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What Wins Votes for American Presidents by Kyle Souza

Abstract: According to Kiley (2017) the divide between American political parties and their values are as polarized as they have ever been. Political polarization can be harmful to a democratic republic since it results in hostility between representatives which impedes the ability of that government to solve pressing issues. In response to this information, the current study attempts to answer why the political divide is as polarized as it is today by uncover the factors that influence voters’ support of a political candidate. To this end, students (novice voters) and faculty (seasoned voters) are surveyed to identify what influences their favorability when voting for a political candidate. Questions include items that may impact voter support such as: fitness of character, the status of the economy, health care policies, and foreign relations. Respondents will identify which issues determine their voter preference, candidate favorability, and other factors related to public approval. Prior research in this area has mostly focused on what effect the economy and foreign relations have on politicians’ approval ratings. This research seeks to accomplish two goals: 1) to shed light on factors that influence voter preference and 2) to differentiate the influences of novice and seasoned voters that determine their decision on election day. The results of the study can be used as a tool for political candidates who are attempting to appeal to both the newer generations of voters and to established voters who may consider voting outside of their identified political party.


According to Kiley (2017), the divide between American political parties and their values are as polarized as they have ever been. Political polarization can be harmful to a democratic republic since it results in hostility between representatives which impedes the ability of that government to solve pressing issues. Sinozich (2017) inferred that this polarization has led to greater distrust of political institutions among American constituents. This is a serious issue because less trust and respect for political institutions may contribute to less compliance with laws which may endanger not only safety, but a unified national culture (Tyler, 2006). These consequences make it critical for researchers to identify why exactly America is becoming more politically polarized so it can counteract its negative effects. Additionally, it is important to explore why voters are drawn to these polarized candidates so that campaign managers can identify and replicate the qualities that elicit votes.

The current study explores the salient qualities voters look for when selecting a presidential candidate. Prior research indicates several factors that influence voting preferences for presidential candidates, such as: social, economic, media, familial, peer, civic, retrospective, perceptional, and policy influences (Braha and de Aguiar, 2017; Cohen, 2018a; Ellis and Faricy 2011; Kalogeropoulos, Albæk, de Vreese, & van Dalen, 2017; Taniguchi, 2016). Therefore, the literature review is broken into four subgroups: 1) The Economy 2) Perceived Success and Legitimacy 3) Issue-Specific Appeal and 4) External Influences.

The Economy

The economy seems to have a very strong appeal to American constituents. Kalogeropoulos et al. (2017) found that whenever the economy was doing well, citizens believed their government was performing well. Bytzek (2011) writes that the most significant factor Americans take into account when evaluating their nation’s financial state is the unemployment rate. Moreover, the evaluation of the American economy has a negative correlation with the unemployment rate; Americans believe their finances are worse whenever the unemployment rate rises.

Although the economic state of the nation was found to influence voters, constituents also seem to be swayed by the media’s portrayal of the country’s financial circumstances rather than the condition of the economy itself. Kalogeropoulos et al. (2017) found that how the media reported the economy seemed to influence individuals’ evaluation of their nation’s fiscal power, regardless of how the economy was actually doing. While occasional media coverage depicting the economy doing poorly was not enough to lower constituents’ evaluation of their nation, heavy media coverage depicting negative economic trends for a prolonged period of time had the ability to lower the public’s perception of their own economy.

The strongest indicator of an incumbent’s success can be predicted with economic retrospective voting. Economic retrospective voting is voting based on the current party in power if the economy has been strong under the current leader or voting against that leader’s party if the economy is not as productive as voters would like it to be (Taniguchi, 2016). An example of retrospective voting is Ronald Reagan winning his 1984 presidential reelection by an almost unanimous vote of the electoral college after he improved the U.S. economy in his first term.

Perceived Success and Legitimacy

Previously researched tendencies for democratic constituent voting reveal evidence on how candidates’ perceived qualifications, genuineness, and power affect the support they receive from voters (Cohen 2018a). The perceived success and legitimacy of presidential hopefuls include these attributes and others that result in voters’ confidence or lack of confidence in political candidates. For example, Cohen demonstrates that a significant number of voters believe intelligence is an absolutely necessary qualification for an American president. This study illustrated a statistically significant correlation between perceived candidate intelligence and winning the popular vote in American presidential elections. Voters form opinions on how intelligent presidential candidates are by evaluating their speech skills since candidate IQ scores are not readily available.

