Political Expertise and Issue Voting in Presidential Elections

By Goren, Paul | Political Research Quarterly, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Political Expertise and Issue Voting in Presidential Elections


Goren, Paul, Political Research Quarterly


Recent research on political expertise indicates that what citizens know and how much they think about politics affect the political choices they make. So it would seem for issue voting in presidential elections. Unfortunately, prior work has yielded such conflicting results that we lack a clear understanding of how expertise affects the vote. Drawing on research from social and political psychology, I argue that the accessibility of policy attitudes from memory depends on political expertise. Given greater accessibility of policy attitudes, issue voting should be more pronounced at higher levels of expertise. In contrast to most previous work, this research measures expertise with interval-level knowledge scales and employs formal interaction tests. Data from the 1984 and 1988 National Election Study surveys are used to test my hypotheses. Results show that increasing expertise results in higher levels of sociotropic, ideological, and policy voting.

If representative democracies are to function properly, elected officials must address the policy concerns of the public and wield government power to solve these problems. Public officials who respond effectively to these concerns should be rewarded with election to office, and those who fail to do so should be denied office. This responsiveness depends in turn on the clarity of the policy signals articulated by the electorate. In this regard, voters perform reasonably well in presidential elections. They hold elected officials and incumbent parties accountable for their governing performance (Dobson and St. Angelo 1975; Fiorina 1981; Key 1966; Kiewiet 1983). They incorporate future expectations about candidate and party policies into their vote choices (Aldrich, Sullivan, and Borgida 1989; Fiorina 1981; Rabinowitz and Macdonald 1989). The mix of retrospective and prospective voting varies reasonably in light of changing electoral contexts (Miller and Wattenberg 1985; Pomper 1972). Finally, for some voters party identification serves as a running tally of their retrospective evaluations (Fiona 1981; Markus 1982) and current policy preferences (Franklin and Jackson 1983). In sum, the contemporary portrait of the voter departs greatly from the classical view of a static and unreflective sort generally indifferent to most political issues (Campbell et al. 1960).

But are all voters equal in this regard? Research on political expertise1 suggests this should not be the case. According to an emerging body of research, what you know and how deeply you think about politics strongly affect political thought and behavior. To take some examples, expertise leads to higher levels of policy attitude holding (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996; Jacoby 1995; Krosnick and Milburn 1990), attitude structure and stability (Converse 1964; Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996; Feldman 1989;Judd and Downing 1990; Norpoth and Lodge 1985; Stimson 1975), ideological reasoning (Converse 1964; Hamill, Lodge, and Blake 1985; Sniderman, Brody, and Tetlock 1991; Stimson 1975), and information processing efficiency (Fiske, Kinder, and Larter 1983; Lodge and Hamill 1986; McGraw, Lodge, and Stroh 1990). This body of work demonstrates that political expertise influences the political choices citizens make. So it would seem for issue voting in presidential elections.

How does expertise affect issue voting in presidential elections? The extant research provides no clear answers. First, studies have shown that political sophistication is positively associated (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996), negatively associated (Sniderman, Glaser, and Griffin 1990), and unrelated (Fiorina 1981; Moon 1990,1992) to retrospective voting. Second, research suggests that political expertise is positively related (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996; Macdonald, Rabinowitz, and Listhaug 1995; Moon 1990,1992; Sniderman, Glaser, and Griffin 1990), conditionally related (Carmines and Stimson 1980; Pierce 1993), and unrelated (Knight 1985; Rahn et al. …

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