Voting Behavior Research Paper

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I. Introduction

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II. Sociological Theory of Opinion Formation

III. Theories of Media and Opinion Formation

IV. Rational Choice, Opinion Formation, and Voting Behavior

A. Collective Action

B. The D Term

C. Group Membership

D. Informational Shortcuts

E. Procedural Rationality

F. Summary

V. Psychological Theory of Opinion Formation and Voting

VI. Social Capital and Voting

VII. Recent Research

VIII. Future Directions

IX. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Walter Dean Burnham said, “Electoral politics is not the backdrop; it is the essence, the keystone of the political process. The big issues, such as military, economic, and welfare policy are influenced by the electorate’s opinions” (cited in Neuman, 1986, pp. 1–2). Scholars study voting behavior because it matters for the creation and implementation of public policy in democracies. For the purposes of this research paper, voting behavior can be broken down into two subsections: vote choice and vote decision. Vote choice is defined as forming an opinion in support of one candidate over another. A vote choice must be made before an actual vote is cast. A vote decision is defined as deciding whether to take part in the participatory action of voting. Thus, voting is a two-step process. People must choose which candidates they prefer, and they must decide if they are going to vote at all.

Understanding voting behavior is absolutely necessary today because of the ever-growing number of democracies in the world. Since the 1970s, democracy has been the most widely used form of government throughout the world and has been expanding (see Huntington, 1991). If democracy has become the most widely distributed form of government and the votes of those living in democracies guide public policy, it becomes quite evident why studying voting behavior is important.

This research paper discusses five different theories of voting behavior: (1) the sociological theory of vote choice, which is based on Berelson and Lazarsfeld’s (Berelson, Lazarsfeld, & McPhee, 1954; Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet, 1944) Columbia studies; (2) theories of media and vote choice (Zaller, 1992); (3) rational choice theory, which is an economic theory based argument most notably proposed by Downs (1957); (4) the psychological theory of voting behavior, which is based on the work of Campbell, Converse, Miller, and Stokes (1960); and (5) the theory of social capital, which is a cultural theory most notably posited by Putnam (1993, 1995, 2000).

This research paper ends with a discussion of some recent literature concerning voting behavior as well as some possible avenues for further research. This discussion is of course not exhaustive but designed only to guide the political scientist in training toward a possible area of inquiry.

It is important to understand that this research paper looks only at work on American voting behavior, since it is the most studied nation in terms of voting behavior, although these theories can be applied to vote choices and vote decisions in other countries. Further, this research paper focuses on seminal works that explain voting behavior.

II. Sociological Theory of Opinion Formation

Berelson and Lazarsfeld (Berelson et al., 1954; Lazarsfeld et al., 1944) propose that “[a person’s] social conditions and ethnic affiliations, his family tradition, his personal associations, his attitudes on the issues of the day, [and] his membership in formal organizations” (p. 37) determine a person’s vote choice. Using a panel study in Elmira, New York, over a number of months in 1948, Berelson et al. (1954) sought to test the basic theory that social conditions affect a person’s support for particular candidates.

Berelson et al. (1954) find that social conditions are integral to the formation of opinions concerning candidates. Identifying with a particular ethnic, religious, or racial group has an effect on vote choice. Class structure also has a major effect on vote choice. Finally, geographic cleavages also differentiate people in terms of the opinions they hold concerning candidates and issues.

The first finding suggests that the wealthiest grouping of Americans is the most likely to support the Republican Party. Most people would have assumed this outcome; however, more interesting is the finding that there is an age cohort effect. That is to say, individuals who came of age during the Great Depression show a much more intense tendency to make vote choices based on socioeconomic standing. Berelson et al. (1954) attribute this finding to social and political conditions at the time of socialization for the younger age cohorts. The societal conditions during the Great Depression caused younger cohorts to see the political environment differently than those before them.

Berelson et al. (1954) further find that Catholics vote differently than Protestants. This finding is not simply a spurious relationship, according to Berelson et al., but rather a factor intrinsic to Catholicism and Protestantism. Living within a Catholic or Protestant society has an effect on vote choice. Furthermore, those associated more closely with Catholicism (that is, practicing Catholics as opposed to nonpracticing Catholics) are likely to make a different vote choice than Protestants. This same relationship was found for other minority groups at the time. This, according to Berelson et al., occurs because of social cleavages. Social interactions within groups affect the vote choices of the members of those groups.

