An Historical Review of the Voter As a Consumer

ABSTRACT - There have been several approaches to the study of voting behavior. Political scientists, sociologists and social-psychologists have traditionally been the major contributors to this area. However, researchers in marketing and consumer behavior have recently suggested that the voter can be analyzed as a consumer in the political marketplace. In light of these different perspectives on the voter, the purpose of this paper will be to present a chronological historical review of representative literature in several disciplines on the consumer related dimensions of voting behavior.


Bruce I. Newman (1985) ,"An Historical Review of the Voter As a Consumer", in SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth and Chin Tiong Tan, Singapore : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 257-261.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 257-261


Bruce I. Newman, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


There have been several approaches to the study of voting behavior. Political scientists, sociologists and social-psychologists have traditionally been the major contributors to this area. However, researchers in marketing and consumer behavior have recently suggested that the voter can be analyzed as a consumer in the political marketplace. In light of these different perspectives on the voter, the purpose of this paper will be to present a chronological historical review of representative literature in several disciplines on the consumer related dimensions of voting behavior.


Certainly, as one would suspect, there are strong opinions with regard to the notion that the voter is a consumer. In his review of four major landmarks in voting research, Rossi (1959) argues that voting decisions are less rational than buying decisions. He believes that voting is more driven by faith than convention. More recently, researchers have argued that there are similarities between voters and buyers. Kotler (1982) suggests that marketing can be used by the candidate to make the most effective use of scarce resources, generate information about the voters and competing candidates, and in general create a more responsive political process. Mauser (1983) presented a procedure for strategically positioning political candidates. This approach uses empirically generated spatial models to identify the candidates' own image, competitors' images, and to simulate the impact of a new candidate entering a race, or of an old candidate adopting a new position.

Inherent in the extension of marketing techniques to politics is the assumption that the characteristics of voters and consumers are similar enough to -justify the application of consumer behavior models to voting behavior. In a study of the 1980 Illinois Presidential Primary, Newman and Sheth (1985) apply a model of consumer choice behavior developed by Sheth (1975) to voters in Champaign, Illinois. Results from the study strongly suggest that similar to consumers, voters also have needs which when analyzed can be used to explain and accurately predict their behavior. Results from studies carried Out in the 1984 Wisconsin Presidential Primary, 1984 Presidential Election, and 1985 Milwaukee School board Election further confirms the usefulness of studying the voter as a consumer (Newman and Sheth).


The roots of voting behavior research goes back to the 1940's, when Lazarsfeld et al. (1944) began doing systematic research on voting behavior at Columbia University. Whereas polling was originally done to predict voting behavior from stated intentions, their research was the earliest attempt to actually explain voters' behavior by using demographic variables in place of voters' intentions. Overturning many of the commonly, held assumptions about voting behavior, their work ~&as the first application of a panel technique to a presidential election. Coming from a sociological background, they emphasized the effects of demographic variables, the role of mass media and processes of interpersonal behavior. They found many voters to have strong candidate loyalties. One of their significant findings was that voters made up their minds before the campaign even began, while others by the time the candidates were chosen at the convention.

Berelson et al. (1954) also used the panel technique of repeated interviews in the 1948 election and found demographic characteristics to be related to voting decisions. However, contrary to Lazarsfeld's (1944) finding that a voter was only influenced by his environment, Berelson emphasized the importance of the individual and his environment as mutually influencing systems. The major contribution from their work was their elitist theory of democracy. According to this theory, the system is better served and stability is maintained when participation is reserved only for the better informed and the anti-Democratic elements are left out. However, Berelson justifies the operation of democracy even if voters don't live up to the classic expectations of the Democratic system.


Campbell et al. (1960) found the sociological approach of Lazarsfeld and Berelson lacking. In what is considered the most important work in political science, Campbell et al. wrote The American Voter, which formed the foundation for many studies to come. Coming from a social-psychological background, they believed the determinants of a voter's behavior were more likely to be his attitudes and perception of the environment rather than his social position or other situational factors. One of their most significant contributions was the importance voters placed on party identification.