Along with candidate qualifications, another noteworthy factor for constituents is how genuine candidates appear and if they seem trustworthy or deceiving. Research shows that a major variable influencing trustworthiness of candidates is public support (Rodriguez, Schuitema, Claudy, and Sancho, 2018). One way in which public support can be gained or lost is by candidates evoking certain emotions from their constituents. Rodriguez, et al. (2018) observed the effects of emotions on public approval by observing the Irish population’s reaction to the implementation of a water tax and politicians’ explanation of the tax to their constituents. The authors found that negative emotions, specifically anger, lead to less trust for political candidates, while positive emotions, such as feelings of reliability, help build trust among constituents, but not as much as negative emotions diminish this trust.

Another factor to consider is that even though candidates may receive support and may appeal to the population, it does not necessarily mean they receive votes from those individuals. It is important to note that voter turnout can make or break a campaign. For example, if Hillary Clinton received as many votes as were predicted in the 2016 presidential election polls, she may have won the election. Research on what influences voter turnout finds many contributing variables including confidence in and perceived legitimacy of the government, geographical location, and social influences (Braha, 2017; Cohen, 2018b; File, 2013; Sinozich, 2017). For example, Cichocka and colleagues (2018) show that voter turnout for presidential elections is highest when there is a moderate level of confidence in the government among the population. Conversely, either high or low confidence levels result in lower voter turnout. Distrust in the government reduces attendance at the polls because constituents feel their vote will have no influence. Fewer votes are cast when confidence is high due to the belief that the right candidate is sure to win regardless of an individual’s vote. It may be possible that voter confidence in the government had some bearing on the 2016 American presidential election and resulted in less of a turnout by democratic supporters since the election polls strongly favored Hillary Clinton over her Republican contender, Donald Trump.

Another factor that seems to be directly correlated to voter turnout and support is the population’s impression of the government’s influence and power. A study to examine the public’s perception of state governors’ power (Cohen, 2018b)discovered that governors were more influential for their state when their political party had strong representation in Washington. If the president belongs to the same political party as a governor, that governor is generally seen as more influential. These implications may also be applicable for presidential elections since the president’s perceived influence may be dependent on the party majorities of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The governor’s impact on specific partisan issues was found to also play a role on their constituents’ level of support. This is examined more thoroughly in the following section.

Issue-Specific Appeal

One research study found that a candidate’s position and their specific political issues and policies approach (i.e., resource allocation, healthcare, immigration, and pensions) influence the support they receive from their constituents (Ellis and Faricy 2011). The study concluded that indirect spending on social programs makes public opinion lean slightly more liberal while direct spending on these programs pushes the public to be slightly more conservative. This means that conservatives gave a higher approval rating to politicians when they explicitly allocated funds for a specific issue. When politicians did not do this, liberals gave them a higher approval rating than conservatives. Similarly, Wan, Shen, and Choi (2017) also highlight the importance of procedural and distributive fairness. They define procedural fairness as whether the ends (a policy's purpose) is justified by its means (how it is pursued). These researchers define distributive fairness as whether specific groups proportionally benefit and sacrifice, such as through tax increases, for a given policy. They conclude that procedural and distributive fairness are the biggest indicators of public support for how a situation is being handled.

Additional research has found that immigration is a salient topic that determines voter trends. Specifically, Muste (2013) analyzed polls to gauge the American public’s opinion regarding immigration in the United States. This review led the author to infer that American public opinion remains unfavorable regarding the idea of increasing current immigration levels. Muste (2013) also concluded that Americans regard immigrants as more beneficial and functional in society now than they did in the early 2000s. In other words, most Americans believe that undocumented immigrants are not necessarily criminals and that they do not harm the employment level of American workers. According to Muste (2013), Americans do not want to let any more immigrants into the nation illegally but would be content with allowing the current undocumented immigrants to remain in the country. However, it is important to note that the public’s feelings toward immigration policy may have changed since President Trump’s 2016 presidential election, which pushed immigration to the forefront and incited contentious debates between parties.

