Why voters vote as they do


By Lee Hamilton

Maybe it’s just a professional preoccupation, but I’ve always been intrigued by why voters cast their ballots as they do. I’ve talked with plenty of them over the years, and one thing sticks with me from those conversations: There’s no one thing.

Some care mostly about a single issue — abortion, say, or climate change — and if a politician doesn’t meet muster, they don’t give her or him a second glance. Or they care about a candidate’s ideology or party and feel no need to look beyond the label.

Sometimes, it’s not so much ideology as what a party’s leaders stand for. I remember asking one man in my district how he voted and why. He responded, “I always vote for FDR.” This was years after Roosevelt had died. “FDR’s not on the ticket any more,” I told him. He laughed and said he knew that, but he always voted for whoever he believed would vote in accord with Roosevelt’s principles.

What has always struck me, though, is that voters also find more particular reasons to cast a ballot. Sometimes, they care about a particular project — a road, a new school or some other piece of infrastructure.

Sometimes, public policy has nothing to do with it. Over the years, I’ve noticed that likability matters a great deal, and may override everything else.

I still remember an intriguing conversation with a group of Democratic women who told me they planned to vote for Ronald Reagan. Given their party affiliation, this surprised me. One explained, “Well, I like the way he treats his wife,” which drew nods from others in the room — they saw in Reagan’s graciousness toward Nancy a sign of character. I’m confident they weren’t the only ones.

In general, Americans seem to like candidates who display a basic sense of decency and show compassion for people who are struggling in their lives. I’m reminded of a conversation I had early one frosty morning, standing at a plant gate. An election was coming up, and I asked a man striding past me how he planned to vote. He was supporting the same ticket I was running on, he told me, adding, “I vote for the candidate I think will help the ordinary guy.”

That’s a very American sentiment: We back candidates we think will bear our interests in mind and reflect our concerns. However we define them.

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