How Voters Decide: Information Processing in Election Campaigns / Edition 1

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This book attempts to redirect the field of voting behavior research by proposing a paradigm-shifting framework for studying voter decision making. An innovative experimental methodology is presented for getting "inside the heads" of citizens as they confront the overwhelming rush of information from modern presidential election campaigns. Four broad theoretically defined types of decision strategies that voters employ to help decide which candidate to support are described and operationally defined.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"How Voters Decide: Information Processing during Election Campaigns is a major contribution to our understanding of voting behavior, decision making, and political psychology. Richard Lau and David Redlawsk have employed an innovative methodology to investigate the processes by which voters make sense of the enormous flow of information in a election campaign. The research is carefully designed and analyzed and the results yield insights into mechanisms of political information processing that are normally hidden from view by the standard research methods used in political science. This research shows how the strategies that people use to process information affect the electoral decisions they make and, ultimately, the extent to which elections truly represent the interests of voters." Stanley Feldman, Stony Brook University

"This innovative and exciting book sheds new light on the mysterious process at the heart of democracy: how voters choose among candidates. Lau and Redlawsk develop a range of new techniques to illuminate the otherwise hidden process of candidate choice with consistently interesting and often unexpected results." Martin Gilens, Princeton University

"This book is potentially a landmark in the history of voting behavior research. It takes on the whole structure of theory about voting in virtually all its aspects, about as wide-ranging as The American Voter of 40 years ago, and does so with unusual quality." James Stimson, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

"The authors have provided a fresh, innovative perspective...for graduate students, faculty and researchers in political science. it is required reading. Highly recommended." — Choice

"This book will be of interest to political scientists and cognitive psychologists for its innovative methodology." PsycCritiques

"Anyone committed to understanding voter behavior should read this book, which integrates many years of research. How Voters Decide offeres a novel approach to studying voter cognition, and it yields provocative and detailed findings about memory, heuristics, and decision making that go far beyond this brief review." - John Gastil, University of Washington

"How Voters Decide makes three critical contributions: proposing a process-oriented framework, testing this framework, using a dynamic information environment, and outlining a variety of findings that raise critical questions for future research." - Samuel J. Abrams, Harvard University

2007 Outstanding Academic Title — Choice Magazine

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Richard Lau is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Walt Whitman Center for the Study of Democracy in the Political Science Department at Rutgers University. His research has been supported by the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation. He has published in all of the major journals in political science and social psychology, and recently wrote (with Gerald Pomper) Negative Campaigning: An Analysis of U.S. Senate Elections (2004).

David P. Redlawsk is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Iowa. Prior to completing his Ph.D. and arriving at the University of Iowa in 1999, Redlawsk spent nearly ten years in the technology industry, managing information systems for colleges, and working as a management consultant. As a political scientist, he has published in the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics and Political Psychology, among others. He twice received the Roberta Sigel Best Paper Award from the International Society of Political Psychology. He co-edited Hate Speech on Campus: Cases, Commentary, and Case Studies (1997) with Milton Heumann and Thomas Church, and is currently completing an edited volume on emotion in politics to be published in 2006. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation.

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
0521848598 - How voters decide - information processing during election campaigns - by Richard R. Lau and David P. Redlawsk

Part I. Theory and Methods



Democracy succeeds when government, in some broad sense, represents the will of the people. Democratic representation can be assured if informed citizens freely elect their leaders, and those leaders stand for reelection at some regular interval. Thus citizens, voting for leaders who best represent their views, and holding those leaders (or their political parties) accountable for their performance in office at the next election, make democracy work. At least that is the theory.

   Naturally enough, voting is a topic that has drawn quite a bit of attention in political science, and the classics of political behavior research have all focused, in one way or another, on the vote decision. Understanding how voters make their decisions is tantamount, at some very basic level, to understanding how democracy works. There can be no more important question in political science. Yet with all of our research over the past half century, and the numerous models of vote choice that have been proposed, how much do we really know about how voters decide?

   If that question is understood to mean how well can we predict or explain the vote in a statistical sense, the answer is quitewell indeed. The existing models do an excellent job of prediction, including appropriate voter, campaign, candidate, and political environment factors into a regression stew and “explaining” with high accuracy which voters choose Democrats and which choose Republicans. But such prediction is thin, supported as it is by post hoc mathematical modeling, and provides little in the way of true understanding of how voters in the real world gather campaign information about the candidates and use it to make a decision. Most of our existing models of the vote choice are relatively static, based in a very real sense on cross-sectional survey data, taking what little (typically) voters know about the candidates at the time of the survey as a given with almost no thought to how they went about obtaining that information in the first place. But campaigns are dynamic events that occur over time, and deciding whether and how to vote is a process that also occurs over time and that needs to be understood (and studied) as such.

   Consider five hypothetical voters in the 2004 U.S. presidential election.