Prior research also illustrates that policies related to pensions may influence how constituents vote. For example, Goerres (2008) analyzed older and younger voters in Britain and West Germany in 2018 to see who was more likely to vote for candidates based on their pension policies. The study concluded that older voters tend to give more support for candidates who advocate for better pensions for retirees. Furthermore, older voters also gave more attention to pension policies because they are relevant to their lifestyles.

External Influences

Most of the available research on variables that influence voter preference are focused on external influences that sway voters to either see candidates as more or less favorable. Specifically, past studies have found outside influences such as social, geographical, neighboring states, and the media play critical roles in deciding how many votes American presidential candidates receive (Braha and de Aguiar, 2017; File, 2013; Ha et al., 2018; Kalogeropoulos et al., 2017). For example, Braha and de Aguiar (2017) found that external pressures, such as peer pressure, was found to have a significant influence on voting tendencies. These researchers reviewed the votes for every county in the United States for presidential elections from 1920-2012. Multiple models were studied to account for social influences within counties, topography, and other factors that may lead to the persuasion of nonpartisan voters to vote for a particular candidate. The main conclusions of this study are that social influences play a role in presidential elections, especially regarding voter turnout and support for particular candidates.

Pacheco and Maltby (2017) explored whether the passage of Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA) legislation in one state affects public opinion in neighboring states. The authors found that a state’s ACA decisions that are highly visible, are more likely to be referenced by constituents of neighboring states when compared to less visible ACA policy decisions. Furthermore, states will pass ACA decisions inspired by states with more noticeable legislation in place over states with a less visible ACA policy in effect.

Another area explored by researchers was the effect of geographical location on voting tendencies. For example, Pacheco and Maltby (2017) found that populations tend to vote for a politician if they see similar candidates in neighboring states have success, and do not support them if they resemble less-successful near-by. File (2013) also examined how geographical location may influence voters and found that states with less clustered populations tended to have a higher voter turnout rate. File (2013) investigated fluctuations in young voter turnout using a non-experimental method of research by examining data from current population survey voting and registration supplements. The findings show a correlation between more eligible voters with a larger voter turnout of all age groups. The author also reported that younger women vote more than younger men, but that older men tend to vote more than older women.

According to Bytzek (2011) the media is arguably the most influential factor of the myriad of outside factors that can influence voting trends. His study used a time-series analysis utilizing different events in Germany as independent variables. The dependent variables were the government’s popularity as well as the prime minister’s popularity throughout the incidents being analyzed. The study found that current events influence the voters’ opinions of a government more than other, more long-term factors. Moreover, an event’s influence only affects the public’s perception of a government as long as the event receives attention by the media. This study also found that scandals negatively affecting the public’s opinion of a politician’s party provide a benefit to the opposing parties. Uncontroversial events were found to affect public opinion on government, too, but depended on the media portrayal of these events (i.e., negative or positive). Another significant finding was that the economy alone was shown to be the biggest influencing variable on the prime minister’s approval rating.

Although the economic status of a nation appears to be objective, how the population perceives their country’s economic status depends in part on the media. Kalogeropoulos and colleagues (2017) investigated how the media and the economic status of a nation influences citizens’ evaluations of their own government. This study used a two-wave panel design that asked over 1,000 Danish participants for their overall opinion of the economy, the frequency they consume media, and issue-specific appraisals, including an economic evaluation. There were two main takeaways: 1) the economic evaluation of a nation has strong predictive qualities on holistic government evaluation and 2) the economic news the population is exposed to primes their economic evaluations. Because of these results, this study includes questions asking respondents about the media they consume and whether they believe it affects their voting tendencies.

Given the fact that the media plays a role in influencing individuals’ evaluation of the government, it is also important to discover which individuals are getting exposed to certain types of influencing media outlets and why. Ha, Ji, and Shin (2018) attempted to gain insight regarding if and how individuals selectively expose themselves to media based on their political beliefs and the implications of selective exposure to media is present. This study used a secondary data analysis of polls from the Pew Research Center’s 2010 Media Consumption Survey. They found that conservative-individuals consume more media that reinforce their beliefs whereas liberals have a more politically balanced consumption of media. They also found that individuals who consume more conservative news had a lower approval rating of President Obama, whereas individuals who view more liberal media outlets had a higher approval rating of President Obama. These results address that the media are indeed one of the factors that has caused the polarization of American political parties.

