Issues, Ideology, Gender, and Race in the 2008 Election

On Friday, October 17, 2008, CSDP and the Brookings Institution held the third of five seminars on this year's election: Issues, Ideology, Gender, and Race in the 2008 Election.

Moderated by LARRY BARTELS, Director, Center for the Study of Democratic Politics, Donald E. Stokes Professor of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, and THOMAS E. MANN, Senior Fellow, Governance Studies, The Brookings Institution, panelists were: SUNSHINE HILLYGUSFrederick S. Danziger Associate Professor of Government, Harvard University;  DARON SHAWAssociate Professor of Government, University of Texas at Austin; and SHANKAR VEDANTAMColumnist, Washington Post

Following is a small sampling of intriguing comments -- for the full transcript, click here.

Thomas Mann: ...the first two sessions of our seminars have talked about the powerful forces of partisanship, the economy, and the President’s political standing, and leading to a huge advantage for the Democratic Party. This was evident in our last seminar three weeks ago, which was really before the financial meltdown. 

But we now know that after the most recent and dramatic economic developments and the four debates, three presidential and once vice presidential, the campaign narrative seems to be reinforcing the election fundamentals rather than diverting from those fundamentals. So a natural question to ask is, could that change in the remaining days of the campaign?...

Larry Bartels: ...We expect the candidates to tell us in their speeches and their ads about their positions on a whole range of issues. We expect voters to listen carefully to what the candidates say and weigh the candidate’s positions in comparison with their own convictions and make a choice of candidates on the basis of their issue position. And then we expect the election to enforce responsiveness by having put the candidate in office who’s closest to the voter’s issue positions, who then implements those policies, and so people get policy outcomes that are close to what they wanted in the way of policies with respect to all the issues that they care about.                     

That’s mostly not what happens. This progressive ideal that dates back for a century in American politics conflicts with most of what we’ve observed about the way voters actually behave and about the way the political process and the connection between elections and policy actually works....

Daron Shaw: ...Obama has just put together an organization like none we’ve ever seen. And it really is striking for a person who’s not an incumbent and who doesn’t have the backing of an incumbent political party. He’s put this together on his own, and it’s a stunning campaign. And I don’t – as a matter of fact, I think – and we talked a little bit about this last night at dinner, I think that whatever race effect there is, there’s a good chance it will be offset by the ground game and the campaign organization that Obama has put in place.

Now, I don’t want to underestimate race, it’s obviously historically and traditionally such a dominant factor in American politics, but I’m not so sure that you’re not going to see these things sort of balance out, so we end up getting a result that looks a lot like the polls we see the night before the election.

Sunshine Hillygus: ... most people don’t know about the whole range of issues, that oftentimes those issues do not necessarily align with their party affiliation, and so they begin the campaign with a bit of a dilemma. They might agree with one candidate on one issue, they might agree with the other candidate – affiliate with the other candidate’s party identification, or agree with the other candidate on a different issue. And so the role of the campaign is to determine, of these tensions, which one wins out. And so you have the small business owner who might be a member of the Sierra Club, the pro life Catholic who also wants increased spending on the poor, the union member who owns a gun, and what they have to do is, over the course of the campaign, decide which of their considerations, which of these important considerations are going to win out. 

In estimating the size of these kind of torn or cross pressured people, I estimate them about a third of the electorate. And so that very much is a large enough number of people to make a difference.

And again, these are people who agree with each of the candidates on something they care about. The view of the persuadable voter is actually quite different from what you read in the headlines....
Shankar Vedantam: ... I spent a lot of time this last weekend in a town in northwest Pennsylvania.      I’m going to tell you about two voters....Both Joe and Jill were in their late ‘60’s, they’ve been straight Democratic ticket voters for about 40 years, both of them very blue collar town with very strong union instincts, it’s been decimated by the economy. 
Joe works at a light bulb factory that has really gone downhill over the last 15 or 20 years. You know, the number of people employed at this light bulb factory has dropped by an order of magnitude in about 20 years. Joe is very strongly against free trade -- he wants the country to erect trade barriers and impose tariffs on products coming in. He is very concerned about outsourcing. And when you look at these issues, it would seem to be a no brainer where he should stand on this particular campaign between Obama and McCain.
Similarly, Jill has spent several decades as a union organizer, and has also been a straight Democratic ticket voter for about three or four decades. She cares intensely about the abortion issue and is intensely pro choice.
What I found striking is that both Joe and Jill told me that they were extremely ambivalent when it came to this election, and were torn between the two candidates. And I tried to press them and tried to understand where they were coming from, because it seemed to me, at least from where I was coming from, that – it didn’t seem very complicated how they should think about these two candidates and I was trying to understand how they were thinking about it. 
So Joe told me his concerns about Obama were that he just didn’t know where Obama stood, he just felt that he couldn’t trust where Obama stood, he wasn’t quite sure where Obama stood, he didn’t have a good feel for Obama, which I think had something to do with race, even though he explicitly said that race was not a factor in his thinking at all.
Jill actually said that race was an explicit factor in how she was thinking about the race. And she said she was particularly concerned that if an African American man became president, she was afraid that whites would now have to go to the back of the bus, as she says that blacks had historically been at the back of the bus, but now whites would have to go to the back of the bus.
And this was really interesting. She said she had a long conversation with her sister, who was an Obama supporter, and they were having this debate about who to support. The sister’s argument was, remember, Obama is half white, and if he’s half white, that must mean he must care at least some about white people, which means he’s not going to send all the white people to the back of the bus, because, you know, he’s half white. And this argument appealed tremendously to Jill, and she said, yes, if he is half white, then maybe he’s not going to discriminate against white voters, and it’s prompted her to generally feel that she’s going to support Obama, although she doesn’t feel passionately about it....



About this site

The mission of Princeton’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at the Woodrow Wilson School is to promote empirical research on democratic processes and institutions.  That broad mandate has attracted a diverse collection of faculty, students, and visitors pursuing a wide variety of research topics. However, the American electoral process has been a recurrent focus of interest for many of the scholars associated with CSDP and a frequent topic of conferences, colloquia, and other events sponsored by the Center.  As the 2008 campaign unfolds, we thought it might be helpful and fun to collect the election-related research, analyses, and offbeat insights of our extended scholarly community, both for our own edification and as a resource for others interested in how political scientists are thinking about the election.  We welcome contributions, comments, and suggestions. For more about the people and activities of CSDP, please visit our website, To post a comment, click the "speech bubble."

  — Larry M. Bartels, Director

Recent Entries

  • What the 2008 Election Meant: Politics and Governance

    On Friday, November 14, CSDP and the Brookings Institution co-sponsored the final seminar of the Election 2008 series:PanelistsJohn HarwoodChief Washington Correspondent, CNBC; Political Writer, New York...

  • How Obama Survived the Culture War

    Much of this year’s Republican presidential campaign consisted of a series of blistering attacks portraying the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, as an elitist, a celebrity,...

  • Election Debriefing

    I’ve already seen lots of excellent political science post-mortems on the election. John Sides has had a particularly good series of posts at Monkey Cage attempting to...

  • A Few Questions for the President-Elect

    Two days after Senator Obama’s historic victory, the President-Elect has begun assembling the men and women who will guide his decision-making for the next four...

  • Campaign Effects in the 2008 Election: Money, Ads, and Mobilization

    On Friday, October 31, 2008, CSDP and the Brookings Institution held the fourth of five seminars on this year's election: Campaign Effects in the 2008 Election:...