking example of this system in practice is the 1992 election, in which the independent candidate, Ross Perot, won 19 percent of the popular vote nationwide, but did not receive a single Electoral College vote because he failed to place first in any state. The Democratic candidate, Bill Clinton, was therefore elected as president in 1992 with 43 percent of the popular vote, but a clear majority of 370 out of 538 in the Electoral College.
Only 2 states, Nebraska and Maine, do not follow the unit rule, but instead divide their Electoral College votes proportionately, based on the winner in each congressional district in the state.

Presidential Election Results, 1992

Because of this unique electoral system, US presidential campaigns follow a peculiar kind of mathematical logic. Candidates and their campaign teams study the Electoral College map, marking off the states that have a strong advantage for one party or the other and are therefore expected to go either “blue” (Democrat) or “red” (Republican). Many of the large population states, such as California, Texas, and New York, have voted consistently Democrat or Republican in recent elections, and therefore receive little attention from candidates of either party, since they are not “in play” in the Electoral College.
Once the solid “red” and “blue” states have been marked off on the map, the states that are still uncertain as to which way they will “swing” in a given election year are added up to determine how each combination of Electoral College votes will affect the outcome. In recent years, states like Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin have been among the “battleground states” that have held the power to determine the Electoral College outcome, and have therefore received the greatest attention from the presidential campaigns. The battleground states tend to be more closely divided between Democratic and Republican voters, and are therefore less predictable than other states.

“Red” and “Blue” States

Could the Electoral College ever be abolished? It is sometimes argued that the Electoral College is outdated and impractical, and does not reflect the true will of the American population. This argument was particularly vehement after the 2000 election, in which Democrat Al Gore won a majority of the popular national vote by a very narrow margin over Republican George W. Bush (less than 500,000 votes nationwide), but the election outcome was ultimately decided when the US Supreme Court ruled that vote recounts in Florida should be stopped, giving the Electoral College victory to Bush (271 Bush, 266 Gore). This kind of discrepancy between the Electoral College and popular vote outcomes has happened only 4 times in American history, but it clearly goes against a sense of fairness and raises questions about legitimacy when it occurs.

So what are the chances of doing away with the Electoral College at this point? Realistically, the odds are against it. First, there is a great deal of inertia in political systems, and change is difficult, as there is usually strong support for the status quo, particularly among those who benefit most under the current system. Second, changing the way the president is selected would require a Constitutional amendment, which is a very difficult hurdle to clear. For those who would like to see the presidential election process reflect the popular vote more directly, the most pragmatic route would be to encourage states to split their Electoral College votes proportionately, rather than following the unit rule. This would preserve the Electoral College as required by the Constitution, but produce a result that would more accurately mirror the national popular vote in practice.

Presidential Election of 2000 Under Popular Proportional Vote


How does America’s two-party system differ from the rest of the world?


  • Two-party system
  • Democratic Party
  • Republican Party
  • Third parties
  • “Proportional representation”
Why does America have only 2 parties? Will this ever change? Having an extremely stable 2-party system is an important feature of American politics. Throughout US history, we have consistently had 2 major political parties, with a variety of minor “third parties” that have been relatively short-lived.
The first 2 parties in American politics were the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, which emerged out of the debates surrounding the adoption of the new Constitution in 1787-88. Over time, the Anti-Federalist Party shifted into the Democratic-Republican Party under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, and then into the Democratic Party, which has survived as one of the 2 major parties today. The Republican Party became the second major party when it displaced the Whig Party at the time of the Civil War, with the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860.

National Union Ticket (Republican), 1864; New Jersey Ballot, 2010: The 2-party system is a fixture of the political landscape in the US. Although the Democrat and Republican parties have experienced some changes over time, they remain the parties of choice for most Americans. At left is the National Union Ticket, or Republican ticket, 1864. At right is a modern-day 2-party ballot from New Jersey, 2010.

