Issue Voting Research Paper

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Who should pay what in taxes? Should immigration be strictly controlled? How effectively is the economy being managed? Should women have a guaranteed right to an abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy? Each of these is commonly understood as a political issue. A political issue is defined as a policy-based controversy relevant to the mass public’s evaluation of either political parties or candidates for public office. The link between citizens and their elected leaders that arises from political issues lies at the very heart of democratic governance. This research paper explores that link.

1. Position And Valence Issues

Issues can be usefully divided into two basic types: position and valence (Stokes 1963). Position issues are those on which there is meaningful disagreement among members of the mass public with regard to alternative policies. Questions of taxes, immigration, abortion, health insurance, and environmental policy are among those that usually fall within the position issue rubric, with different people having quite different preferences about government policy. Valence issues are those on which there is general agreement, usually about a goal, and the main controversy concerns which party or candidate is more likely to achieve the desired result. Virtually everyone wants a well-managed economy and safe streets; the question is who is more likely to deliver the outcome.

Assessments of parties and candidates on valence issues tend to be retrospective, that is, based on past performance (Fiorina 1981). Because such assessments are highly sensitive to the state of the times, they often have a ‘tidal’ character, increasing or decreasing support for a party across virtually all groups in a country. A good economy tends to help incumbents, while a bad economy or large-scale social unrest hurts. Thus, valence issues can be very important in determining election outcomes. Retrospective assessments of performance are also relatively easy to make as they require little knowledge beyond who is in office and how things are going in the country. Thus, while retrospective assessments are widely used by all types of voters in evaluating governments, the least engaged voters tend to rely most heavily on short-term retrospective judgments to guide their choice (Sniderman et al. 1991).

Position issues intrinsically require more information from the electorate. At a minimum, people need to have some preference on an issue and some sense of where the parties or candidates stand on the issue, in order for issues to affect their political judgment. While there are some very knowledgeable voters, the knowledge level of the average citizen is fairly low (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996). This does not rule out a role for position issues in elections, but it does suggest that the role issues play will not rely on a highly informed electorate (Campbell et al. 1960).

2. Political Parties And Social Groups

Political parties and social groups help voters make sense of political issues. For the most part, parties form around core social and ideological cleavages in society (Lipset and Rokkan 1967). They endure across elections and tend to maintain fairly consistent orientations towards issues. Given the low attention most people pay to politics, the long-standing consistency of parties on most issues provides a critical link for allowing voters to make policy-oriented vote choices. Parties also enhance the accurate use of valence-type performance issues, as they provide the over time continuity necessary for voters to reward good performance and to punish bad performance.

Social groups can also assist citizens in casting meaningful policy votes. Labor, business, religious, linguistic, and racial ethnic groups traditionally have been important sources of cues for voters. Feelings toward a group and awareness of the group’s position on an issue can serve to alert the voter to the issue, and can help determine the voter’s own position.

3. Low-Information Rationality

The low-information level of voters does not imply an unthinking or irrational electorate. In general, voters attempt to make reasonable decisions based on the information they possess (Key 1966, Popkin 1991, Lupia and McCubbins 1998). This idea is encapsulated in the phrase ‘low-information rationality,’ which suggests that the main element limiting the quality of the electorate’s judgments is the limited amount of information voters possess. Since information is costly to acquire and no single vote is likely to be influential, the strategy of making good use of limited information is a rational strategy for voters to adopt (Downs 1957).

This in turn implies that certain types of issues will be used more readily by voters. Issues that have a straightforward moral structure (such as abortion) or those that fit into a clear symbolic framework (such as the common man vs. the wealthy) are cognitively simpler and easier to process. Hence, voters are more likely to use them in making decisions (Converse 1964).

It is also important to realize that voters themselves differ widely. More knowledgeable voters and those concerned about a particular issue are more able to process issue information (Converse 1964, Krosnick 1991, Zaller 1992). Nevertheless, the predominant characterization of the electorate is one with low information and relatively little attention to politics. And even with increasing levels of education, there has been no discernable increase in levels of political knowledge (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996).

