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Voter decision-making

January 9, 2008

It is the night of the New Hampshire primary, and the pundits are at work.

But what can we learn about American political choices based on what we see during this election season? What do voters care about when they decide which presidential candidate to support? Is it issues and positions; personality of the candidate (likeability); rhetoric and buzzwords; their perceptions of qualities of leadership and effectiveness; party affiliation; or something else? And which of these groups of qualities make sense as a criterion for choosing a president?

Many of the interviews with prospective voters we hear on radio and television refer to personal qualities: “I don’t like Hillary,” “Obama is exciting,” “Thompson is too boring.” It is worth wondering whether these sorts of personal responses make any sense at all as a basis for choosing a president. What are we to make of the possibility that many voters base their preferences on features they might notice in a “speed dating” event (looks, style, charm)?

Would it not be better to have a president whose manners and looks we don’t like but whose leadership competence is certain and whose agenda for change is one we can enthusiastically support? How can such superficial features as looks, style, and charm make a difference to a choice of this magnitude?

So what about judgments about leadership and effectiveness? This at least appears to be a rational basis for choice. If a president is inept at the challenge of inspiring citizens and other leaders to work together and to get things done, then his or her program doesn’t matter very much; the leader will not be effective in implementing it. So favoring a candidate who has the hallmarks of competence and leadership effectiveness is related to the ultimate goal of having a president who can successfully manage the affairs of the nation. So attempting to assess the candidate’s qualities of leadership and effectiveness makes sense as a criterion of choice.

But it would seem that the most important question is that of priorities and goals — the candidate’s program. If we assume that each voter has a set of preferences and interests about national and international policies, then it seems logical to suppose that the voter’s challenge is to decide which candidate will do the most satisfactory job of implementing those preferences and interests. On this approach, we might model the voter’s task as, first, articulating his/her chief priorities for national public policy, and then assessing each candidate in terms of the degree of fit between the candidate’s program and the voter’s preferences. Essentially, this amounts to the decision rule: measure the candidates by the programs they promise to pursue, and choose that candidate whose program lines up best with the voter’s preferences and interests.

Of course the situation is more complicated than this, in that each voter also reaches a judgment about “electability.” Why would a voter cast his/her ballot for candidate X whose program lines up perfectly with the voter’s preferences, if the voter also judges that X’s likelihood of election is 10% compared to the 60% likelihood of election for candidate Y whose program is still pretty well aligned with the voter’s preferences? So it seems rational for the voter to weight the judgment of consistency with my agenda by the estimate of the likelihood of the candidate’s being successfully elected.

But let’s turn the picture a little bit and consider parties and their programs. Policy implementation requires coordinated and disciplined efforts in the executive and legislative branches to enact legislation. So would it not be most rational to begin the choice process by evaluating the priorities and agendas of the parties? Why do American voters make their decisions on the basis of the personality rather than the party? Would we not be better off thinking primarily about the party’s program — as voters in many European democracies do? Here the first question would be: which party presents a program that best corresponds to my preferences and interests? And then, is the party’s candidate sufficiently competent to give me confidence that he/she will be able to advance the party’s program through legislation and public policy? And can I trust that the party’s candidate is genuinely committed to the party’s program?

All of these questions are subject to intensive empirical inquiry, and there are legions of political scientists who are devoting their energies to interpreting the thought processes and decision rules of American voters. (One whose work I have admired is Samuel Popkin and especially his book The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns.) But is it possible that we might actually be a more effective democracy if we gave more thought as a society to the ways in which voters join with issues and challenges and shape their preferences, and try to find institutions that make for a more engaged and deliberative electorate?

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