Voter Behaviour: Public Opinion And Modern Views

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Representation is the basis of modern democratic theory. In most mature electoral democracies, this is achieved through regular elections. These provide voters with the opportunity to select their representatives, whose policy goals align with their own. This chapter explores how citizens in electoral democracies vote and some of the key influences on their behaviour.

Research into voter behaviour has been greatly influenced by the behavioural revolution in political science, which moved the study of politics beyond normative assumptions about how citizens should behave in a democratic society, and taught us a lot about how they actually do behave. It also highlighted a troubling and persistent problem for students of politics and supporters of democratic governance: citizens in representative democracies are largely disinterested and under-informed about politics and policy.

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The widespread lack of political knowledge about all but the most highly salient political events and actors is one of the best documented facts in the social sciences (see Converse 1975; Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996). Many do not know basic facts about how government works, and fewer still hold stable attitudes toward even the most important political issues of the day. This raises the question, how can a public that does not understand relatively basic matters of state provide any control over public policy through elections or referenda?

Borrowing from social psychology, political science provides an answer to this. Most voters are far from perfectly equipped to analyse political issues. However, most do have the ability to use limited information to make reasonably sophisticated judgements about political leaders, candidates, parties and salient matters, particularly those that are relevant to their lived experiences. When voters pool their individual opinions at elections, the resulting collective decision is likely to be better than individual decision-making.

In this chapter, we will explore this research further to learn why voters behave the way they do, and how political scientists can study this.

What is public opinion?

Public opinion is a concept that is frequently used to describe and understand politics. Political leaders, journalists and political scientists apply the term constantly, but what does it mean?

Public opinion can be viewed as the aggregation of opinions of individuals who make up the public. This term – ‘the public’ – is widely used, but in political science it has a particular meaning. Sociologist Herbert Blumer (1946) suggested three criteria. These are that it is a group of people who:

  1. Face a common issue;
  2. Are divided on how to address it; and
  3. Are engaged in discussion or debate about the issue.

In this view, a public emerges over particular issues, such as debates on the rate of taxation, or immigration. To become a member of the public an individual must join a discourse on an issue, thinking and reasoning with others. According to Blumer, if a public is not critically engaged with an issue, ‘it dissolves’. In this characterisation, uncritical and unengaged public opinion is mere ‘public sentiment’.

This is not a universally accepted definition, though. Sociologist C. Wright Mills (1956), was critical of the idea that millions of citizens (the scale of most modern representative democracies) are actively engaged in public discussion. Rather, he characterised them as passive.

More recently, philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas (1989) argued that public opinion is context dependent, anchored to what he describes as the ‘public sphere’. This is the political and social domain in which people operate, and it changes over time. It comprises public discussions about politics outside the formal arena of government . Thus, political debates in parliament are not part of the public sphere. It includes talk in a cafe or bar, or what a citizen hears on talkback radio or reads in the editorial pages of a newspaper. Changes in the public sphere include who is permitted to participate. In Australia in the past, women, the property-less, and some ethnic and racial groups were not permitted to engage in political debate, or to vote. It also includes what issues and positions are considered to be socially acceptable. In mid-nineteenth-century Australia for instance, the public sphere essentially consisted of the opinions of certain groups of men. Until much later, it was not considered socially acceptable to discuss a number of issues, including LGBTIQ rights.

The history of the public opinion as an idea

The concept of public opinion as a distinct phenomenon was born in the European Enlightenment of the 18th century. It played an important part in the Enlightenment project to replace absolute monarchies with liberal representative democracies of various forms.

Most early theorists and philosophers, including Plato and Machiavelli, were generally dismissive of the political opinions of the common people. They believed most people did not have the capacity for rational political judgement. However, some were more positive. Aristotle advocated for an early version of the wisdom of the crowd. The modern, mostly more positive attitude towards public opinion can be traced to the Enlightment, which saw a growth in literacy, the development of early newspapers and the distribution of political pamphlets. Enlightment thinkers, including John Locke and Jacques Rousseau, argued for the existence of normative ineligible rights for individuals protected by the state, and greater citizen participation in government.

