Voter behaviour

Shaun Ratcliff

Key terms/names

agenda setting, cues, ecological fallacy, framing, heuristics, normative, random sampling, rational choice


Representation is the basis of modern democratic theory. In most mature electoral democracies, it is achieved through regular elections, which provide voters with the opportunity to select representatives whose policy goals align with their own. This chapter explores how citizens vote and some of the key influences on their behaviour.

Research into voter behaviour has been greatly influenced by a shift from normative assumptions about how citizens should behave in democratic society to studying how they act. This highlights a troubling and persistent problem for democratic governance: if citizens in representative democracies are largely not interested in politics and are under informed about basic matters of state, how can they provide any control over public policy through elections or referendums?

Borrowing from social psychology, political science provides an answer to this. While most voters are far from perfectly equipped to analyse political issues, most use limited information to make reasonably sophisticated judgements about political leaders, candidates, parties and salient matters, particularly those relevant to their lived experiences. When voters pool their individual opinions at elections, the resulting collective decision is actually likely to be better than an individual decision.

This chapter will explore the political science research on voter behaviour to better understand how representative democracy functions.

What is public opinion?

Public opinion is a concept frequently used by political leaders, journalists and political scientists to describe and understand politics. It can be viewed as the aggregation of the attitudes and preferences of individuals who comprise the public. This term – ‘the public’ – is widely used, but in political science it has a particular meaning. Sociologist Herbert Blumer suggested three criteria. In his framework, the public consists of a group of people who:

  1. face a common issue
  2. are divided on how to address it
  3. are engaged in discussion or debate about the issue.1

In this view, publics emerge over particular issues, such as immigration or the rate of taxation. To become a member of a public, an individual must join a discourse on an issue, thinking and reasoning with others. According to Blumer, if a public is not critically engaged with an issue, then that public ‘dissolves’, and uncritical and unengaged public opinion becomes mere ‘public sentiment’.

However, this is not a universally accepted definition. More recently, philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas argued that public opinion is context dependent, anchored to the ‘public sphere’ – the political and social domain in which people operate, which changes over time.2 It comprises public discussions about politics outside the formal arena of government, such as conversations in a cafe or bar, talkback radio or what is covered in the editorial pages of a newspaper. Changes in the public sphere include who is permitted to participate and the issues and positions that are considered to be socially acceptable. In the past, women, those who didn’t own property and some ethnic and racial groups were not permitted to engage in Australian political debate or vote in elections. Because it consisted only of the opinions of certain groups of men, the public sphere in mid-19th-century Australia, for instance, did not consider it socially acceptable to discuss issues such as LGBTIQ+ rights.

The history of the public opinion as an idea

The concept of public opinion as a distinct phenomenon was born in the European Enlightenment of the 18th century. It played an important part in the Enlightenment project to replace absolute monarchies with liberal representative democracies of various forms.

Most early theorists and philosophers, including Plato and Machiavelli, were generally dismissive of the political opinions of the common people. They believed most citizens did not have the capacity for rational political judgement. However, some were more positive. Aristotle advocated an early version of the wisdom of the crowd. The modern, mostly more positive, attitude towards public opinion can be traced to the Enlightenment, which saw a growth in literacy, the development of early newspapers and the distribution of political pamphlets. Enlightenment thinkers, including John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argued for the existence of normative, inalienable rights for individuals, protected by the state, and for greater citizen participation in government.

Lockean political theory was a significant inspiration for the design of the political system and culture of the USA and other modern representative democracies. Locke argued that humanity was subject to three laws: divine, civil and opinion (or reputation). He regarded the latter as arguably the most important. Poor public opinion could force people to conform to social norms. Despite this, he generally did not consider public opinion to be a suitable influence for governments. Other Enlightenment thinkers had a more positive view. David Hume argued that public support provided government with legitimacy – and was the only thing that could do so. This view is closest to modern normative beliefs about the functioning of democracy.

Modern views of voter behaviour

Despite the early origins of the concept, the study of voter behaviour and public opinion emerged as modern fields of research later, in the 1930s. Key debates included how voters learn, why they believe certain things and prefer particular policy options, how their attitudes match with their behaviours and their influence on government policy decisions.

