Professor Marcus’s book analyzes why people vote the way they do

With the current presidential primaries and upcoming election dominating national news (not to mention the heated College Council campaigns), voter habits and tendencies have become more a part of the public discourse. How does the electorate decide for whom to vote? Do people act according to reason or emotion? Are reason and emotion mutually exclusive?

Professor of political science George Marcus has a book in press which includes, among other findings, research-based answers to ways in which voters make up their minds. Entitled Affective Intelligence and Political Judgment, the book is co-authored by Marcus, W. Russell Neuman of the University of Pennsylvania and Michael MacKuen of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The book analyzes every election from 1980 until 1996 using data from a variety of sources. One of its more interesting assertions is that, in voting, emotion complements reason. This finding challenges the traditional school of thought, according to which emotion leads to irrational behavior.

Marcus explained that “political science is a field which borrows from a variety of other disciplines, including economics, psychology and neuroscience.” Neuroscience, the exploration of the connections between the brain and emotions, has guided his work for the past 15 years.

The standard model for political elections suggests that voters choose a candidate based upon three criteria – primarily by qualities they find attractive, secondarily by party affiliation and finally by stances on issues. But Marcus suggests instead that partisanship, a function of individuals’ early background, is the best predictor of how a voter will cast his ballot.

Voting based on party, and not similarities in opinions on issues, appears highly irrational, however. According to Marcus, that is when anxiety – a strong emotional force – takes effect. Studies have found that when a voter feels anxious about a candidate, partisanship plays no role in his decision; instead, he will be driven by emotions. However, the voter will act more rationally; if he is not quite sure about a candidate he will be more likely to vote according to the candidates’ stances on issues.

Thus, with the emotion of anxiety coming into play, the voter will act more rationally and vote according to platform, not attractiveness or party. This finding is interesting, given the upcoming election. Marcus suggests that the complacent voter will vote according to habit, while the anxious voter will probably act more rationally.

According to Marcus, established candidates who are already visible and well-known would prefer that voters be complacent. Candidates who are behind want to make voters more anxious and thus increase the chance that they will abandon their habits and perhaps vote against the established candidate. Marcus claims that Democratic candidate Bill Bradley attempted to use this strategy, but has yet to succeed in altering the complacency of the voting public.

Marcus’s data comes from a variety of sources. One contributor is the American National Election Study, which collects around 2000 surveys of over 2000 questions from a random sample of individuals for every election. These surveys, published since 1980, address voters’ emotions, among other things.

Marcus’s book will be published by University of Chicago Press; its target release date is in August of 2000. He and his coauthors hope to have the book released in time for the 2000 presidential election.