Berelson et al. (1954) further find that children tend to hold the same opinions concerning candidates as their parents and vote for candidates of the same parties as their parents; however, these patterns are strongly influenced by the social context the children find themselves in at the time of opinion formation and voting. If a child holds a social status similar to that of his or her parents, he or she is likely to vote in similar patterns. Conversely, if a child’s social status is not similar to that of his or her parents, he or she is likely to make different vote choices than his or her parents.

In sum, the work of Berelson et al. (1954) argued that social contexts have the greatest effect on vote choices. A person’s interactions with other members of groups and organizations predispose that person to hold a certain set of opinions and vote for particular candidates and parties. Being a member of a social class; religious, racial, or ethnic group; or even a close-knit family can steer a person toward one ideology and away from another.

III. Theories of Media and Opinion Formation

Many researchers agree that the average citizen is politically unsophisticated and ill informed (Converse, 1964; Neuman, 1986; Zaller, 1992). Some political scientists believe that media play an important role in forming opinions that lead to particular vote choices (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987; Zaller).

Zaller (1992) argues that when asked their opinion, people do not necessarily report a true attitude but report a vacillating attitude that is salient at the moment of inquiry. Zaller begins with the assumption that different people have different levels of political awareness. Further, those who are more aware of politics expose themselves to the media at greater levels.

An important point of Zaller’s (1992), however, is that often this “elite discourse” provides conflicting messages. According to Zaller, a person who is more politically aware is more likely to receive these conflicting messages but is also more likely to reject those ideas that do not fit with his or her basic value system. Therefore, those who are highly aware of politics are more likely to hold consistent opinions—meaning that they are more likely to hold opinions that fit together into a coherent system of beliefs at one side of an ideological spectrum.

Zaller (1992) argues that those with lower levels of political awareness receive less information from elite discourse through the media but are also less likely to reject beliefs and opinions that do not fit with a particular belief system. Those with lower levels of political awareness tend to have less consistent opinions.

Zaller (1992) also argues that expressed opinions tend to be unstable. He contends that individuals’ opinions are based on considerations that are most easily accessible to the individual at any particular time. When a person expresses an opinion, according to Zaller, he or she is not expressing a deeply felt opinion but is taking a set of considerations that he or she remembers from elite discourse in the mass media and expressing an opinion based on these considerations. If asked for an opinion at another time, a different set of considerations may be sampled and the opinion may change. This means that people hold opinions that can vacillate. Vote choice is then based on opinions that vacillate based on elite discourses that are sampled at the time of voting.

In sum, Zaller (1992) argues (and with empirical evidence derived from National Election Study data finds) that people look to elites in the media for information concerning politics. Those who are more politically aware receive more information from elites but reject more information. Those with lower levels of political awareness receive relatively less information from elites in the media and reject less of the information they receive. When asked to express an opinion, people take a sample of the information they possess and base an opinion on this.

Zaller’s (1992) theory and findings are very parsimonious. The argument that the media greatly affect opinions and vote choice is supported by earlier research as well. Iyengar and Kinder (1987) find support for the role of mass media through media priming, media framing, and agenda setting. Neuman (1986) presents an argument that supports Zaller’s conclusion that media’s effects are based on the sophistication of the audience; however, he comes to the conclusion that media have little effect on opinion formation and vote choice. Neuman’s theory is predicated on the idea that mass media is entertainment oriented rather than political-communication oriented. Further, Neuman presents evidence that even when people do encounter political communication, they can remember only about 5% of the information they receive. Neuman, however, does agree with Zaller that the politically aware receive more information from the media than those who are less politically aware, but he believes that this greatly constrains the effect of the media, unlike Zaller, who posits that the media still has a large effect, despite the differences of political sophistication.

The sociological theory and theories of media are similar in that they explain vote choice but not vote decision. The next two sections of this research paper discuss two theories that explain vote choice as well as the causes of vote decision.

IV. Rational Choice, Opinion Formation, and Voting Behavior

Rational choice theory argues that people use a cost– benefit analysis in making decisions. This perspective was first popularized by Downs (1957). Vote choices and vote decision, according to Downs, are rational.

