What Are Single Issue Voters?

As they wait in a long line, a group of voters study their smartphones.
As they wait in a long line, a group of voters study their smartphones. SDI Productions/Getty Images

Single issue voters are people who base their votes on the candidate’s stance on a single question of public policy which has been a source of disagreement between political ideologies, such as reproductive rights, gun control, or LGBTQ equality

Key Takeaways: Single Issue Voters

  • Single issue voters are people who base their votes on the candidates’ stances on a single question of public policy. 
  • Ideologically controversial issues such as abortion and gun control are most commonly subject to single issue voting.
  • Single issue voting is most prevalent in major national and state elections such as presidential and gubernatorial elections.



Motivations for Voters

In many cases, single-issue voting can be explained by the fact that most voters expect elected officials to “fix” a problem or right a wrong. On a national level, it’s the economy for most people. For many, it’s the ability to maintain their particular status or lifestyle. For still others, it’s a particular social vision or moral issue, such as abortion or gender equality

Single-issue voters tend to favor candidates whose principles best compare to those of their own. In this context, issue-based voting contrasts with party-based voting in which voters’ election decisions are based strictly on the party affiliation of the candidates. The prevalence of single-issue and party-based voting varies according to the type of election being contested and the amount of information readily available about a given candidate. According to a 2010 University of California, Davis study, low-information elections, such as midterm congressional elections, are more likely to be decided by party voting, while presidential and state gubernatorial elections, which tend to flood voters with information about leading candidates, have more potential to be decided by single-issue voting.

Single issue voters do not need a deep understanding of every issue nor do they need to know where a candidate stands on every issue. Instead, by focusing on a specific issue, they develop a sense of which candidate they agree with the most. Many single issue voters tend to formulate their view on a particular issue by recalling how that issue has affected them in the past and projecting how it might affect them in the future. For example, if an issue has never affected them, they are unlikely to vote for a candidate who takes a stance on that issue, no matter that candidate’s overall platform. 

Single issue voters often choose their political party affiliation by studying the positions of the different parties on the issue and selecting the party with which they most agree. 

Single issue voters should not be confused with low information voters, who continue to vote despite having little or no knowledge about the issues involved or where the candidates stand on those issues. As issue-oriented voters gain experience by participating in more political events, their knowledge of the principles of the political parties and their candidates becomes better developed. 

To be considered a single issue voter, a person must be aware that there are conflicting opinions about an issue, have a solid opinion about the issue, and be capable of matching that opinion to a political party. According to Angus Campbell, an American social psychologist best known for his research into electoral systems, no more than 40-60% of the politically informed public perceives differences in the parties. This, says Campbell, suggests that many voters form opinions on issues without the assistance of a political party. 

Common Voting Issues 

While some issues rise and fall in prominence, five issues that have historically driven Americans to the polls include the economy, health care, immigration, abortion, and gun policy. 

In a Gallup poll conducted before the 2020 presidential election, 84% of respondents rated the economy as being very to extremely important. Other issues similarly rated in importance included healthcare (81%), immigration (74%), gun policy (74%), and abortion (64%). 

Economy

American voters have historically focused on the economy. Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid,” has held true in most presidential elections. Today, the economy remains one of the top issues for American voters.

Most candidates, regardless of their party affiliation, promise to address the national debt and deficit, invest in U.S. infrastructure, increase pay for the middle class, and increase employment by keeping U.S. factories open and humming. Progressive Democrats often promise to reduce the effects of social stratification by eliminating income inequality.

Numerous studies have shown that voters hold incumbents accountable for recent economic circumstances—good or bad. History has been especially kind to presidential incumbents when the economy is strong and stable. 

Since 1921, for example, only five incumbent presidents have failed to win reelection, a group that includes former President Gerald Ford, who was not technically on the ballot in 1972 but ascended to the presidency after former President Richard Nixon resigned. 

All of these failed incumbents were to varying degrees troubled by economic depressions, recessions, stock market crashes, inflation, or stagflation.

Health Care

The cost of healthcare, from health insurance to prescription drug prices, has been a political issue for decades. In 2018 alone, Americans spent, $3.7 trillion was spent on healthcare-related goods and services, 18% of the nation’s gross domestic product, according to a report from independent government sources. The issue encompasses several government programs, with Medicare and Medicaid being the best known. Aside from government programs, private insurance is also an important aspect of the health care issue.

With the number of people age 65 and older growing by more than 30% in the past decade, older Americans now make up the largest voting bloc in U.S. elections. As a result, candidates tend to focus on issues most important to them, such as expanding Medicare, long-term care, and caregiver support. Other health care related issues important to both older and younger voters include the affordability of prescription drugs and health insurance coverage.

Immigration 

Immigration activists with the advocacy group CASA rally at the White House to demand President Biden grant citizenship for immigrants.
Immigration activists with the advocacy group CASA rally at the White House to demand President Biden grant citizenship for immigrants. Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

In 2019, immigrants made up almost 14% of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau. Together, immigrants and their U.S.-born children make up about 26 percent of U.S. inhabitants. As a result, immigration has been a hot-button issue for decades, with policymakers struggling to deal with its economic, security, and humanitarian concerns. Unable to reach an agreement on comprehensive immigration reform legislation, Congress has essentially left major immigration policy decisions up to the executive and judicial branches of government, further fueling the debate. 

In 2016, President Donald Trump moved the issue to the front burner with his construction of an anti-immigration wall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, along with other unprecedented efforts to curb immigration and tighten U.S. asylum policy.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Democratic candidates positioned themselves as moral opposites to Trump, backing greater legal and humanitarian protection for young immigrants brought into the country illegally as children. 