Lockean political theory was a significant inspiration for the design of the political system and culture of the US and other modern representative democracies. Locke argued that humanity was subject to three laws: the divine, civil and the law of opinion (or reputation). He regarded the latter as arguably the most important. Poor public opinion could force people to conform to social norms. Despite this, he generally did not consider public opinion to be a suitable influence for governments. Other Enlightenment thinkers had a more positive view. David Hume argued that public support provided government with legitimacy, and was the only thing that could do so. This view is closest to modern normative beliefs about the functioning of democracy.

Modern views of voter behaviour

Despite its early origins, the study of voter behaviour and public opinion emerged as modern fields of research later, in the 1930s. Key debates have often included how voters learn, why they believe certain things and prefer particular policy options, how their attitudes match with their behaviours and their influence on government policy decisions.

Much of our understanding of human behaviour comes from the field social psychology, which for studies of public opinion typically employs one or more of four basic concepts: beliefs, values, attitudes and opinions:

  • Belief systems tend to be thematically and psychologically consistent. They are the assumptions by which we live our lives that comprise our understanding of the world, our attitudes and opinions.
  • Values are ideals. They are our understanding of the way things should be. Many researchers distinguish between ‘terminal’ and ‘instrumental’ values. Terminal values are the ultimate social and individual goals, like prosperity and freedom. Instrumental values are the constraints on the means used to pursue our goals, such as honesty and loyalty.
  • Attitudes are the relatively stable and consistent views we hold about people and objects. These are often defined as evaluations that combine emotions and beliefs, knowledge, and thoughts about something.
  • Opinions are the expressions of attitudes, and are sometimes seen as narrower, more specific and more consciously held than attitudes. The idea that opinions are seperate from attitudes is not universal, though.

Do voters hold meaningful political opinions?

Political science research was deeply influenced by the behavioural revolution that occurred during the middle of the 20th century. This change in approaches to investigation permitted researchers to measure citizens’ preferences and behaviours, which raised questions about the capacity of citizens and challenged some of the normative assumptions of representative democracy. Whether voters are competent political agents and can be considered rational actors began to be studied.

Besides social psychology, theories of voter behaviour and public opinion have been heavily influenced by the economics discipline. Rational choice theory has been one of the most consequential of these theories. This is a set of standards and models used to understand human decision-making, and assume voters are individual rational actors.

In this framework, the rational agent can take available information, probabilities of events, and potential costs and benefits into account when determining preferences, and will act consistently in selecting those that maximise their interests.

Anthony Downs’ (1957) An Economic Theory of Democracy is a classic formulation of rational choice political science, and one of the most influential political science works of the post‐World War II period. In a Downsian view of electoral democracy, voters and parties are seeking the greatest benefits from election outcomes. Voters support the party with the policies closest to their own preferences (which are generally expected to benefit their self-interest) and parties and candidates move their policy offerings to match the preferences of the majority of citizens. In doing this, parties provide voters with the greatest value for their vote, and increase their own probability of electoral success.

Not all political scientists believe voters are rational actors, though. One of the great debates of the political science literature of the 20th century was not only whether citizens are rational, but whether they even have meaningful attitudes. Citizens’ limitations as political actors, and their reliance on mediators and shortcuts to learn about policy and politics, has caused some political scientists to question whether they are capable of acting as we might expect and hope, even in the modern era.

The general lack of knowledge about all but the most important political events and actors is one of the best documented findings in all of the social sciences (see Converse 1975; Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996).

American writer and political commentator Walter Lippmann (1922; 1927), mirrored many earlier views of the public. He argued citizens were unable to behave rationally or think deeply. Similarly, one of the founders of modern survey research, Phillip E. Converse (1964), found that in the 1950s and 1960s only slim majorities of voters knew the simplest facts about how government worked. Fewer still held informed attitudes on even the most significant political issues, and what opinions they did hold lacked consistency across issues..

To make matters worse for normative concepts of democracy, citizens were also found by Converse (1964) and Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet ([1948]1968) to provide inconsistent answers when asked the same question over time. A respondent asked whether they supported higher spending or lower taxes one year, often completely changed their position two years later. Butler and Stokes (1973) observed similar behaviour in the United Kingdom, suggesting this is not just an American phenomenon.

