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The Pulse

Gubernatorial election:
Personality over issues?

ELLEN M. DRAN

ANTHONY GIERZYNSKI

MATTHEW WETSTEIN

By ELLEN M. DRAN,
ANTHONY GIERZYNSKI and
MATTHEW WETSTEIN

The 1990 Illinois Policy Survey was conducted from September 19 to October 18, 1990, with a random sample of 831 Illinois residents aged 18 and older. The percentages reported for the likely voter subsample are accurate estimates of percentages for the entire English-speaking population of likely voters who are accessible by telephone, within a range of plus or minus 5 percent.

It would be comforting if we could be sure that we choose our leaders wisely. Recent electoral campaigns in the United States have challenged this sense of comfort. Candidate-centered campaign tactics have inundated voters with character ads and catchy sound bites, with little rational debate of issues.

Given this description of the electoral process, how did the Illinois electorate choose between Republican Jim Edgar and Democrat Neil F. Hartigan in the November election for governor? The 1990 Illinois Policy Survey, conducted by the Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University, throws light on some of the things that were and were not on the minds of voters. It may answer some of the general questions about our elections.

A statewide sample a few weeks before the election identified 418 likely voters out of 831 adults. They were asked how they made or would make their gubernatorial choices. At that time 75 percent of the likely voters had chosen a candidate and another 7 percent were leaning toward one of them.

When asked, "What was (will be) most important factor or issue in you choice of who to vote for?", a sizable 20 percent could not give a reason for their choice. For those who could, character outweighed policy positions. Thirty-eight percent mentioned character issues like personality (14 percent), leadership ability (7 percent), dislike of the other candidate (7 percent), general record (7 percent) or honesty (3 percent). Only 23 percent referred to policy items. Most of these concerned two of the biggest issues in the campaign taxes (mentioned by 10 percent of the likely voters) and education (cited by 7 percent).

Political party and character issues stand out as the two items that most strongly distinguish supporters of the individual candidates. Three times as many Hartigan as Edgar voters cited political party as the major factor in their choice (but overall the proportions are small 17 percent for Hartigan and 5 percent for Edgar). Edgar's supporters were much more likely than Hartigan's to mention one of the character factors. (See figure 1.)

The two groups did not differ greatly in the importance they attached to policy issues in general. Additionally, there was little difference about specific policy issues

Figure 1

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Figure 2

8 percent of Edgar's supporters and 11 percent of Hartigan's mentioned taxes, and 7 percent of Edgar's supporters and 6 percent of Hartigan's cited education as important issues.

A potential campaign issue, abortion, did not emerge in the Illinois race for governor. A little over a year ago the U.S. Supreme Court's Webster decision gave state governments greater authority over the regulation of abortion, and it looked as though abortion would dominate many campaigns in Illinois. With both gubernatorial candidates pledging to respect a woman's right to choose, however, abortion was defused as a campaign issue. It is not surprising that only 2 percent of the likely voters said it was the most important factor in the electoral choice.

Very surprising, however, was the small percentage of likely voters who were even aware of the abortion stands of either candidate. More than 80 percent of the respondents did not know the positions taken by either Hartigan or Edgar.

We expected greater voter awareness of their positions for two reasons. One was the extended coverage of both candidates' stands after Hartigan's much-publicized switch to the pro-choice position just a year ago. The other was the prominence over the past year of abortion in public opinion surveys of factors in electoral choice. In the 1989 Illinois Policy Survey, for instance, 37 percent of Illinois residents had indicated that they would vote against a "'canidate whose stand on abortion differed from their own. In this year's poll, we asked respondents specifically about the role of abortion in their voting decisions. Over 50 percent said that abortion was an important factor. Yet most of these individuals apparently lacked the basic information they needed to determine if abortion could be a factor in their decisions.

One possible explanation for this seeming inconsistency is that voters may remember only information relevant to their basic decision. If so, then once the fact that the candidates did not differ on abortion was stored, there was no reason to remember what their positions were.

