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.
Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, is an intellectual and a public servant. He chooses his words carefully. It is therefore not surprising to discover that his campaign mantra: “fired up, ready to go” has a rich origin story and even richer connotations. Frank (2017) recounts a story that Obama tells of a campaign trip to Greenwood, SC in 2007, when the then-Illinois Senator met Edith S. Childs, the local public official turned private detective, who energized the crowd with this chant.Footnote 1 The components of the chant (fired up vs. ready to go) represent separate mandates. In the context of a presidential race, asking citizens to get “fired up” means that you want them to be excited about the election. You are requesting that citizens invest emotionally in the candidates, the competition, and ultimately, the democratic process. In essence, you are asking people to care.
But, wishing that someone be “ready to go” is different. Instead of signaling a desire for political excitement, readiness is a call for people to fulfill their civic duties. Bryce (1895) reminds us that democracies require both passion and persistence from their citizens.Footnote 2 The same way that couples work together through hardships, citizens must be committed to overcoming adversity to serve their beloved country. In Obama’s case, this commitment involved braving inclement weather, a long commute, and the sting of last week’s negative publicity to deliver a speech before a small gathering of recalcitrant supporters. Doing one’s duty is seldom glamorous, but it is always necessary. Therefore, citizens must remain, to use Bryce’s phrasing, “always ready” to do their part when their contributions are needed. The extraordinary woman in the back of the room—as Barack described her in his story about how he acquired the campaign chant—told everyone in attendance that (1) it is important to be enthusiastic about the campaign,Footnote 3 and (2) it is equally important to be ready to perform one’s civic duties—regardless of one’s enthusiasm levels, and sometimes despite an absence of passion for politics.
In many respects, the events surrounding the 2016 presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump add to our understanding of the role of enthusiasm and civic duty. This is especially true when discussing the “Black vote” during this uniquely combative and racially-polarizing campaign. For example, journalists spoke at length of an “enthusiasm gap” from African Americans’ strong engagement in 2008 and 2012 potentially affecting the outcome of the 2016 election (see, e.g., Clasen-Kelly and Morrill 2016; Gray 2016). Conversations about the enthusiasm gap become even more important when contextualized within the research on Black political behavior, which demonstrates not only that African Americans tend to cast ballots at higher rates than their socioeconomic background would predict (Tate 1991, 1994), but also that interest in politics—what we refer to here as “enthusiasm”—is a central motivator of voter participation (Block 2010; Leighley and Vedlitz 1999).
Underlying conversations about the enthusiasm gap are two assumptions regarding African Americans. The first is that the “gap” to which pundits and analysts referred was primarily a concern about replicating the kind of mass mobilization that elected Obama in 2008 and 2012. Many voters expressed their misgivings about both Clinton and Trump, characterizing the election as one in which they were being asked to select the “lesser of two evils” (Baum 2017; Gray 2016; Grudem 2016; Long 2016; Pollitt 2016). And, because they constitute a sizable voting bloc for the Democratic Party, the worry was that African Americans would need to overcome a deficit in their enthusiasm levels before turning out to vote.