Although the specific parties have shifted several times over the last 250 years, we have consistently had 2 major parties competing for power in the United States. Why is this the case? The 2-party system in the US is not an inherent feature of our political culture, but is actually an artifact of our electoral system rules. The type of electoral system we use is called a winner-take-all, or “first-past-the-post” model. This means that, however many candidates compete in an electoral contest, the one who receives the most votes wins.
In most cases, because of party primaries, there will be only one Democrat and one Republican competing against each other in the November general election, so the seat is guaranteed to go to one of these 2 parties. If a minor party candidate or 2 does appear on the November ballot, they may receive a small share of the vote total, perhaps even 5 or 10 percent, but in a winner-take-all model they have very little chance of ever getting enough votes to win the seat.
Qualified Political Parties in California

A more common electoral system model throughout the world is based on proportional representation (PR). In a PR system, the central government is usually called a parliament, and seats are awarded to parties based on their percentage share of the overall vote. There are several variations on this model, based on whether voters cast votes for individual candidates or for the party, but the PR model tends to result in multi-party systems because it is much easier for small parties to have their members elected to parliament in this type of political system.
Countries Across the World that use Proportional Representation

It is unlikely that the United States will shift away from the winner-take-all model, so we are likely to see the continuation of a 2-party system. However, the specific 2 parties in that system have shifted several times over the course of US history, and there is no guarantee that the Democratic and Republican parties will hold their places as our major parties forever. If either of these parties is unable to hold together its coalition of loyal voters and a new party emerges that is more successful at gaining the support of a broad segment of the American electorate, we could see another party shift with one of these parties being displaced. The US continues to experience ongoing demographic changes, including a growing number of Hispanic American and Asian American voters. This, along with more liberal political attitudes among younger voters, particularly on social issues, means that both the Democratic and Republican parties need to strategize about how to attract and keep new generations of voters loyal.




Section 3: How Voters Decide

Section Question:

What are the influences on American voting?


Which Americans seem to vote and which do not?


  • Comparing voter turnout
  • Mandatory voting laws
  • US voter turnout in various types of elections
  • Characteristics of the voter: age, education, income, and ethnicity
You have probably heard that American voter turnout is among the lowest in the world compared to other advanced democracies. Consider a recent comparison of the 2012 US voter turnout of 54 percent to recent elections in OECD (Organization for Economic and Cooperation Development) countries, most of whom are highly developed democracies. The United States came in 31st out of 34 OECD countries, with Belgium, Turkey, and Sweden coming in as the top 3. Some of these countries have mandatory voting laws (including Belgium and Turkey), which encourage greater rates of participation.
In fact, US voter turnout tends to be highest in presidential elections, typically around 55-60 percent of the voting age population, but drops to 35-40 percent in midterm elections, and is often much lower, in the 15-25 percent range, for primary and local elections. But looking at overall voter turnout numbers does not tell us the full story. It is also important to consider which Americans are most likely to take the trouble to register and vote, and which are least likely to do so.
Compulsory Voting in the World, 2011

Who votes? Who doesn’t vote? There are clear patterns in voter participation, with certain groups voting more frequently and consistently than others. One of the most striking contrasts is between Americans under 30, who had a 45 percent voter turnout in 2012, compared to 66 percent among those 30 and older.
In addition, Americans with college educations and higher incomes tend to vote more often than those with less education and lower incomes. Whites tend to vote more often than Hispanic and Asian Americans. African Americans, however, have tended to vote in high numbers in recent years, particularly in the 2008 election and 2012 reelection of Barack Obama, the first African American president.
Why do we see these consistent patterns of voting and non-voting in American elections? Education plays an important role, both in teaching new generations about political values and culture, and in helping young people become comfortable discussing and evaluating the important issues of the day. Over time the specific issues under debate will change, whether the focus is on the Cold War, abortion, terrorism, immigration, or marriage equality. But the ability to follow the public debate, and to feel confident about your own views on the issues, are important aspects of what students learn throughout the civic education and political socialization process. Higher education plays a particularly important role in building students’ critical thinking and analytical skills, and citizenship and social responsibility are often explicitly emphasized in the college curriculum. All of these factors help explain why those with higher levels of education tend to be more politically engaged in the US.


