Does the decision to vote signify that African Americans are “fired up” (i.e., that they are excited about the election), or is it a function of Blacks’ long-term commitment to activism (i.e., that their sense of social responsibility keeps them “ready to go” to the polls)? We argue that campaign enthusiasm and civic duty can work together, exerting an interactive influence in some contexts, and moving independently in others. Using survey data from the 2012 and 2016 American National Election Studies, we discover that both enthusiasm or civic duty matter in the sense that high levels of civic duty can substitute for a lack of enthusiasm, and that high levels of enthusiasm can substitute for the lack of a sense of civic duty. This pattern of enthusiasm and civic duty being “mutually-attenuating” conditions of Black turnout is clearest in 2016: the stronger the effect of one variable, the weaker the impact of the other, and this conditional effect is exists regardless of age. Our findings join the ongoing and spirited conversation about racial politics in the United States, and they contribute to the study of campaign enthusiasm and civic duty, two of the strongest and most reliable motivators of political behavior.
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British scholar and statesman James, The 1st Viscount, Bryce makes this point eloquently in his article, “The Teachings of Civic Duty”: “To desire that the [government] we belong to not only be strong against other Powers, but also well and wisely governed, and therefore peaceful and contented, to fit ourselves for rendering to her such service as our capacities permit, to be always ready to render this service, even to our own hurt and loss—this is a form of patriotism less romantic and striking than the expulsion of a tyrant, or such a self-chosen death as that of Publius Decius or Arnold van Winkelried; but it springs from the same feelings, and it goes as truly in its degree to build up the fabric national greatness. (emphasis added).”
Throughout this paper, we will refer to “enthusiasm” when talking about the degree to which voters are “fired up.” Likewise, “civic duty” becomes the label we use to describe citizens who are “ready to go” vote. These citizens take part in politics out of a sense of responsibility.
Lester Holt of NBC Nightly News did a segment dealing directly with this topic on October 31, 2016 (http://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/video/clinton-s-enthusiasm-gap-is-a-challenge-for-attracting-young-black-millennial-voters-797641795774).
Block (2010) argues that political involvement has two dimensions, for scholars often distinguish behavioral from psychological involvement, calling the latter “political engagement” (see Lewis-Beck et al. 2008) and the former “political participation” (see Verba et al. 1995). Therefore, we use the term political involvement since it captures both the attitudinal and action-based components of political behavior.
Block (2011) finds something similar in his research on the conditional impact of Blacks’ disillusionment with US race relations and their perceived racial interdependence (i.e., the extent to which Blacks believed that their fates are linked) on support for the controversial ideology of Black Nationalism. Specifically, the author finds that disillusionment and linked fate are offsetting pathways to ideological support: the stronger one’s disillusionment, the greater her adherence to this ideology, and the weaker the impact of her linked fate on her expression of nationalism.
We make the data and replication code publicly available at the Dataverse page for the journal.
In 2012 survey, the unweighted proportions of the campaign enthusiasm is 0.905 (all Blacks), 0.885 (Blacks under 50), and 0.943 (Blacks 50 years old and beyond). The proportions in the 2016 data are 0.541, 0.512, and 0.593 for the total subsample, younger Blacks, and older Blacks, respectively.
The null hypothesis underlying these combinations of regression results is that variables E and D are unconditionally independent of T (β1 = 0, β2 = 0, and β3 = 0).
Although we focus our discussion on the main predictors, it is worth noting here that our control variables for party identification, income (in 2016 but not in 2012), and education level are statistically-significant motivators of turnout. These findings are consistent with past research on voter turnout. Our measure of linked fate also emerges as a statistically significant predictor, which is noteworthy considering that the observation that linked fate has allegedly played less of a role in recent decades as a determinant of Black turnout motivated Chong and Rogers’ (2005) research on the psychometric properties of the concept.
Following the recommendations of Berry et al. (2012), we display the conditional effect of both our theoretically-central predictors. Specifically, we plot effect of E on T and the conditional effect of D on T.
This ceiling effect is also impacted by the correlation between enthusiasm and civic duty in both 2012 (0.21) and 2016 (0.22). When enthusiasm levels are universally high in 2012, many of the enthusiasts also place high value on civic duty. This positive correlation is also consistent across age groups in 2012 (under 50: 0.19; 50 plus: 0.23) and 2016 (under 50: 0.28; 50 plus: 0.11).
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The authors thank Matt Barreto, Horace Bartilow, Travis McClerking, the members of the Gender and Political Psychology Writing Group, Christina Haynes, Harwood McClerking, Francisco Pedraza, Mark Peffley, Melynda Price, Richard Waterman, and Justin Wedeking for their feedback and encouragement. An earlier version of this paper was presented in the summer of 2017 at the Mini-Conference on Race and Ethnic Politics and the 2016 Presidential Election that was hosted by the University of California, Los Angeles. Our paper is much stronger because of the assistance we received from colleagues, and any mistakes that remain are our fault alone.
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Collins, J., Block, R. Fired Up, Ready to Go: The Impact of Age, Campaign Enthusiasm, and Civic Duty on African American Voting. Polit Behav 42, 107–142 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-018-9488-y
- African Americans politics
- Voter turnout
- Political interest
- Civic duty
- Generational effects