Another, less obvious, assumption is that the “enthusiasm gap” also reflected a “generation gap.” While a critical bloc in 2008 and 2012, younger African Americans did not seem particularly “fired up” about their nominee for the Democratic ticket in 2016, which was thought to make it harder for this group of voters to overcome their enthusiasm hurdle with a sense of civic duty. Suspicion of this generational divide in enthusiasm traces to young African Americans being exposed to a series of videos being publicly released showing Black civilians assaulted—even killed—by police officers, while an African-American male occupied the highest office (Chideya 2016; Wright 2016). Led by the Movement for Black Lives, journalists and pundits suspected a growing sense of distrust in electoral politics percolating amongst young Black voters (Rufini 2017; Williams and Clement 2016). Presumably, the decision to turn out is clearer among older Blacks, because they, like most Americans in their age group, had developed a sense of civic responsibility that was solidified through the habitual practice of voting rather than from their enthusiasm for the candidates.Footnote 4
The two assumptions mentioned above suggest that age can influence the relative roles that enthusiasm and civic duty play in the voting choices of African Americans. For older Blacks, readiness may be enough. Of course, caring a great deal about a campaign can strengthen their likelihood of voting in it. However, and to borrow the language of philosophers, enthusiasm, while helpful (read: sufficient), is not a necessary condition of turnout because civic duty offers these Blacks another—soberer but arguably more dependable—pathway to activism. Conversely, the apprehension among those writing about the enthusiasm gap is that America’s youth requires ample additional motivation. While this is the case for young voters generally (Henn and Weinstein 2006; Wattenberg 2008), there is no theoretical basis for applying this claim to African Americans, a group that has historically behaved in ways that depart from—if not contradict—traditional frameworks (see Walters 1988; Walton 1985; Dawson 2001). Instead, the literature on Black political behavior has normatively constructed and empirically buttressed a sense of consistency across age groups—a continuity rooted in the persistence of racial discrimination (Dawson 1995, 2011; Walton 1985; Simien 2015; Simien and Hampson 2017; Tate 1991, 1994). While conventional models of voting suggest that enthusiasm matters more for young people because they have yet to cultivate the necessary reservoir of civic duty, insights from the research on Black turnout lead us to suspect that enthusiasm and civic duty are necessary conditions for both younger and older African Americans.
In this article, we put these and related ideas to what is hitherto their most comprehensive test. We agree with authors like Clay (2012), Cohen (2010) and Ginwright (2010), who argue that conventional narratives about the political activism of younger Blacks lagging behind that of their older counterparts paint an unfair picture of Black youth. Accordingly, rather than accept the above assumptions about being “fired up” versus “ready to go,” we expect enthusiasm and civic duty to perform similarly for both younger and older African Americans. Unpacking enthusiasm and civic duty as necessary and/or sufficient conditions is important, but our goal is also to demonstrate the stability of these predictors across age groups.
Therefore, we begin by specifying hypotheses about the conditional effects of age, campaign enthusiasm and civic duty on voter turnout. By analyzing survey data from the 2012 and 2016 American National Election Studies (ANES), we find that campaign enthusiasm and civic duty are mutually-attenuating conditions of Black turnout: the stronger the effect of one variable, the weaker the impact of the other. These conditional effects look similar as the electoral context shifts from the Obama administration to the Clinton/Trump contest, and the findings change very little from one generation of African Americans to the next. Intriguingly, the strength of these conditional effects is both greater for the 2016 Presidential Election (when Obama is no longer on the presidential ballot) and most noticeable among older African Americans. Making sense of the 2016 findings requires that we consider the ways in which factors that typically explain Black voting behavior (linked fate, (dis)trust in government, political efficacy, group membership, and church attendance) work to activate African-Americans’ sense of civic duty, and to a lesser extent, their campaign enthusiasm.
We conclude by placing these findings into broader context. Specifically, insofar as enthusiasm and civic duty constitute different dimensions of the same broad construct, our study contributes to the vast literature on the influence of “psychological involvement” on “behavioral involvement.”Footnote 5 Moreover, our research puts us into dialogue with classic debates in political science regarding the calculus of voting. For many Americans, the issue is not “for whom to vote” but “why bother voting in the first place.” Our research helps us to explain not only why some Black people turn out to vote but also why others choose to abstain.
The Centrality of Campaign Enthusiasm and Civic Duty
As we noted earlier, a major premise underlying the conversations about the enthusiasm gap is that campaign enthusiasm (henceforth called E) and civic duty (hereafter referred to as D) can work together to influence turnout among African Americans (or T for short). To be clear, T is the “outcome” in this relationship, while E and D are “predictors.” Consistent with past research (see Block and Onwunli 2010; Block 2011), we define T as an African American’s self-report of either their previous voting actions or their intention to cast a ballot in an upcoming election. With no loss of generality, E and D can represent either the “level” of enthusiasm or civic duty a person expresses, respectively, or the “likelihood” of said person making such an expression.
