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Popkin, Gorman, Phillips, and Smith: Comment

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Popkin, Gorman, Phillips, and Smith. 1976. Comment: What have you done for me lately? Toward an investment theory of voting. American Political Science Review 70 (Sept): 779-805.

In Brief

In its analysis of the 1972 election, the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center (SRC) sought to revise the original "Michigan model" of voter behavior (based on 1960's The American Voter). In 1960, SRC researchers had concluded that voters were non-ideological and ignorant, voting based primarily on candidate appeal. But in 1972, SRC researchers claimed that rising education had changed voters, making the increasingly ideological and more likely to vote based on the actual issues.

Popkin et al. argue that the SRC is wrong; voters have not changed. The only thing that changed is the way SRC assesses voter knowledge of the issues. In fact, the authors content, the SRC has used an incorrect theoretical model all along. The correct way to model voting is as an investment.

The Argument Against SRC

The Survey Research Center's work on the 1972 election seeks to revise the SRC's earlier approach (i.e. The American Voter), claiming that rising education has changed voters from being non-ideological, ignorant voters who vote based on candidate appeal into increasingly ideological voters who know the issues and vote accordingly.

However, the voters have not changed; the only thing that changed is the way the SRC is looking for knowledge of the issues. When Popkin et al. use the SRC's pre-1972 measures to compare 1972 with previous elections, they find that candidates were actually more important in 1972 (relative to issues) than in previous elections. Thus, the SRC has the trend backwards; if anything, candidates were growing in importance, not declining.

Voters have not changed at all. The problem all along has been an inadequate performance by the SRC when it comes time to interpret its abundant ANES data.

A New Model: The Investor-Voter

Using a modified Downsian approach, Popkin et al. argue that voting is an investment. This has four components.

  1. Information Costs: Several implications. First, issues vary in salience. We acquire more information if we care more about an issue. (Thus, there are "issue publics." 'The American Voter' assumed that you either knew all the issues or none of them.) Second, political participation is not an enduring characteristic of each voter (as 'American Voter' assumes); rather, we participate in response to changes in our situations and in political events. Third, we acquire information as we go through life; we don't need to know the details of a bill to know whether the economy is doing well. 'American Voter' used too high a standard to judge familiarity with an issue.
  2. Political Parties: Parties are instrumental, not psychological (as in 'American Voter'). Strength of partisanship is therefore not an enduring characteristic. Rather, we are strong partisans only when what we think about the issues lines up more strongly with what the parties will do about it (a "running tally"). 'American Voter' got it backwards: Our stance on the issues affects our partisanship more than vice versa (though Popkin seems comfortable with this running both ways).
  3. Candidates vs Issues: Since the American political system gives parties weak control over candidates, we pay attention not only to party platforms (i.e. issues), but also to candidates and their abilities. We want to know two things: How close are the candidate's values to our own (i.e. issues), and how well will the candidate be able to implement these values (i.e. competence/ability). Even if we like a candidate's issue positions, we will vote for the other guy if we think our guy is incompetent. (See below.)
  4. Ideology. In the Downsian perspective, ideology is an informational shortcut that we use to reduce information costs. The SRC studies confuse this by claiming that ideology is a symptom of enlightened, sophisticated thinking about politics (when in fact it is the opposite--a shortcut that we use when information is lacking). Moreover, the 1972 SRC study took Downs's worst simplifying assumption and ran with it: unidimensionality. In reality, you can't collapse ideology into a single dimension, so the median voter theorem fails. Thus, the 1972 study's finding that voters had more frequently "consistent" attitudes--and therefore are more "ideological"--makes no sense.

Evidence: The 1972 Election, Reinterpreted

Popkin et al. use their own survey data to show that McGovern didn't lose because he was too extreme--they lost because he was too incompetent. Even within those issue publics that should have supported him (if issues mattered most), such as people who wanted rapid withdrawal from Vietnam, a guaranteed annual income, and a drastic cut in the military budget, voters switched from favoring McGovern over Nixon in June to the opposite in September.