In sum, after examining what influences voting preferences, there appear to be several variables that may influence the support presidential candidates receive from constituents, such as: economic factors, perceived success and legitimacy of the government, specific-issue approaches, and external influences. The above review did not find a singular in-depth study that explored how all of the factors discussed above influenced voting preferences. Thus, this study attempts to fill the void in the literature and cumulatively explore the most influential voting factors. Based on existing research, the current study predicts that economic conditions and concerns will have the most significant influence on constituents.


The purpose of this study is to explore why certain candidates receive votes in presidential elections. Specifically, it looks to answer whether certain factors are weighed more heavily than others when constituents cast their vote and, specifically, if veteran voters have a different criterion for voting than novice voters. To answer this question, a convenience sample of students and faculty from a small, private Northeastern college (N=90) was given a SurveyMonkey questionnaire asking them about their voting history (i.e., registered to vote; identified with a specific political party and, if so, which party; how many elections they voted in), engagement in civic activities (i.e., participation in political activities, causes, and programs), criteria used to vote for candidates, and basic demographic information.

The voting criteria focused on variables that indicate how a participant may vote. These items were ranked and included factors related to the economy, perceived success and legitimacy of the current party, external influences, and issue-specific appeal such as immigration, health care policies, resource allocation, and pension policies. The economy is hypothesized to be the most influential variable for voting based on previously researched factors (Bytzek, 2011; Taniguchi, 2016). Perceived success and legitimacy were broken up into questions about fitness of character, a candidate's resume for political office, and retrospective voting or the current success/failure of a given party in power (Cohen, 2018b; Rodriguez, 2018; Taniguchi, 2016). Issue-specific appeal was divided into law and order, foreign relations, and health care policies (Ellis & Faricy, 2011; Goerres, 2008; Muste, 2013; Wan et al., 2017). Finally, participants were asked to rank external influences including familial, media, and peer influences (Braha & de Aguiar, 2017; Bytzek, 2011; File, 2013; Ha et al., 2018; Kalogeropoulos, 2017; Pacheco, 2017).


Since there were two subtypes of participants, faculty and students, the descriptive statistics display each subtype individually and are accounted for through the demographics of each respectively. The first subgroup, faculty, included 63.6% female and 36.4% male participants. An overwhelming majority of faculty participants, 84.1%, were married, 9.1% were single and never married, 4.5% were divorced, and 2.3% was widowed. The minimum age of faculty was 29, the maximum 73, and the mean was 52.81. Additionally, 97.6% were over the age of 30. A majority of faculty, 75%, reported working full time and 25% worked part time. Faculty reported that they mostly gathered their news on current events from television (68%). Approximately one quarter of faculty, 24%, answered that their primary source for news on current events was radio and only 8% admitted that their primary source on current events was social media.

The second subgroup, students, included 65.2% female and 34.8% male participants. Almost all, 93.5%, reported single and never married and 6.5% reported married or in a domestic partnership. The minimum age was 18, the maximum 48, and the average was 21.97. In addition, 91.2% of students were under the age of 24. The students responded very differently than the faculty regarding employment status with 13% answering that they worked full time, 60.9% part time, 15.2% were unemployed, and 10.9% participated in a work study program. Students indicated that they primarily receive their news on current events from social media, 65.6%, and a little more than one-third of student (34.4%) reported television. No students admitted to using radio as their primary source of current events. See Table 1 for descriptive statistics by participant type.

Table 1: Descriptive Statistics by Participant Type


The current study examines if there are any correlations between a voter’s age and the criteria they use to support political candidates. For this reason, it is important to acknowledge the answers supplied by faculty versus students. Table 2 illustrates voting history responses by each participant type.

Student Participants

An overwhelming majority (87%) of students reported they were registered to vote, whereas 13% reported they were not registered to vote. Almost half (48.8%) of students reported that they affiliate with the Democratic party, 36.6% with the Republican party, and 14.6% reported other. Of the students who reported other, two claimed to be a part of the Independent Party and one identified to be in the Conservative political party. The other three respondents did not disclose what party they identified with on the survey.

