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The Kitchen Table: Interview With Pew's Scott Keeter

Sandhya Somashekhar

Keeter headshot.jpgFor this week's installment of "The Kitchen Table," a regular feature about Virginia voters, we asked Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center in Washington and one of the nation's prominent thinkers on the subject of voter behavior, some questions about what makes voters tick.

Keeter has authored and co-authored several books and papers, including "What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters," and "A New Engagement? Political Participation, Civic Life, and the Changing American Citizen." A Virginia resident, he has been a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and George Mason University.

The Post: Why do some people vote and others don't?

Keeter: Even though most people realize that their individual vote will probably not be the deciding factor in an election, most people realize that collectively their votes matter in determining the outcome. Still, many people don't vote, especially in off-year elections that don't have the high level of mobilization that presidential years do. Those who do vote tend to be older, better-educated and more affluent. That's true even in presidential elections, but is especially true in state races. The people who vote in elections like the Virginia or New Jersey gubernatorial and legislative elections tend to be perennially engaged in politics and better-informed than the average voter.

The Post: In your research you talk about polarization. What is the impact of polarization on voter engagement?

Keeter: The term implies lots of distance between you and the people you disagree with. In a polarized climate you may think you have a greater stake in the outcome of an election because you think the opposition will pursue -- or are pursuing -- a very different set of policies than you prefer.

The thing that contributes to a lack of polarization and a lack of intensity in elections like the one we have this fall is the absence of information. Voters don't know a whole lot about either of the major-party candidates. Part of the reason is there is such a large percentage living in Northern Virginia who are really out of the media loop of Richmond. With all due respect to the political coverage by The Post, the fact is The Washington Post, local television stations, The Washington Times and even the upstart newspapers have to split their coverage among three jurisdictions and national politics. So, despite the fact that Northern Virginians have such high levels of education and are quite interested in politics, they tend to be relatively uniformed about state politics.

The Post: Why does the electorate tend to swing back and forth, supporting one party for a few elections and then voting in the other side?

Keeter: Basically, when one party's in control for a period of time, you just accumulate more and more opponents because of decisions that you make. We saw that with the size and tremendous intensity of opposition to the GOP in the latter years of George W. Bush's time in office. Right now in Virginia you've got an economic downturn and eight years of Democrats in the governor's mansion, so you have some ready-made arguments based on the "time for a change" theme that could help the Republicans.

The Post: In Virginia, why do so many voters appear to split their tickets, voting for both Republicans and Democrats in the same election?

Keeter: In the elections last fall in Virginia, about one in five of those who voted for Mark Warner also voted for John McCain for president. Overall, about 15% of Virginia voters split their ticket. In our national polling, we find that 80 to 85 percent of people either identify with or lean toward a party. People who lean toward a party tend to vote for that party, and when I say tend to, I mean a large majority. So ticket-splitting is not all that common.

But Virginia is like a lot of states especially in the South, where you still have vestiges of the old system from earlier in the 20th Century in the aftermath of the New Deal. You had a lot of people who were Democrats but were ideologically not in tune with the national party. That disjunction was exacerbated by the rise of the Civil Rights movement and the national Democratic Party's support of it. There are still plenty of conservative Democrats in Virginia.

The Post: As a reporter, I am sometimes dispatched to the polls on Election Day and find that voters often have very personal and occasionally irrational reasons for casting their vote for one candidate or the other. Yet I am always amazed at how, as a group, they make rational choices. How do you explain that?

Keeter: Most people vote for the candidate closer to them on important issues. In exit polls in 2004 we asked questions like, 'Do you approve or disapprove of the war in Iraq.' What we found is that a very large majority voted in a way that was consistent with their view of that issue. The same was true for abortion in 2004. People who thought it should be illegal in all or most cases voted for Bush, and those who said it should be legal voted for Kerry. There is a consistency that makes people look pretty rational in their choices. I would argue that the vast majority are rational.

Here's the clinker in this: The fact is, our political position nationally is pretty well balanced right now in terms of left and right, conservative and liberal. So the power in elections -- and this is true also in Virginia -- is held not by the ideologues and those people who are very consistent in their views but by a smaller group of people in the middle who are not sure what they think or are very conflicted about things.

By Sandhya Somashekhar  |  August 14, 2009; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  2009 Governor's Race , Creigh Deeds , Election 2009 , Robert F. McDonnell , Sandhya Somashekhar  
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