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From Confusion to Clarity: Issues and American Voters, 1956–1968*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 August 2014

Gerald M. Pomper*
Livingston College, Rutgers University


Analysis of national election surveys from 1956 to 1968 reveals significant changes in the voters' perceptions of issues and the major parties. There has been a considerable increase in the correlation of party identification and opinion on six major issues, relating to social welfare, racial integration, and foreign aid. Voters are more prone to see a difference between the parties on these issues and are increasingly likely to identify the Democratic party as favorable to federal governmental action. These findings contrast with those of The American Voter and similar studies. The reasons for the changes cannot be found in demographic factors, as tested by controls for age cohorts, education, region, and race. More probably the explanation lies in strictly political factors. A particularly important event was the presidential campaign of 1964, in which ideological differences between the parties were deliberately emphasized. The electorate responded to this campaign by becoming more ideologically aware, and its learning appears to have persisted through the 1968 election. This finding suggests that past conclusions about the low ideological awareness of the electorate were specific to the Eisenhower era, and that the issue content of the vote will vary with the stimuli provided by the general political environment.

Copyright © American Political Science Association 1972

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Mr. Thomas O'Donnell deserves many thanks for his work in arranging and computing the data on which this paper is based. I also appreciate the many suggestions of my colleagues at Rutgers University particularly Benjamin Barber, W. Carey McWilliams, Stephen Salmore, and Gordon Schochet, and the comments of John Kessel and Rick Piltz.


1 The most important past works are, chronologically: Lazarsfeld, Paul, Berelson, Bernard, and Gaudet, Helen, The People's Choice, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948)Google Scholar; Berelson, Bernard, Lazarsfeld, Paul and McPhee, William, Voting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954)Google Scholar; Campbell, Angus, Gurin, Gerald and Miller, Warren, The Voter Decides (Evanston: Row, Peterson, 1954)Google Scholar; Burdick, Eugene and Brodbeck, Arthur, eds., American Voting Behavior (New York: The Free Press, 1959)Google Scholar; Campbell, , Converse, Philip, Miller, Warren, and Stokes, Donald, The American Voter (New York: Wiley, 1960)Google Scholar, Pool, Ithiel de Sola, Abelson, Robert and Popkin, Samuel, Candidates, Issues and Strategies (Cambridge: MIT. Press, 1964)Google Scholar; Converse, Philip, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” in Apter, David, ed. Ideology and Discontent (New York: The Free Press, 1964)Google Scholar; and Campbell, , Converse, , Miller, and Stokes, , Elections and the Political Order (New York: Wiley, 1966)Google Scholar. Important recent works will be cited below.

2 Key, V. O. Jr., Public Opinion and American Democracy (New York: Knopf, 1961), Chap. 4Google Scholar; Campbell, et al., The American Voter, p. 174 Google Scholar.

3 Campbell, et al., The American Voter, p. 249 Google Scholar.

4 Campbell et al., The American Voter, chap. 9.

5 McClosky, Herbert, Hoffman, Paul J., and O'Hara, Rosemary, “Issue Conflict and Consensus among Party Leaders and Followers,” American Political Science Review, 54 (06, 1960), p. 419 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Among party leaders, by contrast, differences existed on 23 of 24 issues.

6 Campbell, et al., The American Voter, pp. 182184 Google Scholar.

7 Campbell, et al., The American Voter, p. 544 Google Scholar.

8 Perry, James M., The New Politics (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1968), p. 213 Google Scholar.

9 Berelson, Chap. 14.

10 Key, V. O. Jr., The Responsible-Electorate (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), p. 7 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Goldberg, Arthur, “Discerning a Causal Pattern among Data on Voting Behavior,” American Political Science Review, 60 (12, 1966), 913922 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Social Determinism and Rationality as Bases of Party Identification,” American Political Science Review, 63 (03, 1969), 525 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Luttbeg, Norman, “The Structure of Beliefs among Leaders and the Public,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 32 (Fall, 1968), 398409 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Brown, Steven R., “Consistency and the Persistence of Ideology,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 34 (Spring, 1970), 6068 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Lane, Robert, Political Ideology (New York: The Free Press, 1960)Google Scholar.

