There is no end of interest in why people vote (see, e.g,. Andy’s work) and what might increase the overall level of turnout (see, e.g., Don Green, Alan Gerber, and others’ work on mobilization campaigns, as well as research on the effect of the Motor Voter Act, Election Day registration, portable voter registration, and other such reforms).
But some new evidence points to the enduring influence of early life experiences — things which are not influenced by campaign tactics or changes in electoral laws. In other words, to understand why people vote, we have to hop into the Wayback Machine.
One noteworthy piece is by Cindy Kam and Carl Palmer. A bevy of studies have found that people with more formal education are more likely to vote and participate, but Kam and Palmer ask where this reflects an actual causal effect of education. Equally plausible is that the kinds of people who pursue formal education, and in particular a college degree, are also the kinds of people that are likely to participate in politics.
Kam and Palmer statistically “match” people with college degrees to people similar in every respect except that they do not have a college degree. They find no difference between these two groups in their propensity to participate in politics. The only difference, which derives from data collected in 1973, is that those in college were more likely to participate in protests. As college campuses served as a locus of recruitment and mobilization at this time, this is an intuitive result. The upshot, however, is that most forms of participation don’t necessarily derive from higher education per se. (The caveat is that Kam and Palmer are looking only at the effect of college education on those who enrolled in college — in statistical parlance, the effect of the “treatment on the treated.” They are careful to note that this doesn’t speak to the impact of sending someone to college who wouldn’t otherwise have attended.)
bq. Education has long been considered a potential cure—the “universal solvent” that might alleviate participatory inequalities. However, if the effects of higher education are in fact only minimal, and preadult predispositions and experiences in the home and in primary and secondary schools actually play a role in spurring participation, then those who seek to remedy inequalities in participation must look to these agents of socialization for remedies. Indeed, our analyses have only estimated the causal effect of higher education on adult political participation. Education might still affect political participation—but in the earlier years—in primary and secondary schools. Alternatively, attention might be focused instead on external agents of mobilization, such as parties, interest groups, and particularly nonpartisan organizations. These agents may provide the best means of equalizing political access by pulling citizens, particularly those who might not be predisposed to do so, into participating in politics.
A second piece of research is by Julianna Sandell Pacheco. She finds that young people who have grown up in politically competitive areas — that is, areas where there is rough parity between Democrats and Republicans — are more likely to vote later in life. She demonstrates this by measuring the level of political competition in 1988, when the National Education Longitudinal Survey sampled a large number of American eighth graders, and then looking at the effect of competition on their turnout in later elections, after the NELS had reinterviewed some of them. Particularly interesting is that the local political competitiveness that young people experienced during their adolescent years (in 1988) matters more than the contemporaneous level of political competition they experienced as adults (e.g., in 1996). To be sure, local political context is not the only context that matters. Political discussion within the family is a more important predictor — a result that dovetails with Kam and Palmer’s findings. Nevertheless, the enduring effects of local context are noteworthy.
The irony in these findings is that research in political socialization has plateaued if not declined in recent years (see here). By contrast, this new research, combined with other research on the possible genetic bases of turnout, suggest that the origins of political participation may, for many people, derive not from the contemporary hurly-burly of a campaign, but from experiences in days long ago.
None of this suggests that GOTV efforts are destined to fail. This is why Kam and Palmer emphasize “external agents of mobilization” in their conclusions. But the early origins of orientations toward participation may delimit the potential of mobilization to increase participation.