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The Constructed Explanation: Interpreting Election Results in the 1984 Presidential Race

Marjorie Randon Hershey
The Journal of Politics
Vol. 54, No. 4 (Nov., 1992), pp. 943-976
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2132104
Page Count: 34
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The Constructed Explanation: Interpreting Election Results in the 1984 Presidential Race
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Abstract

As a means of popular control over government, elections are a blunt instrument: powerful but not very articulate. The ballot gives voters the chance to select candidates, but not to explain why they made those choices. Officeholders and other activists have a powerful incentive to interpret what the voters meant. If they can find a plausible explanation of the vote, or construct a self-interested interpretation and get it accepted, then they can better select strategies and policies that will help them win the next election. This paper hypothesizes a process by which explanations for the vote are constructed in interaction among elected officials, activists, and journalists, and disseminated through media coverage. The possible explanations are winnowed to a relative few, which then become "conventional wisdom" about that election. These ideas are tested using content analysis of 1984 presidential election coverage in 18 opinion-leading newspapers. The paper discusses why some constructed explanations and not others emerged from this process, and considers the implications for public policy.

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