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- The Sociological Approach Based on Social Cleavages
- The Sociopsychological Approach
- The Rational Choice Approach and Short-Term Elements
In representative democracies, voting is one of the fundamental acts that allow citizens to express their belonging to a political community and to make decisions about their own future. Analyzing electoral behavior is one of the oldest and most productive domains of research in political science. Research on electoral behavior contributes to our understanding of how democratic systems function and develop over time. It does this by analyzing the answers to the following questions: Whom do people vote for? Why do they do so? What do they want to achieve by doing so?
This research has developed over many years using three main approaches: sociological, psycho-sociological, and rational choice. It should be remembered nonetheless, in France particularly, that the first studies concentrated on electoral geography and were based on analysis of aggregate electoral data at different geographical levels and that this subdiscipline continues to be of great interest.
The sociological approach endeavors to explain the electoral behavior of individuals according to their position in society and their belonging to particular social groups. It studies the social determinants of voting behavior. The psychosociological approach studies the individual attitudes of voters on which they base their electoral choices. The rational choice approach developed from economic theories of rationality. Voters decide which way to vote using a cost-benefit calculation, depending on their preferences and what the different parties and candidates have to offer. These approaches are discussed in detail as follows.
The Sociological Approach Based on Social Cleavages
Sociological research on voting behavior has been developed since the 1950s as a result of the increasing presence of major opinion poll surveys based on large samples of voters. These surveys allowed a great deal of individual data to be gathered and submitted to complex quantitative processing. In many countries, strong statistical relationships appeared between the social characteristics of individuals and the way they voted. Among the main social variables used and whose effect has been measured, class and religious belonging were initially the most frequently analyzed, and they also appeared to be the factors that had the most determining effect.
Seymour Lipset and Stein Rokkan’s theory of cleavages looked at the history of European societies to identify the main stable social cleavages at the roots of political and partisan cleavages. They exerted a huge influence on research into voting behavior by showing the profound and lasting nature of the major social determinants of voting. Their research has provided solid results on this question. The study of class voting was thus well developed, as was the study of the relationship between religious belonging and voting behavior. Thus, for example, while class constituted the most important electoral cleavage in Great Britain, religion seemed to be the variable with the greatest impact in both Germany and France, though class also played a role but to a lesser extent.
More recently, this approach has been criticized in several ways. It was observed that the ability of these two variables to explain voting behavior was becoming weaker in accordance with a long-term trend. Thus, the permanence of class voting, particularly in Great Britain, but also more broadly speaking in Europe, became debatable as a result of analyses that showed an underlying decrease of the left-wing working-class vote and the right-wing middle-class vote. Many explanations for the decline of class voting have been suggested. Some of these point to changes in social structures in Western societies and to both the decrease and fragmentation of the working class. Others stress the individualization of these societies and the increasing autonomy of individuals in relation to the groups they belong to. This hypothesis is also suggested for the religious factor, as European societies have become increasingly secular.
Others again stress changes in the political parties themselves rather than changes among the electorate. According to this hypothesis, it is no longer in the interest of the parties to present themselves as “class-based parties” for the purpose of winning an election. This has contributed to weakening the coherence of the different classes as self-conscious collective actors. As a response to these criticisms, other researchers have relativized or denied the “end of class voting.” According to them, current surveys show that the decrease of class voting does not imply its disappearance. The operationalizations designed to measure it have also been criticized. It is argued that the use of more detailed and more complex social and occupational classifications would reveal that the relationship between belonging to a social group—and not necessarily to one of the two major classes conceptualized by Marxism—and voting behavior remain significant. Finally, the ideological supposition according to which the working-class vote, for example, can only be classified as a class vote if it is a left-wing vote can be called into question. For example, in France in 2002, working-class voters voted more than any other social group for the extreme Right. How can such a vote be qualified according to the class voting theory?
The same is true for the religious variable. Although surveys (notably in Europe) have revealed a decrease in both religious attachment and the relationship between religious belonging and voting behavior, this relationship is far from having disappeared. Furthermore, the increasing importance of Muslims in Europe has made this variable relevant once again in the analysis of voting behavior. In France, for example, Muslims are far more likely to vote left than right. In the same way, in the United States, presidential elections in this century still show the permanence of the strong relationship between religion and how people vote.
