Driving Factors

Elections do not exist in a vacuum. They are impacted by innumerable factors in local communities, the country, and the world. They are not always decided simply by the words and actions of the candidates. Diverse factors including natural disasters, incidents of terrorism, fuel prices, protests, international incidents, the stock market, and even the weather on Election Day can have an impact. The ability of the candidates to respond to these events has a significant impact on the success of their campaigns.  As important as these tailored messages is the impact these incidents have on the mentality of voters.

What factors do you think influence elections?

Has a current event ever influenced your political beliefs?

National Security

Threats to national security often have the most drastic impact on voting trends. Though a war may be ongoing, spikes in violence or strategic victories or defeats can push the electorate in one direction or another. This occurred in the 1864 Presidential election between incumbent President Abraham Lincoln and former commanding General George C. McLellan. Polling between the two candidates was very close, until a string of Union victories, most notably General Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in October,restored citizens’ faith in Lincoln’s leadership, helping Lincoln win reelection.


More recently, acts of terrorism have caused significant changes in citizen’s political behavior. The 9/11 terrorist attacks were the deadliest terrorist attacks ever on U.S. soil. The effects of the national tragedy reverberate in most facets of Americans lives, including their political persuasion. A research study of New York residents directly affected by 9/11 found that “[r]elative to comparable individuals, family members and residential neighbors of victims have become—and have stayed—significantly more active in politics in the last 12 years, and they have become more Republican on account of the terrorist attacks.”

Why do you think the 9/11 tragedy changed people’s voting behavior?


The Economy

The state of the economy often has a strong influence over the result of elections. There tends to be a correlation between strong economic performance and the incumbent president winning reelection. While the President himself has relatively little direct control over the economy, many people assume he does. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight blog notes that,

“The historical evidence is robust enough to say that economic performance almost certainly matters at least somewhat, and that poorer economic performance tends to hurt the incumbent party’s presidential candidate.”

He goes on to note that the trend matters more than the actual state of the economy – for example, high unemployment rates are not as devastating if they’ve recently been improving.

It’s not just the President who voters see as able to influence the economy – the 1997 Virginia governor’s race was a sweeping victory for Republican Jim Gilmore who ran on repealing Virginia’s steep car tax. Midterm elections, too, are impacted by voters’ perceptions of the economy – in the 2014 midterm elections, 45% of respondents in a national exit poll said that the economy was their top issue when they voted.

Why do you think the economy has an impact on the economy?