Much of our understanding of human behaviour comes from the field of social psychology, where studies of public opinion typically employ one or more of four basic concepts: beliefs, values, attitudes and opinions.

  1. Belief systems tend to be thematically and psychologically consistent. They are the assumptions by which we live our lives, comprising our understanding of the world, our attitudes and our opinions.
  2. Values are ideals. They are our understanding of the way things should be. Many researchers distinguish between ‘terminal’ and ‘instrumental’ values. Terminal values are ultimate social and individual goals, like prosperity and freedom. Instrumental values are the constraints on the means used to pursue our goals, such as honesty and loyalty.
  3. Attitudes are the relatively stable and consistent views we hold about people and objects. These are often defined as evaluations combining emotions, beliefs, knowledge and thoughts about something.
  4. Opinions are the expressions of attitudes, sometimes seen as narrower, more specific and more consciously held (as opposed to unconscious attitudes we may have formed without deliberation) than attitudes. The idea that opinions are separate from attitudes is not universal, though.

Do voters hold meaningful political opinions?

Political science research was deeply influenced by the behavioural revolution that occurred during the mid-20th century. Changes in approaches to investigation permitted researchers to measure citizens’ preferences and behaviours, raising questions about the capacity of citizens and challenging some of the normative assumptions of representative democracy.

Besides social psychology, theories of voter behaviour and public opinion have been heavily influenced by the discipline of economics. Rational choice theory has been one of the most consequential of these, operating on the assumption that aggregate social behaviour is the result of independent decisions made by individual rational actors who take available information, probabilities of events and potential costs and benefits into account when determining preferences, and act consistently in selecting the alternatives that maximise their interests.

Anthony Downs’ An economic theory of democracy is one of the most influential political science works published after the Second World War.3 In a Downsian view of electoral democracy, voters are rational utility maximisers. They support the party with policies closest to their own preferences (which are generally expected to benefit their self-interest). Parties and candidates are also utility maximisers, seeking the private benefits of public office and, therefore, electorally motivated and willing to adjust their policy offerings to match the preferences of the median voter. In doing this, parties provide voters with the greatest utility for their vote and increase their chances of electoral success.

Much of the research from social psychology supports this cynicism about citizen competence. Psychological and experimental research has repeatedly demonstrated the irrationality of individuals4 and the influence of context on preferences and decision making.5 Citizens’ policy positions are often unstable and inconsistent.6 Behaviour is frequently influenced by emotion7 and framing.8 Voters use evidence incorrectly or prejudicially and are often overly confident about their conclusions,9 and their acceptance of new evidence is clouded by motivated reasoning.10

Reconciling these findings with democratic theory

Concerns about the capacity of citizens to meaningfully participate in electoral democracy are inconsistent with the general assumptions of classical democratic theory, which requires citizens to be informed and attentive for democracy to properly function. These concerns are typically reconciled with the normative ideals of democratic theory through the wisdom of the crowd argument. Aggregate opinion can be much more stable and apparently ‘rational’ than individual opinion, so long as error in individual opinions is assumed to be random.11 Even large proportions of random error ‘cancel out’ when aggregated, resulting in reasonably efficient and stable collective choices.

In defence of voters

Voters certainly face limitations, but how far do these extend? Voting is cognitively demanding. Most political issues are complex, abstract and remote from citizens’ lives, and voters lack the time and resources to properly make informed policy distinctions between parties. Rather, individuals are often forced to trade off effort and optimisation.

Although citizens may not be familiar with policy details, they usually exhibit behaviour that is logical, responding to circumstances with ‘bounded rationality’ to obtain some utility from their vote. ‘Bounded rationality’ makes different assumptions than economic theories of rationality.12 Rather than being intimately familiar with policy themselves, citizens learn from their own lived experience and take cues from parties, elites and opinion leaders, who actively promote specific policies to voters, providing cues to their supporters about political matters and the importance of particular issues.13

How citizens learn

Political and social psychology provide substantial critiques on citizens’ capacities to perform their democratic duties, helping us reconcile voters’ limitations with the idea that democracies work reasonably well.

