In an election, the most important thing is not who wins the election but why people voted the way they did. As candidates campaign, they must fully understand the electoral behavior in order to influence their selection. This paper highlights the basic ideas and concepts that are believed to influence voting behavior. It identifies the sources of voting behavior of an individual and attempts to explain why voters vote for a given candidate. It also highlights the impacts of voter turnout in the election process.
A voter may decide to choose a candidate depending on several factors. The major considerations include the assessment of the candidate’s personal traits, the orientations on public policy issues, and the evaluation of government’s performance. These are the three main factors that voters consider when casting their ballots. Other general factors that influence voter behavior are political parties and the general ideological dispositions.
The stability of the factors that influence voter behavior varies over time. The assessment of both the performance of the government and the candidate’s qualities are purely short-term factors, whose impacts are substantial. The political party and the ideology are more stable in short term. Most of the voters do not change their ideology and the political party from one election to another. If such changes occur, then they are extremely rare. It is important to note that the factors that influence the selection of a candidate in an election are interrelated. Candidates must therefore understand fully the interrelationships between these factors so that they can enhance their selection.
The following section highlights how the individual factors influence voter behavior.
Political party is one of the major factors that influence the voter (Prysby, and Scavo 2010). In any election, most people identify with one of the major two political parties, and because of party loyalty, they vote for the party’s candidate regardless of the assessment of the candidate’s traits. In US, electorates consider themselves as Republicans, Democrats, or Independent. Strong Democrats and strong Republicans are always loyal to the party and select the party’s candidate. Weak Democrats, weak republicans, and the independents closer to either party, would consider selecting the party’s respective candidate. Even though party influence is strong, not majority of Obama votes or McCain votes was a result of the party. Partisan loyalties are known to influence the candidate’s assessment, the evaluation of the performance of the government, and the perception of the political events. In simple terms, political party is a perceptual screen which acts as a partisan-tinted mirror through which voters view the political environment. Because of this, most Democrats developed reasons to vote for Obama, and most Republicans for McCain.
Voter turnout plays a very crucial role alongside political party. When the turnout is high in areas dominated by loyalists of a particular party, the party’s candidate stands better chances of winning majority votes. However, if the area is dominated by the loyalists of the other political party, then, the candidate is most likely to get few votes.
The candidate’s personal traits
Most voters elect candidates based on the personal characteristics of the candidates. The top driving characteristics are leadership ability of the candidates, experience, competence, compassion, morality, and honesty (Prysby, and Scavo 2010). Voters always form perceptions of the abilities and personal qualities of the candidates. These perceptions highly influence the voting. If the candidate is perceived to be honest and trustworthy, then, he/she is considered to be of high integrity (integrity dimension) and most voters would be influenced to elect the candidate. Another personal character of the candidate which influences most voters is competence. If the candidate is considered to be experienced and with vast knowledge in the position, most voters are attracted. People would hardly elect a candidate whom they perceive to be lacking the knowledge, the experience, and the ability to perform the duties. The third important personal quality is the candidate’s leadership ability. Strong and most inspiring leaders are always preferred by majority of the voters. Lastly, compassion plays a crucial role. Candidates who are believed to be caring and concerned are always favored by voters.
The importance of these four dimensions of personal characteristics varies. In any given election, one or more of the dimensions may have insignificant effect (Prysby, and Scavo 2010).
In 2008, personal characteristics played a crucial role. Most republicans viewed Obama as inexperienced and could not be trusted to lead the country; however, McCain was considered to be experienced, with long and clear record of service. On the other hand, Obama was seen to be calm and stable while McCain was perceived as erratic and hot tempered. The US election history portrays candidate character as an important consideration. In 1976, the election focused on honesty; in 1980, the focus was competence; in 1984, the focus was leadership; in 1988, the focus was patriotism; 1992 and 1996, the focus was trustworthiness; in 2000, it was leadership ability and integrity; and in 2004, decisiveness and leadership was the focus.
Majority of the voters regard their vote as very personal, and they seriously consider the characters of the candidates. During campaigns, candidates always emphasize their traits whenever they feel that it would be advantageous.