4. The Directional And Proximity Models Of Issue Voting

How do voters connect their issue preferences to party or candidate choice? Two models offer competing explanations for how position issues operate in electoral settings. The directional model argues that successful issue campaigns develop clear strong messages to attract voters to a party (Rabinowitz and Macdonald 1989, Macdonald et al. 1991). The proximity model argues that parties must support centrist policies to be electorally successful (Downs 1957, Davis et al. 1970).

4.1 The Directional Model

According to the directional model, voters operate in a simplified issue environment in which issues have just two sides. For example, a voter might be in favor of restricting immigration or opposed to restricting immigration, or she might not care. Voters differ in terms of which side of the issue they favor and the intensity with which they favor that side. When a party takes a position on the side of the issue a voter favors, it is evaluated favorably by the voter; when a party takes a position on the opposite side, the voter evaluates it unfavorably. Voters who are more intense about an issue react more strongly than less intense voters: they like parties or candidates on their side more and display more hostile feelings toward those they oppose. Similarly, when a party takes a more intense stand on an issue, it arouses more intense feelings. It garners more favorable evaluations from voters on the same side of the issue and more unfavorable evaluations from voters on the opposite side. In mathematical terms, the product of the voter’s and the party’s intensity determines how strongly a voter feels about a party, either favorably or unfavorably. This effect is mediated, however, if a party goes beyond an extremity threshold.

In directional theory, parties and candidates are constrained in their intensity by the need to avoid being viewed as irresponsible or extremist. In order to draw support based on an issue, parties and candidates must lay out relatively strong stands emphasizing the policy directions they favor; at the same time they must show sufficient moderation to suggest they will be responsibly pragmatic in office. In the directional model a hypothetical voter asks, ‘Are you on my side of the issues?’ and ‘Can I trust you to be responsible?’

4.2 The Proximity Model

The proximity model contrasts with the directional model. According to the proximity model, voters consider an ordered set of policy options on an issue. With regard to the environment, for example, the options might be a series of increasingly tougher policies regulating factory emissions. The voter is assumed to have a preference for a particular policy among the set. This is different from the more diffuse, two-sided view (‘favor or oppose new environmental regulations’) that characterizes directional theory. Further, in proximity theory each party is assumed to have a distinct policy position on the issue that is known to the voter. Voters evaluate parties based on the distance between the party’s position and their own position. In the proximity model a hypothetical voter asks, ‘How close are your positions to mine?’

The proximity and directional models are most distinct with regard to center voters. According to proximity theory voters in the center are committed to centrist policies and support parties that take centrist stands. According to directional theory voters in the center are simply neutral between the two sides and don’t care which position the parties take.

4.3 Issue Strategies

4.3.1 Two-Party Systems. In both directional and proximity theory, the voters most critical to determining strategy in two-party contests are those in the middle of the voter distribution. In the simplest case where a single dimension characterizes the competition the critical voter is the median voter. The median is literally the voter in the middle. If, for example, there are nine voters and they are arrayed from furthest left to furthest right, the fifth voter is the median. Note that the voter in the middle of the distribution is not necessarily in the center on the issue—that depends on where the voters are located.

In an unidimensional competition, winning the median voter will guarantee victory. In the more realistic multidimensional case a single critical middle voter is unlikely to exist. Nevertheless, the principle that the voters in the middle will decide the election continues to hold, as they are the key to capturing a majority of votes.

The need to court the same constituency, however, does not imply that the two theories dictate similar strategies. In directional theory, parties must be attentive to the balance of voters on the two sides of an issue. If a clear plurality favors one side, then the middle voters will be on that side and it is advantageous for the parties to be there too. If both parties are on the plurality side, then the party that takes the stronger stand without becoming irresponsible will attract the most voters. Just as a strong magnet is more effective than a weak magnet in drawing objects to it, so a party with strong cues is more effective in garnering the support of like-minded voters.