Most of the students, 60.9%, voted in the 2016 American presidential election, while 39.1% of participants did not. Additional analyses examined the reasons why some students did not to vote in the last presidential election. Specifically, 26.4% reported that they were not registered to vote in 2016. Of the students that did not vote, 66.7% of them reported they were under the age of 18 and therefore not eligible to vote at that time. Furthermore, another student reported that they did not believe their vote would contribute any value and three student participants did not vote because they did not want to endorse any of the candidates.

Faculty Participants

Almost all (97.7%) faculty reported they were registered to vote. A little more than half (52.6%) reported that they affiliate with the Democratic party, 28.9% with the Republican party, and 18.4% reported other. Some notable omissions are the type of political parties with which faculty affiliated other than Democratic and Republican parties. Of the seven faculty members who claimed to be affiliated with a political party other than the Democratic or Republican parties, five claimed to be in the Independent Party, one identified to be affiliated with the Green Party, and one identified to be affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America Party.

Most faculty, 95.5%, voted in the 2016 American Presidential Election. Regarding the two faculty member participants who did not vote, one claimed to not have been able to make it to the polls before they closed, and the other did not believe their vote would have influenced the election because of the electoral college. Additional descriptive statistics regarding split-ticket voting and participation in prior elections for faculty and students is displayed in Table 2.

Table 2: Faculty and Student Participation in Voting

Civic Engagement

The civic engagement questions asked participants whether they have volunteered or participated in community service, worn a campaign button, sticker or displayed a lawn sign, donated money to a political candidate/party, expressed their opinion to a public official, expressed their opinion to a newspaper/magazine, called into a radio/television show to express opinion, participated in a protest, march or other demonstration, signed a petition about a specific issue, abstained from buying an item for political reasons, have bought something for political reasons, and if they have gone door to door for a political group/candidate. Figure 1 displays that the participants were most likely to volunteer for community service (87.3%), sign petitions (62.7%), and abstain from purchasing certain products for political reasons (62.7%). Figure 1 also shows that hardly any participants, 3.6% and 9.1%, respectively, called into television or radio shows to voice their political opinions or canvassed for a political candidate.

Voting Criteria

Additional analyses explored the type of voting criteria that are held as more influential than others. To evaluate which factors were held to be more important, the median rankings of prioritization were used (see Table 3). The participants as a whole weighed the state of the economy, a candidate’s fitness of character, and a candidate's health care policies as the most influential factors to their voting decision. Each of these had a median priority level of three out of ten with one being the most important and ten being the least important.

The final section of the results examined the correlation between factors that influence voting preferences and age of respondents. The Spearman rank correlation coefficient was used to examine this relationship, which is the nonparametric version of the Pearson correlation coefficient. Spearman’s correlation ranges from -1 to 1, where +1 represents a perfect positive correlation and -1 represents a perfect negative correlation between. Furthermore, zero represents no correlation.

Table 3. Median Scores for Factors Influencing Voting Preferences

Of all ten factors, only two variables displayed a statistically significant correlation (resume and peer influences). Figure 2 illustrates a statistically significant, negative correlation between a candidate’s resume for public office and respondent’s age (ρ= -.34, p = .001). Thus, as age increases voters are more likely to rank a candidate’s resume for public office as more important. Figure 3 illustrates a statistically significant, positive correlation between peer influence and respondent’s age (ρ= .22, p = .001). Peer voting trends are more likely to influence younger preferences compared to older voters.


This study sought to accomplish two goals: 1) to shed light on factors that influence voter preference and 2) to differentiate the influences of novice and seasoned voters that determine their decision on election day. Based on the results there were three main conclusions: 1) the economy, a candidate's health care policies, and a candidate’s fitness of character were the top three predictors for voting preferences and were equally important; 2) seasoned voters weigh a candidate's resume for public office significantly more than novice voters; and 3) younger voters are influenced by their peers significantly more than older voters.

The research used to compile the literature review led to the prediction that the economy would be the biggest influence for voters. This prediction was somewhat supported as the economy was tied with health care policies and fitness of character. The economy is likely to be ranked important because Americans believe that economic health reflects the nation’s well-being as a whole (Kalogeropoulos, 2017). It is also noteworthy to state that retrospective voting is a popular type of voting and practically only accounts for the economy (Taniguchi, 2016).

