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date: 19 October 2019

Introduction

Abstract and Keywords

This text evaluates the intellectual developments and challenges in the field of American elections and political behavior. The organization of the volume was guided by two observations. First, that the study of American elections and political behavior reflects both the advances and challenges of seeking to understand the political world through empirical scientific approaches. Second, that the realities of American elections and political behavior have changed over the past fifty years. This book discusses the issues in research design, primarily highlighting the varied approaches that mark the field today. It also concentrates on laboratory and field experiments, along with formal modeling. It then shifts to the more ‘substantive’ topics of political participation, vote choice, and interests in American electoral politics. The non-presidential elections are also described. Furthermore, overviews and critical analyses of the study of individuals, elections, and representation are presented.

Keywords: American elections, political behavior, non-presidential elections, research design, political participation, vote choice, laboratory experiments, field experiments

The study of American elections and political behavior has been at the core of our understanding of the vitality (or frailty) of American democracy for decades. Prior to the use of nationally representative public opinion surveys in the late 1940s and 1950s, a handful of scholars relied primarily on aggregate‐level analyses, quasi‐experimental designs, and intensive case studies to assess what and how citizens thought about politics, made political choices, and otherwise engaged in the rituals and mechanisms of American politics. Most of what we knew about electoral behavior indicated that the electoral foundations of our democracy were alive and well, functioning as expected in many respects.

Fifty years later, scholars have significantly expanded the theoretical approaches and analytical tools used to study American elections and political behavior. Importantly, these innovations have not only been used to revisit old questions, but have also led to addressing new ones. This accumulated knowledge is the focus of this volume.

My hope for the Handbook was to offer a set of thoughtful essays assessing the intellectual developments and challenges in the field of American elections and political behavior. Beyond those broad overviews, I also hoped for incisive commentary and creative proposals of the scholarly work that lies ahead, identifying those questions—new and old—that merit our attention. I believe that the scholars who accepted this charge have handsomely met these expectations. As you read these chapters, their arguments, analyses, and proposed research agendas should engage you to think more fully, and perhaps differently, about the study of American elections and political behavior.

(p. 4) Organization

The chapters that follow are intended to cover a wide range of original research on American elections and political behavior. Rather than thinking of them as a comprehensive set of topics, however, one should think of them as broadly representative of the past several decades in the study of electoral behavior. There are undoubtedly missed opportunities here, the result of limited pages, time constraints, and necessary choices about what represents the key issues in studying American elections and political behavior.

The organization of the volume, as well as the particular chapter topics, were guided by two observations. First, that the study of American elections and political behavior, though diverse, nonetheless reflects both the advances and challenges of seeking to understand the political world through empirical scientific approaches. Since the 1950s, we have accumulated a huge body of literature, one that has both expanded and deepened our knowledge, but also one that has exposed new, unanswered questions. This is the nature of scientific inquiry, however, and the topics addressed in this volume represent—individually and in combination—the key intellectual contours of these scientific developments.

Second, independent of these scholarly approaches, the realities of American elections and political behavior have changed over the past fifty years. Many ballots are now cast prior to election day and new types of elections and voting technology have potentially challenged the very meaning of campaigns and voting. We have an increasingly diverse and mobile electorate, as well as a growing set of technology‐based channels for citizens and elected officials to use in communicating with each other. Assessing the field would thus be incomplete if we did not consider the extent to which we have, intellectually speaking, “kept up” with these “real world” changes. Documenting these changes in election practices and political behaviors and understanding their consequences are also especially important for policymakers and practitioners. To the extent that we fully address these issues, our research becomes more relevant.

Reflecting the scientific nature of our work, then, the volume begins with a section on issues in research design, primarily highlighting the varied approaches that mark the field today. Chapters focusing on the perennial issue of question‐wording and survey design, and the challenges of new technologies for survey research design, remind us that even our standard approaches need to be constantly evaluated and improved. Other chapters focus on laboratory and field experiments, along with formal modeling. As many of these authors note, unlike decades past, the variety of methods with which scholars are working today allow us to make stronger inferences about the causal relationships we are typically most interested in.

(p. 5)

Following this section, the volume shifts to the more “substantive” topics of political participation, vote choice, and interests in American electoral politics, addressing the key questions that have occupied scholars of American political behavior over the past several decades. Who participates? In what ways? How do citizens decide who to vote for? What issues, interests, and identities matter—and under what circumstances? What influence do campaigns have on citizens' choices? These chapters convey much of the central core of our scholarship on American elections, and are key to understanding electoral behavior, both past and present.

However, most of these studies focus almost exclusively on behavior and choice in presidential elections. And so Part VI of the volume highlights non‐presidential elections. As many of these authors argue, looking beyond presidential elections provides scholars the opportunity to assess the extent to which different institutional and political contexts influence citizens' political behavior, but also the extent to which the findings of studies focusing exclusively on presidential elections can be generalized beyond those particular elections. Importantly, this change of venue also requires asking some new, and very interesting, questions.

The next section, “Elites and Institutions,” is perhaps the most striking example of how we as a field have moved our scientific knowledge forward over the past several decades. Over the last two decades the theoretical import of elites and institutions to understanding electoral behavior has increased dramatically. The general argument is that we cannot understand the behavior of the mass public fully without incorporating the actions, resources, and strategies of political elites such as candidates, elected officials, groups or parties. (Doing so from a comparative perspective—getting outside the American “box”—is yet another way of doing so.) Authors of chapters in this section provide strong and persuasive evidence that electoral behavior in any form reflects the incentives and capabilities of citizen and elites alike.

The volume concludes with three chapters that provide overviews and critical analyses of the study of individuals, elections, and representation. Though these three concluding chapters are somewhat varied in their approaches, they each nonetheless underscore the centrality of American elections to American democracy: to the extent that elections allow the interests and preferences of individuals to be clearly conveyed to candidates competing for office, we are one step closer to the democratic ideal that those who are in positions of power will exercise it on behalf of those they represent.

And that is really why we care, is it not? We study American elections and political behavior because we know they matter for the nature of democracy and representation. Decades ago, the adoption of more systematic, scientific modes of research, along with a greater reliance on quantitative methods, led some to argue that this intellectual shift would lead scholars to focus on irrelevant and unimportant questions. I would argue that the essays in this volume elegantly refutes this claim. Instead, our increasing methodological sophistication, motivated (p. 6) by broader theoretical concerns, has collectively spoken clearly and loudly to fundamental issues of representation and democracy. Certainly there is more to be done. But what we know now on these important matters is in stunning contrast to what we knew several decades ago. I hope that reading these chapters will convince you on this point as well.