15 See Plamenatz, John, “Electoral Studies and Democratic Theory: I. A British View,” Political Studies, 6 (February, 1958), 9 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

A choice is reasonable, not because the chooser, when challenged, can give a satisfactory explanation of why he made it but because, if he could give an explanation, it would be satisfactory. The reasoning that lies behind the choice is often made in private language which the chooser never learns to translate into words intelligible to others because there is ordinarily no need for him to do so.

16 Field, J. O. and Anderson, R. E., “Ideology in the Public's Conceptualization of the 1964 Election,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 33 (Fall, 1969), 380398 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. While the coding in this research differs somewhat from that of The American Voter, the changes were essentially those made necessary by new procedures of the Survey Research Center.

17 Pierce, John G., “Party Identification and the Changing Role of Ideology in American Politics,” Midwest Journal of Political Science, 14 (February, 1970), 2542 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Confirming evidence is found in the recent work of RePass, David E., “Issue Salience and Party Choice,” American Political Science Review, 65 (06, 1971), 389400 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Using responses to open-ended questions, RePass finds considerable mass concern for issues, an increase in issue awareness from 1960 to 1964, a close relationship between issue position and partisanship, and a significant partial correlation of .23 in 1964 between issue partisanship and vote, controlling for candidate image and party identification.

18 The differences in wording consisted largely of changes in form. In 1956 and 1960, the questions were asked as statements with which the respondent could agree or disagree (and also indicate the intensity of his opinion), e.g., “If cities and towns around the country need help to build more schools, the government in Washington ought to give them the money they need.” In 1964 and in 1968, the respondent was offered a choice between two policies, each of which was advocated by “some people,” such as—“the government in Washington should help towns and cities provide education,” or “this should be handled by the states and local communities.” There are two differences in wording of possible substance. In 1956 and 1960, the question dealing with full employment asks whether or not “the government in Washington ought to see to it that everybody who wants to work has a job and a good standard of living,” while the later alternative does not include “who wants to work.” In the earlier surveys, the question on racial equality asks whether, “If Negroes are not getting fair treatment in jobs and housing, the government should see to it that they do,” while in later years the question I believe the basic thrust of these questions is not affected by these changes. The questions used are, by deck and column numbers, in 1956: 3/12, 3/18, 3/21, 3/24, 3/33, 3/54; in 1960: 4/59, 4/67, 4/55, 4/63, 4/72, 4/61; in 1964: 4/45, 4/56, 4/61, 5/11, 5/14, 4/67; in 1968: 4/54, 4/58, 4/60, 4/74, 4/76, 5/29. The surveys of 1948 and 1952 could not be used because questions were insufficiently comparable.

19 The answers of 1956 respondents can be found in Table 8–3 of Campbell, et al., The American Voter, p. 182 Google Scholar. It might be argued that 1956 voters were far more issue-conscious than the data reveal, but that they were thinking about different issues than those raised by the parties or the survey. This argument seems hardly plausible, since it would require a degree of ideological originality for which there is no evidence among any mass public.

20 Campbell, et al., The American Voter, p. 182 Google Scholar.

21 The perceptions of party are asked in different ways in the four surveys, so the data must be handled differently. In 1956, respondents were asked which party “is closer to what you want.” To locate those who believe the Democrats are liberal on federal aid to education, for example, one must combine those who favor the policy, and think the Democrats are closer to their own position, with those who oppose the policy, and think the Republicans are closer. In 1960, 1964 and 1968, the question was asked in a straightforward manner, which party is likely to favor federal aid to education. These data are located, in 1956: two columns to the right of the policy question; in 1960: in decks and columns 4/60, 4/70, 4/56, 4/64, 4/75, 4/62; in 1964: 4/45, 4/60, 4/63, 5/13, 5/18, 4/69; in 1968: immediately after the policy question, except for party stands on school integration, 4/79.

22 On the method of cohort analysis, see Cutler, Neal E., “Generation, Maturation and Party Affiliation: A Cohort Analysis,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 33 (Winter, 19691970), 583592 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 See: Cosman, Bernard, “Republicanism in the South,” Southwestern Social Science Quarterly, 48 (06, 1967), 1323 Google Scholar; Converse, Philip, Miller, Warren, Rusk, Jerrold and Wolfe, Arthur, “Continuity and Change in American Politics: Parties and Issues in the 1968 Election,” American Political Science Review, 63 (12, 1969), esp. 10951101 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The Wallace Campaign in 1968 did not substantially affect the perceptions of the major parties' positions on civil rights. In noting the parties' stands, a respondent could answer that there was no difference between the major parties, but Wallace did represent a distinctive position. Few respondents chose this option; those who did were included in this analysis with the “no difference” group.