It is likely that health care policies were ranked high by participants because the issue is becoming more polarized in today’s society. Democrats are looking to expand the Affordable Care Act into a concept called “Medicare for All,” a policy currently being advocated by Vermont Senator, Bernie Sanders (Luhby, 2019). Conversely, President Trump and the Republican party are looking to have the Affordable Care Act ruled as unconstitutional and privatize all healthcare in America again. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, Americans simply want cheaper, more affordable healthcare and prescriptions (Luhby, 2019). The drastic differences between the Democratic and Republican approaches on this issue and what these policies entail is likely why healthcare is such an influential variable for voters.

A candidate's fitness of character may be one of the most important variables when voting for presidential candidates, since the president is seen as the person who epitomizes America. Since the president is so influential, this person should embody the public’s idea of good and virtue (Magness, 2016). For this reason, it is plausible that a blemish in a candidate's fitness of character could be catastrophic to their campaign.

One reason seasoned voters emphasize a candidate's resume for public office is likely due to generational differences regarding proof of skills. Vozza (2018) states that older generations look for skills that can be transferable from previous jobs and other experiences whereas younger individuals are more interested on an individual’s ability to perform, a quality that is not necessarily dependent on prior experience. This may explain why older voters take into account a candidate's resume for office more than younger voters.

Finally, the reason younger voters are influenced by their peers more than older constituents may be due to generational differences in the use of media, specifically social media. The current study found that social media accounts for 65.6% of student participants primary source of news, whereas it only accounts for 8% of faculty participants primary news. Social media displays what an individual’s friends and interest-groups believe and naturally leads individuals to be exposed to their peers’ political beliefs and arguments (Kahne & Bowyer, 2018; Wojcieszak & Mutz, 2009). Therefore, since seasoned voters do not use social media as much as novice voters as a primary news source, they may be less likely to be affected by their peers.


The limitations of this study include question ambiguity, convenience sample, and nonexhaustive list of voting criteria. First, it is likely that some participants did not fully understand the questions on the survey. For example, there may have been confusion when asked about party affiliation. Seven individuals answered they were a member of the Independent Party and one described membership in the Conservative Party. This is erroneous for there is no such political party called “the Conservative Party” and it’s possible that participants listed they were affiliated with “the Independent Party” but really meant they were an independent voter (i.e., someone not affiliated with any party). It is unlikely that the participants were actually part of the Independent Party, for this party has a very small presence in America (Myers, 2016).

The population used in this study was a homogenous, convenience sample of student and faculty from a small, private Northeastern college. This type of population is problematic to the external validity of these results for they are mostly from the same geographical area. Additionally, using this convenience sample only accounts for the voting criteria of college students and professors, not blue-collar workers. Finally, although various voting criteria were included in the survey, some common political influences were omitted, most notably environmental stances.

Future Research

Two important, unforeseen themes were revealed from this research. First, older voters put a significantly greater value on a candidate's resume for public office than younger voters. Second, younger voters were influenced more by their peers compared to older voters. Future research should focus on which factors younger voters are using to evaluate a candidate’s ability to succeed in office, since younger voters do not see resumes as important as their older counterparts (Vozza, 2018). Furthermore, it should be investigated whether the reason younger voters are politically influenced more by their peers is because of social media or another, unforeseen reason. Considering the projected age shift for the 2020 electorate, it is key to understand these two themes about younger voters from the results of this study for the next American presidential election. Specifically, Generation Z, which is individuals born after the year 1996, is projected to make up 10% of the electorate and Millennials, which are individuals born from 1981-1996, are projected to make up 27% of the electorate (Cilluffo & Fry, 2019).


With younger voters projected to make up one third of the electorate in the 2020 American presidential election it is imperative for candidates and their campaign staff to understand where to focus their efforts to reach these constituents. For this reason, it is likely that the next presidential election will have the biggest social media presence of any American election to date. Only by receiving the support of these younger generations will the 2020 candidates be able to unify the currently polarized nation and restore the intended powers of the United States of America’s democratic republic.


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