While President Joe Biden vowed to roll back Trump’s action and reform the immigration system, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and a great influx of migrants have delayed his plans.

Gun Policy

Nowhere in the world is gun control more controversial than in the United States. While gun possession is constitutionally protected, murders— including mass murders—committed with guns are common. While proponents of tougher gun control laws argue that limiting access to guns will save lives and reduce crime, opponents say it would have the opposite effect by preventing law-abiding citizens from defending themselves and their property against armed criminals. 

While all but progressive Republicans point to the Second Amendment in opposing tighter gun laws, Democratic candidates bake gun control policies into their platforms. Struggles between the powerful pro-gun lobby group the National Rifle Association and nonprofit gun-safety special interest groups like Never Again have further stoked the debate.

Most Democrats support the same slate of gun-control positions, including universal background checks for gun buyers, an assault weapons ban, and expanded so-called “red flag” laws that allow police to confiscate guns from persons deemed dangerous to themselves or others.

 Abortion

Abortion has been a controversial political issue since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalized the procedure nationwide. Conservatives and Republicans almost universally side with the pro-life, anti-abortion advocates, while liberals, Democrats, and younger voters side with pro-choice pro-abortion advocates. 

The abortion debate intensified in May 2021, when Texas joined other states in passing bans or near-bans on abortion. The Texas law prohibits abortions as early as six weeksbefore some women know they are pregnant—and allows private citizens to sue abortion providers. Considered the most restrictive abortion law in the nation, the Texas “Heartbeat Law” has been criticized as an attempt to illegally nullify Roe v. Wade. 

According to a USAFacts report, abortions have been on the decrease, dropping from 817,906 in 2004 to 638,169 in 2015, with about 44% occurring during the first 8 weeks of pregnancy. 

Electoral Consequences 

Single issue voting in major elections poses one difficult question: Since winning candidates will be making decisions on many complex issues during their term of office, is it wise to vote for them because of their stand on a single issue? For example, a person who votes for a socially conservative Democrat based solely on their support of abortion rights might be disappointed by the candidate’s support of strict gun control laws. 

Especially since the 1970s, the United States has experienced a surge in issue-based voting. American political scientist Nolan McCarty attributes this to the development of an ever-widening ideological gap between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, blue states and red states. 

As Democrats and Republicans have grown more extreme in their viewpoints on issues, alienated moderates have abandoned the Democratic and Republican parties, choosing instead to affiliate as Independents. Freed from the pressures of highly polarized political parties, independent voters are comfortable in choosing candidates based on their positions on various issues rather than on their party affiliation. 

As a further result of this extreme political polarization, an increasing number of voters face the so-called “issue voting vs. party voting” dilemma. For example, while many Catholics support the anti-abortion stance backed by Republicans, they also oppose the use of the death penalty, a practice also supported by Republicans. As a result, Catholics may be reluctant to vote for either Republican or Democratic candidates. Similarly, many labor union members favor the Democratic Party’s staunch support for workers’ rights. However, unions also tend to oppose gay rights and same-sex marriage, a stance typically held by Republican candidates.

According to the median voter theory of elections, when an election is dominated by a single issue, candidates of both major parties tend to take positions nearer the center of that issue to get the support of the greatest number of voters. However, if there are several issues, candidates tend to adopt more extreme stances to gain support from large special interest groups.

In general, single-issue voting gives more power to political parties. By strongly and effectively backing one policy, such as tax cuts for the middle-class, the party can win votes without having to take stances on other equally important issues. Critics of single-issue voting argue that this weakens democracy because the power to shape the government should belong to the people and not political parties. 

Sources

  • Highton, Benjamin. “The Contextual Causes of Issue and Party Voting in American Presidential Elections.” Political Behavior, January 2010, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11109-009-9104-2.
  • Denver, David. “Issues, principles or ideology? How young voters decide.” Electoral Studies, Volume 9, Issue 1, March 1990. 
  • Campbell, Angus. “The American Voter: An Abridgement.” John Wiley & Sons, 1964, ISBN-10: ‎0471133353.
  • McCarty, Nolan. “Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches.” MIT Press, 2008, ISBN-10: 0262633612.
  • Nie, Norman H. “The Changing American Voter.” ‎ iUniverse; Enlarged Ed edition (June 1, 1999), ISBN-10: ‎1583483098.
  • Hrynowski, Zach. “Several Issues Tie as Most Important in 2020 Election.” Gallup Politcs, January 13, 2020, https://news.gallup.com/poll/276932/several-issues-tie-important-2020-election.aspx.
  • “65 and Older Population Grows Rapidly as Baby Boomers Age.” U.S. Census, June 25, 2020, https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2020/65-older-population-grows.html.
  • Sherman, Erik. “U.S. Health Care Costs Skyrocketed to $3.65 Trillion in 2018.” Fortune, February 21, 2019, https://fortune.com/2019/02/21/us-health-care-costs-2/.
  • Paulos, John Allen. “The Math of Political Platforms.” ABC News, April 28, 2007, https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/WhosCounting/story?id=97490&page=1.
  • Langan, John, S.J. “The Morality of Single-Issue Voting.” Religion Online, https://www.religion-online.org/article/the-morality-of-single-issue-voting/.
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Longley, Robert. "What Are Single Issue Voters?" ThoughtCo, Jan. 26, 2022, thoughtco.com/single-issue-voters-5214543. Longley, Robert. (2022, January 26). What Are Single Issue Voters? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/single-issue-voters-5214543 Longley, Robert. "What Are Single Issue Voters?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/single-issue-voters-5214543 (accessed September 26, 2022).