It's Not Un-American To Vote 'Against' Things In November, many Americans will be voting. Some will be pulling the lever for a candidate or issue. But many others will be pulling the lever against them. Though we live in a country built on optimism and a "can do" enthusiasm, Americans can be fairly negative when we go to the polls.
NPR logo It's Not Un-American To Vote 'Against' Things

It's Not Un-American To Vote 'Against' Things

Of course, being "against" the current lawmakers in Congress isn't necessarily a negative thing for many people. Brendan Smialowski/Getty hide caption

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Brendan Smialowski/Getty

"It is said the American people never vote for, but just love to vote against," observed The New York Times in 1932.

Nearly 80 years later, the sentiment still often holds true.

"Most people are fed up with all politicians, both Democrats and Republicans," says Annette Ortiz, a 45-year-old jewelry artist in Santa Fe, N.M. "They are voting against something, someone rather than for someone."

Michigan travel writer Matt Forster says voting in this year's big elections is "more about what I'm against than what I'm for." Courtesy of Matt Forster hide caption

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Courtesy of Matt Forster

Matt Forster, 38, a travel writer and editor in Goodrich, Mich., says, "This year will be the first time that my decisions will be more about what I'm against than what I'm for."

Married with two children, Forster says, "During the last big election I was torn up until the last minute and regretted some of my choices immediately after. This year I'm not seeing the leaders we need necessarily, but instead seeing a lot of players taking advantage of a poor economy, and I don't like the kind of change they're promising."

Though we live in a country built on optimism and a "can do" enthusiasm, Americans can be fairly negative when we go to the polls.

There is an "anti" strain that courses through American history.

The Founding Fathers were anti-British. Abraham Lincoln and the Abolitionists were anti-slavery. Over the decades we have embraced anti-racism and antitrust laws. We have spawned ebbing and flowing anti-communism, anti-war and anti-nuclear movements. Oh yes, and there was Prohibition.

As a society, we describe ourselves as anti-corruption, anti-anxiety, anti-piracy and anti-terrorism. We take antidepressants, send money to anti-defamation leagues and install antivirus software in our computers.

So when we go to the polls, it should be no surprise that we might vote against -- rather than for -- a purpose or position.

Of course, being against something is not always a negative stance. In fact, it can often be positive.

In Times Of Threat

"It is certainly legitimate and reasonable to be motivated by opposition, particularly to issues," says Abraham M. Rutchick of California State University, Northridge, a social psychologist who studies voting habits.

Rutchick draws a distinction between the behavioral approach system and the behavioral inhibition system. In essence, he says, "this means that approach and avoidance -- seeking something and trying to avoid its opposite -- are two distinct systems, rather than two ends of a continuum."

It is fundamentally different, he says, "to try to succeed rather than to try to avoid failure."

People vary in the extent to which they focus on making gains rather than avoiding losses, Rutchick says. "But the most relevant thing for the question at hand is that in times of threat, people focus on avoiding losses to a greater extent."

When people perceive a threatening environment, he says, "and it's not a great leap to suggest that the current climate in much of the country would qualify as people perceiving threats, they are more likely to activate the behavorial inhibition system, and their more negative emotions -- for example, anxiety -- will drive their behavior."

Rutchick says this reliance on prevention, this behavorial inhibition, "likely leads to more focus on problems, and a potential re-examination of existing beliefs and rejection of old habits." He cites a 1993 study by George E. Marcus and Michael B. MacKuen on voting anxiety and enthusiasm.

Avoidance-based voting is promulgated, Rutchick says, not only by a climate of fear and threat, but also by negative campaigning and advertising. "Negative ads are effective," he says, "but they have been shown to decrease voter turnout, particularly among independent and undecided voters."

The Impact In November

What could an "anti" mood among voters mean for the Nov. 2 midterm elections?

Early in September, the pollsters at Gallup reported that:

"The Republicans' lead in the congressional generic ballot over the past month may be due as much to voters' rejecting the Democrats as embracing the Republicans. Among voters backing Republican candidates, 44% say their preference is 'more a vote against the Democratic candidate,' while 48% say it is 'more a vote for the Republican candidate.' ...

"The 44% of Republican voters who say they are voting more against the Democratic candidate exceeds the level of negative voting against the incumbent party that Gallup measured in the 1994 and 2006 elections, when party control shifted (from the Democrats to the Republicans after the 1994 elections and from the Republicans to the Democrats after the 2006 elections)."

There's more from Gallup here.

Voters are far more swayed by bad news, like unemployment going up, than by subsequent good news, such as unemployment going down, says Mac McCorkle, who teaches the politics of public policy at Duke University and the University of North Carolina.

A common concept among political thinkers, McCorkle says, "is that many independents and those who are not ideological or partisan die-hards vote by rendering a judgment on the performance of incumbents rather than making a straight-up choice between the candidates. That's the problem for Obama and the Democrats in 2010, and it was the problem for Republicans in 2006 and 2008."

Anxious Voters, Angry Voters

People accentuate the negative for various reasons and in different ways, says George E. Marcus, a political science professor at Williams College and co-author of the book Affective Intelligence and Political Judgment.

"Being anxious about an issue leads in one direction," Marcus says, "while anger leads in another." Voters who are full of anxiety tend toward deliberation, reflection and attention to alternatives, he says. Angry voters, on the other hand, lean toward defensive reasoning and active engagement to pursue and defend their values against an offensive position.

Regardless of the voters' moods, Rutchick says, anytime an election is between two unappealing options -- such as the devil or the deep blue sea -- it can be "demotivating to voters, weakening their faith in the political process, depressing turnout and contributing to an atmosphere of negativity and cynicism."

He feels it makes for a healthier republic if we have candidates whom we feel good voting for -- even if opposing an issue is what drives us to make that vote.

That's not always the way it turns out. In fact, the state of Nevada is putting Rutchick's concerns to the test by including a "None of the Above" box in the Senate race between Harry Reid and Sharron Angle.

"People often vote for politicians who stoke their fears and then tell them that they will do something about what they fear -- whether it's homophobia, Islamophobia or just fear of losing entitlements or status," says Steve Jensen, 41, of South Bend, Ind. "One of the things people fear most is change."

Santa Fe, N.M., artist Annette Ortiz says she'll be "voting for the lesser of two evils" in November. Courtesy of Annette Ortiz hide caption

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Courtesy of Annette Ortiz

Jensen says he will not be voting Nov. 2  "because I see no reason to vote against a party, specifically the Republicans, when the opposite party does little or nothing to differentiate itself from them."

He says, "If the American people want what the Republicans are selling, they can have it, as far as I'm concerned. In my humble opinion, the Democrats were given a mandate in 2006 and 2008 to govern in a different way than the Republicans had. They squandered that opportunity."

For Annette Ortiz, the midterm elections in November are business as usual. "I'll be voting for the lesser of two evils," she says. "Again."