Which factors seem to influence American voters most?


  • Following the public debate about issues
  • The way voters decide: partisanship, issues, and candidates
  • Party loyalty
  • Issues of national economy and national security
  • Single-issue voters
  • Candidate popularity and personal characteristics
  • Incumbency advantage
How do voters decide? There are 3 main factors that influence voter choice in the United States: partisanship, issues, and candidates. Of these 3, partisanship plays the largest role by far. If you want to predict how someone will vote, ask which party they tend to support and you will probably have at least a 90 percent chance of guessing which candidate they will choose.
A Spectrum of Voters and Non-Voters, 2008

Partisanship plays a strong role in American voting because of our 2-party system, and the fact that party identification tends to remain consistent throughout life, once established. While it is true that more Americans consider themselves political “independents” now than in the past, most will end up choosing either a Democrat or a Republican on the ballot on Election Day. And that party choice tends to be very reliable. The more often a person votes for a party, the stronger their sense of identification as a loyal party member grows, so that older voters often express stronger party ties than younger voters. This stronger loyalty is one reason that voter turnout tends to be higher among older Americans.

Melinda Jackson on the Funnel of Causality

Issues also affect vote choice, with the state of the national economy and national security playing particularly important roles. If the nation is in an economic recession, or engaged in a war, these issues will tend to dominate the public agenda. Other issues will vary in prominence from one election cycle to the next, but social welfare issues such as Social Security and health care reform, economic issues such as jobs and income inequality, and social issues such as abortion and marriage equality, have all been important in recent campaign cycles.
While voters do consider the issues in deciding how to vote, these choices tend to be guided by partisanship to a large extent. Once voters have identified with a party, they tend to go along with party positions on most of the issues, except when they have a very strong opinion on a particular issue such as abortion, or the environment. The small number of citizens who base their vote on one overriding issue are known as single-issue voters.
Candidates for public office are essentially applying for a job. Voters must sift through a lot of information in order to make an informed decision as to who would be the BEST person to fill the “job.” Candidates always highlight their greatest accomplishments and the things that will make them seem strong and altruistic.
‘“Hang in there! As soon as we can figure out how to be re-elected, we’ll get back to you…! ‘

If, in the year 2000, Al Gore and George W. Bush had submitted resumes to the people as a part of the elections (hiring process) the documents may have looked something like this. Both men were from wealthy, well-connected, political families. It was a contentious race, with both candidates facing distortions of their records. The race was decided by the Supreme Court.
How Voters Assess Candidates, 2015

The final important factor affecting vote choice is the candidates themselves. Generally speaking, voters prefer candidates who are strong leaders, trustworthy, and caring. In reality, each candidate has their own strengths and weaknesses, so voters often end up trading off one preferred characteristic for another. Voters judge candidates based on their experience and past record in office, campaign appearances and ads, debates, and increasingly on their issue positions and other information presented on candidate websites.
US presidential elections get the most attention from media and voters every 4 years, but congressional, state, and local elections are also influenced by several other factors. Members of Congress benefit greatly from incumbency advantage, meaning that sitting representatives or senators have a very good chance of winning reelection if they choose to run.
Members of Congress face no term limits, unlike elected representatives in some states, and many end up serving in Washington for decades. It is far more likely for incumbents to be defeated by primary election challengers from their own party who attack them for having drifted away from their party base and have become “career politicians,” than to suffer defeat in the general election.


How can voters learn about the candidates and their positions?


