The notion of issue voting refers to electoral choices that are based on the substance of politics – collective problems for which solutions are expected from governments. That responsibility for solving problems is ascribed to the political system is not self-evident. Political cultures differ with regard to the extent to which the state is commonly held responsible for dealing with citizens’ grievances. Media reporting can stimulate the politicization of individually experienced problems by conveying the impression that they are not merely private concerns but shared by many people (Mutz 1994).
Although solving problems of political communities by means of binding decisions is the very essence of politics, most models of electoral behavior assign issues only a limited role. The Michigan School’s attitudinal model of voting behavior sees voters’ orientations toward issues as one of three factors that determine vote choices (Campbell et al. 1960). Along with electors’ party identification – a longstanding emotional tie to a party originating from early processes of political socialization – and candidate assessments, issue orientations can direct people’s votes toward certain parties or candidates. Importantly, partisanship is seen as a deeply internalized, stable core of the political personality that colors perceptions and evaluations of both candidates and issues, so that these three components do not operate independently of one another. Empirically, issues appear as the least important of the model’s components. Although the decline of partisanship over recent decades has made room for stronger independent effects of issues on vote choices, no such trend could be empirically confirmed so far.
To develop orientations toward issues that can be translated into electoral preferences is a demanding task for voters. For lack of motivation, knowledge, and/or cognitive capability, not many voters can be expected to manage this. Many issues concern complicated policy problems that are difficult to understand. It is far easier to form impressions about candidates. A precondition for an issue to gain significance at an election is some familiarity with it on the part of voters. Only members of specialized “issue publics” possess the necessary awareness of many issues. To become relevant for voting, an issue has also to be ascribed some importance, and voters need to form opinions about it. Furthermore, electors need to identify links between this issue and the competing candidates or parties. Even if all these preconditions are fulfilled, an issue can still become a meaningful point of reference for electoral choices only if voters additionally perceive parties or candidates to be somehow different with regard to it.
According to the Michigan model, it is crucial whether voters see differences in the competence of parties or candidates to deal with an issue. If they feel that one competitor is more able than another to solve a particular problem that they consider important, they may come to choose this party or candidate at the polls, even if it is not the one they identify with. However, selective exposure and perception often lead them to conclude that it is their own party or its candidate that is most competent on most if not all issues. Hence, what looks like issue voting is sometimes ultimately guided by partisanship.
Although rooted in a different theoretical context, the notion of priming ties in well with this strand of research. According to this hypothesis, by setting their audiences’ issue agenda, the mass media influence the criteria for evaluating parties and candidates. An important implication of this mechanism is that the perceived relevance of issues is not idiosyncratic but systematic – it reflects the media’s and other organized communicators’ decisions about which themes to highlight and which to neglect. If many voters believe that a particular issue is most pressing, a party that is widely seen as the one most able to deal with it will be advantaged at the polls. In fact, issues are often “owned” by certain parties, in the sense that voters have learned that this party is the one that will perform best with regard to this particular problem. For instance, Social Democratic parties typically “own” the issue of social welfare. Parties usually profit from election campaigns during which “their” issues are most salient (Budge & Farlie 1983).
Originating from rational choice theory, the spatial model is another important conception of issue voting. According to Downs (1957), voters have distinct positions with regard to which policies they prefer to see enacted on issues. When casting a vote, they choose the party or candidate whom they perceive as being located closest to their own policy preference. This model is even more demanding with regard to voters’ cognitive and motivational capacity, as it requires them to develop very clear and detailed ideas about which political measures fit their interests best, and how well all the parties’ past or promised future policies match these policy ideals. Empirically, the proximity variant of the spatial model is only weakly supported, especially when compared to the competence model. A recent attempt to arrive at a more realistic understanding of spatial issue voting is the “directional” model, which requires voters only to have a rough idea of the general policy directions they prefer.
- Budge, I., & Farlie, D. (1983). Party competition: Selective emphasis or direct confrontation? An alternative view with data. In H. Daalder & P. Mair (eds.), Western European party systems: Continuity and change. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, pp. 267–305.
- Campbell, A., Converse, P. E., Miller, W. E., & Stokes, D. E. (1960). The American voter. New York: John Wiley.
- Downs, A. (1957). An economic theory of democracy. New York: HarperCollins.
- Merrill, S., & Grofman, B. (1999). A unified theory of voting: Directional and proximity spatial models. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Mutz, D. (1994). Contextualizing personal experience: The role of mass media. Journal of Politics, 56, 689 –714.
- Rusk, J. G. (1987). Issues and voting. In S. Long (ed.), Research in micropolitics, vol. 2. Greenwich: JAI Press, pp. 95 –141.