Election 2012

Lebanon Valley College

Are you a Prospective, Retrospective, or Median Voter?

By Chris Dolan, associate professor of political science and international studies

Political scientists stress three basic factors in understanding how citizens will vote in any election.  First, citizens may base their vote on political party affiliation.  Put simply, you will vote for Mitt Romney because he is a Republican.  Second, voters are likely to view personality and/or character as most important.  Let’s face it, there will be millions of people who will vote for President Obama because they believe he understands people like them.  Last but certainly not least, voters may gravitate toward a candidate’s stand on the issues regardless of personality or party.  These are complex voters who tend to be independent.

These three factors tend to explain certain “types” of voters.  Prospective voters believe elections provide people with real choices and alternatives.  These voters presume that each party is a cohesive and unified organization that takes clear policy positions with the result being that the winning party will do exactly what it promised.

A retrospective voter assumes voters make reflective judgments about how well incumbents have performed while in office.  In effect, citizens will reward incumbents with their vote if they believe he or she was successful in office.  You will vote for Obama if you believe he has performed well in office or punish him if he made things worse.  However, citizens will only punish Obama by voting for his Republican opponent if they believe the GOP presents a stronger, more legitimate alternative to Obama.

Median voters prefer that both political parties move towards the center of the political spectrum.  This approach calls for both parties to compete for votes by taking the most popular positions they can, thereby moderating themselves based on popular opinion.  However, in doing so, both parties are likely to support the same policies, which are those favored by the most people.  The key idea is that both parties, competing for votes, tend to take policy stands near the median of public opinion.

Given that Republicans tend to be much more conservative than Democrats on a number of economic and social issues provides voters with a measure of democratic control by enabling them to detect differences and make choices.  But since the U.S. is a two-party system with third parties having little chance of winning office, how much real choice do voters have on Election Day?

Are Republicans really all that different from Democrats?  Will Romney present voters with a real and clear alternative in November?

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