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Differences in Voting Behavior

Characteristics of Voting Behavior

Characteristics of U.S. Regions

Implications of the Regional Voting Divide


Works Cited

Characteristics of Voting Behavior


  It is clear by now that strong regional divisions do indeed exist in U.S. presidential elections.  We can gain a greater insight into why these divisions exist by examining the characteristics that determine how the U.S. electorate votes.  The characteristics of race, religion, education, income, labor union membership, and urbanization are all significant determinants of voting behavior among individuals in the United States.  


            A person’s race plays a major role in how he or she votes.  Nowhere is this truer than with the African-American vote.  In the 1996 election, an astounding 97 percent of African-Americans cast their vote for the Democratic candidate, Bill Clinton (Abramson et al. 1998, 93).  This can be attributed to the view held by many African-Americans that the Republican Party is racist and anti-black.  This view can be traced back to the 1960s, when the Democratic Party supported civil rights while a majority of Republicans opposed them (Miller and Shanks 1996).  Today Democratic support of, and Republican opposition to, issues such as affirmative action and welfare heavily influence the black vote.

Like African-Americans, Hispanics are a racial group that has historically supported the Democratic Party.  This can be seen in that 72 percent of the Hispanics who voted cast their ballot for Bill Clinton in the 1996 election.  Unlike African-Americans, however, Republicans have courted the Hispanic vote in recent elections.    One exception to the traditional support of Democrats among Hispanics is Cuban voters, who support Republicans because of the party’s strong anti-communist position (Webster and Webster 1986).

The whites racial group votes with much less uniformity than do blacks and Hispanics.  In 1996, 48 percent of white voters voted for the Democrat and 44 percent voted for the Republican.  White women, however, favored the Democrat at higher rates than did white men.  Fifty-four percent of women cast their vote for the Democrat compared to only 42 percent of men (Abramson et al. 1998, 93).  The white vote also varies heavily depending on the other characteristics below.


Religion is another factor which influences the way a person votes.  In looking at religious voting patterns, however, only white adherents of religion are considered, as black voters, regardless of their religion, vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

Jewish voters are the religious group with the most uniformity.  In 1996, over 90 percent of Jews voted for Bill Clinton (Abramson et al. 1998).  A perception among many Jewish voters that the Republican Party is controlled by fundamentalist Christians and that the Democratic Party cares more about Jewish interests.  Jews vote strongly in favor of Democrats despite the Republican Party’s firmer pro-Israel policy and the fact that many social issues supported by the Democrats are contrary to the teachings of the Torah.  One reason for this is because a high percentage of Jews are non-practicing or Reform Jews, who are likely to be in favor of homosexual rights and against the right to life for unborn children (NJDC 2000).

Like Jews, Catholic voters once heavily supported Democrats.  The Democratic Party courted immigrant Catholics, especially in the cities, in the late 1800s and early 1900s (Shelley et al. 1996).  The first Catholic to run for president, Al Smith, did so as a member of the Democratic Party.  Catholic support for the Democrats peaked in 1960, when John F. Kennedy, as a member of the Democratic Party, became the first Catholic President of the United States (Abramson et al. 1998).  Support for Democrats among Catholics, though, has been slowly eroding ever since.  In 1996 the middle-class Catholic vote went in favor of Clinton 49 percent to 44 percent (Abramson et al. 1998, 95).  Clinton’s margin of victory among Catholics was smaller than it was among the entire population.  This decline in support of Catholics for the Democratic Party can be attributed to the party’s turn away from the Catholic Church’s values.  Strong Democratic opposition to the right to life for the unborn has turned away many Catholics voters.

In contrast to Catholics, Protestants are a religious group that heavily supports the Republican Party.  As a whole, 52 percent of the white Protestant vote went for Republican Bob Dole (compared to only 40 percent for Clinton) in the 1996 election (Abramson et al. 1998, 94).  There are, however, a few variables that need to be considered when analyzing the Protestant vote.  The first is whether or not the person considers himself or herself “born again.”  Of those who did not consider themselves born again, 50 percent voted for the Democrat in 1996 (which is slightly higher rate than white voters on the whole) while only 42 percent voted for the Republican.  Among those who did consider themselves born again, though, only 31 percent voted Democrat while 61 percent voted Republican.  A second variable is whether a person is a mainline or Evangelical Protestant.  While mainline Protestants only slightly favored the Republican over the Democrat (49 percent to 45 percent), the division was greater among Evangelical Protestants (52 percent to 38 percent).  This is due to the desire of many Evangelical Protestants to “maintain the status quo” as they see social change, such as the increase of women in the workplace and the advancement of civil rights, as a “rebellion against God’s will” (Webster 1997, 158).  They view the Republican Party as the one that would maintain the status quo.  A final variable among Protestants is their religious commitment.  Those with a “low to medium commitment” voted in favor of the Democrat 52 percent compared to 44 percent for the Republican.  Those with a “medium to high” commitment voted in favor of the Republican 57 percent to 32 percent and those with a “very high” commitment overwhelming voted for the Republican, 72 percent to 24 percent (Abramson et al. 1998, 94).  The cause of this is that those with higher commitment levels are more likely to vote in accordance with the teachings of their Protestant-Christian religion, which advocates, especially among Evangelical Protestants, maintaining the status quo (Webster 1992).