Finally, even if the hypothesis according to which the vote has become individualized should be taken seriously, it nonetheless merits a certain degree of relativity. In particular, although the role played by certain social variables in voting behavior is diminishing, the role played by other social variables is emerging, reappearing, or indeed gaining importance. This applies, for example, for gender and age. Furthermore, in a number of European countries, the regional vote, which is a vote based on a sense of identity, has been strongly expressed for several years, such as in Scotland, in Catalonia, in the Basque country, and in Flanders. In the same way, the ethnic or racial vote is not receding either and may, indeed, be increasing. In the 2008 American presidential elections, 95% of African Americans voted for Barack Obama as compared to 43% of Americans of European descent.
Whatever the tendency toward the individualization of Western societies, voters remain individuals belonging to different social groups and networks. Individuals have multiple identities, and one or another of these may more or less dominate and be mobilized depending on the period, the events, and what the parties and candidates are offering. Although the sociological approach has real limits—and in particular it has not always sufficiently concerned itself with what politics has to offer, at times reifying a given determinant and overestimating its permanence or its centrality—it remains nonetheless an essential approach in the analysis of electoral behavior.
The Sociopsychological Approach
In the 1950s, the publication of The American Voter brought about a turning point in the study of electoral behavior. The starting point for the model used—known as the Michigan model—was, on the one hand, the apparent contradiction between the absence of political sophistication among the electorate and the instability of their opinions on different issues and, on the other hand, the fact that the vast majority of voters constantly voted for the same party throughout their lifetime. This model, which was founded on the importance of political socialization (familial, professional, ethnic, regional, etc.) and on the way in which political choices and preferences develop among individuals, has produced the concept of party identification to explain electoral behavior. Partisan identification is of an affective nature. It is politically stable, and this stability may even become stronger with age. Individuals often reproduce the same partisan preferences of their parents. This partisanship creates a basis for political identity and provides cues for evaluating political events, candidates, issues, and subsequently for voting preferences.
This model also has a strong heuristic value. However, it has nonetheless been criticized for many reasons. It has been judged to be tautological and nonexplicative—voters who vote for a given party say they feel close to the party as a result of voting for it and not the other way around. Furthermore, more recent studies have shown a strong decrease in partisan identification in several countries. Various theses on the modernization and individualization of our societies have highlighted the fact that it is less useful for a more and more sophisticated electorate to use partisan identification as a shortcut in deciding how to vote. Other studies have measured increasing levels of individual electoral volatility and have highlighted the fact that the partisan de-alignment phenomenon is part of a general process of political change that is transforming the relationship between voters and parties. Finally, it has been noted that this concept has always been more relevant in two-party systems than in countries where the system is multipartisan and unstable.
The psychological and, in particular, the affective dimension of the concept should be put into perspective although it does still exist for a certain category of voters. However, a little vaguer but perhaps more heuristic notion of partisan proximity, but also possibly of partisan distance, remains useful. For many voters, it represents an important way to locate themselves in the political landscape. The general dynamic of political modernization tends to individualize electoral behavior. However, this does not mean that all citizens have the same relationship to politics, the same level of sophistication, and the same interest in or information about politics. Some people have a greater need of shortcuts and symbolic clues to help them decide how to vote. In continental Europe, where party systems are frequently multipartisan, the notions of left and right are often more useful tools to study the orientation and stability of political preferences than the notion of party identification, as used in Great Britain or the United States. The notions of Left and Right can play a comparable role. Studies have shown, furthermore, that the importance of the voter’s relationship to the party—or to the Right or the Left—is not eliminated by the increasing importance of the leading candidates’ personalities. This is all the more true as the major candidates are designated and supported by political parties.
Attitudes of an affective nature in the relationship between the voter and the political system do not, however, only concern the relationship to political parties. They also concern the candidates and other political personalities. The dynamic at work in most democracies shows the increasing importance of the personalization of politics, in particular in presidential or semipresidential systems. The role played by the media, by opinion polls, and by expert opinion is in strong competition with the role played by the parties and favors the personalization of politics. The choice of a leader includes an affective dimension to the extent that, at a given moment, the leader incarnates responsibility for the destiny of the political community. Studies have shown that the governmental credibility of a leader plays an important role in decisions on how to vote. This is particularly true at times of serious national crisis, whether it be economic, international, or political. The notion of the leader’s credibility, which is an important dimension for electoral choice, cannot be separated from the notion of confidence, which is partly of an affective nature. This is why, when designating candidates, the major parties must take the charismatic aspect of their personalities into account. Admittedly, studies have undermined the hypothesis according to which voters essentially make a decision based on the personal image of a candidate and independently of their personal political orientations and of those of the candidate. Conversely, however, the candidate’s personal image cannot be considered to be secondary. Political leaders have become electorally important in their own right by personifying the policy platforms of their respective parties. This personification necessarily contains a psychological dimension even if this is not the only dimension.