Beyond their obvious relevance to our current paper, campaign enthusiasm and civic duty are two of the strongest and most reliable determinants of voter turnout. In fact, the concept of E should sound familiar to anyone who studies political interest, for there is an obvious similarity between “being enthusiastic about” and “paying attention to” politics. Enthusiasm is, for our purposes, a measure of how closely a person follows politics. As a measure of political interest, campaign enthusiasm has a storied history in the empirical research on voting. The writings of Stephen Bennett (Bennett 1986; Bennett and Bennett 1989a; b) and George Bishop (Bishop et al. 1982, 1984; Bishop 2004) lay a solid foundation for this literature, and one can find more contemporary contributions to the study of political interest by scholars like Block (2007, 2010), Holt et al. (2013), Horner (2000), Lupia and Philpot (2005), Prior (2010), Rebenstorf (2004), Shani (2011; 2012), Strömbäck and Shehata (2010), and Van Deth and Elff (2000; 2004), to name only a few. Scholarship on political interest consistently shows that voter turnout tends to increase as citizens become more fascinated with politics. In fact, Milbrath and Goel (1977) observed that, because it was would always be statistically significant, scholars no longer bother to discuss in detail the predictive power of political interest.
The literature on D is equally vast. Recent work (see Ferguson and Garza 2011; Jones and Hudson 2000) confirms the findings of Angus Campbell and his coauthors that civic duty is a powerful motivator of turnout (Campbell et al. 1954, 1960). More importantly, civic duty is the “D” term often mentioned by scholars concerned with the “paradox of voting:” roughly half the country’s eligible voters cast ballots in presidential elections—arguably the most popular of electoral contests. This pattern remained steady despite increases in educational attainment, which, according to political scientists, is unsettling because turnout should grow as does education (Ferejohn and Fiorina 1974; Gomez 2008). The steadiness of turnout in light of rising education levels is perplexing to economists who, when thinking about the low probability of any vote deciding the outcome of a presidential election, are surprised that so many educated citizens (who should know better) actually practice the franchise (Downs 1957; Ledyard 1981; Palfrey and Rosenthal 1985; Riker and Ordeshook 1968). Civic duty presumably resolves this paradox by offering an explanation for turnout—accounting for limits in rationality on one hand and the importance of cathartic and psychic rewards on the other hand—that was compatible with both political science and economic models of political behavior (Feddersen 2004; Levine and Palfrey 2007).
Enthusiasm and Duty as Intersecting Pathways to Voting
Having noted the importance of our primary theoretical predictors, we now discuss the potential for these variables to influence African-American turnout. We concede that E and D can be unconditional predictors in the sense that the influence of one variable on voter Black turnout remains the same, regardless of the value of the other variable. The propositions associated with the idea that the participatory impact of E and D might not depend on one another suggest:
Campaign enthusiasm can be an unconditionally-independent condition of African Americans’ intention (or propensity) to vote: its predictive impact does not rely on civic duty.
Civic duty can be an unconditionally-independent condition of African Americans’ intention (or propensity) to vote: its predictive impact does not rely on campaign enthusiasm.
That said, our understanding of the enthusiasm-gap narrative tells us that campaign enthusiasm and civic duty might be conditional predictors. For instance, civic duty can be an enthusiasm multiplier (in the sense that the positive effect of E on T becomes even stronger in the presence of D). If enthusiasm and civic duty can, as isolated variables, increase the likelihood or propensity of Blacks turning out to vote, then it stands to reason that the combined impact of these mobilizing agents could exceed the sum of their unique effects. Stated formally,
Campaign enthusiasm and civic duty represent mutually-reinforcing conditions of African Americans’ intention (or propensity) to vote: enthusiasm can boost the influence of duty and vice versa.
It is also possible for enthusiasm and civic duty to offset each other in such a way that one pathway can diminish the impact of the other as a predictor of African American turnout. This would mean that the influence of one predictor might only be observable at certain levels of the other variable. Once E reaches a high enough threshold, the impact of D on turnout lessens, but at lower thresholds of E, D can exert a stronger impact. Conversely, and for similar reasons, rising levels of D could potentially attenuate the impact of E on T.Footnote 6 Taken together, these ideas prompt the following expectation:
Campaign enthusiasm and civic duty represent mutually-attenuating conditions of African Americans’ intention (or propensity) to vote: enthusiasm can dilute the influence of duty and vice versa.