This is the candidate’s belief on what the government should do or should not do. Policy issues normally involve conflict over government policy. Some policy issues are very specific and deals with a single problem, while others are general and deal with broad approaches to the problems. Voters are normally influenced when they have different opinions on the issue and perceive differences between candidates on the issue. According to Prysby (2008) and Prysby and Scavo (2010), some voters have no idea on the policy issues; other have unstable and too weak opinions to provide the ground for evaluation of the candidates; while some do not see significant differences between the positions of the candidates on the policy issue.
Higher Education Research Institute’s report, 2004 postulate that some voters have well defined opinions and very clear perceptions of the candidates’ different positions. In addition, candidates usually target some specific issues and groups during their campaigns in order to win their votes, especially the partisans from another party who, in most cases, disagree with the party’s candidate on such issues. Going by the elections of 2008, the candidates disagreed on several issues, despite the campaign not stressing on these differences. In every election, voters are provided with choices. For ballot casting, what matters is how voters perceive the differences in candidates’ policy issues.
Ideological orientations play a role in an election, as voters tend to have some general political ideologies. Some are liberal, some strongly conservative, and others politically moderate. Some voters may be liberal in some areas like in social issues, but at the same time conservative in other areas like in economic issues. These ideological orientations greatly influence the voting. Some voters have ideological perceptions of the candidate even when they are not sure of the position of the candidate on policy issues. Ideology also influences party identification. Political party and ideology are very strongly aligned.
Assessment of Government performance
Government performance is very essential especially when the incumbent president is on a reelection campaign. Even if the incumbent president is not running for a reelection, government performance still matters as was witnessed in 2008. Policy issues should not be mistaken for government performance: they are prospective in nature and involve the differences on what the government should or should not do. Performance assessment, on the other hand, are retrospective in nature and involves the differences over what the government has done and how well it was done. Goals that are shared by everyone include reduction of unemployment, reduction of inflation, national security, and steady economic growth. The importance of these factors depend on the emphasis they get during campaigns and in recent elections.
Based on government performance, the 1996 Clinton campaign focused on the peace and prosperity over the previous four years. In 2000, most observers believed that Gore failed to capitalize on the economic record of Clinton administration. Being Clinton’s vice-president, he ought to have benefited from the economic prosperity of Clinton’s eight years. The 2004 election was about how well Bush managed the Iraq war, and in 2008, Obama’s campaign strategy was shaped by the widespread concerns of economy and the Iraq war.
Voters, in most cases, associate the economic performance to the party in general, and to the president in particular. This is the reason why the country’s economic deterioration impacts negatively on the ruling party. When assessing the performance of the incumbent, voter react to their economic situation. The incumbent is normally blamed for the inflation and unemployment. When the economy deteriorates, the president is blamed for doing poor job.
Public Opinion Polls
Another factor that influences the selection of a candidate in an election is the use of public opinion polls. During the election campaigns, the opinion polls normally influence the behavior of the voters. When the polls are in favor of one candidate, the voter preference is normally swayed towards the candidate, especially when the voter was undecided. Public opinion polls also have the ability of altering the dynamics of campaigns. This is because, the polls accentuate the volatility of public preference. Public opinion polls also have the capability of altering the voter turnout decisions. When a candidate rides high in the opinion polls, some voters would assume that the candidate’s victory is obvious even without them casting their votes, hence, low voter turnout. Also, in a closely contested elections, with opinion polls revealing insignificant difference, every voter would be influenced to vote so as to enable their preferred candidate secure victory. This increases the voter turnout (Crespin, Wielen 2002).
“Trends in political attitudes and voting behavior among college freshmen and early career college graduates: what issues could drive this election?” Research Report No. 1, October 2004. Retrieved at http://www.heri.ucla.edu/pdfs/full_political_attitudes.pdf
Crespin, Michael H., and Ryan J. Vander Wielen. The Influence of Media Projections on Voter Turnout In Presidential Elections From 1980-2000. Retrieved at http://crespin.myweb.uga.edu/Mediaresubmission.pdf
Prysby, Charles and Scavo, Carmine. Voting behavior: The 2008 election. 2010. Retrieved at http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/icpsrweb/SETUPS2008/
Prysby, Charles. “Perceptions of Candidate Character Traits and the Presidential Vote in 2004.” PS: Political Science and Politics 41(1): 115-122; 2008. Retrieved at http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=1631236