Rationality is an often-misunderstood term. It means that individuals possess ordered goals and they seek those goals in the most efficient fashion possible. In terms of vote choice, those ordered goals lead to a person preferring a particular candidate or policy. In terms of vote decision, a person should vote if he or she gains more utility from voting than from not voting.

When choosing which candidate for whom to vote, individuals place candidates on a continuum that ranges from left to right (liberal to conservative ideology), and after evaluation of the candidate’s opinions and stances, the individual actors then aggregate their own preferences and beliefs and place themselves on the same continuum. The individual actors then decide to support the candidate who is closest to them on the continuum.

A notable adjustment to the conventional theory of rational vote choice is the directional theory of issue voting (Rabinowitz & MacDonald, 1989). In this theory, Rabinowitz and MacDonald argue that people still place themselves and candidates on a continuum; however, people do not necessarily choose the candidate that is closest to themselves. Rather, Rabinowitz and MacDonald theorize that individuals hold a particular affinity toward one direction of policy making, which is right or left. The basic idea of Rabinowitz and MacDonald’s model is that people act in a rational manner; however, if a person has an affinity to more leftist policy, he or she will not support a rightist candidate, even if that candidate is closer to his or her position on the continuum than the closest leftist candidate. Rabinowtiz and MacDonald argue that people will not jump the center point of the continuum and support a candidate on the other side of the continuum.

Understanding how rational choice leads to vote decisions requires a more in-depth look at the theory of rational choice. The rational choice perspective assumes that individuals possess complete information concerning the costs and benefits of voting. The costs of voting are any type of utility expended in preparing to vote or actually voting. The benefits of voting are any types of utility gained from the election of preferred candidates. Deciding to vote, however, is not simply a calculation of the costs and benefits but also the likelihood of making a difference in an election. This is because one individual does not have the final say in who takes office and who does not. Each individual is one of many voters who collectively decide who will lead. Therefore, the likelihood that the individual will make a difference must be taken into account. Thus, the voting calculus first posited by Downs (1957) is simply stated since the probability of an individual voting is a product of the likelihood that one will make an electoral difference times the benefits one will receive from voting minus the costs of voting.

A vote decision requires that a person first know the costs and benefits of voting as well as the likelihood of making a difference. The costs of voting are quite varied. Monetary costs of voting can range from the cost of the gasoline needed to drive to a polling place to taking time off from work to vote. Temporal costs of voting are any situations in which one must take time from one activity to engage in a political activity, such as gathering information on candidates in order to make an informed decision. In addition to the time and energy spent informing oneself about candidates and the actual act of voting, costs include any effects of governmental outputs that decrease an individual’s utility. For example, if an individual receives most of his income from Social Security and a candidate is elected who desires Social Security reform that will decrease payments, the individual will lose money, which is a cost.

The benefits of voting are derived from governmental outputs that increase an individual’s utility. To estimate the benefits derived from governmental outputs an individual must estimate what each candidate will do for him or her if elected. A person decides if a candidate will supply him or her with greater utility by placing the candidate on a left–right continuum, as discussed previously. If a candidate is close to the individual on the continuum, the individual’s utility to be received is estimated to be high. If the candidate is far from the individual on the left–right continuum, the future utility of the individual is estimated to be low. After estimating the cost and benefits of voting, the potential participant then must also estimate the likelihood of making a difference in an election. If the benefits multiplied by the likelihood of making a difference in an election still outweighs the costs of voting, an individual will decide to vote: a positive vote decision.

Rational choice theory has been heavily criticized, however (Green & Shapiro, 1994; Stokes, 1963). This theory makes a number of strict assumptions that may or may not be accurate: individuals possess full information, they are able to place candidates on a political spectrum, and they are able to place themselves on a political spectrum. Further, the collective action problem presents a major theoretical hurdle for rational choice theorists.

A. Collective Action

Olson (1965) posited that people will not engage in an activity when they can receive the same utility regardless of engaging. Olson’s theory is important in terms of vote decisions because an individual’s one vote most likely does not affect the outcome of an election. Therefore, the outcome does not depend on the individual voter. That is to say people receive roughly the same utility regardless of whether they participate. The collective action problem, thus, is that individuals will not vote if they are rational.