Consistency Across Age Groups
We now complicate this story by factoring in the age of the would-be voter (A). Specifically, our goal is to discuss the extent to which age shapes whether enthusiasm and civic duty are mutually-reinforcing, mutually-attenuating, or independent predictors of Black turnout. In the introduction, we acknowledged that the narrative surrounding the “enthusiasm gap” in the 2016 Presidential Election assumed that E might have mattered more (as a predictor of T) among younger African Americans, while D may have been the primary motivator of voting for older Blacks. This line of thinking implies that the ability of E and D to influence T (we call this a variable’s “predictive status”) depends on levels of A. Specifically, the expectation is that Blacks from the Civil Rights Generation—defined here as those who are 50 years old and above because these individuals were born around or came of age during the 1960s (Simpson 1998)Footnote 7—view the importance of voting differently than African Americans that were born in later generations.
The logic behind this expectation is that African Americans who are over 50 have a unique record of political socialization: in addition to being “closer” experientially to the Civil Rights Movement, they were also exposed to massive de jure segregation and discrimination. As a cohort, they were socialized during the same historical era of Jim Crow and either witnessed or participated in mass protest demonstrations from lunch counter sit-ins and economic bus boycotts to freedom rides. As a result, they developed a distinctive political outlook on their experiences with racial discrimination, segregated schools, voter disenfranchisement, and economic hardships (as a result of being relegated to working-class occupations). African Americans held few political offices on the local, state, and national level. Such an era of civil rights struggle has been shown to facilitate the process by which this age cohort in particular developed a strong racial group identity and an obliged sense of civic duty upon passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (Gillespie 2010).
Meanwhile, for subsequent generations of African Americans, political socialization has featured symbols of inclusion. Both the Generation X and Millennial cohorts experienced de jure desegregation in schools and other public facilities. However, their employment and educational opportunities have been more expansive, which has also led to increased diversity in social networks. Specific to politics, they were not explicitly disenfranchised on the basis of their race, and they matriculated in a political environment in which African Americans secured positions of public office at local, state, and federal levels—including the election of the first self-identified Black President. Under these conditions, previous scholarship has casted expectations that younger African-American voters should be less susceptible to (or motivated by) E and D to perform T than their older counterparts. This prominent string of logic prompts the following hypothesis:
The impact of campaign enthusiasm and civic duty as conditional predictors of African Americans’ intention (or propensity) to vote should vary by age group whereby the relationship is strongest for African Americans of the Civil-Rights-Movement generation.
However, and as noted above, we are treating this speculation as an alternative assumption and arguing instead that age should play an insignificant role in the relationship between E, D, and T. Our reason why stems from the idea that the persistence of African-Americans’ experiences with racial discrimination should position both campaign enthusiasm and one’s sense of civic duty as important predictors of T, and the predictive status of these predictors should be comparable across age groups. Existing scholarship links African-American political behavior to a collective group identity driven by experiences with—and perceptions of—racial discrimination (Dawson 1995; Gay and Tate 1998; Simien 2015), and the scholarship in this area finds little evidence of age-group differences in these experiences and perceptions. We believe that this the lack of evidence to support age effects derives from the way in which barriers of discrimination have re-emerged over time. For instance, schools and urban neighborhoods have experienced massive sweeps of re-segregation, while unemployment rates for African Americans remain significantly higher than that of their white counterparts. In terms of politics, African Americans of the Generation X and Millennial cohorts have been the groups most affected by disenfranchisement through mass incarceration and voter identification laws.
Thus, with the extant literature buttressing our expectation that African Americans will behave uniformly across age groups, we derive our expectation based on the underlying notion that American institutions—both public and private—have produced a brand of discrimination against African Americans that should penetrate through age distinctions. Our argument motivates the following competing hypothesis:
The impact of campaign enthusiasm and civic duty as conditional predictors of African Americans’ intention (or propensity) to vote should NOT vary by age group.