Campbell et al. (1960) postulated that a voter is moved to vote from a response to psychological forces from within. Events that are built up from past experiences and immediate needs are screened to produce modified attitudes. These attitudes then serve as the determinants of behavior, intervening between the outside world and a voter's eventual behavior. They identified three critical "motivating forces": Party identification, candidate partisanship, and issue partisanship. The more these forces pressured i voter in one direction, the more likely he/she would vote for a particular candidate. Based on their research, [hey concluded that the clu( lorate has a low level of ideological conceptualization.

The importance of issues was raised during this period by Downs (1957) , who contended that voters are in fact rational in their behavior. This implies that each citizen votes for the party he believes will provide him with a higher utility income. A voter must, in effect, compare the future performance of the candidates. If two parties are believed to have identical platforms and current policies, then a voter will base his decision on his attitude toward change in general.

In an article on the components of electoral choice, Stokes et al. (1958) set up a theoretical framework that looked at attitudes toward the party, candidate preference, issues and primary groups. Stokes (1962) tested this theory by looking at the last twelve-year period for each attitude component. He concluded that there is a dynamic change in these attitudes on votes.


The research carried out in the 1940's and 1950's established the foundation which political scientists and other social scientists would build on in the 1960's.

The importance of issues, especially in light of party identification was well spelled out by McClosky et al. (1960), who showed through their research that party identifiers are pretty similar on issue positions, and only party elites saw differences on issues. In one of the most important works in the field, V. 0. Key's (1966) The Responsible Electorate attempted to refute The American Voter model that postulated that voters are party driven. He saw an electorate that was not constrained by party identification.

Converse (1964) argued that beliefs are inconsistent, lack stability and change over time, and that many are just non-attitudes. This view reinforces The American Voter viewpoint as to the lack of prominence of issues. According to Converse, the American public has low levels of conceptualization, can't understand what liberal and conservative mean, entertain opinions that show no ideological ordering, and show more of an ability to relate party identification as opposed to any issue position to a vote. Converse et al. (1969) shows how issues were absent from the 1968 election, which they saw as a typical American Voter-type election.

Sears (1969) depicts the voter as one who could be swayed by "image politics." He asserts that candidates represent simple stimuli, easily cognized and retained, since most stimuli are too complex to be handled. According to this thinking, voters form opinions on the basis of candidate characteristics as opposed to party identification or issues. Most voters have superficial and unstable preferences at the policy level. In effect, attitudes on different issues are not systematically related. As a result, only a few voters organize political ideas in an abstract ideological framework.


Political scientists continued the debate over the contribution of The American Voter and whether party identification, candidate characteristics or issues served as the preeminent influence on a voter's choice behavior. RePass (1971) reported a tendency for Democrats to be in favor of Democratic issues and Republicans to be in favor of Republican issues in his study of voting behavior. He said it could be due to selective perception or other cognitive balancing processes.

DeVries and Tarrance (1972) wrote about a new force in American politics, the ticket-splitter. In their book, they wrote about a more complex voter who had a grasp of campaign issues, was more oriented toward the candidate, but was not easily emotionally swayed. In their view, the candidate's personality and ability to handle the job was most important, followed by the candidate's stand on the issues and then by party affiliation.

Pomper (1972) saw a rise in issue voting and ideology which he attributes to the changed nature of politics. He stated that voters did not relate policy preferences to their partisan affiliations prior to 1956, but did so after that year. Kessel (1972), commenting on Pomper's work, stated that the impact of a candidate is substantial but of short duration, while the impact of issues ;iccumulates over time. He believed that issues outweigh candidate importance since they have the capacity to alter what he still belicvud was the greatest Pingle determinant of the vote--party identification.

Kovenock, Prothro and associates (1973) explained voter decisions by devising a causal model which posits the following relationship: social status party identification - ideological proximity candidate choice. Kelby and Miner (1974) developed a decision rule to add a new theoretical direction. They postulated that the voter evaluates his likes/dislikes of the major candidates and parties, and then votes for the candidate with the greatest number of likes. If he has no candidate with the greatest number of likes, he votes along party lines. Finally, if he has no candidate or party that he favors, he doesn't vote.

Nimmo (1975) used image to bridge the gap between what political scientists know about electoral behavior and the notion of the voter as a consumer. He defined political image as based on the voter's subjective appraisal and messages transmitted by the candidate. Using 1972 election data (nationwide), he looked at the cognitive, affective and conative dimensions of image. A factor analysis revealed issues, candidate's party and voter ideology as the three major factors. A stepwise multiple regression analysis indicated affect as the strongest explanatory variable.