The psychosociological approach to voting behavior does not merely concern the study of the effects of partisan identification and personalization. It also takes the voter’s ideological orientations and value systems into account. Even though these systems may be complex and modifiable, they are nonetheless consistent and long lasting. In the political landscape, some of the major value cleavages reflect cleavages in the politico-ideological field. From this point of view, the role of the left-right dimension is also important. In many countries, studies have shown that two main sub-dimensions of attitudes provide structure to the left-right dimension. These are the economic dimension, on the one hand (economic liberalism vs. state interventionism), and the societal dimension, on the other hand (cultural liberalism or libertarianism, or in a certain sense, postmaterialism), versus cultural conservatism. A voter who subscribes to both economic liberalism and cultural conservatism is more likely to vote for the Right, whereas hostility to economic liberalism and support for cultural liberalism is more likely to foster a vote for the Left. To take this further, France is a country where there is great diversity in what is on offer politically. It has been noted in recent elections that the existence of a supply of centrist and extreme-right parties has favored the political expression of economic antiliberals and cultural antiliberals who voted for the extreme Right and economic liberals and cultural liberals who voted for the centrist parties. It seems, therefore, that the left-right dimension is in reality not a continuum but a complex structure made up of different ideological dimensions that are expressed in different ways depending on the period and on the country. Thus, in many European countries, the increasing importance attributed by the socialist left to the values of cultural liberalism and anti-racism, which is widely shared by the well-educated middle classes, encouraged a certain number of working-class voters to change their electoral behavior. These were voters who, up until then, had been attached to the left because of their economic antiliberalism positions but whose xenophobic tendencies were increasing. They availed themselves of the presence of an extreme-right party that combined the two types of antiliberalism in its ideology and voted for it.
Similar to the sociological approach, the psychological and sociopsychological approaches have kept heuristic power. Furthermore, it should be noted, as this last example shows, that the two approaches are complementary to the extent that there are strong relationships between social groups and value systems.
The Rational Choice Approach and Short-Term Elements
The rational choice approach has more recently influenced the study of voting behavior. Its point of departure is the notion of a cost-benefit calculation. Voters vote in accordance with their preferences for the party that will best satisfy them. Based on a microeconomic decision-making model, illustrated notably by Anthony Downs, this approach differs from the sociological and psychological approach in that it considers the voter to be a rational individual. According to this model, citizens vote for the party they believe will provide them with more benefits than the other parties. Parties offer policies; voters look at these policies and decide which of them will provide maximum benefits for them and vote accordingly. Parties and candidates, on the one hand, and voters, on the other, are in a constant state of interaction. Parties constantly adapt to the demands of the voters in an attempt to conquer or maintain power, which, according to this theory, is their essential and indeed only aim.
This approach has been very strongly criticized in different ways. It has been argued that the notion of interest or utility is not directly applicable to the relationship of citizens to politics, as their expectations are expressed in a complex way both in terms of material and symbolic retributions and also in terms of precise demands and attachment to values. It becomes necessary to attribute such a broad meaning to the notion of preference that the use of the notion of utility becomes problematic. Certain critics have gone so far as to claim that this approach has no real value. The result has been a veritable battle between two schools of thought.
And yet this model holds many advantages. It highlights the importance of the process of interaction between voters and parties. This approach stresses that any study of voting behavior cannot take only the voter into account without also including the political system, the party system, and the set of alternative propositions (set of policies) proposed by the parties and candidates. Here, the role played by what the parties have to offer is essential. The parties frame what is on offer politically, and the choice made by the voter is largely constrained by the issues that the parties themselves have chosen to highlight.
Another advantage of this model is that it places the voter/individual at the heart of the process and considers that, whatever their position in society, voters are capable of working out their electoral choices themselves. What is involved is an individual decision-making process. A significant contribution offered by this approach is that it makes a real attempt to build complex statistical models to enhance understanding of electoral behavior. The development of this approach has contributed in a certain sense to the current tendency in electoral analysis to show a general decline of the long-term determinants, a growth in the importance of short-term attitudes, and a fragmentation of voter choice (diversity of decision-making processes). This tendency notably benefits research on issue voting and economic voting.