Within the rational choice perspective, this means that no one should vote. However, one sees that people consistently vote in many elections. There must be an explanation of why individuals vote when, rationally speaking, they should not.

B. The D Term

One of the most widely cited approaches used to explain the participation paradox is Riker and Ordeshook’s (1973) addition of the “D term,” or duty, into the voting calculus. This explanation supplies a benefit to overcome the costs of voting that is not associated with utility gained from the election of a particular candidate. Any pleasurable experience derived from the action of voting can be labeled the D term as long as it is not a benefit received from the election of a preferred candidate. The D term creates an extra benefit to participation that helps overcome the immense costs of voting and preparing to vote and thus causes people to make a positive vote decision.

C. Group Membership

Another often-cited explanation for voting despite its inherent irrationality is group mobilization. Group mobilization theory is premised on the idea that people belong to groups and organizations that range from families to work places to unions to churches (Rosenstone & Hansen, 1993). Group mobilization refers to when these groups generate participatory behavior among their members.

Mobilization involves groups pressuring members to participate and specifically participate in support of one particular candidate or issue (Rosenstone & Hansen, 1993). Mobilization creates a situation in which the benefits of voting increase regardless of the benefits one receives from government outputs. By voting, an individual receives acceptance from his or her peers, which is a benefit. Thus, voting becomes a rational decision because social acceptance is a highly desirable benefit, and the costs of voting are outweighed by the benefits.

D. Informational Shortcuts

As stated previously, informing oneself about candidates is a major temporal cost of voting. If the costs of voting are reduced rather than the benefits of voting increased, voting becomes rational. Reducing the informational costs of participation, therefore, can explain why people vote despite its irrationality. Popkin (1991) argues that various heuristics or shortcuts are used by individuals in evaluating, obtaining, and storing information to decrease the costs of participating. Individuals, according to Popkin, pick up information through everyday interactions and media. Prospective voters can take this small amount of information and apply it in such a way as to form an opinion about each candidate, effectively reducing the costs of participation and explaining why individuals overcome the irrationality of voting.

E. Procedural Rationality

Besides the collective action problem, another major criticism of Downs’s (1957) rationality theory is that individuals rarely have complete information concerning candidates and governmental outputs. McKelvey and Ordeshook (1987) argue that individuals make the best decisions they can, based on imperfect information. Simon (1976) refers to this as procedural rationality.

Procedural rationality makes many of the same assumptions of traditional rationality. Those acting in a procedurally rational manner still seek to increase their utility, still order their preferences, and seek to achieve their ordered goals in the most efficient way available to the actor; however, procedural rationality does not require only one course of action. Procedural rationality means that behavior “is the outcome of appropriate deliberation” (Simon, 1976, p. 131). This means that an individual who wants to reach Goal A may have more than one path to that goal because, due to uncertainty and incomplete information, the most efficient path may not be the clearest path. As long as a person puts thought into his or her actions rather than simply acting impulsively, the action may be considered rational. Procedural rationality is much like traditional rationality except that it creates more realistic paths for actors, but it also assumes that actors will not engage in an activity that they realize is more costly than beneficial. If behavior is an “impulsive response to affective mechanisms” (Simon, 1976, p. 131), it is considered irrational. Therefore, it is possible to have imperfect information and maintain rationality, as long as the individual has made an effort to make the most efficient decision based on the information available. However, if the individual knows that an action will lose him or her utility and still engages in the action, he or she would be considered to be acting irrationally.

In the case of rational voting, if an individual votes and his or her utility increases from voting, it is rational. If the act of voting loses the individual utility, traditional rationality holds that voting is irrational; procedural rationality holds that voting is irrational if the person expects that he or she will lose utility in voting.

F. Summary

Rational choice theory is a very parsimonious theory. Prospective voters make vote choices simply by placing themselves and candidates onto a left–right political continuum. They decide to support whichever candidate is closest to their own position on the continuum. The prospective voters then make a vote decision based on whether the benefits they receive from voting for the candidate they support outweigh the costs of voting. If the benefits do outweigh the costs, the prospective voters will vote. If the costs are greater than the benefits, prospective voters will not vote.