24 Of the 1968 SRC sample, only 3 of the 149 blacks identified themselves as Republicans, and only 3 voted for Nixon.

25 Porter, Kirk and Johnson, Donald, National Party Platforms, 3rd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966), pp. 590614 Google Scholar.

26 On the development of medicare, civil rights and other programs in this period, see Sundquist, James L., Politics and Policy (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1968)Google Scholar.

27 Also see Free, Lloyd and Cantril, Hadley, The Political Beliefs of Americans (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1967), Chap. 2Google Scholar.

28 Key, V. O. Jr., “A Theory of Critical Elections,” Journal of Politics, 17 (February, 1955), pp. 318 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The concept and its significance have been deeply researched in Burnham, Walter Dean, Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: Norton, 1970)Google Scholar.

29 The point is elaborated well in Ladd, Everett C., American Political Parties (New York: Norton, 1970), pp. 110 Google Scholar, and illustrated historically in the body of this book.

30 See Converse, Philip, Clausen, Aage R., and Miller, Warren E., “Electoral Myth and Reality: The 1964 Election,” American Political Science Review, 59 (06, 1965), 330335 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 See: Burnham, Walter Dean, “American Voting Behavior and the 1964 Election,” Midwest Journal of Political Science, 12 (February, 1968), 140 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kessel, John, The Goldwater Coalition (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1968), pp. 301308 Google Scholar; Pomper, Gerald, Elections in America (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1968), Chap. 5Google Scholar; Segal, David, “Partisan Realignment in the United States: The Lesson of the 1964 Election,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 32 (Fall, 1968), 441444 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; RePass, , “Issue Salience and Party Choice,” 398400 Google Scholar.

32 See: Nexon, David, “Hacks, Fanatics, and Responsible but Dense Voters,” (Unpublished M.A. Thesis, University of Chicago, 1970)Google Scholar; and Piltz, Rick S., “Mass support for the Political Parties: Bases for Realignment,” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Michigan, in progress)Google Scholar.

33 See the roll calls listed in Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, 29 (January 29, 1971), 220222 Google Scholar, dealing with the 91st Congress.

34 American Political Science Association, Committee on Political Parties, “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System,” American Political Science Review, 44 (09, 1950), SupplementGoogle Scholar.

35 On the British electorate, see Butler, David and Stokes, Donald, Political Change in Britain (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1969), esp. Part IVGoogle Scholar.

36 Sundquist, however, in Politics and Policy, Chaps. 9 and 12, argues that Democratic party actions in the 1950s and 1960s already constituted the creation of a responsible party system. In contrast, see Donald E. Stokes and Warren E. Miller, “Party Government and the Saliency of Congress,” in Elections and the Political Order, Chap. 11. Originally published in 1962, the latter work shows the absence of conditions for responsible parties, at least before the possibly critical election of 1964.

37 Key, , The Responsible Electorate, p. 2 Google Scholar.

38 Bell, Daniel, The End of Ideology (New York: The Free Press, 1960)Google Scholar; Hartz, Louis, The Liberal Tradition in America (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1955)Google Scholar.

39 For example, note the concluding chapter of The American Voter or Chaps. 2, 8, 10, 12 of Elections and the Political Order, which are largely reprints of earlier articles.

40 Note the criticisms of Kenneth Prewitt and Norman Nie, in “Revisiting the Election Studies of the Survey Research Center,” a paper prepared for delivery at the 1970 meeting of the American Political Science Association, p. 18:

The SRC group has written persuasively regarding the implications for American politics of the findings about citizen information and awareness. They have less critically discussed the implications for voter rationality of their findings about election processes and alternatives.

41 Miller, Warren recognized this point in ”One Party Politics and the Voter,” American Political Science Review, 50 (Sept., 1956), 707725 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 The recent work of the Survey Research Center has given more emphasis to dynamic elements. See Stokes, Donald, “Some Dynamic Elements of Contests for the Presidency,” American Political Science Review, 60 (03, 1966), 1928 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Converse et al., “Continuity and Change in American Politics.”

43 Key, , The Responsible Electorate, p. 7 Google Scholar.

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