Voter motivations, pinning down a narrative

October 24, 2018

Mike Kajfasz, a retired cement mason from Toledo, sat in his car outside of the Lucas County early voting center, window cracked, a Camel Blue hanging from the side of his mouth. 


His wife worked inside and although he had not yet voted in the upcoming midterm election, he planned on it. 


I’m taking in “a little bit of everything,” Kajfasz said when asked what exactly motivated him to cast a ballot. 


Politicians, columnists and election analysts drove a score of voter motivation narratives into the public ahead of the midterms: suburban women pushing a blue wave as a backlash against President Donald Trump and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh; an enthusiastic conservative base riding the energy of a won’t-back-down president; Progressives energizing marginalized portions of the population; party leaders dangling health care, entitlement programs and immigration in front of their respective bases. 


Interviews with election experts and a handful of early voters spanning a range of demographics revealed a common theme: In an upcoming midterm with a dizzying mix of push factors, the vote in November follows precedent: The election is largely a check or approval of the party in power mixed with nuanced policy debates. 


Kajfasz said he would consider the politics of Trump and planned to vote Democratic. 


To him, it’s a check on the president, a necessary one acting as a barricade to what he called the “not [so] good” morals of the presidency - illustrated through the contentious Supreme Court nomination of Kavanaugh. 


But, like Jacque Camanita, a middle-aged woman of color rushing out of the polls and back to her car, to Kajfasz, it’s not just about Kavanaugh, Trump and a vote against the GOP’s behavior. It is about some of the less glamorous issues.


“I’m retired, so I don’t want anyone messing with medicare, and I have kids that need health care,” Kajfasz said.


“There’s no one over the other,” Camanita said. “I’d like to see the Trump [and] Kavanaugh thing taken care of, but that’s a long shot.” So, she said she absolutely thought about health care and social security. 

“[It’s] all of the above.” 


Robert Erikson, professor of political science at Columbia University and co-author of the book “American Public Opinion: Its Origins, Content, and Impact,” expected voters to consider a mix of issues.

He pointed out an almost inseparable congruence between hot-button national issues, policy and local matters.


“It’s hard to even separate them. [For example], economic issues are national issues,” Erikson said in a phone call interview with the Independent Collegian. 


“Voters are probably concerned about things we might think of as local or even very personal, like the personal economic social stature of what’s going on around them, in terms of their local community and, of course, that’s also affected by what’s going on at the national level; what the president, what congress is doing...It’s intertwined.”


Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank, dubbed the upcoming elections as a “nationalized midterm environment.” 


In terms of this narrative, Erikson said, to some degree, midterms are often like this. 


He pointed to the 2010 election when Republicans took back control of Congress during Barack Obama’s tenure. 


“In virtually every midterm election, the presidential party suffers losses so that’s based on national politics,” Erikson said. 


Bill Delaney, president of the Greater Toledo Republican Club, is motivated to keep the GOP in power and avoid the historically expected referendum on the party in power. 


He said that Republicans he has spoken with are also focused on specific issues including education, health care and social security. 


“What we have in Washington right now, we’ve been waiting for a long time,” Delaney said. “The Republican Party has answers. The Democratic Party doesn’t seem to suggest anything, nor do they have any answers on anything.”


Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the University of Virginia Center for Politics’ nonpartisan newsletter on American campaigns and elections, said a focus on nationalized issues in the polls is part of a larger trend.


He spoke in a phone call interview with the Independent Collegian. 


“I would say that recent midterms have been nationalized, maybe this one is more so,” Kondik said. “But, I think there has been a trend in American Politics for further nationalization. Part of that is that the parties are more ideologically internally similar than they used to be.”


He added, when “there aren’t as many conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans as there used to be,” voters tend to move along party lines.


Voter motivations are derived based on anecdotal points, polling and framed by outside groups. Individuals casting ballots take in personal experiences and ultimately cast a decision that may not be collected from external analysis.


As stated in the text “Voting Behavior: Traditional Paradigms and Contemporary Challenges,” “Comprehending how and why voters behave the way they do is an important aspect in understanding the outcomes of political campaigns and evaluating the health of a democracy.”


“While decades of political science research have shed considerable light on this subject, there is still a great deal of controversy about the relative weight of specific influences and how widely applicable these findings are.”


Whatever the motivation in this specific cycle - whether it’s Kavanaugh, Trump, the economy, immigration, pre-existing medical conditions or simply the allure of a party wave - voters will cast their ballots in just over two weeks.


Kondik presented a prevailing mood ahead of the vote, underscoring the range of factors at play: “This election is kind of complicated…”

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