Much of the research from social psychology has supported this cynicism about citizen competence. Psychological and experimental research has repeatedly demonstrated the irrationality of individuals (see for instance Redlawsk and Lau 2013) and the influence of context on preferences and decision-making (Rabin 1998). Citizen’s policy positions are often unstable and inconsistent (Converse 1964). Behaviour is frequently influenced by emotion (Brader 2012) and framing (Kahneman and Tversky 1979; Tversky and Kahneman 1991; Kahneman 2003). Voters use evidence incorrectly or prejudicially, and are often overly confident about their conclusions (Gilovitch 1991), and the acceptance of new evidence clouded by motivated reasoning (Bartels 2002).

Reconciling these findings with democratic theory

Citizens’ general ignorance is inconsistent with what is generally assumed of them by classical democratic theory, which expects them to be informed and attentive for democracy to properly function.

Concerns about the capacity of citizens to participate in electoral democracy in a meaningful way are typically reconciled with the normative ideals of democratic theory in a few ways. The first is the wisdom of the crowd argument. Aggregate opinion can be much more stable and apparently “rational” than individual opinions, as long as error in individual opinions is assumed to be random (Page and Shapiro 1992). Even large proportions of random error ‘cancel out’ when aggregated, resulting in reasonably efficient and stable ‘collective choices’.

There may also have been some problems with these conclusions about voter competence. In a number of countries, representative democracy appears to be working relatively well (see for instance Lau and Redlawsk 1997). Lippmann and Converse may also have been overly pessimistic about voters’ political sophistication. It is possible unrealistic goals were set for the average voter. There were also measurement problems with some of the earlier studies. The period in which Converse studied may also have been one with unusually low levels of constraint (Pomper 1972; Nie, Verba, and Petrocik 1976, 99, 179–80).

Earlier studies of voters’ political preferences also failed to take into account the measurement error inherent in public opinion surveys. The responses given to these surveys can be influenced by the ways surveys are worded, with respondents becoming confused or bored, answering incorrectly or carelessly (Zaller 1992; J. Zaller and Feldman 1992), resulting in greater apparent instability in political beliefs than is actually the case (Achen 1975; Feldman 1990).

The general consensus in the modern political science literature is that most voters hold positions on a wide range of public policy issues that can be measured, with error, which is largely created by imprecise question wording and respondent inattention.

In defence of voters

Voters certainly face limitations, but how far do these extend? Voting is demanding. Most political issues are complex, abstract and remote from citizens’ lives. Voters’ are influenced by motivated reasoning and lack the time and resources to properly make informed policy distinctions between parties. They cannot always be expected to have a high degree of familiarity with policy details in most domains, nor should it be expected that they will behave equally rationally across all issues.

Despite this, although citizens may not be familiar with policy details, they usually still exhibit behaviour that is logical, responding to circumstances with ‘bounded rationality’ to obtain some utility from their vote. ‘Bounded rationality’ makes different assumptions than theories of economic rationality (Kahneman 2003). Rather than being intimately familiar with policy themselves, citizens learn from their own lived experience and take cues from parties, elites and opinion-leaders, who actively promote specific policies to voters, providing cues to their supporters on issue positions and salience (Popkin 1991; Lupia and McCubbins 1998; Gilens and Murakawa 2002; Levendusky 2010; Lupia 2016).

How citizens learn

Political and social psychology provide substantial critiques on citizens’ capacities to perform their democratic duties. At the same time, they help us reconcile voters’ limitations with the idea that democracies work reasonably well.

Voters do not necessarily need detailed knowledge about politics and policy to fulfil their democratic duty. They can be thought of as ‘cognitive misers’ who minimise the effort involved in making decisions about potentially complex or difficult choices by using shortcuts. Rather than learning all about a topic, they will learn only as much as they need to, receiving and interpreting signals from elected officials, opinion leaders and other sources, and use a range of shortcuts to make decisions.

One way voters make political choices (such as choosing who to vote for) without a substantial investment in information gathering is through the use of heuristics, or cognitive shortcuts (Kahneman, Slovic, and Tversky 1982). These are also used when making non-political decisions.

The types of heuristics used by voters include:

  • Anchoring: when they fix their beliefs more heavily on the first piece of information offered (the ‘anchor’) when making decisions
  • The representativeness heuristic: involves comparing a problem or decision to the most representative mental prototype.
  • Stereotyping: making a judgment about someone or something based on limited information – usually surface characteristics, such as groups they belong to or observed actions – and not any detailed knowledge of the subject of the assessment.
  • The availability heuristic: involves assessing the probability of an event based upon how easy it is to recall similar events.

