Demographic Moderation of Spatial Voting in Presidential Elections

Published date01 November 2020
Date01 November 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(6) 750 –762
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20925416
Recent research has found strong relationships between
policy ideology and vote choice in presidential elections.
Other work has shown that demographics and other charac-
teristics can moderate the relationship between ideological
identification (i.e., ideological self-perceptions) and vote
choice. However, these studies have not directly investigated
whether different demographic groups vote similarly after
controlling for their proximity to candidates in a policy-
based ideological space. In this article, we test several
hypotheses that are informed by existing literature on how
race, gender, and education each relate to policy preferences
and vote choice, using an ideology measure that is based on
respondents’ and candidates’ positions on specific, concrete
policy proposals rather than on subjective perceptions
expressed through ordinal survey rating scales.
We first demonstrate the robust relationship between
ideological proximity to candidates in this policy space and
voters’ choices, using data from several recent American
presidential elections. We find, consistent with prior work,
that this relationship has an extremely large substantive
impact. We then examine several demographic characteris-
tics that literature and theory in political science, as well as
popular media narratives, have suggested are politically
important, asking whether each of these variables moderates
the relationship between policy ideology and vote choice.
Specifically, we estimate the relationship between voters’
ideological positions and presidential votes separately for
people of each race, education, and gender category.
Although we find large differences in this relationship by
race, the differences by education are quite small. Perhaps
most notably, we estimate little or no difference between
men and women in the relationship between policy ideology
and vote choice. The large sample sizes of the data sets ana-
lyzed allow for precise estimation of these relationships,
even among subgroups of respondents. Our findings are rela-
tively consistent across the past four presidential elections,
including ones in which gender, race, and education consid-
erations may have been made particularly salient to voters.
Background and Theory
Political science literature has long debated who can be said
to be ideological, as well as what it means for ideology or
policy views to be “real,” dating back to the influential work
of Converse (1964) in the American context. For the purposes
of this article, we define ideology as a structure of associa-
tions underlying the specific policy positions expressed by
voters.1 Exactly where this type of ideology belongs in a
causal process of vote choice is the subject of much debate.
Authors such as Lenz (2012) and Achen and Bartels (2017)
argue that voters are more likely to adopt policy views that
are consistent with their established candidate or party prefer-
ences than vice versa. These arguments stand in contrast to
those of Ansolabehere et al. (2008) and Achen (1975), who
925416APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20925416American Politics ResearchDun and Jessee
1The University of Texas at Austin, USA
Corresponding Author:
Stephen Jessee, Department of Government, The University of Texas at
Austin, Austin, TX 78712-1704, USA.
Demographic Moderation of Spatial
Voting in Presidential Elections
Lindsay Dun1 and Stephen Jessee1
Using multiple large national surveys, we investigate how the relationship between policy-based ideology and vote choice in
presidential elections differs across demographic groups. Specifically, we consider three key demographic characteristics: race,
education, and gender. We find that large differences exist in the way ideology relates to presidential vote for voters from
different racial groups. By contrast, we find quite small differences in this relationship when separating voters by education
level. Perhaps most surprisingly, whereas men are on average more conservative than women, the relationship between
ideology and presidential vote is estimated to be almost exactly the same for the two genders. The large sample sizes we
employ allow for relatively precise estimation of these relationships even among our various demographic subsamples and
these findings hold similarly across several recent presidential elections.
voting, ideology, race, education, gender

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