Article Review: The Two Faces of Issue Voting

Edward G. Carmines and James A. Stimson. 1980. “The Two Faces of Issue Voting,” American Political Science Review. 74: 78-90.  Also partly reprinted in Classics in Voting Behavior, pp. 114-118.

The article, The Two Faces of Issue Voting, attempts to clarify the “issues” that cause the voting phenomenon. Carmines and Stimson claim that the phenomenon transcends via “hard” and “easy” ways, which are “theoretically different and empirically identifiable types” (114).

Hard issue voting occurs when informed constituents research political issues that concern their lives and their vote “is the final result of a sophisticated decision calculus” (114).  Hard issues, based on the Downsian tradition, occur in more sophisticated individuals with the necessary “conceptual skills” (114). The authors use withdrawal from the Vietnam War as an example because of the “pragmatic, not symbolic” issue that faces voters.

Easy issue voting is the result of long held and symbolic beliefs within the voter. These individuals do not vote based on a calculated analysis of policy issues. Easy issues require time (they have been in the voters’ mind for a long time) and simplicity (for this or anti-that) to take root and are symbolic rather than technical. This is because easy issues are about policy conclusions—the final result that the constituents’ must endure. The authors’ example of easy issue voting is racial desegregation because it is symbolic and not practical.

Thus, according to the authors, “the distinction between them (hard and easy issues) is fundamental, that they involve different prerequisite conditions, different voters, and different interpretations…” (114). Some voters make a choice at the ballot box based on their ingrained attitude (easy), while other sophisticated voters analyze and cast a vote because of research and thoughtful analysis (hard). The authors suggest that “the South is not unusually sophisticated” because there is a disproportionate amount of easy issue voters as compared to other regions (117).

Interestingly enough, the Vietnam War could have been an easy issue and desegregation a hard issue “if voters saw them that way” (117). Easy issue voting infiltrates the electorate and then fades until the next political alignment. The authors suggest, “by that time the easy issues associated with the New Deal had declined in salience but had not yet been replaced by the emerging issue of race” (118). Further, in between new political alignments, hard issues tend to be the focus of the political discussions for the elections.

I suggest that for future research political scientists examine today’s current “easy” and “hard” issues within the electorate. Certainly, the 2008 American election was exciting and America elected its first Black president. The 1960s “easy” issue of race has certainly changed. But what are today’s “easy” issues?

For example, like the Vietnam War, are the multiple wars waged overseas by America (President Obama) still “hard” issues? Or do the voters believe in their gut that the President should stop foreign drone strikes (and wars)? Is it possible that the “hard” issue of warring upon other nations whom never attached the U.S. became an “easy” issue in this decade? Would this variable be influenced by the national debt or another gut reaction?

In the end, Carmines and Stimson suggest that “easy” issue voting is the recognition of new political alignments via issues that sit in the gut of the voter. “Hard” issues “long-term impact is likely to be inconsequential…” until the “hard” issue is transformed into an “easy” issue (118). Thus, political scientists should study the two faces of issue voting and create another model for predicting elections.


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  1. Pingback: Review for American Politics Comp. Exams | Political Pipeline

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