Agenda setting, elite cues and framing

The reason voters use heuristics or other shortcuts – as Lippmann (1922, 59) and Zaller (1992, 6) identified – is that in large and complex societies, they generally have no other choice. Their time and attention is finite and political and policy issues are complicated. There is too much happening, often at a significant distance from their lived experience, for the average citizen to form a detailed and intimate understanding of every event, policy and personality that makes up modern politics in electoral democracies.

One of the major sources of information relied upon by voters for political information is the media. By selecting to report certain stories, the news media and other actors that control the flow of information to the public are influential in setting the agenda. They cannot necessarily tell people what to believe, but they may impact perceptions about the importance of issues (Cohen 2001). This process is called agenda setting.

The media are not the only group to have influence on public opinion. Cues can be taken from parties, elites and opinion-leaders, who actively promote specific policies to voters. These are signals individuals use to save time and effort. Rather than attempting to master all issues that might be important, voters can rely on experts and political elites to form their opinions on matters about which they are not well informed.

Political elites are not just politicians, but also policy experts and religious leaders, union officials and business executives, environmental campaigners and other interest groups, and journalists. Individuals may also take cues from personal acquaintances if they are seen as being more knowledgeable about a particular question than they are (Watts and Dodds 2007).

As with heuristics, the use of cues is an imperfect but necessary part of democratic engagement by ordinary citizens. Participation for the vast majority of individuals would be impossible without it, and it can be a reasonably sophisticated process. Voters can take into account the source and nature of the cue on a particular issue, including how close it is to the views of the recipient on other issues (Gilens and Murakawa 2002).

Beyond agenda setting and cues, the media and elites – including political campaigns run by parties and candidates – may also use framing to influence voters (Tversky and Kahneman 1981). This occurs when an issue is portrayed a particular way to guide its interpretation. Individuals will react to a particular choice differently, depending on how it is presented. Most political issues are heavily framed to persuade voters. In the Australian context, the decision to call people arriving by boat to seek asylum refugees, boat peopple, illegals or asylum seekers is the result of framing. How does the framer wish for the issue to be thought about by their audience? The choice of words and imagery is often deliberate; designed to evoke a particular reaction.

Aggregating individual preferences: studying voter behaviour

We can study voter behaviour a number of ways. Two of the main methods include observing voter behaviour through electoral results (aggregate studies) and through public opinion surveys (individual-level studies). These both have strengths and weaknesses.

Measuring aggregate voter behaviour

The ultimate expression of public opinion are the votes cast by citizens at elections, and during referenda and plebiscites. We can study the results of these to understand what voters think about particular issues. These aggregate studies do not necessarily require the collection of new data as electoral officials usually publish the results; although this is not always the case.

They also provide information on the actual decisions made by voters. Using data from elections, we can study how voters behaved in different parts of the country. For instance, we can combine election results at the level of legislative districts – the discrete geographic spaces represented in a legislature, such as the Australian parliament – with other information. This can include census data, such as the average age of an electorate, and how this was associated with support for different political parties or policy preferences.

However, there is one problem with exclusively relying on these aggregate election results to study voter behaviour. Using such data, we cannot be certain that lower income voters are more likely to vote for the Coalition than those with middle incomes, or are less likely to support same-sex marriage, for example. Doing this runs the risk of committing an ecological fallacy. This is a type of error where inferences are made about individuals based on aggregate group-level data. In this instance, assuming that results for high income divisions translates to high income individuals would be such a fallacy.

For instance, we may observe that the Liberal-National Coalition parties do better in low income electorates. We may infer that this means that lower income voters support these parties. However, the aggregate relationship between income and voting for the Coalition parties would be meaningless if rural electorates tend to have lower average incomes, and voters in rural areas are also more conservative, rather than low income voters themselves necessarily being more likely to support conservative parties. We cannot be sure whether this is the case without individual-level data. This includes the kind of information collected through public opinion surveys.

