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Many factors influence voters during presidential elections. The voter’s background, party identification and view of the government’s past performance are some of the important influences. This lesson examines influences on voter behavior.

Voter Behavior

Did you vote in the last presidential election? If so, whom did you vote for and why? Many different factors influence voters during presidential elections. Let’s take a look at voter behavior during presidential elections.

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The study of voter behavior is an examination of why people voted the way they did.Many Americans closely follow political issues, but studies show that most do not. Most Americans therefore make their political decisions, and voting decisions, based on factors other than the issues.These factors include:

  • The voter’s background and identification with the candidates
  • The voter’s party identification
  • The voter’s view of the incumbent’s previous performance

For many voters, their impressions regarding particular candidates and political parties are deep-rooted. Most voters already know how they will vote, even in the early stages of a campaign. It is rare for campaigns to change the minds of voters, though sometimes a campaign can successfully sway enough voters to influence the predicted outcome of an election.Consider the 2012 presidential election.

Various polls showed that only around 10% of registered voters claimed to be undecided in the two months prior to Election Day. Of those 10%, approximately 40% claimed to be leaning toward a particular candidate. Also note that, of those 10%, only 61% were classified as likely to vote at all.


A voter’s background has the largest influence on that voter’s decision. Voter background means the voter’s social identity, such as economic class, ethnicity, gender, race and religious preference. Often, a candidate will purposely gear campaign messages to particular voters, using a theme that conveys sameness. This sameness can be based on the general background, appearance or even the personality of the candidate.

However, sometimes voters identify with a candidate even without that candidate purposely catering to commonality. Either way, voters tend to vote for the candidate that seems most like them.For example, 95% of African-Americans who voted in the 2008 election voted for African-American candidate Barack Obama. Of those African-Americans who voted in the 2012 election, 93% voted for Obama’s reelection.In the 2008 primary elections, more women than men voted for female candidate Hillary Clinton.

However, female minorities still tended to vote for Obama, and Obama won the Democratic nomination over Clinton.In 1960, John F. Kennedy was poised to become our nation’s first elected Catholic president. He won, with nearly 78% of Catholic voters casting their votes for Kennedy.

Party Identification

Now let’s take a look at the influence of a voter’s party. A voter’s party identification directly influences that voter’s decision. By party identification, we mean not just a voter’s party affiliation but also a voter’s psychological attachment to a particular political party. Notably, close to 90% of voters affiliated with a political party vote for that party’s candidate in presidential elections.American voters tend to learn and adopt whichever party affiliation most influenced their childhoods.

Those raised in a family of Democrats usually identify themselves as politically liberal, while those raised in a family of Republicans usually identify themselves as politically conservative.However, this is not always the case. The number of voters identifying themselves as ‘Independent’ is on the rise, though 89% of those voters claim to lean toward a particular political party. Note that these Independents are almost as likely to support a political party’s candidate as those voters who openly affiliate themselves with that party.

Incumbent’s Performance

Next, let’s look at how incumbent status can influence a voter’s decision.

A voter’s view of an incumbent’s previous performance greatly influences that voter’s decision. Most presidential elections feature an incumbent candidate. Incumbent refers to the candidate who currently holds that particular political office. Since Obama was elected president in 2008, he was an incumbent, seeking reelection, in 2012. Because a president is limited to serving no more than two terms, the 2016 presidential election will not feature an incumbent.Unseating an incumbent president is difficult. For an incumbent to lose an election, some of the voters who voted for the incumbent in the previous election must switch allegiance.

Many voters view an incumbent’s performance based on the state of the national economy. When the economy is doing well, an incumbent has a good chance at reelection. The incumbent typically enjoys support from those affiliated with his or her party and will also gain the support of many Independents. However, when the economy is doing poorly, an incumbent might still enjoy support of those who identify with his or her party but won’t likely gain the support of Independents.In recent history, both Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush lost campaigns for reelection.

Carter, a Democrat, lost his reelection bid in 1980 to Republican candidate Ronald Reagan. Carter’s administration faced an unprecedented energy crisis that led to high oil and gasoline prices, plus shortages. These problems, plus steady inflation, contributed to his defeat.Democrat Bill Clinton defeated Republican President Bush, Sr. in the 1992 presidential election.

Bush reneged on a 1988 campaign promise to oppose tax increases and was widely faulted for a weak recovery from economic recession.

Political Issues

Lastly, let’s examine the role of political issues. Though popularly thought to be the most influential factor, voters rarely make voting decisions based on specific political issues.Political issues are situations or matters related to politics or policy choices. In a modern campaign, this might include issues like the economy, gay marriage or gun control. Voters typically make initial voting decisions based on the previously mentioned factors, then sometimes narrow their choices based on current political issues. Even those voters who claim to be interested in policy issues usually vote along party lines.

To these voters, specific political issues are of secondary importance.During the campaign season, candidates often adjust and publicize positions they hope will be the most appealing to voters. A politician’s or political party’s campaign position on political issues is known as a platform. For example, in the 2012 election, Obama’s campaign slogan was ‘Forward.’ His platform was to move the country forward on political issues, including education, healthcare, jobs and energy independence.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review.

Studying voter behavior means an examination of why people voted the way they did. Most Americans make voting decisions based on factors other than the issues, like:

  • The voter’s background, or social identity, such as economic class, ethnicity, gender, race and religious preference
  • The voter’s party identification, or voter’s party affiliation and psychological attachment to a particular political party
  • The voter’s view of the incumbent’s performance, or how well the candidate who currently holds that office functioned while in office

Secondarily, voters also consider political issues. These are situations or matters related to politics or policy choices, such as the economy, healthcare, gay marriage and gun control.

Learning Outcomes

Upon completing this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Describe three main factors that voters consider during a presidential election
  • Identify examples of political issues that voters consider as well as their importance to voters

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