How Voters Use Issues
Issue voting, where citizens select candidates based on their own policy preferences, exists as an ideal form of candidate selection in a representative democracy, with politicians being elected because they match the policy preferences of their constituencies. But, in practice, how much of voter decision-making is driven by political issue information? Much of the literature on this topic has narrowly debated whether the mass public uses issues at all, with influential work concluding that citizens seem largely unable or unwilling to do so. If true, this has important implications for our understanding of democratic accountability and the design of institutions. In this dissertation, I argue the debate of how voters decide is a false dichotomy and that pitting issue voting against non-issue voting has limited our understanding of political decision-making. Through a series of original survey experiments and analysis of multiple panel datasets, I show that voters, hindered by the same cognitive and motivational constraints used by critics to argue against the existence of issue voting, can and do use policy information to inform their vote choice. The results of this dissertation imply that the American voter falls between the ideal issue voter from classical theories of voting and the non-issue voter of recent work in political psychology, promoting guarded optimism toward the public’s ability to maintain ideal democratic principles.
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