V. Psychological Theory of Opinion Formation and Voting

Another theory that explains both vote choice and vote decision is the theory often referred to as a psychological theory. The most notable proponents of this theory are Campbell et al. (1960). They argued that people hold a number of attitudes concerning issues and candidates. They specifically discussed six attitudes: (1) how one feels about the Democrat, (2) how one feels about the Republican, (3) how well each party manages governments, (4) how well each party manages group interests, (5) how well each party manages domestic policy, and (6) how well each party manages foreign policy. These attitudes, which are derived from party identification, guide a person’s vote choice. These different attitudes, according to Campbell et al., affect which candidate a person supports, as would be expected positive attitudes toward a particular candidate, a particular party, and a candidate’s policies lead one to support that particular candidate.

Campbell et al. (1960) argue that people have psychologically predisposed attitudes, and these are the guiding factors when making vote choices. They find that issues are almost completely inconsequential when people make vote choices. Individuals hold positive and negative attitudes toward the candidates, parties, and other political institutions, which in turn guide their vote choices.

Individuals develop long-lasting psychological connections to political parties (Campbell et al., 1960). In turn, these psychological connections to political parties color people’s attitudes as they are forming. The coloration by the psychological connection to political parties in turn causes people to develop attitudes that are later used to form vote choices. Therefore, the psychological connection to a political party affects a person’s vote choice.

Campbell et al.’s (1960) entire theory hinges on a psychological and stable connection to a particular political party. Rational choice theorists could not explain stable party identification. However, Fiorina (1981) proposed a possible explanation within the rational choice perspective.

Fiorina (1981) argued that people do not forge psychological connections to political parties, but rather, they engage in “retrospective voting.” This means that instead of party identification coloring people’s vote choices, people are evaluating previous party and candidate performance and deciding if a particular party has increased their own utility or decreased it. Voters keep a running tally in their minds of which party has increased their own utility. The connection researchers observe between a voter and a party is a person’s positive tally for that party. This, however, also means that party identification can change as people recalculate their tallies. If this is the case, party identification does not color attitudes and Campbell et al.’s (1960) explanation of vote choice may not be accurate.

Regardless of whether Campbell et al. (1960) or Fiorina (1981) is correct concerning the psychological origin of vote choice, the question still remains: What causes a person to take action on these opinions and vote?

Campbell et al. (1960) find that when attitudes are in conflict, individuals are much less inclined to vote. If people decide for whom to vote based on psychologically based attitudes and these attitudes are in conflict, they will logically have a difficult time making a vote decision.

Other factors were also found to affect an individual’s vote decision. One of Campbell et al.’s (1960) major findings is that the intensity of partisan preference is a major factor in determining turnout. Those who strongly support a party are more likely to vote. Further, those who strongly support a party are more likely to feel an importance in voting. These two findings fit together very easily. Those who feel a strong level of support for one party are more likely to view voting as important and therefore are more inclined to vote. This is intuitive. People are more likely to engage in an action they deem to be important, whereas if a person does not think something is important, he or she is much less likely to engage in that action. Moreover, it makes sense that people with a strong party identification are more likely to see voting as important. If a person has a psychological connection to a party, he or she would, logically, also want that party to succeed.

Another important finding of Campbell et al. (1960) is that those with a strong party preference are more likely to vote in close elections. When an election is seen as onesided by the potential participant, the strength of attitudes does not matter in determining whether that potential participant votes. However, if the individual sees an election as close, the intensity of party preference is quite important in determining whether the individual votes.

Campbell et al. (1960), however, admit that partisan strength is not the only psychological factor affecting a person’s vote decision. Campbell et al. cite a number of other factors that are highly correlated with voting. The first is interest in a campaign. Campbell et al. find that those who say they are interested in a campaign are also more likely to vote. It is important to note that interest in campaigns does not necessarily lead to voting; it is possible that a person is interested in a campaign because he or she has already decided to vote.

A second additional explanatory factor that Campbell et al. (1960) posit is that caring about the election outcome matters in the vote decision. Simply stated, those who have an electoral preference are more likely to decide to vote.

