As polls close on the East Coast almost exactly a year after Barack Obama was elected president, the nation is looking in particular to a congressional race in an otherwise-quiet electoral year for a sign. Some are looking for a referendum on Barack Obama's first year; others are hoping for an indication of what to expect in the midterm elections of 2010. But regardless of their motivations, many are curious to see what will happen in upstate New York's 23rd Congressional District.
Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, a moderate candidate and the Republican Party's ostensible pick for the district's seat, withdrew from the race last weekend after repeated accusations from "Conservative Party" opponent Doug Hoffman's supporters that she was "too liberal." Scozzafava supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Hoffman, whose campaign drew endorsements from small-c conservative party leaders, including Sarah Palin, does not.
It appears that the "middle" in American politics is disappearing — and fast.
A recent study by Kyle Dodson, a graduate student in Indiana University Bloomington's Sociology Department, suggests that this polarization has increased American participation in politics.
Dodson found that Americans' perceptions of major differences between the parties have increased steadily since the 1980s — along with the differences in party policy and agenda. But the recognition of this polarization has led to a considerable increase in different forms of political participation.
He collected and analyzed surveys taken from respondents who were interviewed both before and after presidential elections between 1960 and 2008 as part of The American National Election Studies. He then examined a range of variables, including the respondents' age, gender, education level, income, political interest, voter turnout, campaign work, and political event attendance in order to evaluate political activity trends.
"A lot of research suggests that Americans are more socially isolated today than at any point in the last three decades," a release from Indiana University quoted Dodson. "Normally, this would depress political participation. But the rise of partisan politics gives Americans an important reason to get involved."
Dodson said that if a party offers ideas that are more acceptable to people, then those people tend to get more politically active. The possibility that polarization will drive voters away is real, he admits, but he finds it unlikely that it will drive people away. "It is unlikely for parties to diverge so much that people will stop participating."
Yet in a race that will be primarily determined by who chooses to vote, the inciting effects of partisan politics remain to be seen.