The most significant contribution made during this period was outlined by Nie et al. (1976). They confirmed the declining role of party affiliation and the increasing importance of issue voting. It is in their book where the independent voters were seen as the largest group in society. This is a major challenge to The American Voter view. They saw a rise in issue voting and a heightened voter ideology for several reasons. They believed that party organizations were growing weaker; media was becoming more important; candidates were more independent of parties; voters were less able to vote on past performances; and voters were voting on the basis of the future performance of the candidate. They hypothesized that the electorate will vote on issues, but only if the issues presented offer a meaningful choice. They predicted that the candidate with a position closest to the center will win, but only if his position is made clear.

Researchers from The American Voter school of thought finally begin to see issue voting rivaling party influence. Miller and Levitin (1976) see a rise in issue voting in the 1972 election. They attribute this to the influence which key opinion leaders in society have had on voters. Miller et al. (1976) acknowledge that there was large scale issue voting in the 1972 election. In fact, they conclude that the influence of issues about equals the influence of party identification in 1972.

Social psychologists also continued to debate the party, candidate characteristics, issue controversy during the 1970's. Sherrod (1971) carried out a study that looked at the, selective perception of candidates' positions as a means of maintaining cognitive consistency between voters' own positions on issues and their candidates' preferences. He concluded that under certain conditions, voters preferring certain candidates do selectively perceive their candidate's position on an issue to make it consistent with their own.

Shikiar (1979) investigated whether candidates are perceived in terms of issues, and if so, how these issues are to be related to politicians. His conclusion was that perceptions are determined by the perceiver (due to a psychological balance mechanism in operation). Nygren and Jones (1977) used dimensions of political perception to assess the impact of issues, party affiliation, and candidate characteristics. Their conclusion was that the perception of candidates is related to their personalities, appearance, geographical origins, and positions on issues.

The operationalization of an expectancy-value approach in a political setting was first carried out by Fishbein et al. (1974). In their-study, they-focus on the attribute change toward a candidate. They assume that stable affective dispositions toward political issues and candidate traits provide a basis for responding to a candidate. They found that the candidates' personal characteristics, affiliation with certain reference group, and their stand on the issues influenced the voters' choice. Fishbein contends that voting is a highly rational process.

Consumer behaviorists began to apply their concepts and techniques to voting behavior during this period. Johnson (1971), using a market segmentation approach, measured ideal points that represented voters' issue preferences, and created a design which enabled him to examine various issue positions for each candidate. Nakanishi et al. (1974) used a model which was originally used to measure market share to account for the variables that enter into the selection of a politician candidate and to predict voter behavior. The authors conclude that the results follow a typical marketing scenario where the consumer turns to an opinion leader in a buying situation when one cannot make attributions based on personal experience.

Using attribution theory, Yalch (1973) looked at a local election to describe that voting is based on more than attitudes toward a candidate. He concluded that an individual's perception of himself as the type of person who usually votes was also important. In comparing voter behavior approaches to consumer behavior, Shama (1975) determined that voter response was based on the image of the candidate. He used fictitious candidates with different profiles based on attributes that were rank ordered by the respondents. He factor analyzed the attributes and got a two-factor solution where factor I was labeled the candidate's political skills, record, knowledge, and factor II was labeled the candidate's style, described in terms of his honesty, activity, speaking ability and attractiveness.

Rothschild (1978) investigated the impact of involvement on voting behavior in an artificial laboratory setting. Defining involvement as enduring and situational, he concluded that late deciders were less involved and more easily able to have their attitudes changed. Research linking involvement (based on Rothschild's operational definition) to voter behavior continued with an experiment by Swinyard and Coney (1978), which linked low-involvement learning theory with promotional effects. Swinyard and Coney found both direct-mail advertising and personal canvassing to have positive effects in a low-involvement race but not in a high-involvement race.

In a slightly more policy-oriented approach, Ahmed and Jackson (1979) used a psychographic instrument to identify a segment of voters who were favorable toward a certain welfare program. The authors then used that information to develop appeals and determine the appropriate timing of a new welfare program.