Campbell et al.’s (1960) third additional explanation concerns political efficacy. If people feel that government is responsive to them, they are more likely to engage in politics and therefore vote. This is a long-term, psychological explanation, rather than short-term interest in a campaign and caring about the electoral outcome. Feelings of political efficacy tend to be stable and, according to Campbell et al., affect a person over many years rather than on an individual electoral basis.

The final explanation Campbell et al. (1960) present is the idea of civic duty. Campbell et al. argue that the norm of political action becomes psychologically ingrained in the individual. Once this happens to a person, he or she instinctively engages in participatory action.

In sum, Campbell et al. (1960) argue that those who have strong partisan preferences are more likely to vote. Further, interest in campaigns, caring about the outcome of an election, feelings of political efficacy, and civic duty all inspire people to vote.

Just as the sociological and media based theories are similar because they explain only vote choice, both the psychological and the rational theories are similar because they explain both vote choice and vote decisions. The fifth theory discussed in this research paper, social capital, focuses only on vote decisions.

VI. Social Capital and Voting

Putnam’s (1993, 1995, 2000) theory of social capital is quite simple. The basic idea of Putnam’s (1995) theory is that social interactions develop social capital. According to Putnam, organizational membership is the most important type of social interaction in developing social capital. Moreover, social capital is necessary for a properly working democracy. High levels of social capital, according to Putnam, can cause people to engage in participatory action, such as voting.

Using General Social Survey data, Putnam (1995) finds that membership in organizations has declined in the United States. This decline in organizational membership, according to Putnam (1995, 2000), is associated with a decline in social capital. Putnam argues that the decrease in social capital is responsible for the decrease in voter turnout in recent U.S. history. Being a member of an organization builds social capital, which instills in people a desire to participate in governance (1993, 1995, 2000). Although Putnam’s (1995, 2000) evidence seems strong, it is important to note that Putnam’s work has been criticized (Jackman & Miller, 1998). Some critics argue that the connection between democratic participation and social capital is not clear. Further criticisms of Putnam’s work have focused on other theoretic and methodological problems (Jackman & Miller). Despite the many criticisms of Putnam’s work, social capital is still widely studied.

VII. Recent Research

All of the aforementioned works are seminal and have been expanded on greatly through decades of research. This section attempts to provide a better understanding of where the research concerning vote choice and vote decision stands today, although it is far from exhaustive.

Most research today is based in the aforementioned works but has significantly elaborated on them. One of the most researched theories of vote choice is the spatial model associated with rational choice theory. Jessee (2009) tested the main axioms of the spatial voting model and found that “behavior is in close accordance with the fundamental axioms of the basic spatial voting model” (p. 59). Using a measure of voter ideology based on position taking, Jessee tested the spatial voting model for the 2004 U.S. presidential election. He finds that the spatial model is generally correct but is influenced by partisan bias.

Tomz and Houweling (2008) tested the spatial theory of voting using experimental data. Using ideological placement in terms of health care policy, Tomz and Houweling find that the proximity model of voting usually associated with rational choice is employed more often than not, although it is not used by all people 100% of the time. Further, they find that the directional model of voting first posited by Rabinowitz and MacDonald (1989) is used the least.

There have also been recent advances in the study of vote choice based on the type of election. Feddersen, Gailmard, and Sandroni (2009) theorized that large elections create an atmosphere where people tend not to vote based on material benefits, as per rational choice theory, but instead vote based on who they believe is the morally superior candidate. As the likelihood of being the difference maker in an election decreases, rational choice theory dictates that people will not vote because they will likely receive the same benefits whether they vote or not. However, Feddersen et al. argue that people can receive an expressive benefit, which is a benefit received from expressing oneself. Feddersen et al. find, using an experimental design, that in large elections people tend not to be self-interested in their vote choice, but rather tend to support the morally superior candidate.

In addition to research concerning vote choice, there has been a large amount of research exploring vote decision. Rational choice theory is still a highly studied paradigm concerning vote decision. Recent research has shown through experimental design that the predictions of rational choice theory do in fact occur (Levine & Palfrey, 2007). They find that voter turnout decreases in large elections, voter turnout increases in competitive elections, and those who support underdog candidates tend to turn out at a greater rate than those supporting the favored candidates.

