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Abramowitz and Segal: Beyond Willie Horton and the Pledge of Allegiance

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Abramowitz and Segal. 1990. Beyond Willie Horton and the Pledge of Allegiance: National Issues in the 1988 Elections. LSQ 15:565-80.

In Brief

The authors test three types of issues--retrospective, prospective, and symbolic--to try to predict the outcomes (separately) in the 1988 presidential, Senate, and House races. The lesson is that "what matters most in politics is not what voters think about the issues but what issues the voters are thinking about."


In 1988, Bush won by a large margin, but Democrats increased their seat share in both the Senate and the House. Why?


Though people claim that the 1988 presidential race was all about symbolic issues like Willie Horton and the Pledge of Allegiance, it wasn't: It was more of a referendum on Reagan's presidency that turned out in Bush's favor. However, because the presidential campaign involved little discussion of the issues, Bush's coattails were weak--without an ideological agenda, voters had little reason to also support the president's party in Congress.


ANES data from 1988. Three types of independent variable.

Retrospective Issues

  1. Approval of Reagan's presidency
  2. Personal financial situation
  3. National economy

Prospective Issues

  1. Views on abortion
  2. Government aid to blacks
  3. Government spending (on a variety of issues)

Symbolic issues

  1. Liberal-conservative identification (7 points scale). (Criticism: This is a bit weird. They're trying to measure the importance of Willie Horton and the Pledge of Allegiance, and they claim that liberal-conservative identification is adequate. After all, they claim, Bush harped on these issues to try to tag Dukakis as a "liberal." Not sure this is a good measure.)

Findings (Table 4)

Presidential Race

The race was primarily a referendum on Reagan's legacy.

Senate Race

In races where there was a clear ideological difference between the candidates (according to CQ), issues (both retrospective and prospective) mattered slightly. Otherwise, partisanship, incumbency, and coattails explain the vote.

House Race

Issues matter, especially prospective issue positions. Party ID, incumbency, and coattails also matter.

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Abramowitz, Alan (author)Segal, Jeffrey (author)American PoliticsVotingRetrospective VotingEconomic VotingDecision Making

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