  • William R is an accountant working for Xerox in Rochester, New York. He believes the only way to pick a president is to learn everything there is to know about the candidates’ experience and policy proposals and to evaluate the likely consequences of those policies for his family and himself. He watches News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS and scours the newspapers daily for information about the candidates. He could tell you the minutest detail about George W. Bush’s plans for post-war Iraq, his stand on immigration or the environment, John Kerry’s record as Senator from Massachusetts, his policies on health care reform and national defense, Ralph Nader’s feelings about corporate business practices, and so on. Aided by his photographic memory, he took the weekend before the election off so he could integrate what he learned about the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate into overall summary evaluations. George Bush came out with the highest total, and thus earned William’s vote.
  • Anne D is a business consultant in San Diego. “Time is money,” she always says, and even though she believes that the candidates have to be evaluated according to the likely consequences of their winning, she feels it is simply “not worth the effort” to pay any attention to campaigns until near the end. She never votes in primary elections and considers only the Democratic and Republican candidates because “no other candidate has a chance of winning.” She evaluates the candidates primarily in terms of how likely they are to have any tangible effect on her own pocketbook. She gladly accepted her $500 tax refund the year before the election, but business has been very poor since President Bush took office, and she has made much less from her consulting job since the 2000 election than she remembers making during the boom years under Clinton and Gore. Although she has voted Republican in the past, Kerry and the Democrats seem like the obvious choice to Anne this year.
  • Warren M is a shift supervisor in an automobile factory living in a middle-class neighborhood in Detroit. A lifelong Democrat – as were his parents – Warren found the decision to vote for John Kerry an easy one. He believes that Kerry has superior political experience compared to George Bush, and he trusts him a lot more than any Republican. As a Democrat, he cares about a strong economy and believes Kerry has better plans for getting the economy going again than does Bush. As a father with two teenage boys, he is delighted that his candidate will do everything he can to keep us out of war. And of course he is disgusted with how President Bush has been distorting Kerry’s war record during the campaign. All of these concerns pushed him toward the Democratic ticket.
  • Teresa C is a soccer mom living in the suburbs of Atlanta. With four kids at home, she has many more pressing things on her mind than politics. Nonetheless, she believes that a good citizen should vote. She cares about two issues, and two issues only: prayer in school and government vouchers for private education. George Bush shares her views on these two issues; John Kerry does not. Enough said, choice made – now back to the game and other more immediate family matters.
  • Herbert S’s approach to politics is just like his take on the weather: “It’s going to be hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and pretty nice in the fall and spring. And if something different is going to happen, you’ll hear about it.” Democrats, he knows, are pretty much always “for the people a little out of the mainstream.” They generally think government should try to help people get ahead. Republicans, on the other hand, are for a strong defense, “want the rich to get richer,” and “don’t want the government to do anything.” Herbert checked out what people were saying about Bush and Kerry enough to know they both fit pretty well with their party stereotypes, and as an African American working for the Social Security Administration in Washington, he found it easy to support Kerry in the 2004 election.

   Many of our readers will recognize these five hypothetical voters as caricatures of major political science views of the vote decision: classic economic rational choice (William R) and Downsian “constrained” rationality relying upon retrospective considerations (Anne D); the so-called social psychological or Michigan model of The American Voter (Warren M); single-issue voting (Teresa C); and cognitive psychological approaches of “bounded” or “low-information” rationality (Herbert S). These approaches have driven much of the voting research over the past fifty years, and they provide context for the process model of decision making we develop in this book. It is not our intention to provide a complete review of the voting behavior literature, which would require several books to do justice to the topic. But these same hypothetical voters also illustrate four largely distinct models or approaches to decision making that are implicitly assumed by these political science views of voting. We will therefore also use this brief review of previous voting models to introduce these more general models of decision making.


William R is the classic “rational” voter of economic theory as specified by von Newman and Morgenstern (1947) and Arrow (1951). The approach is explicitly normative in its orientation, describing how decision makers ought to behave to guarantee value-maximizing decisions.1 To highlight the specifics of this model, William evaluates the candidates in terms of the expected consequences for his own self-interest of each of them winning the election.2 Some of those consequences are uncertain, and thus the probabilities of the different consequences occurring must also be considered. William believes that the more information he has about all of the alternatives under consideration, the better the resulting decision will be, so he seeks out as much information about every possible alternative as he possibly can. William knows and cares a lot about politics, which makes the job of gathering information somewhat easier. With his photographic memory and accountant training, he has relatively little difficulty keeping track of this information, although even he must focus exclusively on the election for a period of time in order to integrate all of the information he has gathered and come up with an optimal decision.3 This classic economic perspective on rationality views humans (Homo economicus) as omniscient calculators (Lupia, McCubbins, and Popkin, 2000) or (a term we like even more) ambulatory encyclopedias, although it is difficult to imagine very many people being able to follow its dictates. Nevertheless, the image of a cold, dispassionate accountant carefully weighing the pluses and minuses associated with the different alternatives is an appropriate one to hold here.