When the electorate is divided evenly on an issue, then parties are not constrained in which side they take, because support for the two sides will tend to balance out. In directional theory it can make strategic sense for parties to diverge on evenly divided issues: there is no net gain or loss in supporting one side or the other, and by taking a distinct stand a party can develop enthusiasm from a set of potential voters.

In proximity theory parties should always adopt a position close to the middle set of voters. This follows from the fact that proximity is the key to support. If Party A is close to the middle voters and Party B is not, then the middle voters will support Party A, as will all the voters who lie on the opposite side of Party A from B, giving a majority to Party A. Thus, according to the proximity model, any party seeking to maximize votes must stay close to the middle of the voter distribution. A party that deviates from the middle on any issue is open to defeat.

4.3.2 Multiparty Systems. In multiparty systems proximity theory makes no clear predictions about party strategy. Directional theory suggests that the most successful parties will take relatively strong clear stands on some issues, while avoiding an extremist label. Extremist parties can be successful in multiparty systems in that they can attract enough voters to win seats in proportional elections; however, their appeal will be limited because of their extremism.

Centrist parties are expected to be weak in directional theory, because they fail to develop strongly favorable evaluations from any voters. Some parties that are centrist on left-right are well defined on other issues, such as agricultural policy, and these parties can be successful. Parties with no strong issue stands, however, will find that while few voters dislike them, they are not the first choice of many voters.

4.3.3 Issue Salience And Issue Ownership. Some issues are more important in elections than others. Sometimes this happens by accident and sometimes by design. In any event, if a party has an advantage on an issue compared to its competitors, then it helps the party for that issue to be more salient in the election. This is true in both two-party and multiparty systems, and under both the directional and proximity models.

Related to the idea of issue salience is the idea of issue ownership (Budge and Farlie 1983, Petrocik 1996). This concept conveys the view that parties develop reputations for being especially credible on certain issues, and thereby come to ‘own’ them, for example, the Labour Party in Britain on social welfare issues and the Christian People’s Party in Norway on questions of public morality. Whenever the issue a party owns becomes the focus of a campaign, the party benefits. The concept of issue ownership fits well with a directional view of issue voting as parties tend to take strong stands on ‘their’ issues. The manipulation of issue salience, however, is important to both directional and proximity theory, and is a key element in virtually all political campaigns.

4.4 Which Theory Is Correct?

The empirical evidence in most advanced industrial societies generally has supported the directional over the proximity model. Directional theory has been more able to predict how voters evaluate parties and candidates, and has more accurately predicted the type of parties (noncentrist and nonextreme) that have succeeded in most advanced industrial democracies. As yet, however, there is no consensus in the research literature on which of the two theories better represents the relationship between issues and mass support (Lewis and King 2000). In some formulations the theories are difficult to disentangle, in particular in predicting vote choice, and recent work in proximity theory has incorporated features that provide more overlap with directional theory (Hinich and Munger 1994). Some scholars have found elements of each theory attractive, and have blended the models in an effort to provide a fuller understanding of electoral politics (Rabinowitz and Macdonald 1989, Merrill and Grofman 1999).

5. Conclusion

In democracies voters are presumed to influence public policy through elections. Underlying this view is the assumption that voters’ issue preferences influence their vote choice. Research has shown, however, that the majority of voters, even in highly educated advanced industrial democracies, do not follow politics closely and do not have high levels of political information. The impact of issues, therefore, requires voters to use their limited information effectively. They are aided in this process by the presence of political parties that provide coherence to political systems. Further, meaningful policy-based votes appear to require considerable stimulation by political elites (either parties or candidates) to activate issues.

Two competing models, the directional model and the proximity model, have been proposed to describe the way in which voter preferences and party positions interact to determine voter choice. The alternative theories have quite different implications for effective party strategies and the nature of mass control of public policy. The question of which theory, or combination of theories, most accurately describes the role of issues in electoral systems is a matter of current controversy.


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