In the next section, we develop a statistical model to examine the testable implications of these theoretical arguments.Footnote 8
We utilize a regression-based framework developed by Clark et al. (2006) to explore age-group differences in the extent to which campaign enthusiasm (E) and civic duty (D) are necessary and/or sufficient predictors of African American’s voter turnout (T). Our modeling approach takes the following functional form, where T is a dependent variable, E and D are theoretically-central independent variables, and ε is the error term. We use the subscript A to record age-group differences among African Americans, and we include a product term for E and D to explore the conditional impact of these variables on turnout.
To measure turnout, we take advantage of a survey item that is common to the pre-election waves of the 2012 and 2016 American Nation Election Studies (ANES). This variable assesses the degree to which respondents “intend” to vote in an upcoming presidential election: So far as you know now, do you expect to vote in the national elections this coming November or not? We operationalize this as a binary variable (1 = intend to vote, 0 = otherwise), and, because of its categorical nature, we model Black’s intended turnout using logistic regression.
Recall that we define campaign enthusiasm as the degree to which African American “care” about an upcoming election. We use the following ANES items to measure campaign enthusiasm: Generally speaking, would you say that you personally CARE A GOOD DEAL who wins the presidential election this fall, or that you DON’T CARE VERY MUCH who wins? This is also a binary variable (1 = care a good deal, 0 = otherwise).Footnote 9 Limited access to recent ANES items measuring civic duty poses a challenge to us. The standard measure was a Likert-type scale question asking respondents if they agreed/disagreed with a statement regarding whether people who do not care about politics should be allowed to vote. But that item was discontinued in 1992. A new battery of civic duty questions that were proposed by Achen and his colleagues appear from 2012 onward in the ANES (see Achen 2010; Blais and Achen 2010). A summary version of the branching questions comprising this battery ask respondents to rate how strongly they believe that voting is either a “duty” or a “choice.” We collapse categories in this item so that 0 = voting is a choice and 1 = voting is a duty.
Our variable for age group (A) distinguishes African Americans who are younger than 50 years old from those who are 50 and older. We create it by taking the ANES item that records a respondents’ age in years and re-coding it so that 1 = 50 and over, and 0 = under 50. This binary measure serves as our “grouping variable,” and we run separate regression models for our two age group categories.
To account for the influence of other factors, we add X, a set of control variables, to the equation. Specifically, we control for factors commonly associated with Black voter turnout: linked fate (Dawson 1995; McClain et al. 2009; Gay et al. 2016), group membership (McMiller 2000; Tate 1994), church attendance (Harris 1994, 1999; McDaniel 2009), government trust (Avery 2006, 2009) and political efficacy (Merolla et al. 2013; Shingles 1981). Here is how we operationalize these variables: linked fate (1 = what happens generally to Blacks in this country will have something to do with what happened to me, 0 = otherwise), trust in government (1 = the government is run for the benefit of all people, 0 = otherwise), political efficacy (1 = strongly/somewhat disagree that people like me don’t have any say in what the government does, 0 = otherwise), and organizational membership (a count of the number of political organizations a respondents is involved in), and church attendance (1 = attend religious services, apart from occasional weddings, baptisms, and funerals).
We also account for several of the more widely-documented political and demographic predictors that appear in all turnout models, regardless of race (Brady et al. 1995; Verba et al. 1995; Burns et al. 2001). These control variables are party identification (1 = Democrat, 0 = otherwise), campaign “recruitment” (1 = member of political party contacted respondent, 0 = otherwise), income levels (an ordinal item with 5 categories in which “low income” is the reference category), educational attainment (a three category ordinal item in which “high school or less” is the reference category), and gender (1 = female, 0 = otherwise) (Table 1).