The debate among social scientists has continued on the issues, party, candidate characteristics tradeoff. With the abundance of studies carried out during this period in all of the social sciences, any attempt at even a brief review within the scope of this paper would be futile. Instead a review of the research carried out in consumer behavior will suggest that the voter is continuing to be studied as a consumer.

A further investigation of the impact of involvement on voter behavior by Rothschild and Houston (1980) indicates that there were significant differences in cognitive complexity within subjects across races, with the high-involvement races reporting the highest levels of complexity. The difference in complexity across individuals becomes more significant within lower level races as opposed to higher level races.

The effect of campaign expenditures on voting has been investigated by Chapman and PaIda (1981). In this study, they found that there is not a noticeably different influence between challengers' and incumbents' communication efforts. Chapman and Palda (1983) support previous findings that there is a relationship between campaign expenditures and voting behavior. Specifically, the authors found that the candidates' communication efforts have a positive impact on votes received, while competitive communication efforts draw voters awav from a candidate.

Pommerehne (1981) used government revenue and expenditure variables to estimate a model of interaction between the voter's and the government's behavior. His findings show that voters are unaware of the full cost of government activities, and that voters favorably perceived a few spending items.

In a slightly different modeling approach, discriminant analysis was used by Fenwich et al. (1982) to allocate both decided and undecided voters to candidates. The voting behavior of undecided voters was determined by a stepwise discriminant which accounted for attitudinal, candidate evaluation and demographic data. The key variables in explaining the voting behavior of respondents were those related to candidate favorability.

Omura and Talarzyk (1983) investigated the role which opinion leadership played in shaping the public opinion on the presidential impeachment issue. A stepwise discriminant analysis was carried out to discriminate between those who favor and those who are against impeachment. They conclude that in situations where interpersonal influence can discriminate between two groups of voters on either side of an issue, the potential for opinion leadership variables to shape public opinion is great.

As is true in many consumer purchases, the psychological commitment of the voter to a candidate may produce halo effects in the subsequent evaluation of election outcomes. Crosby and Taylor (1983) compare a low commitment (standard learning) model with a high commitment (halo) model. Their results support the finding that high psychological commitment to a vote decision produces a halo effect. However, among low commitment voters, preferences were found to be more unstable and subject to less cognitive mediation.

A study was carried out by Newman and Sheth (1984) to examine male/female differences in voting behavior, intention and beliefs. Their results suggest that the female voter is just as involved, concerned and interested about politics as~ the male is. The authors found that although the male is more likely to act as an opinion leader, both the female and the male vote for candidates primarily on the basis of personality characteristics and issues.

A model of voter behavior which integrated several schools of thought was developed and tested on the 1980 Illinois Presidential Primary (Newman 1981). Two new dimensions of voter behavior (situational and epistemic factors) were added on to the traditional issues, party and candidate dimensions in the model. The model proved to have more explanatory and predictive power when compared with models using only demographic, political involvement and attitudinal variables. The significant contribution of this work lies in the integration of consumer behavior concepts with traditional concepts used in political science, sociology and social-psychology within a single framework.


The historical review presented in this paper documents and brings together the contributions which have been made by several different disciplines toward a better understanding of the voter as a consumer. Each discipline has utilized their own unique concepts and methodologies to study the behavior of voters. However, a consistent theme running throughout the work in each of the disciplines is the attention paid to the impact of party, issues and the candidate characteristics on a voter's choice behavior. As one goes through the literature from the 1940's to the present, there seems to be a trend toward a voter who is in fact rational and concerned with issues. In addition, there is no doubt that as a result of the media age we are presently in, voters are paying close attention to the candidate's personality and performance as he is perceived over the television. Party identification continues to be an important factor, especially with the latest shift in party alignment that took place in the 1980 and 1984 election.

The research which has been carried out and continues to be carried out by consumer behaviorists in this area lends additional confirmation to the fact that the voter can be studied as a consumer. We in consumer behavior are using concepts which have been applied successfully to study consumers in commercial settings to Study voters in political settings. Although our terminology may be slightly different than the concepts used in other social sciences, it has not stopped us from making a significant leap into the political arena. We have certainly contributed to the advancement of the understanding of political choice theory by applying our concepts and methodologies to existing voting behavior theories. Perhaps the time has come for other disciplines studying political choice behavior to begin to borrow from us in order to gain a sharper insight into the behavior of voters.


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Bruce I. Newman, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives | 1985

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