Since the 2012 presidential election is approximately one month away, I thought it might be interesting to explore what political scientists say about how you vote. There are four basic theories to explain how the voter casts his ballot in presidential elections: Consumer Preference, Sociological Modification, Party Identification and Rational Choice. These theories are not always mutually exclusive. I will discuss the theories in the order that they were conceived.
Scholars at Columbia University created the first two theories. Consumer preference, the first one, argues that a voter will choose a presidential candidate like he or she would pick a product at the supermarket. There can be logical or illogical reasons behind the decision. A logical reason might be that Mitt Romney favors a trimmer, leaner federal government, which is the same value that you share. In contrast, an illogical decision would be that President Barack Obama is more handsome than Mitt Romney. While this theory was appealing at first, it was plagued with one major flaw – a majority of voters had their decision made prior to the beginning of the presidential campaign.
Instead of attempting to remedy the flaw of the Consumer Preference theory, scholars at Columbia University devised a second theory called Sociological Modification. This theory contends that three factors accurately predict one’s vote: religious affiliation, socioeconomic status and whether someone lives in a city or rural area (the suburbs were just being developed when this theory emerged). Apparently, your religion, educational/ income level and geographic location predispose you to vote for one candidate over the other. For example, based on the findings of the Sociological Modification theory, scholars find that a Jewish second-grade teacher from New York City would vote for President Barack Obama, while a Baptist oil tycoon from a small town in West Texas would vote for Mitt Romney. While this theory is largely static, it offers a significant improvement in how one votes in relation to the Consumer Preference theory.
University of Michigan scholars conceived the third theory, which is frequently named the Party Identification theory. This theory makes two basic assumptions. First, a voter is socialized at a young age through several experiences to have certain political beliefs. Chief among these influences/experiences, however, are your parents’ views and their political party. Second, these views predict which party you will vote for in a presidential election, including how active you are in politics. I am a good example of this theory. My parents were both hippies, extremely liberal and belong to the Democratic Party. In fact, I was arrested when I was two years old with my parents at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. I am also named after two Kennedy’s, John and Robert. And, it is little coincidence that I happen to vote Democratic in presidential elections. While this is among the most popular theory with political scientists, it is not without problems. The most prominent issue is that elections are candidate centered today with a dwindling influence of political parties.
Rational Choice, the final theory, was created at the University of Rochester and it is borrowed from the field of economics. This theory muses that you, the voter, seek to optimize your expected utility. Put simply, you will conduct a cost benefit analysis to determine which candidate will benefit you the most. If you are pro-life, for heterosexual marriages only and for a flat tax, you will vote for Mitt Romney as your next president. This theory also assigns weights (in terms of relative importance) to your views on certain issues to accurately predict your vote. While usually the most appealing theory to my students, University of Rochester does neglect to consider that candidates frequently obscure their views on issues, voters are not that intelligent and the theory is circular (I vote rationally because I am rational).
If you vote in the 2012 presidential election, I hope you also explore which of the aforementioned theories describe you.
John Hermann is an associate professor in the political science department.