Another issue that was clearly absent from the minds of most state voters was redistricting. As Illinois prepares to redraw its congressional and state legislative districts after the 1990 census, partisan control of both executive and legislative branches takes on added significance. Control of the Illinois Senate, where Democrats held a slim three-seat majority before the election, became an issue that motivated political activists and generated media commentary during the 1990 campaign. But only 38 percent of the likely voters knew that the Democrats controlled the Illinois Senate; 25 percent thought it was the Republicans, and 38 percent said that they did not know. Furthermore, fewer than 2 percent said that control of the Senate would affect their vote.

Does this mean that voters give little consideration to policy issues in making this important electoral choice? Other information from the same survey indicates that there may be greater concern for issues than is immediately apparent from the specific questions about choosing a candidate for governor.

Almost all the likely voters mentioned a specific concern when asked, "What do you consider the most important problem facing the state of Illinois today?"

Tables 1&2

February 1991/Illinois Issues/33


The Pulse

Twenty-eight percent indicated that they perceive education, especially its under-funding, to be the state's most serious problem. Another 25 percent said that taxes are the state's biggest concern, and 16 percent cited an economic problem. Other issues were cited by 17 percent of the respondents, leaving only 4 percent who did not have an issue concern.

Most of the voters' decisions, however, were not strongly rooted in concerns over policy issues. Instead, they focused on character issues, which are often little more than vague impressions of the candidates

Some of these concerns probably made their way into voter decisions, even if they were not cited as the most important factor in the election. The survey found a relationship between the problem cited as most serious and support for the candidates. A solid majority (63 percent) of the likely voters who named education as the state's major problem planned to vote for Edgar, considerably above his overall support of 45 percent. More than half the individuals who named an aspect of the economy as the most serious problem planned to vote for Hartigan, also well above his overall support of 37 percent at the time. There was, then, a clear tendency for these two issue-oriented groups to be attracted to one of the two candidates. (See table 1.)

The effect of taxes is not as clear since the support for both candidates from the "concerned-with-taxes" public matched the overall support for each.

Another reason we think issues may have been more important to voters than they first appeared derives from the effect of partisanship on the choice of candidate. To the extent that the parties represent packages of stands on issues, a partisan vote indirectly expresses one's choice on issues. Party is clearly a more important factor than most voters are willing to admit and is still the most important predictor of the vote. At the time of the survey 77 percent of the Republicans planned to vote for Edgar and 65 percent of the Democrats said they would vote for Hartigan. (See figure 2.)

Hartigan had a harder time than Edgar in holding onto his partisans. Some of that difficulty was probably the result of his opposition to extending the two-year income tax surcharge and the negative implications for state funding without it. Since the Democrats have traditionally supported both education and taxation to achieve public benefits, Hartigan may have lost some Democrats over these two issues. Supporters of continuing the income tax surcharge were disproportionately for Edgar. (See table 2.)

How, then, did the Illinois electorate choose between the two gubernatorial candidates? The Illinois Policy Survey shows that policy issues played a direct role for only a small segment of the electorate. But in a close election, small segments concerned about issues can play a pivotal role. Individuals concerned about education appear to have played such a role for Edgar in the 1990 election.

Most of the voters' decisions, however, were not strongly rooted in concerns over policy issues. Instead, they focused on character issues, which are often little more than vague impressions of the candidates. These voters are susceptible to the charges and claims of 30-second television spots, which emphasize the character issues.

Do campaign tactics lead voters to put undue emphasis on character issues? Or do the modern-day tactics reflect an electorate more interested in a candidate's personality than in policy issues? This is an electoral chicken-and-egg situation that we cannot yet explain. As long as candidates perceive that the current style of campaigning works, we expect "more of the same" in future elections.

The Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University has conducted the Illinois Policy Survey annually since 1984. Ellen M. Dran is a research associate at the center and director of the survey. Anthony Gierzynski is a research associate with the NIU Social Science Research Institute and an assistant professor with the Department of Political Science with special research interests in legislative elections and political parties. Matthew Wetstein is a graduate student at the Center for Governmental Studies.

34/February 1991/Illinois Issues


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