Voting Behavior: The Basics

Voters make decisions based on their evaluations of the past and their expectations for the future.  Retrospective voting refers to voters choosing candidates based on their perception of an incumbent’s past performance in office or the performance of the incumbent’s party, approving the status quo or signaling a desire for change.  Retrospective voting can take on one of two forms:

  • Pocketbook voting – pocketbook evaluations are made on a personal level; voters ask the incumbent candidate, “What have you done for me lately?”
  • Sociotropic voters – sociotropic evaluations are made on a societal level; voters ask the incumbent candidate, “What have you done for the nation lately?”

Prospective voting refers to voters evaluating the incumbent officeholder and the incumbent’s party based on their expectations of future developments.

Voter behavior is also influenced by candidate characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, region, and personality, and where a candidate stands on various policy issues.

Cost of Voting’s Impact on Voting Behavior

There is a high cost associated with being knowledgeable of where candidates for various local, state, and federal elected offices stand on several policy issues.  The long ballot further intensifies these costs by placing the direct selection of numerous local and state officials in the hands of the voters.  Ballots are especially long in Texas’s urban counties.  While the long ballot allows for more direct popular influence in government, which fits well into Texas political culture, it increases the cost of voting.

Because the costs of becoming an informed voter are high, voters often use decision-making shortcuts, called heuristics, to cut down on the costs associated with making rational decisions (i.e., where the candidates stand on the issues).

The most commonly used heuristic is party identification.  Voters often cast votes for candidates they know little about based on their party affiliation on the ballot.  For this reason, party identification is a strong predictor of voting behavior in Texas elections.  This can be problematic in partisan judicial elections because party identification does not always clearly translate into how a judicial candidate will decide in different types of cases.

Another heuristic that voters rely on is name recognition.  Name recognition helps contribute to the incumbency advantage; however, it can help out non-incumbents, as well.  For example, Governor O’Daniel had broad name recognition thanks to his popular radio broadcast.  There have been times when Texans have even elected candidates whose names were similar to the names of more well-known federal politicians.

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