WASHINGTON — It is one of the most enduring questions in politics: Why do voters vote the way they do? In these frenzied final days before Democratic voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond lock in their preferences for a presidential nominee, political operatives and analysts are debating this question - and at times acting on it.
Sometimes, especially in primaries, it's issues that drive voters. Howard Dean's campaign took off around his early opposition to the Iraq war, in contrast with the other major candidates' equivocations. Richard Gephardt and Governor Dean have split the support of unions, for whom positions on trade treaties and jobs are essential. Dean's signature on a gay civil-unions law in Vermont was an early draw for some younger Democrats.
By now, though, most of the ardent activists have made their choices; candidates are scrambling for the less committed voters - the people who may be more swayed by how a candidate makes them "feel" than by his or her 10-point plan for making college more affordable. In New Hampshire, where Wesley Clark is steadily gaining in polls, the retired general has shed his somber suits in favor of argyle sweaters in a bid to lure more women voters.
"Even in primaries, attributes are more important than issues," says Frank Luntz, a Republican analyst of voter behavior. "Candidates that are more passionate and better communicators tend to emerge in primary situations."
Sometimes other factors trump a candidate's intensity, such as in 1988, when George H.W. Bush inherited the mantle of President Reagan, despite the fact that he wasn't the most passionate candidate.
In 1992, the Democrats were "desperate to take back the White House, so they chose the best communicator [Bill Clinton], even though he was to the right of the party" and faced serious character questions, says Mr. Luntz, who conducts focus groups for MSNBC.
Pollsters and political scientists have long been trying to crack the code of voter behavior. Giving voters prepackaged choices in polls sometimes forces them into a point of view that they wouldn't necessarily reach in an open-ended question. Many voters don't tune in to an election until the final weeks or days, and thus may be more inclined to jump on a hot candidate's bandwagon rather than seriously study all the issue positions.
Endorsements by prominent politicians and newspapers aren't seen as having a big impact on voter choices, but in a tight race, they could matter. For Howard Dean, getting endorsements from former Vice President Gore, Gore's 2000 challenger, Bill Bradley, and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin produces positive headlines at the very least - especially important when the latest news cycle or two haven't been great. The endorsement of Sen. John Edwards Sunday by the Des Moines Register, Iowa's most influential paper, is certain to earn him a second look by some voters.
Some observers warn against giving issue positions short shrift. Even if the broad-brush analysis is that most of the Democratic candidates agree on most issues, party activists do care fervently about positions - and become the vital foot soldiers of every campaign.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which has been collecting extensive data on voter attitudes since October, says four issue areas stand out this primary season:
• Labor. The fact that Dean has split the service unions away from the others, which have mostly gone with Gephardt, demonstrates the divide over trade treaties and jobs. "Because you have a recovery that is not producing as many jobs as anyone would like, it's going to stay at issue," says Ms. Jamieson.
• Iraq. Even though the debate has centered more on the past - whether it was correct to invade Iraq - than on the future, Iraq has become, for now, an issue that speaks to candidate temperament and acuity. Dean's supporters, including Gore, argue that because the former Vermont governor opposed the invasion from the start, he has the right instincts to be president - a central argument for a candidate with no foreign-policy experience.
• Healthcare. Though it's not center stage right now, some candidates, such as Gephardt, have made it a central message. The Democratic candidates are aiming for universal coverage, nearly universal coverage, or coverage of all children. Because the plans tend to be complicated, most voters can't expound on them, but, says Jamieson, "I wouldn't write healthcare off as an issue."
• Tax cuts. The leading candidates would eliminate some or all of Bush's tax cuts, and they all have explanations for how middle-class and low-income Americans would come out ahead in the end, but these explanations don't fit on a bumper sticker. The question then becomes: How much research are voters willing to do? "We do know that attention is going up, and as a result the amount of info that can get through is going up," says Jamieson.
Karlyn Bowman, an expert on polling at the American Enterprise Institute, sees a two-step process in voter decisionmaking. First, she says, people want a "threshold level of confidence in the individual, a feeling you could sit down in a living room and relate that person, feel comfortable with that person in their stewardship of policy." Then, she says, "the issues follow from that."