Analyses of issue voting partly stem from the rational choice approach to the extent that they deal with the interactive political relation between supply and demand and presuppose that the voter is relatively sophisticated. Two types of issues are usually identified: position issues, where the parties give priority to different issues, each in relation to the other, with these issues thus being in competition with each other, and performance issues (valence issues), where the parties pursue objectives aspired to by all (e.g., a reduction in the rate of unemployment) and try to demonstrate their competence in this respect as a means to reach them.
In terms of issue voting, the rational choice approach has produced spatial theories on voting behavior. The proximity theories of voting place voters and parties in a political landscape. According to these theories, voters feel close to the parties they vote for and distant from those they don’t vote for, and there is a measurable distance between the voter’s position on policies and issues and the party’s equivalent positions. There is a distance between the voter and the parties on offer, the function of this distance being to identify which party a voter will choose in a given election. The “proximity” function, which has long been accepted for modeling party and self-placement data, has been challenged by directional theories. Based on an analysis of the notion of proximity, the rational choice models concluded that it was in the interests of the parties to adopt the position of the median voter. Supporters of the directional thesis bring not only the choice of an issue by the voter into play but also the (psychological) intensity of the preference for the issue in question. Here, the rational choice model includes recourse to the psychosociological one. Indeed, within this model, voters may prefer a party that has a very strong position on the issue in question, even if it is not the party the voter feels closest to. By the same token, it may be in the party’s interest to adopt a strong position on the issue and not necessarily to attempt to position itself in relation to the median voter. Under these conditions, parties do not necessarily converge toward the center of the political landscape. Today, this family of models represents the formalized attempt to draw up a synthesis between the different approaches encompassing both the rational choice elements of the proximity model and the psychological processes of the directional equivalent.
All analyses of issue voting pose problems of a more general nature. First, their specific contribution cannot be evaluated without, at the same time, taking the contributions made by other types of variables that affect voting behavior into account. For example, a voter who feels very close to a given party will tend to attribute the best mark to this party on all the issues proposed. Thus, in this model, the question of causality (what comes first?) has to be addressed. Second and more important, preferences on issues are not independent of the more clearly articulated and long-lasting value systems of voters or of their social position and socialization.
Therefore, both the short-term (new issues) and the long-term (stable and consistent ideological alignments) factors must be taken into account. From this point of view, the analysis of issue voting cannot be carried out independent of the analysis of values and attitudes. However, a new issue can, for example, disturb or contribute to the reconfiguration of different dimensions of a voter’s value system or indeed reverse the priority given by the voter to one dimension over another within the system. It can update the voter’s long-term predispositions (concept of funnel of causality).
Short-term analyses also cover economic voting. They are based on the hypothesis according to which an analysis by the voter of the economic performance of those in power or simply the voter’s perception of the economic situation and its development has an influence on his or her vote. Analysis of economic voting poses several problems even if certain results remain convincing. First, the results obtained are not always consistent, depending on the country and period of time involved. Second, retrospective judgment analyses on policies implemented, particularly in the economic field, show that, similar to judgments on issue voting, they are not independent of voters’ partisan proximities and their political orientations and therefore of the political orientation of the incumbent government.
The study of voting behavior is an extremely complex affair for all the reasons described above but also because political systems evolve over time and according to country, and voters adapt to the changes in these systems. Whatever the attempts to universalize the different theories, the significance of the vote differs from one society to another, from one historical phase to another, and from one voter to another. The studies available on societies other than North American and European ones (which are still too scarce) show that the major approaches used here do not always work very well in other systems. Thus, in democratic societies in the making, with embryonic party systems and without any real unity or national awareness, and in societies that are still traditional, the social determinants that produce the vote may be quite different. Many factors can strongly influence the vote, such as belonging to an ethnic, religious, or village community; belonging to a client-type network; the existence of mafia-type systems; and so on. Research must therefore extend itself in the future to include the whole range of electoral behaviors.
Finally, research on institutional aspects and the rules that organize voting must also be developed. This is notably the case for the effects on electoral behavior of voting systems, the size of constituencies, the political and institutional issues at stake during a given election, and the material organization itself of the vote.
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