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D. Sunshine Hillygus and Todd G. Shields. The Persuadable Voter: Wedge Issues in Presidential Campaigns. (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008). £ 17.95 cloth. Pp xiii + 249. ISBN 978-0-691-13341-6.

Adriana-Cecilia Neagu

Babeş-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca

Part of a comprehensive series of reference works on presidential rhetoric and the cultures of the contemporary electorate, the study under review explores the changing relationship between candidates, policy issues and voters in the context of digital technology and the new media. Focusing on the impact of wedge issues on swing voters, the authors posit the two as pivotal elements in today’s presidential elections setting. Central to the position the book stakes is the notion that, as the segment most susceptible to respond to campaigns, persuadable voters form the microtargets of campaigners, being instrumental in electoral polarisation. Consequently, the authors observe the responsiveness of persuadable voters to campaign information in both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, particularly with respect to the controversial policy issues at play. In so doing, they build a theory of the persuadable voter as the one campaigners target in the first instance, and whose voting behaviour is hence more relevant than that of base partisans. Looking at candidate strategies in the 2004 campaigns, Hillygus and Shields point out that, divisive issues such as abortions, stem cell research, gay marriages, and immigration policies revealed themselves as the strategic principles informing the campaign appeals.

As the case studies conducted here aptly demonstrate, contentious issues, are constitutive of power play and the risk factors candidates assume, indeed depend on to measure persuadability. Far from detrimental to campaign strategies, in their function to cross-pressure those who disagree with their affiliated party on a particular policy they feel strongly about, wedge issues have a proven record of enabling potential. Hillygus and Shields thus evidence the role of swing voters as particularly crucial in close elections, shedding new light on the dynamics configured by a cross-pressured persuadable voter and a reassured core partisan base. Their main contention is that whereas base supporters with durable political inclinations, need no winning over, nor are they at all likely to change views in the process, swing voters divided as they are in their predispositions are potent in upsetting balances and bringing about radical change. The authors go on to examine this at work engaging closely the moral wedge issues that enabled George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign to speak to voters from under different political and religious banners and gain adherents across party affiliations. In hindsight, George W. Bush’s appeals, proved to be directed not at the core Republican supporters, but the cross-pressured Democrats.

Of particular relevance to discussions is the authors’ emphasis on the massive empowerment of campaigners by contemporary information technologies which translates into the transfer of information between candidates and voters. The analyses offer a clear indication of how these assist in the process of identification and measurement of the ‘persuadable partisan’, of how the resort to direct mail and television advertising in general shapes the process of decision-making, dramatically affecting vote choices.

In its great topicality as well as its conclusive proof of the theses advanced The Persuadable Voter profiles itself as a study of many merits. To begin with and at the broadest level of consideration, it shifts attention from a familiar and ‘transparent’ to a somewhat subliminal presidential rhetoric, challenging the conventional political science precepts that candidates should avoid controversial issues, that swing voters represent the undecided segment of the electorate characterised by indistinct or absent political preferences. As well as challenging several myths about contemporary American politics, the book refines conceptions of the swing voter profile, foregrounding her conflicting vote decisions as the result of a complexity of preferences. One of the central lines of argument is that the cross pressures to which presidential campaigners subject the electorate are also those that earn their political capital. The study provides a substantive, well-balanced vision of the dynamics of electoral contests in American history post 2000, the relevance of which extends outside US soil, into the crisis of governance in global democracies. Among the study’s wider implications, mention should be made to aspects concerning electoral accountability and the repercussions of campaign strategies for political representation and inequality. One of the major strengths of the study is that it uncovers policy fractures not just between, but within the American political parties, reflecting on their productive exploitation in presidential campaigns. In so doing, it contributes a novel perspective on the so-called culture wars and ideological polarization in the mass public, illuminating the process of voting behaviour through a pluralistic approach to campaign effects and candidate strategy.

A commendable quality is the rigorous and variegated research methodology that substantiates the investigation, one characterised by in-depth qualitative and archival analysis of candidate strategy. Adopting a multimethod approach that yields to a sound theoretical perspective, Hillygus and Shields offer a timely and thorough understanding of voter decision making, candidate strategy, and their bearing on mass political behaviour. Of the many areas of enquiry behind the study, we note the archival research in American political history, political psychology, political communication, data sources, definition and measurement. Written in an accessible style, The Persuadable Voter is an engaging reading, especially distinguishing itself in clarity and the high currency of the themes examined. It is certain to benefit the general public as well as a specialised audience, political and social scientists, journalists and politicians alike.


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