The Decision to Vote Isn’t Just One Decision

An individual’s decision to participate in politics constitutes multiple decisions throughout the course of their lifetime. This post focuses on one type of political participation, voting. Every year, citizens head to the polls to elect representatives, support referendum, and voice their opinion on the issues. The act of voting on Election Day can be broken up into two component parts: the choice of who or what to vote for and the act, or behavior, of voting.

The Vote Decision

Individuals must decide who or what to vote for on Election Day; however, explaining the origins of candidate choice, issue opinions, and political attitudes is complicated. An individual’s political beliefs are formed early in life through a process known as political socialization. The worldview developed in childhood provides the frame through which the political world is evaluated. As children age, life experiences pull them in one political direction or the other. The Vietnam War, for example, pulled youth in the 1960’s and 1970’s against war and toward the Democratic Party.

Individuals begin to identify with a political party early on and once this identification is solid, it is a powerful predictor of vote choice. There is debate about the stability of party identification over the course of an individual’s lifetime. Some research suggests that this identification can and does change in light of new information. Other research finds that party identification, an affective identity with a political party, moves only in periods of political realignment (i.e., the realignment of the Southern Democrats to the Republican Party) or large social change. Either way, party identification remains the primary predictor of vote choice for a majority of the electorate.

In addition to party identification, an individual’s opinions on political issues can influence vote choice. A candidate’s stance on the issues, however, can be vague or unclear, leading to confusion as to where the candidate stands. In today’s polarized political environment, the issue positions of the major political parties and their candidates are increasingly clear; an individual with little political knowledge can articulate where the Republican and Democratic parties stand on issues such as immigration, taxing the rich, same-sex marriage, abortion, and many more.

Besides political identification and issue opinions, several other factors can affect the vote decision. Evaluations of past and current circumstances can impact the decision of who or what to vote for. An individual can consider the retrospective, or past, performance of an incumbent and chose to support, or not support, them in the next election. Additionally, an individual can base the vote decision on prospective, or future, predicted political behavior, such as a candidate’s promises to deliver results.

Likewise, individuals consider whether or not they are worse or better off financially than in the past. If individuals feel they are currently worse off financially than in the past, they are more likely to support the challenger, or the candidate from the opposite political party than is in power currently. Similarly, individuals who determine they are better off financially now than in the past, are more likely to support the incumbent political candidate or party over a new challenger. The nation’s economic outlook is a powerful predictor of the vote outcome; it is also a predictor that parties, campaigns, and candidates are powerless to control. Thus, a candidate “inherits” the economic situation. In 2008, for example, a dire economic recession helped the Democratic Party and Barak Obama come to power.

Finally, characteristics of the political candidate themselves can be important in the vote decision. Individuals vote for candidates who are relatable and who are similar to themselves in some way. Traits such as trustworthiness, physical appearance, speaking ability and skill can likewise influence an individual’s vote decision. In presidential races, the choice of a running mate can impact the vote; campaigns seek to “balance the ticket” to increase the likelihood of wining the election.

"Super Tuesday in Ohio" by Kim Keegan (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“Super Tuesday in Ohio” by Kim Keegan (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


The Turnout Decision

Once an individual decides who or what to vote for, they realize these preferences by heading to the polls. Multiple factors affect the turnout decision, or the decision to go to the polls and vote; these factors can be broken up into three broad categories: resources, interest, and motivation.

Individuals vary in the resources they possess, such as their socioeconomic status (education level and income) and age. The level of education that an individual possesses is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, factors in the decision to vote. The more educated an individual, the more likely they are to vote. Education exposes individuals to social networks where norms of participating in politics are more common. Education is also highly correlated with income; individuals with higher incomes are more likely to be knowledgeable about elections and possess more flexibility to get to the polls on Election Day. Finally, age is a strong determinant of the decision to vote where older individuals are more likely to vote than younger adults. Adults age 18-24 are the least likely age group to vote.

Interest in politics is another determinant of the turnout decision. Interest in politics stems from having a personal identity with a political party, a personal interest in or direct connection to a particular issue, or from being in social settings with interested individuals. Individuals who are interested in politics are more likely to be informed about elections and the candidates running in them. Interested individuals are more likely to register and to go to the polls and vote.

The final predictor of the decision to vote is motivation, or recruitment. Individuals asked to participate in politics are more likely to participate than individuals who are not asked. Individuals can be recruited to vote by co-workers, family members, friends, candidates, and party activists, among others. As with the decision of who or what to vote for, an individual’s social network is largely influential on the decision to turnout.

What about you? How do you determine whom to vote for? Why do you vote or not? Are you registered to vote in the 2016 election?

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