The regression-based approach proposed by Clark, Gilligan, and Golder allows us to consider potential combinations of results. For example, if the coefficient estimates for enthusiasm (β1) and civic duty (β2) are non-significant, but the product term for these variable (β3) is statistically significant, then we would have evidence that both campaign enthusiasm and civic duty are necessary conditions of turnout. As noted, the analysts and pundits concerned with the enthusiasm gap argue that E is necessary for younger African Americans while D is merely one of several sufficient conditions for voting. Stated formally, this argument hypothesizes that β1 > 0, β2 = 0, and β3 ≠ 0. The logic of the enthusiasm gap also implies that older Blacks will use D as a necessary condition and that E will have a negligible impact on their voting intentions (β1 = 0, β2 > 0, and β3 ≠ 0). Other potential scenarios include E and D functioning as mutually-reinforcing (β1 > 0, β2 > 0, and β3 > 0) or mutually-attenuating (β1 > 0, β2 > 0, and β3 < 0) conditions. Again, we concede that E and D might both be necessary for T (β1 = 0, β2 = 0, and β3 > 0), that E alone (and not D) shapes turnout (β1 > 0, β2 = 0, and β3 = 0), or that the true relationship is between D and T instead of between E and T (β1 = 0, β2 > 0, and β3 = 0).Footnote 10
The first set of hypotheses pertained to the potential of campaign enthusiasm and civic duty to function as independent (Hypothesis 1a and Hypothesis 1b), mutually-reinforcing (Hypothesis 2a) or mutually-attenuating (Hypothesis 2b) predictors of Black turnout. We test these claims in Tables 2 and 3, and we show the steps we used to build the logistic regression models outlined in Eq. 1. The first column reports the effect of the control variables on intended voting,Footnote 11 the second and third columns allow readers to see how the results change once we include the theoretically-central predictors, the fourth column presents the result from the full model, and column 5 displays a full model with interaction terms.
The results in Table 2 fit more with Hypothesis 1a than with Hypothesis 1b, for they underscore the predictive strength of campaign enthusiasm (E) in 2012. The ability of enthusiasm to alter the likelihood of intended voting persists after considering the impact of the control variables, and its statistically-significant impact on T decreases only slightly in magnitude (the logit estimate moves from approximately 0.42 to roughly 0.41, and they are both significant at the conventional levels) once we add civic duty (D) to the equation. The final column allows us to observe how E and D intersect to influence T. Here, the coefficient estimate for enthusiasm represents the effect of E on T if D = 0. This means that E has a positive and statistically significant relationship to turnout among African Americans who do not feel a sense of civic duty. Likewise, the logit results for civic duty tell us the impact of D on T when E = 0, and, for those Blacks who are not enthused about the 2012 Presidential election, civic duty has a significantly positive effect on intended turnout.
The product of these variables (E × D) is negative and fall just short of conventional levels of statistical significance. However, consistent with recommendations from past research (see Brambor et al. 2006), we do not overlook the interaction results and instead probe deeper to get a fuller understanding of the conditional effects. For example, to illustrate the results from this interaction term, we calculate predicted values based on the logistic regression models. Specifically, the vertical axis in Fig. 1 reports the expected probability of African Americans intending to turn out to vote in 2012, while the horizontal axis sorts those simulated probabilities by levels of campaign enthusiasm (see the graph on left) and civic duty (see the graph on the right). For the bar graph on the left side of the figure, we estimate two sets of values: the predicted probabilities of T when E is held to a value of zero, and the predicted probabilities of T when E takes a value of one. Likewise, the bar graph on the right plots the change in the predicted probabilities of T as D shifts from “0” to “1.” For each graph, the dark colored bar represents the predicted probability of T when the predictor in question (either D or E) is set to zero, while the lighter-color bar records the probability of intended turnout when the value of that predictor is set to one. By comparing the height of the bars, we can see how civic duty “conditions” the effect of campaign enthusiasm on Black turnout, and, likewise, how the relationship between civic duty and turnout is shaped by enthusiasm.Footnote 12 We add 95% confidence intervals to each bar in our figure, and by checking for overlap between these intervals, readers can determine whether differences in bar heights are statistically significant.