  • Candidates’ use of types of media
  • Candidates’ use of debates
  • Party loyalty
  • Candidates’ websites for digital information
  • News sources for candidate information
How do candidates try to win your vote? Let us count the ways. All candidates share a single-minded goal, and that is to be elected. In our winner-take-all system, the stakes are high, and a great deal of money and effort goes into winning the voters over. Technological advances in recent years have made it easier for candidates to put their messages out through websites, social media, and low-cost internet ads, but the main method of communication is still television. Although Americans complain about the sheer number and negative tone of political ads that fill TV airwaves during election years, the fact remains that these ads get voters’ attention and can be effective, so candidates continue to use them.
The 1996 Presidential Debate provided several good examples of the ways candidates try to influence people to vote for them. They also let people know more about the candidate as a person, because the debaters respond not only to the question, but to one another as people. This 3 minute selection deals with an issue which many Americans were concerned with in 1996 and are still concerned with today: Medicare. Note the way that candidate Bill Clinton talks about the issue in terms of his opponent, Bob Dole, and the Republican Party. Note also, historical references made by Dole, and the manner in which Dole personalizes the issue of Medicare to demonstrate empathy and compassion for those who need medical care, and the Medicare program. Take note as well, to the manner in which the 2 candidates relate to each other.
1996 Presidential Debate in Hartford, CT

Debates are another way for candidates to present themselves to the voters. Presidential debates get the most media attention, but rarely have a large impact on a voter’s choice unless one candidate does a particularly poor job or makes a major gaffe. Presidential primary debates can have more of an impact, especially when there are a number of candidates in the field. They give party voters a chance to compare the candidates side by side, and can help lesser-known candidates build name recognition and support. Debates also make for good political theater, and can be a fun and entertaining way to learn more about the issues of the day, and the personalities of the candidates who are competing for your vote.
Where can you get good, unbiased information about politics? With the rise of digital culture, information is more easily available than ever before. But sorting out the good, trustworthy information can be a significant challenge. When it comes to politics, where should you look, and who can you trust?
Browsing candidates’ websites can give you a lot of in-depth information about their positions on the issues, their biographies, and the other politicians and groups that are supporting them through endorsements. However, this information is carefully crafted to give you the best possible impression of that candidate, and the same is true for the opponent’s website. But there are numerous other sources of information about political issues and candidates that can help you determine where you stand and which party or person is the closest match to your own views and interests.

“Quiet! It’s a Retrospective of Hostile Political Ads We May Have Missed.”

News sources are a good place to start, and many media organizations prepare election-specific comparisons or scorecards summarizing candidate positions on various issues. National media websites for newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post, and the major TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX News, and MSNBC) provide extensive coverage and detail on political news. Public media sources, including PBS (especially NewsHour) and NPR (National Public Radio), also provide detailed political coverage of candidates, issues, and elections. Additional media sources, such as local or regional newspapers and TV affiliates, provide more tailored coverage and analysis of campaign issues, as well as newspaper editorial board endorsements of candidates, that may prove valuable to voters seeking a local perspective.




Further Reading

  • Barbara A. Bardes and Robert W. Oldendick, Public Opinion: Measuring the American Mind, 4th ed. (or most recent), (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).
  • Shaun Bowler and Gary Segura, The Future is Ours: Minority Politics, Political Behavior, and the Multiracial Era of American Politics (Washington, D.C.:CQ Press, 2012).
  • Angus Campbell, Philip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, and Donald Stokes, The American Voter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).
  • James N. Druckman and Lawrence R. Jacobs, Who Governs?: Presidents, Public Opinion, and Manipulation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
  • William H. Flanigan, Nancy H. Zingale, Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, and Michael W. Wagner, Political Behavior of the American Electorate, 13th ed. (or most recent), (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2014).
  • Martin Gilens, Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).
  • M. Kent Jennings, Laura Stoker, and Jake Bowers, “Politics across Generations: Family Transmission Reexamined,” The Journal of Politics 71, no.3 (2009): 782-799.
  • Richard R. Lau and David P. Redlawsk, How Voters Decide: Information Processing in Election Campaigns (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
  • Michael S. Lewis-Beck, Helmut Norpoth, William G. Jacoby, and Herbert F. Weisberg, The American Voter Revisited (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008).
  • Arthur Lupia, Uninformed: Why People Know So Little About Politics and What We Can Do About It (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
  • John Sides and Daniel J. Hopkins, eds., Political Polarization in American Politics (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015).
  • John Sides, Daron Shaw, Matt Grossmann, and Keena Lipsitz, Campaigns & Elections, 2nd ed. (or most recent), (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2015).


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