            There is evidence that the education attainment of white individuals affects the way that they vote.  In general, the lower the level of education attained, the more likely a person is to vote Democrat.  In 1996, an overwhelming 83 percent of those over the age of 25 who voted with an 8th grade education or less voted for Clinton.  This compares to just 13 percent who voted for Dole (Abramson et al. 1998, 94).  Likewise, the higher the level of education attained, the more likely a person is to vote Republican.  Those who were college graduates (bachelor’s degree) favored Dole 51 percent to 43 percent.  However, among those with advanced degrees, there is a switch back toward Democratic voting (Abramson et al. 1998, 94).  The changeover from a strong support of Democrats to a more middle of the road stand occurs between those with some high school and high school graduates.  Of those who voted, 71 percent with some high school voted for Clinton in 1996, compared with just 48 percent of those who had completed high school (Abramson et al. 1998, 94).


            Among whites, family income is another determinant of how a person will vote.  This is closely tied to educational attainment, since the higher one’s education level, the higher their income will likely be.  It does not, however, necessarily produce the same voting patterns as educational attainment.  Those with extremely low incomes tend to vote Democratic while those with exceptionally high incomes tend to vote Republican.  The most lopsided vote occurs among those with incomes of $10,000 or less.  Of those who vote in this group, 69 percent voted for Clinton in 1996, compared to just 22 percent who voted for Dole (Abramson et al. 1998, 94).  Lower income groups support Democrats for their economic policies, such as welfare, and governmental programs which they feel they will benefit from more than those promoted by Republicans.

            At the other end of the spectrum, those with incomes of $90,000 or more voted in favor of Dole 53 percent compared to 41 percent for Clinton (Abramson et al. 1998, 94).  Wealthier Americans are drawn to Republican social policies that protect family values as well as economic policies of tax cuts and benefits (Abramson et al. 1998, 94).

            Among middle income groups, though, there are inconsistencies.  Family income is less likely to affect how a person in a middle-income group will vote.  Family income, it seems, has the biggest affect on the poorest and the richest Americans in determining how one will vote.

Labor Union Membership

            Labor union membership, among whites, also heavily influences how one will vote.  “Since the 1930s most union leaders have supported the Democratic Party, and union members have traditionally been a mainstay of the Democratic presidential coalition” (Abramson et al. 1998, 97).  In the 1996 election, 64 percent of white union members and their families voted for Clinton, 20 percentage points higher than white non-members (Abramson et al, 94).  This gap existed despite Clinton’s support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was heavily opposed by labor union leaders (Abramson et al. 1998, 98).  Labor Union members and leaders feel the Democratic Party is the one that looks out for their interests by preventing U.S. jobs from going overseas as well as by giving aid to sectors of the economy that have been in decline.


            Another major indication of how a person will vote is whether they live in an urban or a rural area.  Urban areas heavily support the Democratic Party while rural areas have broad support for Republicans (Sauerpof and Swanstrom, 1999).  Urban areas have higher than average concentrations of blacks, Jews, homosexuals, young singles, and elderly people, all of whom form strong Democratic voting blocs (Shelly et. al. 1998, 107).  Urban voters also tend to favor the Democratic Party’s stance on issues such as gun control, welfare, abortion, governmental programs, and military spending (DeCorla-Souza 2001).

Rural voters, on the other hand, are more likely to favor the Republican stand on the aforementioned issues.  Whites, which are more likely than non-whites to vote Republican, make up a much greater percentage of the population in rural areas.  Rural areas also have a greater percentage of traditional families and Protestant denominations, which support the Republican emphasis on values, have a larger influence than they do in urban areas (Shelley et al. 1996). 


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