The Crisis of Electoral Politics

by Warren E. Miller and J. Merrill Shanks.
Harvard University Press, 640 pages, $45.00 hardcover/$19.95 paperback.


THE publication of the classic work The American Voter, in 1960, led many to question whether Americans were living up to democratic theory's expectations of a well-informed and active electorate. The critical findings of this first in-depth examination of national survey data were startling, especially in light of indicators that contentment with politics was widespread at the time. Back then three quarters of the public trusted the government to do what was right all or most of the time, people were generally satisfied with the party system, and the national turnout rate was at its highest since 1908.

If the message of The American Voter was that not all was well with American democracy, The New American Voter bears the opposite message. Warren E. Miller (one of the authors of the original work) and J. Merrill Shanks have produced a three-part book that provides an analysis of declining turnout rates, an examination of changing patterns of party identification, and a comprehensive model of voting behavior, which they apply to the 1992 election. After 500 pages of analysis of survey data the authors complacently conclude that "nothing we have learned suggests that the basic institutions in our system of choosing a president are in need of repair, other than that which can be provided by wise and effective leaders." Many observers of the 1996 presidential campaign might wonder whether they were looking at the same country as Miller and Shanks.

Once again in 1996 the turnout rate of Americans was nothing for our leaders to brag about at G7 meetings. As Miller and Shanks rightly point out, the first decision citizens must make on Election Day is whether or not to go to the polls. Here's how our turnout rates in 1996 and 1994 compare with those for recent elections in the other G7 countries:

Percent Voting

Over the past several decades no other G7 country has ever had a turnout in an election for its lower legislative house as low as our 49 percent turnout in 1996, let alone the abysmal 39 percent in 1994. And if this weren't embarrassing enough, newly emerging democracies have surpassed our turnout rates. Recent presidential elections in Taiwan, Russia, and Poland produced turnouts of 76, 69, and 67 percent respectively. Millions of South Africans stood in line for hours to vote in their country's first election open to all races, in which 87 percent of the eligible electorate took part. Of course, after the initial enthusiasm for democracy wears off, turnout should fall somewhat in these new democracies. Such a pattern has occurred in the former Soviet satellites, but their turnout rates have remained high in comparison to ours.

Americans once had a reasonable excuse for relatively low turnout rates: the aftermath of the Civil War. For more than a century the states of the old Confederacy were a major drag on the nation's turnout rate, owing to racial discrimination, the poll tax, and lack of party competition. In the contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon only 40 percent of adults in those southern states voted, whereas the turnout in the rest of the nation was a respectable 70 percent. By 1996 turnout had risen in the states of the former Confederacy to 46 percent, but had fallen in the rest of the country to 50 percent.

Some analysts have interpreted this precipitous drop outside the South as reflecting growing alienation, and thus widespread disengagement, from government. Miller and Shanks take issue with this view. Focusing on generational patterns in turnout from 1960 to 1988, they find that whereas those who were of voting age by 1964 maintained consistently high levels of turnout, Baby Boomers and post-Boomers have voted at lower rates. Inquiring minds will naturally want to know what has kept the post-Second World War generations from going to the polls. Miller and Shanks fail to find any answers to this key question in the survey data. They simply surmise that the turmoil of the 1960s and afterward must have discouraged many of these citizens from getting into the voting habit.

Though the authors stress the importance of common generational experiences, they neglect the one factor that most altered socialization for these younger generations: the introduction of television. A regular scholarly finding is that people acquire less information about politics from television than from newspapers and talking to others. TV's fast-paced and superficial view of the political world has led to a generation of voters who are underinformed about politics. For example, a Gallup poll in June of last year found that 75 percent of people born after the Second World War could identify the host of The Tonight Show, but only 50 percent could name the current speaker of the House -- the most visible in recent memory.

Miller and Shanks write that asking why the politically uninterested don't vote is like asking "why those who have never heard an opera don't sing operatic arias." But comparisons of survey data from around the world show that Americans actually report relatively high levels of interest in politics. So why do people in other countries vote more often? Walter Dean Burnham, a noted elections analyst, has long argued that socialist parties elsewhere mobilize the working classes in a manner unknown in the American environment of competition between two middle-class parties. There is clearly some truth to this -- but even as leftist parties like the British Labour and the German SPD have moved away from class-based appeals, turnout has remained relatively high. Other fundamental differences between politics in the United States and in the other G7 countries must be at the root of the American phenomenon of low turnout. One such factor is the overwhelming range of offices and referenda about which Americans must make decisions. In the most recent election, for example, I was asked to make thirty-six marks on my California ballot. Other countries may have many parties to choose from, but their citizens have to make only one or two choices on Election Day. Surely it is not coincidental that the only established democracy with turnout rates as low as ours -- Switzerland -- has also inundated its citizens with voting opportunities. Build a user-friendly electoral system and voters will come; build a complex system and they'll stay away. The recent "Motor Voter" Act and other reforms may have made it easier to register, but voter turnout remains low because America's political system is non-user-friendly. (For more on this aspect of American politics see "Running Scared" by Anthony King, in the January Atlantic.)

Ever since the publication of The American Voter scholars have looked to party identification as the major means for making the voting process user-friendly. As Miller and Shanks observe, one role of party affiliation is to provide a framework for understanding the political world. Therefore many observers have bemoaned the recent decline of party identification, fearing that voters are being set adrift in a sea of political volatility. Miller and Shanks believe that such fears are overblown. Again, the crux of their critique is a generational analysis. They find that people born before the Second World War have not rejected partisan labels at all. But new voters are more likely than voters of previous generations to call themselves Independents.