Further, research concerning vote decisions has recently turned to social psychological theories. Using a field experimental design, Gerber, Green, and Larimer (2008) found that social pressure is causally related to vote decisions. This lends support to the claim that pressure to adhere to social norms plays a major role in causing individuals to vote. Nickerson (2008) also uses a field experiment to test the effect of social interactions on vote decision. He finds that when one person in a household is encouraged to vote, the person contacted as well as others in that same household will tend to vote.

Finally, a recent area of vote decision research has arisen based in genetic research. Findings by Fowler, Baker, and Dawes (2008) show that vote decision, and political participation more broadly, can be at least somewhat attributed to a person’s genetic structure. Fowler et al. used a quasi-experimental design to test for differences in vote decision between dizygotic (fraternal) and monozygotic (identical) twins. They find that when twins are identical, they are more likely to vote in the same number of elections than when twins are fraternal, thus establishing that a person’s vote decision is at least somewhat influenced by his or her genetic structure.

VIII. Future Directions

The study of vote behavior has obviously been a major area of research for quite some time (see Lippmann, 1922). However, this does not mean that all questions concerning vote choice and vote decision have been answered. Vote choice and participatory behavior are still highly studied areas of research today.

Future research concerning vote choice and vote decision may be well served to focus on the differences in behavior in different types of elections, such as Feddersen et al. (2009). Some interesting areas of study may be the differences in party vote choice among elections at different levels of government. Further, researchers may want to explore people’s participatory decisions in elections at different levels of government.

Another area of study that needs to be more developed is the line of research initiated by Fowler et al. (2008). There is very little research concerning biological causes of voting behavior. With the development of new genetic and biological science technologies, scholars can likely improve on Fowler et al.’s groundbreaking study. Further, researchers may want to apply theories of biology to questions concerning vote choice. For example, researchers may want to ask if genetic variation accounts for differences in the candidates or parties particular people support.

Finally, it is important to note that voting behavior has been studied quantitatively for more than 60 years. It appears that political scientists have virtually exhausted the questions concerning voting behavior that can be answered using simple survey data. Political scientists have established many correlations between variables, but it is now important for researchers to establish causal links. Research going forward must use interesting and novel research designs to establish causality. Obviously, this must be done using experimental and quasi-experimental research designs.

IX. Conclusion

In the previous sections, a number of different theories concerning voting behavior have been discussed. The theorists who posit the sociological theory of vote choice argue that the social conditions in which people come of age, as well as certain social conditions during adulthood, affect the vote choices people make.

The second theory discussed previously concerns the role of the mass media in vote choice. This theory is based on the premise that people have relatively incoherent opinions and attitudes. However, people receive information as elite discourse through the mass media. Those who pay a large amount of attention to the media receive greater information and reject information that is incoherent with previous information. Those who do not pay a large amount of attention to the media receive less information and tend to reject less information, therefore creating incoherent opinions. Further, people do not hold static opinions, but rather form their opinions based on the information that is most easily accessed.

The rational choice perspective argues that individuals wish to maximize their utility. This desire causes people to have positive opinions of the candidate running for office that they believe will maximize their utility. This theory relies on having the information necessary to place candidates and oneself on a left–right continuum correctly and interpreting the placement of these candidates correctly. In terms of vote decision, this theory argues that prospective voters decide whether the benefits they receive from voting for the candidate they support outweigh the costs of voting. If the benefits do outweigh the costs, the prospective voters will become actual voters. If the costs are greater than the benefits, prospective voters will not vote.

The fourth theory discussed is the psychological approach. This theory posits that individuals have a psychological affinity toward one party or another. This affinity colors the individual’s attitudes concerning candidates. The opinions a person holds concerning candidates for office and political issues are derived from the psychological affinity a person holds toward a particular party, also known as party identification. Further, this theory posits that individuals vote for a number of psychological reasons, the most important being the strength of partisan affiliation. If a person is strongly affiliated with a party, he or she is more likely to vote, unless he or she views an election as one-sided. The psychological theory further postulates that interest in campaigns, caring about the outcome of an election, feelings of political efficacy, and civic duty all inspire people to vote.

The final theory discussed previously concerns social capital. This theory argues that people who belong to organizations and groups build what is known as social capital. In turn, this social capital leads people to engage in participatory behavior, such as voting. This theory, however, has been criticized for not providing a causal link between social capital and participatory behavior.


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