Why we vote the way we vote


In my last post I tried to understand why people vote, suggesting that even if a sense of civic duty or a desire to express oneself can explain why we turn out to vote, these can’t really tell us much about why we vote the way we vote. In this post I'll try to explain why I'm convinced that, for voters, ideas matter. There are two basic views among political scientists about this: people vote to maximise their own wellbeing (“pocketbook” voters) or people vote to maximise the wellbeing of their society (“sociotropic” voters). The literature here is enormous so this post will try to sketch out the argument broadly – it is not intended to be anywhere near comprehensive.

There is a clear correlation between declines in GDP per capita and declines in support for the political party in power ('economic voting'). But this could be because people who are worse off are changing their votes to improve their own welfare, or because people in general are trying to improve their society in general.

In ‘Sociotropic voting: The American case’, Donald Kinder and D. Roderick Kiewiet look at how voters behave when their personal circumstances differ from those of society in general – if you are unemployed, but total unemployment is low, are you more likely to want a change of government?

Looking at Congressional elections during the 1970s, they find strong evidence that people are more concerned with society and the economy as a whole than for their own circumstances.

‘A person’s private economic experience had very little impact on his choice of candidate in the congressional elections whereas his sociotropic judgements were of the utmost importance … American voters resemble the sociotropic ideal, responding to changes in general economic conditions.’

Kiewiet’s conclusion in a later book is that people blame factors other than the government for their own circumstances, but blame the government for the overall state of the economy. Is this a uniquely American phenomenon, though?

Leif Lewin’s review of the evidence in his excellent Self-interest and public interest in Western politics suggests that it is not – Western European voters, including British voters, also seem to be much more inclined to vote sociotropically than with regard to their own circumstances.

We know that voters are mostly very ignorant of the facts of politics, which may make it very hard for them to form accurate judgements about the best policies to achieve the end-goals they have in mind. But it also means that the media that they do pay attention to has an enormous influence over their perceptions, and that people’s political awareness may affect how ‘benevolent’ they really are.

In light of this, Gomez and Wilson (2001) adapt the pocketbook thesis to argue that more sophisticated, politically aware voters are more likely to be affected by pocketbook factors than others.

They are the ones who can think in terms of specific policies, make connections between particular policies and their own incomes, and do not blame incumbents for everything that goes wrong with the economy.

Other, less sophisticated voters simply assume that the President is responsible for what goes wrong with the economy. That might explain why electoral ‘giveaways’ (pensioner bonds, opposition to new home builds) seem to be concentrated on quite small groups of well-heeled voters – nobody else would notice.

The last word on voter behaviour must go to Philip Converse, whose 1956 survey data showed that most voters make their decisions based on extremely broad judgements of the ‘sign of the times’ (22%), or based on which group – posh people? workers? – a party or politician seems to speak for (45%), or even evaluations that had no shred of policy significance whatever, like which candidate was the funniest (17.5%).

Only around 15% of voters used ideology or ideology-like rules-of-thumb to decide who to vote for, and those were the most rigid in their decisions about how to vote.

To sum up, people seem to mostly vote for the candidates that they think will be best for society as a whole, though they may make very poorly considered judgements of that. If there is a ‘pocketbook’ effect, it is probably limited to the most well-informed voters.

All this suggests that the public choice view of democracy as just a way to divide the spoils of government between interest groups may well be wrong. Yes, voters are amazingly ignorant of basic facts, let alone economic theory, but we do have a chance of persuading them and changing the world for the better. To those of us who would like to believe in the power of ideas, that’s something to celebrate.