Using surveys to understand voter behaviour

As students and scholars of public opinion, we want to understand the attitudes and behaviours of voters in a more detailed way than is possible with electoral returns. We want to measure public opinion more frequently than every three (or more) years, when elections are held. We want to be able to make inferences about the behaviour of individual citizens, not just aggregate-level election results. It might include measuring the relationship between different voter characteristics, such as age, gender, birthplace or income and attitudes towards different issues. Generally, electoral returns are not disaggregated by demographics, socio-economic status, issue preferences or other attributes of citizens in which we might be interested. We also want to understand attitudes towards issues that elections are not necessarily held on.

Quantitative data from random, representative samples of the electorate – public opinion surveys – can provide a snapshot of public opinion. They are an alternative to waiting for an election to be held on an outcome we want to study. Of course, there are other sources of data that can be used to measure public opinion. Data collected from social media discussions, for instance, can provide insights into what voters are thinking. However, surveys provide the backbone of both academic and industry research into voter behaviour. Without survey research, high quality studies of public opinion would be impossible.

Much exposure to public opinion surveys (commonly called ‘polls’) is through the ‘horse race’ coverage of politics – who is winning, who is unpopular, and how much has changed in recent weeks or months. Yet survey research can be much more extensive than this. We can use surveys to understand how voters behave in different contexts. This includes what shapes public opinion. Is it the media, politicians’ messages, or is it culture? Surveys are useful for understanding citizens’ attitudes towards policies, events and political leaders, the way they might vote at elections and how they may respond to future political decisions. Surveys can also be used to examine the operations of electoral democracies, including the influence of public opinion on political and policy decisions made by leaders.

The history of public opinion surveys

Prior to the development of survey research, sociologists and political scientists generally studied behaviour and opinions by interviewing people in small groups. Although providing detailed information, it often resulted in samples too small and too concentrated in limited geographical areas (such as a particular neighbourhood or workplace), making it impossible to make generalisations about the broader public. Journalists and magazines often conducted informal straw polls and interviews on the street, but these were more for entertainment than serious research.

Most of the tools on which modern sampling is built have their origins in the 1940s and 1950s. In the US, Australia and most other representative democracies, populations became more urban (and therefore concentrated), household telephones became common, mailing lists more accurate and people became generally easier to reach.

A significant incentive for the development of better public opinion measures was the burgeoning US radio industry in the 1920s and 1930s. Broadcasts were primarily funded by advertisers, who wanted to know the size of audiences when agreeing to pay for time. Statistical sampling provided this, with random samples of hundreds or a few thousand people offering relatively accurate estimates of the general population.

Political surveys followed, providing a way to regularly measure citizens’ privately held opinions. This was done by the news media, which obtained measurements of shifting opinion they could report. Political parties, candidates and leaders also undertook surveys and used the data obtained to guide political decisions.

Early survey research relied on in-person interviews. Home telephones were not yet ubiquitous, and were mostly owned by the wealthy. Mail surveys were often difficult, as there was often an absence of complete and reliable lists of valid postal addresses. However, face-to-face surveys have many of the same draw backs as interviews. Regardless, these early efforts at sampling sometimes provided useful data, and provided the foundations for later efforts.

There are several types of surveys, and methodological decisions can influence their utility for different purposes.

First, researchers need to decide how they are going to select their sample. The most common method is Opt-out, or random sampling. Representative, random sampling sits at the heart of modern survey research. Built around the idea that every individual in the population of interest (for instance, citizens likely to vote in an election), has a known probability of being sampled. From address-based, in-home interview sampling in the 1930s to random digit dialling after the growth of landlines and mobile phones, survey researchers have placed significant efforts into obtaining representative samples.

Each type of survey allows us to reach different parts of the population in important ways. In-person surveys are best at obtained a response, but can be expensive and can have higher rates of social desirability bias. Other methods are cheaper and tend to have low social desirability bias, but tend to have lower response rates.


Why learn about voter behaviour? It is the first step to understanding if and how democracy works. For students of electoral democracy, this is important. Representation sits at the heart of democratic theory. Research shows that citizens’ aggregate preferences influence policy outcomes to varying degrees (Gilens 2012).

If we are to properly understand this functioning of electoral democracy, we need to understand voter behaviour. As a consequence of this importance, research into voter behaviour now encompasses hundreds of journal articles and major books.

While there are questions about the ability of voters to function as competent political actors, some of the early critiques were found to have been too pessimistic. It is arguable that many studies have set unrealistic expectations of the average voter. Rather, public opinion and the involvement of voters are necessary safeguards of democracy.


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