Here in Arizona, we have some current and upcoming opportunities to vote this year. In the U.S.A., our political climate has become extremely polarized, and it seems common for people to assume that anyone who doesn’t vote the way they do must be stupid, thoughtless, or evil. It’s not a healthy climate, so I’d like to share the following book review from my graduate-level Campaign Management course in 2018. While The Reasoning Voter is aimed at people working on campaigns, its concepts and conclusions would help a wider, general audience understand how voters of all political stripes process information and attempt to make rational decisions about complex topics and candidates.
The Reasoning Voter analyzes U.S. presidential elections and primaries in the 1970s and 1980s. The second edition has a chapter on the 1992 election. Samuel L. Popkin, who studied campaigns at MIT and worked in campaigns, addresses how voters form opinions about politicians, how they evaluate information, and how campaigns deliver information that influences opinions and votes. Popkin’s theories about reasoning are essentially cognitive psychology, providing a framework for understanding historical events and data. He contends that voters have limited information about government, so they use shortcuts to develop ideas about government, and campaigns provide information interpreted via these shortcuts.
Theory and application are deftly interwoven, with early chapters being more theoretical to lay the foundation for the final chapters which apply theories. Chapter One introduces “low-information rationality” and “information shortcuts”. Popkin doesn’t believe voters are thoughtless and easily manipulated; they are thoughtful but confronted with a government so expansive and complex that getting a full picture is impossible. So, they draw conclusions from “past experience, daily life, the media, and political campaigns” (p. 7). The shortcuts interpret cues for extrapolating a big picture from a small one, such as using impressions about a candidate’s persona to predict his potential behavior in office.
Chapter Two explores these cues and shows campaigns need to connect issues to a specific office. If voters don’t perceive a president can do anything about an issue, it makes no sense to argue the issue in the campaign. Popkin tears down conventional ideas about a more educated constituency; education broadens awareness of the number of issues but does not lead to increased turnout and does not change how voters make decisions.
Chapters Three through Five explain how voters evaluate campaign messages and fill in the blanks. What constitutes relevant evidence? How do voters relate a candidate’s actions to specific policy and social results? How do evaluations of other people’s positions affect the voter? While answering these questions, Popkin demonstrates that campaigns don’t change voter positions on an issue; they change the relative importance (“salience”) of the issue to bring it to the forefront of voter awareness.
Chapter Six covers why candidates see surges and declines during primaries. Popkin argues that voters do not simply climb on the bandwagon of the front-runner. Preferences change as new information is revealed and concerns about personal character are supplanted by conceptions about political character. Chapters Seven through Eleven provide case studies.
Popkin backs up theories with history and polling data, comparing what really happened to expected outcomes based on traditional conceptions. Sometimes, Popkin approaches the trap of placing too much weight on a single, dramatic event, a fallacy he warns against. He sidesteps it by relating other events that came before and after. His suggestion to have longer primaries seems contradicted by his assertion that most voters don’t pay attention to primaries until they involve the voters’ state. Insisting that voters are rational is undermined by Popkin’s explanation of thought processes based on fallacies, incomplete information, or jumping to conclusions. If voters are reasoning, they are apparently not reasoning well, nor from solid premises.
This book gives campaign staff insights into how voters perceive campaign messages, and which messages matter most and when (such as moving from the personal to the political at different stages). It illustrates the need to differentiate a candidate’s position on an issue and connect it with the office. It will rescue campaigners from wasted time on information cues voters don’t respond to. For policy makers, this book highlights the importance of connecting an issue to the office through news stories and campaigns, and framing it as a social problem, not an individual one. Popkin’s cognitive psychology will enlighten anyone interested in how we evaluate information. Low-information rationality applies to decision-making on any subject, and The Reasoning Voter illuminates how we make sense out of information we encounter.
Collector’s Guide: The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns, Second Edition by Samuel L. Popkin. 1994, The University of Chicago Press.