However, just because older voters have retained their partisan labels doesn't necessarily mean that such labels continue to be important. Miller and Shanks draw an analogy between party identification and religion: both often have origins in the family and are learned early in life. But just as people who stop attending religious services usually still call themselves members of a particular faith, many Democrats and Republicans have kept these labels long after their meaning has withered. My favorite piece of evidence concerning the current lack of relevance of political parties comes from a set of open-ended questions about them, which are regularly asked in the National Election Study, conducted biennially at the University of Michigan. In both 1992 and 1994, three out of ten people responded as follows:

Q. Is there anything in particular that you like about the Democratic Party?
A. No.

Q. Is there anything in particular that you dislike about the Democratic Party?
A. No.

Q. Is there anything in particular that you like about the Republican Party?
A. No.

Q. Is there anything in particular that you dislike about the Republican Party?
A. No.


When these questions were first asked, in the 1952 election study, only one out of ten people interviewed responded in this fashion. Back then people who felt this way about the parties had little to say about the candidates either, and few of them voted. Today people who have tuned out the parties are frequently well versed in the candidates and the issues. Many observers consider these people to be the most important group in American electoral politics -- the floating voters.

Miller and Shanks try to lay to rest any concern that the pool of floating voters is increasing. Their best evidence is that party identification was more strongly related to the presidential vote in the 1980s than in previous decades. However, they ignore powerful counterevidence by ending this part of their analysis with 1988 and focusing solely on the votes for one office.

IN the hundred years from 1864 to 1964 there were only three elections in which the presidential candidate of a minor party received more than five percent of the vote. Since then this threshold has been exceeded by George Wallace, John Anderson, and Ross Perot. Recently, for the first time ever, a third-party candidate -- Perot -- garnered more than five percent in two consecutive elections: 19 percent in 1992 and eight percent in 1996.

Another historically unprecedented facet of recent American elections is the split decisions they have regularly yielded. Historians typically identify political eras according to the dominant party of the times. The Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln was the dominant party in national elections over the three decades after the Civil War. Then William McKinley's brand of pro-business Republicanism was ascendant for nearly forty years. A Democratic era followed in which New Deal policies were in favor. But since the election of 1968 neither party has really been in control, because Presidents have typically been faced with opposition majorities in Congress. Computing presidential batting averages based on success in achieving partisan majorities in the House and the Senate yields the following numbers for each historical period:

If batting averages had fallen so dramatically in baseball, there would be an uproar demanding something to restore the historical balance between hitters and pitchers. In American politics something does need to be done to restore the electoral link between the President and Congress. The situation that Bill Clinton faces in his second term, with the opposition party controlling the House and Senate, is now the norm rather than the exception. In 1996 many voters again split their tickets. For example, in Maine, Clinton garnered 21 percent more of the vote than Bob Dole, while Susan Collins -- who disavowed Dole's tax-cut plan -- won a Senate seat for the Republicans. At the opposite end of Interstate 95 Clinton won Florida but the Republicans won fifteen of the state's twenty-three seats in the House. Such results have become increasingly common in an electorate in which 71 percent of voters say they usually split their tickets and 92 percent say they vote for the person, not the party. If you wonder why American government often seems paralyzed (see "The Uncertain Leviathan," by Jonathan Schell, in the August, 1996, Atlantic), one major reason is that ticket-splitting often gives us a President without much clout in Congress.

PERHAPS the best way to evaluate this book, which was published on the eve of the 1996 presidential election, is to see how well it helps us to understand recent voting behavior. Miller and Shanks say in their conclusion that "it seems reasonable to expect voting turnout to continue to rise." Instead the decline in turnout from 1992 to 1996 was the largest since the Second World War. Rather than taking the authors' advice not to worry about turnout rates, political observers will probably be devoting much discussion over the next four years to why the majority of Americans are not voting.

The one aspect of the party system that Miller and Shanks single out for future investigation also seems off target in light of recent results. They make much of the fact that through the 1980s Democrats had lower loyalty rates at the polls than Republicans -- especially in the South. "The explanation for Democratic variation and Republican constancy should rank high on electoral researchers' agenda for future research," they write. However, in both 1992 and 1996 Democratic identifiers were more loyal to their presidential nominee than Republicans were. Also contrary to Miller and Shanks's earlier findings, 1996 exit polls revealed no significant difference in defection rates between northern and southern Democrats. Rather, a regional split can now be found in the Republican Party. Southern Republicans were seven percent more likely to vote for Dole than Republicans outside the South. The tough task facing the Republican Party is how to get supporters of Christine Todd Whitman, Pete Wilson, George Pataki, and the like to unite behind a presidential nominee about whom supporters of Jesse Helms and Phil Gramm will be enthusiastic as well. Given the predominance of southern conservatives in the Republican congressional leadership, and the great influence of the new Christian right in Republican primaries, this is likely to be a substantial obstacle to the party's hopes of regaining the White House.

In contrast, Republican congressional prospects look better than they have in at least forty years. The party is almost certain to gain House seats in 1998, given the historical pattern in which the President's party has lost seats in every off-year election since 1934. And it is hard to see how the Democratic senators who were elected in 1992 can do as well in the unfavorable midterm environment they are likely to face in 1998. The prospects are therefore good that the Republican Party will enter the election of 2000 with a substantially stronger hold on Congress than it enjoyed in 1996 -- one that even a Democratic presidential landslide might not be able to overcome. In sum, the era of divided government is likely to be with us for some time.

If one is satisfied with elections in which the majority of the population stays home and those who go to the polls rarely confer power on either party, then the conclusion of The New American Voter will ring true. For many others, though, this book will serve as a reminder that scholarly consensus has yet to be reached about the gravity of America's problems of declining turnout, a weakening party system, and the absence of mandates in elections.