The post-estimation results put the regression findings into fuller context. By noting the heights of the darker and lighter bars for each graph, we can see that the respective effects of E and D on T are positive when the other variable is set to a value of 0. We know this because the lighter-color bars are consistently located above the darker ones. Moreover, the differences in the heights of the bars in each graph tell us that, regardless of D, E is positively related to T. Likewise, D is positively associated with T no matter what value E takes. This is because the difference in bar heights always angles upwards and to the right. Generally, the height difference for E becomes less stark in the presence of high levels of D. However, the height differences for D are noticeably smaller when E takes on a high value. This suggests that the ability of campaign enthusiasm to attenuate the influence of civic duty is greater than the ability of D to weaken the impact of E, and this finding speaks directly to the asymmetrical nature of the conditional influence of E and D as predictors of T. Moreover, the absence of a fully mutually-attenuating relationship between E and T appears to be due in part to a “ceiling effect”: because those with high levels of enthusiasm have an already high probability of voting, the additional impact of civic duty cannot move turnout much higher.Footnote 13
The results for 2016 (see Fig. 2) are like those of 2012. Both enthusiasm and civic duty are statistically significant predictors, as can be seen by looking at the logistic regression coefficients for E and D in the third column of the table. Moreover, the coefficient estimate for the interaction of these variables (β3) is also significant (albeit negative in sign). Taken together, this combination of logistic regression estimates (β1 > 0, β2 > 0, and β3 < 0) is consistent with the claim that E and D are at least somewhat mutually-attenuating conditions of Blacks’ intended turnout (Hypothesis 2b). When D = 0, the effect of E on T is positive and significant. When E = 0, the impact of D on T is similar in sign and magnitude. The negatively-signed and statistically non-significant interaction term tells us that enthusiasm and civic duty can compensate for the absence of one-another. Post-estimation plots corroborate this story by demonstrating that the changes in the predicted probability of turnout as a function of campaign enthusiasm is interchangeable with the effect of civic duty, conditional upon absence of one of the two factors.
Because our current modeling approach does not allow us to disaggregate results by age, we are unable to determine whether older Black voters are more able than their younger counterparts to overcome their lack of passion and show up to the polling booth. To explore potential generational gaps—or our hypothesized generational consistency—more fully, we turn to Table 4. The left and right halves of this table present the logistic regression results for the 2012 and 2016 data side-by-side. Each half of the table sorts the analyses by age group (African Americans under 50 years old vs. those who are 50 and over). Again, this age group threshold allows us to separate Blacks who were born before or came of age during the Civil Rights Movement from those who were born more recently. Unlike the previous tables, we display only the results of the full models that include interaction terms.
In 2012, campaign enthusiasm and not civic duty is a statistically-significant predictor of young Blacks’ intended turnout. The same pattern holds for older Blacks. Regardless of age, the interaction term for E and D is statistically non-significant, which means that campaign enthusiasm was both necessary and sufficient for Black turnout that year. In 2016, however, the estimates for the constituent terms for both E and D are significant across age groups. The interaction term is negative in sign for both age groups, but it is statistically significant only among African Americans who are 50 and over. We graph the sometimes-mutually-attenuating impact of E and D on T in Figs. 3 and 4.
Overall, the analyses reveal differential results of the effects that campaign enthusiasm and civic duty exert over voting. On the one hand, the story in 2012 was clearly about Blacks across the age groups being “fired up,” and there was little opportunity for civic duty to make a large impact. This makes sense because President Obama was running as an incumbent and endorsing various candidates for congressional elections. On the other hand, after Obama (i.e., at the end of his two-term administration and during the 2016 presidential campaign) there was an overall decline in enthusiasm for older Black voters to 65% (the enthusiasm rate was 55% for voters under 50). As a result, older African Americans resembled their younger counterparts in the sense that civic duty shaped the impact of their enthusiasm on their voting intentions. Without a Black Democratic presidential candidate on the ticket, African-American voters demonstrated largely the same pattern in voting behavior across age groups. The fact that the predicted probabilities look as similar as they do across age groups suggests that we have qualified support for Hypothesis 3. Furthermore, we attribute this consistency across age groups to the persistence of the factors that the existing literature upholds. For example, the lack of major differences might suggest that the correlates of E and D (variables like linked fate, church attendance, membership in community organizations, political efficacy, and trust in government) function similarly across age groups. With few exceptions, this is exactly what we find in subsequent analyses (see Tables 8, 9, 10 and 11 in the Appendix).
