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Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee: Voting

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Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee. 1954. Voting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

In Brief

Sociological contexts are the main influence on voting decisions. Family is the core group that shapes the interests and preferences the individual has in politics. Groups that we might think would influence voting (unions, parties, and the media) didn't; labor unions were inactive during this campaign, parties were involved in administrative duties rather than in proselytizing, and mass media reinforced previous voters' predispositions rather than changing them. It is sociological affiliations (e.g. family, religion, friends) that determine vote choice.

If the modal opinions of your various affiliations (family, religion, friends) differ, then the social pressures to conform with these various groups pull you in divergent directions. Result: You decide later (closer to November) how to vote; you're less likely to vote at all.

People who vote for the same candidate may have completely different conceptions of what the campaign is about. "People all vote in the same election but they are not voting on the same election."

Main Findings

  • Family is the main source of partisanship
  • When deciding how to vote, our decision takes place within a social context. Variations in that context affect voting patterns.
    • (Politically) homogeneous circle of friends/co-workers = strongly held partisan views
    • We prefer friends and co-workers that reinforce our existing biases. Moreover, families tend to have similar views, further reinforcing one another's views.
    • Mass media generally reinforces existing biases (due to selective media consumption)
  • Thus: all campaigns do is bring you back to your original views--they don't change your views, just reinforce them. Campaign communications don't change minds, they attempt to reinforce pre-existing views.

The conclusions about media and campaigns have been dubbed the "minimal effects" hypothesis: Media and campaign ads supposedly have "minimal effects" on voting behavior.


The authors study Elmira, New York, during the 1948 Presidential election as an exploratory study. Authors employed a four-round panel study. Also, they conducted content analyses of the local press and candidates' speeches, and observed the activities of local party organizations. The group context of voting behavior, the role of issues, and the part played by the community were analyzed in this study. Nevertheless, it has been clearly stated that this study was not designed to sustain the analysis and review to which it was later subjected. As one of the first in-depth studies of voting, the authors intended it as an exploratory study.

Place in the Literature

With: Lazarfeld, et al. (1944); together, these studies are referred to as the Columbia studies. This study is one of the groundbreaking studies about the sociological explanation of the vote. Sides with those who explain that campaign effects only reinforce previous predispositions.

Against: 'Pure' rational (Downs 1957), retrospective (Key 1966), and psychological (Campbell, et al. 1960) schools of voting. Also, against those who maintain that campaigns really make a difference in an election (Fiorina 1981; Iyengar and Kinder 1987; Popkin 1994).

With (partially): Much of the "information shortcuts" school of thought (e.g. Lupia and McCubbins 1998), which supports the idea that we would look to our friends, family, and opinion leaders when deciding for whom to vote.

Chapter-By-Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1: Case Selection and Method

Elmira, NY: A "normal" American city (50,000 or so people, varied industries, typical ethnic makeup, etc.) in 1948 (Dewey (R) vs Truman (D)). A panel study (interview the panel a few times during the election year).

Chapter 6: Social Processes

  • We inherit partisanship from our families, especially when we are young voters. The inheritance is strongest when you have the same SES and religion as your parents. Children who achieve a higher status than their parents move Republican. Among adults living in the same home, voting homogeneity tops 90%.
  • Most of our friends and many of our co-workers share our political beliefs. The more homogeneous our friends are (politically), the stronger our voting intentions are.
  • In the off-season, most political talk takes place at home. When we do talk with friends or co-workers, we mostly talk only with people like us (in age, occupation, and political preference).
  • Opinion leaders have (1) more interest/understanding of politics, (2) more activity in "strategic social locations," and (3) much in common with those they influence.
  • Since (1) we talk about politics mostly with people like us and (2) homogeneity strengthens political beliefs, it follows that (3) strong political majorities (like the Republican majority in Elmira) perpetuate themselves.

Chapter 7: Social Effects of Campaigns

  • "Voting change" (as I understood it) refers to panel members who changed their voting intentions between the June, August, and October interviews. (A possible methodological criticism: Did the interviews made them think more about politics, thereby increasing the probability of change?)
  • You are more likely to change if you originally disagreed with your family, friends, co-workers, religion (the majority of members of your religion), or experienced other cross-pressures.

Chapter 11: Political Processes

  • Candidates: Truman stressed partisan cleavages, Dewey stresed consensus.
  • Newspapers: Elmira news columns were fairly balanced, but the editorials were not.
  • Electorate: People either follow the campaign or they don't, in three ways: (1) Time: the same people who followed the campaign early on also followed it in the end; (2) Channel: The same people tend to read, listen, and discuss politics; and (3) Events: The same people followed both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Exposure to news correlates with interest, intensity of feelings, and level of knowledge.

Chapter 12: Political Effects

Potential Democrat voters were more likely to shift away from a Democratic vote (from June to August) if class issues weren't salient. Class issues and candidate personalities were mentioned equally often as a reason for change to Truman early on, but later class issues were mentioned far more frequently.