Voters do not necessarily need detailed knowledge about politics and policy to fulfil their democratic duty. They can be thought of as ‘cognitive misers’, who minimise the effort involved in making potentially complex or difficult decisions using shortcuts, learning only as much as they need to and receiving and interpreting signals from elected officials, opinion leaders and other sources.

One way voters make political choices (such as choosing who to vote for) without a substantial investment in information gathering is through the use of heuristics, or cognitive shortcuts.14 These are also used when making non-political decisions.

The types of heuristics used by voters include:

  • Anchoring: when they fix their beliefs more heavily on the first piece of information offered (the ‘anchor’) when making decisions.
  • The representativeness heuristic: involves comparing a problem or decision to the most representative mental prototype.
  • Stereotyping: making a judgement based on limited information – usually surface characteristics, such as groups the subject belongs to, or observed actions – and not on any detailed knowledge of the subject.
  • The availability heuristic: involves assessing the probability of an event based upon how easy it is to recall similar cases.

Agenda setting, elite cues and framing

The reason voters use heuristics or other shortcuts – as Lippmann15 and Zaller16 identified – is that in large and complex societies they generally have no other choice. Their time and attention is finite, and political and policy issues are complicated.

One of the major sources relied upon by voters for political information is the media. By choosing to report certain stories, they control the flow of information to the public, which may impact perceptions about the importance of issues.17 This process is called agenda setting .

Cues can also be taken from parties, elites and opinion leaders, including policy experts and religious leaders, union officials and business executives, environmental campaigners and other interest groups, who actively promote specific policies to voters. Individuals use these signals to save time and effort on matters about which they are not well informed.

Beyond agenda setting and cues, the media and elites – including political campaigns run by parties and candidates – may also use framing to influence voters.18 This occurs when an issue is portrayed a particular way to guide its interpretation. Individuals will react to a choice differently, depending on how it is presented.

Most political issues are heavily framed to persuade voters. In Australia, the decision to call people arriving by boat to seek asylum ‘refugees’, ‘boat people’ or ‘illegals’ is the result of framing. The choice of words and imagery is often deliberate – designed to evoke a particular reaction from the audience. Political actors try and place their cause and message in a positive frame or their opponent’s in a negative frame.

Aggregating individual preferences: studying voter behaviour

We can study voter behaviour a number of ways: through electoral results (aggregate studies) and using public opinion surveys (individual-level studies). Both have strengths and weaknesses.

Measuring aggregate voter behaviour

The ultimate expression of public opinion is the votes cast by citizens at elections, referendums and plebiscites, which we can examine to understand what voters think about particular issues and how they behaved in different parts of the country.

However, there are risks associated with exclusively relying on these aggregate election results to study voter behaviour. We cannot be certain that lower income voters are more likely to vote for the Coalition than those with middle incomes, or are less likely to support same-sex marriage, for example. This risks committing an ecological fallacy, a type of error where inferences are made about individuals based on aggregate group-level data. Assuming that results for high-income divisions translate to high income individuals would be such a fallacy. We cannot be sure whether this is the case without individual-level data, including the kind of information collected through public opinion surveys.

Using surveys to understand voter behaviour

As students and scholars of public opinion, we want to examine the attitudes and behaviours of voters more frequently than every three (or more) years, when elections are held, and to make inferences about the behaviour of individual citizens, not just aggregate-level election results. Generally, electoral returns are not disaggregated by demographics, socio-economic status, issue preferences or other attributes of citizens. We also want to understand attitudes towards issues that elections are not necessarily held on. Quantitative data from random, representative samples of the electorate – public opinion surveys – can provide a snapshot.

Much of our exposure to public opinion surveys (commonly called ‘polls’) is through the ‘horse race’ coverage of politics – who is winning, who is unpopular and how much has changed in recent weeks or months. Survey research can be much more extensive than this and can be used to understand what shapes public opinion (Is it the media, politicians’ messages or culture?). Surveys are useful for understanding citizens’ attitudes towards policies, events and political leaders, and how they might vote at elections and respond to future political decisions. Surveys can also be used to examine the influence of public opinion on political and policy decisions made by leaders.

