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Voting Behavior — How External Factors Influence Decision-Making in 2020

An Interview with Associate Professor Robert Crichlow

By Honors Student Stephanie Golden

The 2020 presidential election is less than one day away. According to many experts, America is currently experiencing a time of heightened political polarization, something defined by the Pew Research Center as “the vast and growing gap between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats.”

Many external factors are currently contributing to political polarization within the United States. They are affecting you and me, perhaps without us even realizing it, and that is why I wanted to talk about it with associate professor Robert Crichlow prior to tomorrow’s election.

Prof. Crichlow in a library.

Robert Scott Crichlow is an associate professor in political science at West Virginia University. I’ve taken two courses with him: Politics of the Middle East (POLS 356) and for the Psychological Theory of Politics (POLS 493B). He teaches and conducts research on international relations, U.S. foreign policy, political psychology and Middle Eastern politics. His current research focuses on how both group decision-making dynamics and the beliefs and personality traits of political leaders can affect foreign policy.

“Voting Behavior 101”: Voting in America in 2020

WVU recently started a video series called “Mountaineers Vote.” Last week, Professor Crichlow and I, along with another student, hosted the second episode entitled, “Voting Behavior 101.” Many of the concepts we discussed throughout the webinar are topics I wanted to explore further with Professor Crichlow today.  View the“Mountaineers Vote” webinar here.

Mountaineers Vote graphic.

I spoke with Professor Crichlow again to explore three major topics covered in the webinar in more depth. Below, we will discuss the following questions:

  • Why do people vote? What makes them more or less likely to vote?
  • What are some topics we’re seeing that are especially prominent in the 2020 race?
  • Why do most US people align with one of the two major parties? Why are those parties polarizing?

Why do people vote? What makes them more or less likely to vote?

While presidential elections happen every four years, local and state elections happen far more often. So, is turnout the same across different kinds of elections?

“The short answer is no,” Crichlow said. He elaborated, saying that people feel that their vote matters far more in a big, national election, such as the 2020 presidential election, than in a smaller, local election. This results in better voter turnout. For example, in the 2016 presidential election, roughly 55 percent of registered American voters went and voted. In comparison, turnout rates for smaller, local elections are often as low as 10 percent.

Crichlow also discussed the potential impact of the incumbent candidate, or the individual currently serving in a position of political leadership. If the incumbent is running for re-election during a particular race, that candidate can serve as a kind of “wild card.” Rather than voters casting their vote strictly based on political party affiliation, voters’ opinions of the incumbent candidate can lead to voting behavior that might typically be out-of-character.

President Donald Trump is a prime example of a leader who could cause this sort of voting behavior. This popularity, whether it be good or bad in the eyes of US citizens, will draw more people to vote.

What are some topics we’re seeing that are especially prominent in the 2020 race?

According to Pew Research Center, the leading topics for the 2020 presidential race are: the economy, health care, Supreme Court appointments, the coronavirus outbreak, violent crime, foreign policy, gun policy, race and ethnic inequality, immigration, economic inequality, climate change and abortion.

Why do most US people align with one of the two major parties and why are those parties polarizing?

Americans tend to vote for candidates tied to their political party affiliation. In America, this often means you essentially have two choices.

“There are a lot of aspects of the US system that make two parties more likely,” Crichlow said. “The US has a lot more money in politics than other countries, making it hard for smaller parties to compete with the major ones.”

There are many “hurdles” instilled in the US election and campaign system that make it nearly impossible for any third-party candidate to be successful.

Generally, there are clusters of interest groups in the US that come together as one team or the other team. People will decide whether they are more aligned with the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. The decision is a very personal one, often based around what voters see as their core-values.

Crichlow stated that “there used to be many more cross-cuts across the parties,” meaning that there was more overlap when it came to opinions on prominent issues. As time has gone on, this has decreased significantly, with Democrats and Republicans moving in opposite directions. We now have two parties with different social identities based on their views of society. Crichlow noted that advancements in technology have further fueled this polarization.

How Social Media and Technological Advancements Impact Voting

This was one of the questions that I addressed in the webinar last week. The first thing that came to my mind when considering how technology has impacted voting was a documentary that I recently watched, Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma.” It discusses concerns over big tech companies and the human impact of social networking. The movie shows how social media algorithms are manipulating our newsfeeds and deepening our blind spots and biases.

Imagine this. You support a specific political party or candidate, so you begin taking more actions and engaging with more content related to that party or candidate on social media. Your newsfeed gradually starts to include more and more articles and information about them, even fake news at times. This trend continues to increase until you see virtually nothing but content that already fits your own opinions and preferences, isolating you from opposing viewpoints. This is fueling close-mindedness, animosity and polarization in the United States, and many do not even realize it’s happening.

Additional Questions About Voting and the Election

In addition to the questions answered in our webinar, I wanted to ask Crichlow a few more questions about the election and voting in America in 2020. See his responses below.

Q: In general, why is voting important?

A: There are vast consequences — the government decides where trillions in spending go, and different candidates have very different values in that regard; who can be imprisoned? (who decides what is legal); what people will be included in decision making and who won’t be?; who’ll be regarded as an American — I mean I could go on and on here.

Q: What would you say to a student who felt as if their vote did not matter?

A:Well, first off I’d want to find out what [issues] mattered to that student. But as far as things that many students are interested in, I’d highlight the parties’ differences on affordable college education and Title IX.

Q: What advice would you give to students who are struggling to keep an open mind due to increased polarization as a result of social media?

A: This one is hard, but my first thought is to “travel” (ideally geographically, but not necessarily required — could be nearby ones that’d reflect age or racial differences). Spend some time in communities that aren’t your usual haunts.

Q: Often times, we face harsh judgements for our political views and beliefs from those around us, even our friends and families. It can definitely be a tense subject. What would you say about this?

A: I really dislike it when people talk about your vote or their vote like it’s a wholly personal thing. People get their votes because they are part of a larger society — votes don’t exist individually. They are part of a system — an American system — and what people do with those votes will shape the future of everyone in the country.

Unsurprisingly, in a country of over 300 million people, there are going to be a lot of opinions about what that future should look like — and this will be true even among people who’ve lived around one another for years and years. Disagreeing with one another seems, to me, to be a very American thing to do.

Likewise, voting seems to be a very American thing to do (even though millions of Americans didn’t the right to vote until the 1960s and many now aren’t represented in Congress and/or don’t get to take part in the presidential election). I mean what is the Fourth of July about — America being disagreeable and voting to leave the British Empire.

So this is rambling, but I guess what I’m trying to get at is that it’s perfectly natural for people, even those who’ve been very close for years, to have differences of opinion about what’s the best path toward a better future, and voting is an American way to try to reconcile those disagreements with us all acting together through the same system to do that.

Concluding Remarks

Thank you to Professor Crichlow for taking the time to speak with us about crucial topics like voting behavior right before the 2020 presidential election. 

Remember your vote matters. Your voice matters. If you haven’t already, be sure to go out and vote tomorrow.

Don’t know where to go vote? See vote.org to find your polling place.

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