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Who are the voters in America's elections?

  • 5 min to read
America's voters

I can’t say for sure that this is the most fragmented electorate ever, but it must be close.

How fragmented is it?

To find out, I have divided voters into the varying categories for this presidential election. They overlap in places. They also contain inconsistencies because, well, voters are inconsistent. I have avoided attaching a category to a political party because, apart from the first category on the list, they could be in either party or on none at all.

My categories:

Party Loyalists: These are people who became attached to a party through some political osmosis (family, friends, personal history, etc.) and remain committed to that party no matter the candidate. Known to say, “I would vote for a yellow dog before I would vote for a .. “, they can be counted on.

Economic Conservatives: These voters oppose governmental regulations (state or federal) that curtail their activities. These regulations might be financial (banking, currency), environmental (the Environmental Protection Agency), trade (tariffs) and regulatory taxes. They favor free trade and low taxes and oppose government spending that does not promote the economy. This opposition forces them to engage in debates that most people do not consider economic — for example, denying man-made climate change because it would lead to regulations on fossil fuels.

Economic Liberals: They oppose governmental policies (state or federal) that favor the well-to-do over the majority of citizens. They want the financial system (banks, etc.) regulated, the environment protected and they favor using taxation to control both individual and corporate activities not in the general interest.

Social Conservatives: Like economic conservatives, they oppose governmental regulations that curtail the activities of individuals, though they would not carry this as far as Libertarians. At the same time, they support vigorous state action for the order and security of society (“law and order”). Their view of what constitutes social conservatism is often influenced by religious beliefs.

Social Liberals: Although they differ from social conservatives on specific issues, they also oppose governmental regulations that curtail the activities of individuals. The question becomes one of which activities should be curtailed. For example: Social Conservatives are more likely to be “absolutists” on constitutional issues such as gun control, while Social Liberals are more likely to consider gun control essential to the order and security of society. Social Liberals are more likely to be “absolutists” on constitutional issues like personal privacy, which Social Conservatives are more likely to consider police powers (like “stop and frisk”) essential to the order and security of society.

Faith-based voters: While these are most often identified as evangelicals, there are many members of churches outside the evangelical fold who make political decisions based on deeply held religious beliefs — Catholics, Jews, non-evangelical Protestants.

Faith-based voters are not monolithic and at times they vote against a position their church has taken. For example, some Catholics favor the death penalty although their church opposes it. (Such contradictions are found in every category, and when they exist, the source is usually personal as opposed to political.) Faith-based voters also take a stand on foreign-policy issues — especially in the Middle East, where, for some, support for Israel is an article of faith. The belief that the return of Jesus depends on the Jews being back in Jerusalem motivates many in this group. Dispensational pre-millennialism baffles most mainline Protestants and Catholics, but there are many who await the day. Some are even accused of wanting to hasten it along.

Libertarians: These are voters who want to do away with all governmental regulations that limit the activities of individuals, with the exception of those that protect individuals from each other. In matters where the individual is only hurting themselves (drug use, for example), the decision would be up to the individual. Once again, using drug use as an example, there are contradictions. Libertarians make a distinction between individual activities that affect only the individual (smoking marijuana) and activities that affect others (driving under the influence).

Libertarians are not anarchists. They do not want to do away with the state. However, they do want to limit the state’s influence in the lives of its citizens. Among Libertarians, there is a strong strain of “don’t expect the government to bail you out if you screw up.” Not many Social Liberals are Libertarians.

Anti-establishment voters: Although every election has a “throw the bums out” element, it seems to be more prevalent this year. Perhaps it is because one presidential candidate is more clearly associated with the “elites” who have been running the country for as long as most voters can remember. It is interesting, and perhaps understandable, that voters are focusing on presidential candidates rather than members of Congress, though congress-folk are as much or more a part of the establishment under attack. The hope among anti-establishment voters is that a change at the top will result in change down the line. Fearing this might happen, our Founding Fathers set up constitutional checks and balances that make this sort of change unlikely.

Single-issue voters: These are often found in the categories already listed, but how they feel about a single issue will override anything else. For example, a voter might consider themselves an Economic Conservative but favor trade restrictions that would prevent companies from moving jobs to other countries. Another example would be a Social Conservative whose faith-based opinions cause them to favor governmental regulations that limit an individual’s ability to get an abortion. On the other hand, there are Economic Liberals who favor free trade. The North American Free Trade Agreement was a bipartisan creation.

Vote your prejudice voters: Once again, these voters have been around a long time. There were faith-based voters who opposed Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 because he was a Mormon. This year has produced a double-whammy for people who vote based on prejudices against race and gender. Not only have they had to endure a black man governing them, but there is a possibility that a woman will follow.

Vote your prejudice has taken many forms. As the nation becomes less white and more brown, neighborhoods change and communities become less cohesive. It happened in the 1960s and 1970s as all-white neighborhoods integrated and were then re-segregated by white-flight. This re-drew the political map of urban areas. Today it is doing the same to many of the suburbs to which whites fled. It follows that vote your prejudice plays a role in how a person feels about immigration, legal and illegal. Immigrants who change the complexion of the nation, who do not easily assimilate, are where the prejudice is focused.

Vote your fears: This can take many forms. It can be concern over who is most likely to get us into a major war (nuclear or otherwise) or is more likely to resolve international issues with diplomacy instead of conflict. It can also be closer to home — the fear to walk around the neighborhood at night. Either, or both, or others can motivate a voter.

Take your job into the voting booth: Many people will vote based on workplace experiences. These are as varied as the jobs themselves, from discussions I have had with friends and family, the job a person does, or wants to do, plays a role in how a person votes.

Why doesn’t the government care about me? voter: This is abundant. The guy whose house was foreclosed wants to know why banks get bailed out and he doesn’t. Add these voters to the anti-establishment group and you have a cohesive voting bloc.

Vision of America voter: Voters have always voted for the candidate who best articulates what the voter wants America to be. Many of these desires are expressed in categories listed above. This vision often is expressed in negative terms — a desire for an America different from the one that exists. At the same time, it requires the visionary to make what exists look as bad as possible .

Of course, a presidential candidate has to capture the votes in more than one of these categories to win. This means the candidate must moderate his or her views so they can appeal to voters in more than in a single category. This moderating has to be done carefully, for if the candidate goes too far, they might alienate voters in another category.

In the past, a candidate could tell one category of voters what they wanted to hear and, a few days later, tell voters in a different category what satisfied them. However, today with social media, recordings, video tapes and that whole electronic trail of information, what candidates say to voters in one category will likely come back to haunt them.

In other words, lying has become more difficult, but in a campaign where voters in certain categories are not interested in consistency, or even the truth, the voters’ impressions and opinions matter.

Obviously, no party can represent the interests of all these categories, but how a party appeals to some categories but not to others reveals much about how it will govern if its candidates are elected.

It also reveals which categories have the most to lose if their party loses.

How these different categories line up with the parties is what I plan to watch as the election draws closer.

Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and occasional OpEd and Features writer for The Star. Email: reached at hjackson@jsu.edu.

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