The history of public opinion surveys

Prior to the development of survey research, sociologists and political scientists generally studied behaviour and opinions by interviewing people in small groups. Although providing detailed information, this often resulted in samples that were too small and too concentrated in limited geographical areas (such as particular neighbourhoods or workplaces), making it impossible to make generalisations about the broader public. Journalists and magazines often conducted informal straw polls and interviews on the street, but these were more for entertainment than serious research.

Most of the tools on which modern sampling is built have their origins in the 1940s and 1950s. In the USA, Australia and most other representative democracies, populations became more urban (and therefore concentrated), household telephones became more common, mailing lists became more accurate and people became generally easier to reach.

A significant incentive for the development of better public opinion measures was the burgeoning US radio industry in the 1920s and 1930s. Broadcasts were primarily funded by advertisers, who wanted to know the size of audiences when agreeing to pay for air time. Statistical sampling provided this, with random samples of hundreds or thousands of people offering relatively accurate estimates of the general population.

Political surveys followed, providing a way to regularly measure citizens’ privately held opinions. This was done by the news media, obtaining measurements of shifting opinion that they could report. Political parties, candidates and leaders also undertook surveys and used the data obtained to guide political decisions.

Early survey research relied on in-person interviews. Home telephones were not yet ubiquitous and were mostly owned by the wealthy. Mail surveys were difficult, as there was often an absence of complete and reliable lists of valid postal addresses. However, face-to-face surveys have many of the same drawbacks as interviews. Regardless, these early efforts at sampling sometimes provided useful data and established the foundations for later efforts.

There are several types of surveys, and methodological decisions can influence the utility of different survey types for different purposes. First, researchers need to decide how they are going to select their sample. The most common method is opt-out, or random, sampling, which sits at the heart of modern survey research. It is built around the idea that every individual in the population of interest (e.g. citizens likely to vote in an election) has a known probability of being sampled. Random sampling helps us to secure a representative sample by providing the means to obtain what is intended to be an unbiased selection of the larger population. From address-based, in-home interview sampling in the 1930s to surveys by mail, random digit dialing after the growth of landlines and mobile phones, and online surveys, researchers have placed significant efforts into obtaining representative samples.

Each type of survey allows us to reach different parts of the population in important ways. In-person surveys are best at obtaining a response, but can be expensive and have significant problems with social desirability bias – the tendency of respondents to answer questions in a way they believe will be viewed favorably by others, under-reporting potentially undesirable behaviour (e.g. eating junk food, smoking) and over-reporting what might be construed as good behavior (e.g. exercising daily, eating well, working hard). Other methods are cheaper and tend to have low social desirability bias, but generally have lower response rates.


Learning about voter behaviour is the first step to understanding if and how democracy works. For students of electoral democracy, this is important as representation sits at the heart of democratic theory. Research shows that citizens’ aggregate preferences influence policy outcomes to varying degrees.19

While there are questions about the ability of voters to function as competent political actors, some of the early critiques were found to have been overly pessimistic. It is arguable that many studies set unrealistic expectations of the average voter. Rather, public opinion and the involvement of voters are necessary safeguards of democracy.


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About the author

Dr Shaun Ratcliff is a lecturer in political science at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. His research examines public opinion, the behaviour of political actors and the role of parties as interest aggregators in the USA, Australia and other democracies. He teaches public opinion and the use of quantitative research methods.

1 Blumer 1946.

2 Habermas 1989.

3 Downs 1957.

4 Redlawsk and Lau 2013.

5 Rabin 1998.

6 Converse 1964.

7 Brader 2012.

8 Kahneman 2003; Kahneman and Tversky 1979; Tversky and Kahneman 1991.

9 Gilovitch 1991.

10 Bartels 2002.

11 Page and Shapiro 1992.

12 Kahneman 2003.

13 Gilens and Murakawa 2002; Levendusky 2010; Lupia 2016; Lupia and McCubbins 1998; Popkin 1991.

14 Kahneman, Slovic and Tversky 1982.

15 Lippmann 1922, 59.

16 Zaller 1992, 6.

17 Cohen 2001.

18 Tversky and Kahneman 1981.

19 Gilens 2012.