Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


How Do Voters Form Their Political Preferences? They Follow Their Leaders

Randall G. Holcombe

A romantic notion of democracy depicts democratic governments as accountable to their citizens and acting in their citizens’ interests. Academic analyses of democratic decision-making support this view. Voters have preferences, and parties and candidates adjust their platforms to conform with voter preferences. In reality, voters have little incentive to become informed about public policy issues, because their preferences—and their one vote—will not have any detectable effect on public policy outcomes. In addition, public policy issues are often complex, so citizens and voters are not in a position to devote the time and study to acquire any more than a superficial understanding of most issues.

Citizens tend to anchor their political preferences to a party, a candidate, or an ideology, and most of their public policy preferences are derived from those of their anchors. Their anchors tend to come from longer-standing associations and political beliefs. They pick up ideas from friends and family and tend to stick with those anchors over time. Their anchors form their political identity. Preferences on individual policies are those associated with their anchors.

Someone might think, “I am pro-choice on the abortion issue, I favor stricter gun controls, and I think government should be more involved in the provision of health care. Those are policy positions Democrats support, so I am a Democrat.” In fact, the direction of causation goes (mostly) in the other direction. “I am a Democrat; therefore, I am pro-choice, in favor of stricter gun controls, and support more government involvement in health care.”

Historically, Republicans supported free trade, to take an example. But in 2016 President Trump campaigned on a protectionist platform, telling voters that Americans were being taken advantage of by trading partners like China and Mexico, and even European countries. Following their leader, the view Republicans held on trade issues shifted to the protectionist agenda of President Trump. They followed their leader.

Citizens tend to adopt the policy preferences of their anchors because it minimizes cognitive dissonance. Voting for a candidate or party means voting for a bundle of issues, and individuals will feel better about themselves if they can think, “I support these issues, so I feel good about voting for this candidate or party,” rather than feeling they are voting for some policies they support, but also some policies they don’t. Besides, their one vote will not determine any policies anyway, so they feel better about themselves by adopting the policy preferences of their anchors rather than feeling they support some of the policies they voted for, but not others.

Unlike preferences in the marketplace, people’s public policy preferences have no effect on outcomes. If an individual goes to a restaurant and orders salad for lunch rather than pizza, the individual gets salad. If that same individual goes to the voting booth and chooses candidate A over candidate B, the outcome of the election will be the same, regardless of which option the individual chooses.

One implication of this is that people may vote for options they would not choose if the choice were theirs alone. They vote for the option that makes them feel good, which may not be the option they would prefer to have win. Democratic elections do not necessarily produce the outcomes most voters would prefer. My book offers some examples.

Because people’s public policy preferences are derived from their leaders—from members of the political elite—democratic governments are less accountable to citizens and voters than people often believe. People do have a choice of anchors, though they are reluctant to change, but those competing for citizen support tend to have one overriding motive—the accumulation of power. Keeping in mind the control the political elite have over people’s public policy preferences, toward the end of my book I discuss various institutional checks and balances that can limit the ability of those who have political power to abuse it.

Following Their Leaders by Randall G. Holcombe

About The Author

Randall G. Holcombe

Randall G. Holcombe is DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. He served on Florida Governor Jeb Bush's Council of Economic Advisors from 2000 to 2006, and ...

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