Campaigns and elections

Attraction, repulsion, and the 2008 election

Jan 28 '09

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In 2008, Americans were much more likely than they had ever been before to vote on the basis of their attraction to one of a presidential candidate rather than their repulsion by another candidate.

At least that’s the conclusion that follows from election survey results dating back to 1964, which seems to have been the first year in which the question that evoked these responses was ever included in a national survey. For several years I’ve been tracking what survey respondents say when they’re asked, first, which presidential candidate they had just voted for or were getting ready to vote for, and, second, whether their vote was really FOR that candidate or AGAINST his opponent.

In every campaign from 1964 through 2004, at least one out of every four voters was motivated more by repulsion than by attraction. (The bars for 1968, 1972, and 1976 are missing because the question wasn’t asked in those years.) Anti-candidate voting peaked at 44% in 1980 (when unusually large percentages of those voting for Jimmy Carter were really voting against Ronald Reagan, and vice-versa) and at 42% in 1996 (when a disproportionate number of those who voted for Bob Dole were really registering their distaste for Bill Clinton).

The 2008 election deviated sharply from the previous norm. In 2008 just 18% of those voting saw themselves as being motivated more by a negative assessment of one candidate than by a positive assessment of the other candidate.

The 2008 voters were not equal-opportunity pro-candidate voters. Predictably, Obama voters were overwhelmingly in the “positive” camp: 82% of them said they were voting for Obama rather than against McCain. By contrast, only 63% of McCain voters were motivated primarily by their positive feelings about McCain.

These 2008 figures represent a huge turnaround from the situation just four years earlier. In 2004, only 41% of those who voted for Kerry were actually voting FOR Kerry; 50% of them were using Kerry primarily as an instrument for registering their opposition to George W. Bush. Meanwhile, 76% of the Bush voters were attracted to him and only 21% were voting for him as a means of expressing their lack of support for Kerry.

So, compared to 2004, in 2008 the Democrats were much more successful in giving voters someone to vote FOR, and the Republicans were less successful in doing so.