   Our second voter, Anne D, is just as rational in her orientation as our first voter, but she does not have the demonic cognitive abilities of William R. Although she would be pleased to consider all possible information about all possible alternatives if somebody else would gather and integrate that information for her, she recognizes quite logically that it takes time to gather this information, time she could spend doing more enjoyable and/or more productive things. She also believes that it is not going to make much of a difference in her life if the Republican or the Democrat wins the election. Hence, she learns a few easily obtainable bits of information about the two major candidates, mostly based on her experience with them, but once the marginal cost of new information exceeds the potential gain from that information, she stops paying attention to the campaign. We would call this procedure optimization under constraints4 (Gigerenzer and Todd, 1999), and in broad strokes it is the procedure described by Anthony Downs (1957) and his followers.5

   Both constrained and unconstrained rational choice models assume people consciously and explicitly consider the consequences (both positive and negative) for their own self-interest associated with every alternative course of action. More information is always considered to be better than less information, although “constrained” rationality realizes that the cost of gathering all that information may exceed the marginal benefit from having it. People are not always right in their calculations – consider Anne D’s limiting of alternatives to the two major party candidates because they are the only two who have a chance to win, as if her own single vote could make a difference in the outcome of the election – but the point is they presumably reach a decision based upon those calculations. Most importantly, to the extent that the dictates of rational choice are followed (see n. 2), the procedure promises to result in the best possible choice for each individual decision maker, which gives rational choice a strong normative component. This is classic rational decision making, and we will refer to it as Model 1.6 Model 1 voters should be open to whichever party or candidate can make the most convincing appeals. Figure 1.1 highlights the model’s most important features.

Figure I.I. Four models of individual decision making.

Image not available in HTML version


Warren M is exactly the type of person the authors of The American Voter (Campbell et al., 1960) were describing. Most citizens know little and care less about politics – one of the most far-reaching and well-documented findings of the Michigan model of voting – and by these standards, Warren seems fairly sophisticated. He is first and foremost a party voter – a long-term psychological attachment learned at his mother’s knee – and his party identification colors his views of the personal characteristics, issue stands, and performance evaluations of the candidates, the three most important short-term factors affecting the vote decision. Warren believes, for example, that Democratic Senator John Kerry has the better political experience for the presidency – a position that would be hard to defend objectively against a sitting incumbent with almost four years on the job. Whereas our first two voters were presumed to be making explicit decisions based on rational calculations of the consequences of Bush or Kerry winning the election, Warren’s decision, if not quite predetermined by his party identification, is clearly strongly influenced by it. Most importantly, that party identification is something Warren essentially inherited at birth (rather than explicitly chose in some rational manner), much like racial, gender, class, and religious identifications.

   The American Voter is one of the most influential books in all of political science, and its basic theory about long- and short-term forces and the “funnel of causality” is still the bible for many students of political behavior. Moreover, its theory guides one of the most extraordinary data collection efforts in all of the social sciences, the American National Election Studies (ANES) – biannual surveys conducted by the survey research center at the University of Michigan around every national U.S. election since 1952. These surveys have proved invaluable to learning most of what we know about American public opinion and voting behavior.7

   The Michigan approach is a perfect illustration of what we call Model 2 decision making. Whereas Model 1 decisions are based on explicit dispassionate calculations of self-interest, Model 2 decisions are strongly influenced by early-learned social identifications, which, like all such identifications, tend to be accepted with little or no consideration of alternatives. That is, such identifications develop through simple conditioning rather than any calculation of self-interest (see Sears, 1975; Sears and Funk, 1991). To the extent the parties stay basically the same, there is no real need for continuous monitoring of party activity – a view that is very consistent with the general dearth of political information held by the American public. Thus, exposure to political information is generally viewed as haphazard and unintentional, and most citizens learn only the basic gist of the most prominent issues covered by the media. Moreover, perception of political information is often biased by prior predispositions, and voters are motivated to maintain their prior convictions. Hence, even though in theory it is easy to know how to change the minds of Model 1 decision makers – change the contingencies, and they should change their decisions – Model 2 decision makers have many psychological devices that work against change, making most of their decisions essentially standing decisions. Thus, we would not expect Model 2 voters to be strongly influenced by any political campaign. If Model 1 decision makers are trying to maximize self-interest, Model 2 decision makers are trying to confirm a prior (standing) predisposition.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

1 Introduction 3
2 A new theory of voter decision making 21
3 Studying voting as a process 47
4 What is correct voting? 72
5 What voters do - a first cut 93
6 Individual differences in information processing 119
7 Campaign effects on information processing 135
8 Evaluating candidates 157
9 Voting 184
10 Voting correctly 202
11 Political heuristics 229
12 A look back and a look forward 255
App. A Detailed examples of decision strategies in action 265
App. B How the dynamic information board works 279
App. C Overview of experimental procedures 287
App. D Detailed decision scripts 299
App. E Calculating the on-line evaluation counter 307
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