African Americans’ sense of enthusiasm towards presidential campaigns and the extent to which that enthusiasm impacts African-American voter turnout has been a subject of lively public discourse. Campaign enthusiasm is our proxy variable for political interest, and, given its status as a powerful and reliable predictor of voting, it is surprising that more scholars haven’t studied it as a theoretically-central variable, not simply as a control variable. As Campbell et al. note in Macedo (2005), p. 35: “It is perplexing that political scientists have not shown more recent interest, as it were, in political interest.” As a result, existing research on political behavior has a considerable weakness with respect to it its ability to display the full range of factors influencing African-American voting. Our study addresses that shortcoming, and it advances our understanding of the centrality of enthusiasm to African-American political behavior. Specifically, our research adds to the growing literature on African-American political behavior by corroborating the work of scholars like Walters (1988), Walton (1985), and Tate (1991), who engage the idea that mainstream turnout models (i.e., those built around SES) fail to adequately explain Black turnout. Like those authors, we demonstrate that, among other things, African Americans’ interest in politics is central to their voting decisions.
Another contribution this study makes is that we explore the conditional role of political interest, examining how presidential enthusiasm intersects with feelings of civic duty, and offering evidence that enthusiasm—conditional upon duty, and regardless of age—is associated with stronger intentions to vote. In addition to extending our current knowledge of campaign enthusiasm and civic duty hypotheses, our findings present several avenues for future research. For instance, while our analysis highlights the link between campaign enthusiasm and voting, we still need to understand more fully how presidential campaigns go about generating enthusiasm amongst African-American voters. Moreover, the consistency of these patterns across age groups should not preclude future scholarship that examines how—despite similar overall responses to campaign enthusiasm and civic duty—different types of campaign appeals for different age groups may be required to activate those responses.
Still, this study begins the process of examining how African Americans are responding to presidential politics within a political context in which an African-American is no longer currently vying for or occupying the highest office. We started this project by recounting the narrative of a tactic deployed by Barack Obama’s historic presidential campaign to generate enthusiasm among potential voters: “let’s get fired up and ready to go!” We proceed by offering analyses of African-American voting in the 2016 Presidential Election, with the 2012 Election established as an important event through which to contextualize behavior in 2016. This approach is strategic in that we believe that the record levels of campaign enthusiasm shown by African Americans in 2008 and 2012 fostered unrealistic expectations for African-American voting (for similar arguments, see Harris 2014; Walters 2007). While there is some credence to the argument that an inability to capture 2012 levels of enthusiasm ushered in a decline in voter turnout, we believe 2016 represents more of a baseline return than a failure to meet the new standard. In other words, we should not look at these strategies solely as ways to prompt 2012-level turnout. Nonetheless, we expect African-American voting in upcoming presidential elections to be, at least in part, a function of campaign enthusiasm, although activating civic duty can mitigate enthusiasm declines. Simply put, how the African-American electorate performs in future elections could come down to the extent to which campaigns get them “fired up” in terms of enthusiasm, or at least “ready to go” with respect to fulfilling their civic obligations.
In that regard, this current project has implications for the study of minority politics more broadly. The dual and intersecting pathways of campaign enthusiasm and civic duty might factor into other minority group’s behavior in future elections, particularly since the divisive rhetoric of the Trump administration has inspired women, persons of color, and LGBQT candidates to compete for elected office (Tackett 2017; Tackett et al. 2017; Weaver 2017). If another candidate from a demographically non-dominant group can generate enough enthusiasm among marginalized co-ethnics and other supportive constituents, that enthusiasm could result in higher participation in not just that current election but also subsequent ones. There is already evidence that other minority groups have responded to excitement towards co-ethnic candidates in non-presidential elections (Barreto 2010; McConnaughy et al. 2010; Sanchez 2006) as well as candidates of other ethnicities in presidential elections (Ramakrishnan et al. 2009). Equally important is the finding that, in the absence of high enthusiasm, an understanding of what’s at stake politically—a sentiment that stems just as much from perceived marginalization as it does from a sense of civic duty—can also be an effective mobilizer among minority votes (Barrón-López 2016; Gray 2016). As demographics in the United States shift towards a majority-minority state, more research should be done to explore both the interactive influence of campaign enthusiasm and civic duty on minority voting and the strategies or messaging that can maximize such feelings of excitement and obligation.
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