Issue Voting: Modern and Classic Accounts (2019)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


Political scientists have long assumed that issues were at the heart of vote choice and a causal determinant of it—that is, citizens came to politics with clear issue preferences and they voted for the party or candidate that best represented those interests. Many would say democracy demands this kind of link between issue preferences and vote choice. And yet, studies have consistently shown that surprisingly few voters measure up. Many voters know remarkably little about politics, including even basic facts about their own political system. They have little conception of issues, party, and candidate positions on those issues or how issues relate to one another as part of a coherent political ideology. As a result, they often have unstable and ephemeral preferences. Worse, among the fraction of voters who are engaged and well-informed, many appear susceptible to persuasion and possibly manipulation of their issue opinions from the media and their partisan leaders. This raises questions about the viability of representative democracy and, at its most pessimistic, the possibility that elites are largely free to pursue personal goals unchecked and independent of the public good.Some of the most innovative work on issue voting is focusing on partisan bias, including its limitations and how it relates to other social divisions. When mapped onto existing social divisions in society, such as those arising from race, religion, and immigration, issues can indeed matter for elections because they tap into and stimulate the same psychological and affective processes that make partisanship so powerful in the first place—in-group and out-group bias. Cross-national research has also increasingly pointed to the role of such issues as part of an emerging political cleavage related to globalization that is transforming elections and party systems across Europe and other postindustrial democracies. The causal determinants of issue voting is a promising avenue for future research.