This study examines the roots of presidential vote defection by Democratic party identifiers in the four presidential elections from 1980 through 1992. Vote defection--that is, voting contrary to one's party identification--has, with few exceptions, been more common among Democrats than Republicans. During the 1980s, Democratic defectors were often labeled "Reagan Democrats," and a conventional wisdom developed attributing defection to distinctly conservative policy preferences and a fundamental disenchantment with the Democratic party. Using National Election Study data for presidential elections from 1980 through 1992, this study identifies attitudes and preferences that distinguish Democratic defectors from loyal Democrats and then develops a model of vote defection incorporating issue preferences, assessments of candidates' personal characteristics, and evaluations of presidential and economic performance. The aim of this research is twofold: first, to advance our theoretical understanding of vote defection, and second, to assess the conventional wisdom surrounding the "Reagan Democrat" phenomenon.
In keeping with the traditional Reagan Democrat portrait, I find that Democratic defectors espoused conservative issue preferences quite different from loyal Democrats, and in some cases quite similar to Republican voters. This pattern was particularly evident with regard to welfare and racial policy. In 1988 and 1992, racial conservatism encouraged Democratic defection, independently of the effects of other independent variables. The finding of direct effects of racial policy attitudes sets Democratic defection apart from vote choice in the electorate as a whole, where racial attitudes have generally had indirect effects only. Focusing on partisan sub-groups can thus highlight important differences in the bases of electoral decisions.
Defecting Democrats were also distinct from loyal Democrats in their appraisals of candidate attributes and presidential approval. Defectors as a group were especially unhappy with Jimmy Carter's performance as president but quite pleased with Ronald Reagan's and George Bush's handling of the job. These performance-based judgments were potent motivators of defection in all four elections. This is a useful finding in as much as performance assessments have been overlooked in academic research on vote defection, as well as in popular discussions of the Reagan Democrat phenomenon.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
John Sides at the Monkey Cage offers some valuable insight about Reagan Democrats. Let me also add a reference to a dissertation by Julio Borquez entitled, "The Life and Times of the Reagan Democrats: Presidential Vote Defection by Democratic Party Identifiers, 1980-1992." Here's the abstract: