Voter Psychology & Consumer Voting Behavior– How do voters “purchase their candidate of choice”

Eric Foster

One of the most fundamental questions challenging political psychologists is why citizens in a democratic country vote. After 18 years analyzing voter behavioral across various consumer subsets as a political & behavioral analytics consultant, I have learned that voters have evolved in their engagement and selection pattern, from civic participation motivations to consumer purchasing behavior for selecting candidates. Understanding this shift is critical to future campaign success. To better understand where we have come from, I want to take you first through what was the prevailing model for understanding voter psychology and then take you to the how voters are walking through picking candidates.

Traditional Voter Psychological Behavior model

Any discussion of voter turnout must begin with acknowledgment of an equation proposed by Downs (1957) that has shaped scholars’ thinking in this arena since the earliest work

The equation, as follows is:

1. R is the total reward a citizen will gain from voting,

2. B is the benefit a person thinks will accrue from having his or her preferred candidate win,

3. P is the person’s perception of the probability that his or her one vote will change the election outcome,

4. C is the cost to the individual of voting in terms of time, money, and other resources, and

5. D is the psychic satisfaction the person would gain from voting

If R is positive, the citizen is assumed to gain a reward from voting that outweighs the costs and will therefore participate in the election. The more positive R is, the more likely an individual is to vote. In any large election, the probability of casting the deciding vote is thought to be infinitesimally small and is likely to be perceived as such: much, much smaller than the costs of voting (e.g., Chamberlain & Rothschild, 1981). Therefore, the sense of satisfaction gained from voting (D) must make up any deficit caused by the cost and provide sufficient incentive for a citizen to participate. This equation illustrates the “paradox of voting” (Ferejohn & Fiorina, 1974; Rosenstone & Hansen, 1993). Voting yields benefits only when supported by collective action, so most people should never pay the costs because their effort will never ensure the acquisition of benefits. The mystery, then, is why so many people vote. This surprising behavior is sometimes claimed to be evidence that voters are inherently irrational, although this interpretation has been disputed (see Ferejohn & Fiorina, 1974, for one such discussion). An individual’s turnout behavior is presumed to be a function of his or her motivation to vote, his or her ability to vote, and the difficulty of the act of voting. Motivation to vote can come from a strong preference for one candidate over his or her competitor(s). But motivation can also come from the belief that being a responsible citizen requires that a person vote, from pressure from one’s friends or family to vote, or from other sources. The ability to vote refers to people’s capacity to make sense of information about political events and candidates in order to form a candidate preference and the capacity to understand and meet requirements for eligibility to vote legally and to implement the required behavior to cast a ballot.

Shifting Voter Rationale — Voters as Consumers

In my campaign consulting and real world application and experience, I believe that voters, similar to consumers, are moved to select a candidate or ballot issues in a similar behavioral pattern as a consumer purchasing a product. The voter consumer mentally approaches the selection or “purchase” of a candidate or “product” through two intersecting psychological processes, rationality of the action and function of the action. Rationality of the action provides the foundation of their participation and ultimately their purchase of the “product”. The voter that choses to participate is motivated by one of three inherent behavioral patterns:

· Personal Gut or emotional connection or desire — the personal yet non-rational believe that they need to participate and select a candidate due to an emotional connection that belies traditional campaign messaging. Logical and fear will not drive their reason to vote nor will it drive their purchase of the candidate or issue. They simply need to just “like the person” similar to their reason for buying a car or a type of clothing. Need (logic) or lack (fear) are major factors in their consumer purchases, it’s the personal feeling that I want this, it makes me feel good” behavior that is comparable.

· Fear of the alternative — I am afraid to buy a Ford car because I hear that Ford stands for Fall Off the Road Dead. I need a car so I will buy this GM, not because I want it or I like it, but because I’m afraid of the Ford car not working. This behavioral type exists with voters as well. A voter may say to themselves or their friends, “I’m afraid that the new candidate may be irrational or unprofessional or of low intelligence, so I will vote for the incumbent, not because I like him, but at least he knows the job”. This behavior is also consistent in the consideration and selection of competing non-incumbent candidates. The voter may say, “I know the block that this candidate lived on. I’m afraid of the people from over there and their way of doing business. I’m going to vote for the other person because at least I know their family, they seem to be ok I think. The fear of making a wrong choice, picking someone who will perform worse than the current office holder or the candidates age, income level or gender, will drive a significant number of voters into the category of holding their nose and picking the candidate they don’t believe in because the alternative scares them to death. The transactional cost to create a positive emotional connection with this behavior trait is prohibitive and outweighs the potential return for lower cost campaigns.

· Logical study — This voter will make a logical and informed decision through detailed vetting of the candidates, their platforms and the oppositions positions. This voter will conduct their own personal analysis of the candidates or ballot issues and will make their purchase based upon data. This voter is also more likely than the other voter rationality models to change their ideal candidate “purchase” based upon the examination of the candidates. This is similar to the process that a consumer may undertake in determining which cell phone provider to sign up with or their home purchase.

Now what’s interesting with the rationality of the action is the percentage that voter consumers fall in. Our extensive direct experience and analysis of voting behavioral trends has shown us that 50% of voters typically base their purchase upon personal gut/emotional connection, 40% make their “purchase” based upon fear of the alternative and only 10% make their “purchase” based upon logical study. No matter which way the voter comes to the rationality of the purchasing action, they all move through the same function of the action process. These three stages of action thought and behavioral response before they finally purchase/select a candidate are as follows:

· Identification — The acknowledgement that the candidate exist and that this is a “product to be considered”. Think of the challenge that former Vice President Al Gore had with the launch of Current TV. Coming off of the hotly contested and debated results of the 2000 Presidential Election, established international personal brand identification and the financial resources with his investment team and mega personalities such as Keith Olbermann and former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, Current TV could never break past Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, Bloomberg and was struggling to defeat Univision, TeleMundo and other related news outlets. Even though Gore had a huge level of sympathy and support after the 2000 Presidential result, Democratic and liberal leaning voters never moved to watch the product. In effect, they had and never gained the identification factor necessary to continue operations as a TV news network.

· Acceptance — I accept that the candidate and I have a compatible platform and policy interest, I know that they are in the race and I believe that this candidate meets my buying criteria and I can/will consider them in my purchasing model. In this stage, you have arrived as a creditable and viable operation that can move voting consumers to purchases their candidate. You haven’t closed the sale yet with the voting consumer, but you have made it into the rationality profile of the consumer. Either they don’t fear you, are building a personal emotional connection with you or their research is showing that they will receive a better return on investment than with your competition.

· Purchase/Selection — You now have built up the sales relationship enough with the voting consumer that they are now ready to become a loyal customer and buy your product versus the competition. You have met their level of purchase rationality and they will purchase you as their product on Election Day or via absentee ballot, whichever is their preferred method of voting (going to the store to buy the product). You still have a be mindful of any late sales push by your opposition or actions on the part of you or your team that make you lose the sell, but at this point, you have a greater likelihood of getting the vote versus losing the vote.

So why have we examined the psychology of the voting consumer? Because their socio-economic station in life will have a direct effect on the rationality and functionality of their voting purchase. For the modern campaigns, this level of analysis can provide for the necessary edge in voter engagement and voter conversion from other candidates to voting for you. If you look at successful campaigns of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, they were extremely effective in understanding both the rationality and functionality of the voters that were open to their “product” and executed the selling activity very effectively. The psychology of voting as a consumer choice is also related to the socio-economic profile of each voter. There are specific tendencies of participation that are directly tied to a voter’s socio-economic profile and the rate and frequency of their willingness to participate in voting. These same socio-economic voter profiles also impact their view of two intersecting voting and consumer psychological processes, rationality of the action and function of the action. The correlation of socio-economic lifestyle and voting and consumer psychological processes will provide a stronger campaign context for messaging, outreach and voter sales closure and success. Some of the key socio economic clusters and its impact on voting purchases are:

Income — traditional behavioral and statistical assumptions

Wealthier people vote at higher rates. And interestingly, when the health of the national economy declines, the citizens who are hurt most are the most likely to manifest reductions in turnout. This relation could again be due to differential motivation or ability or both. Perhaps less wealthy people have less time available to learn about elections and to cast votes than do wealthier people. Or perhaps more wealthy people perceive that they have a greater interest at stake in elections or have greater senses of political efficacy. Analyzing the last 6 general election cycles (2006 to 2016) shows that turnout increases at an average rate of 7.4 points or 14.90% by each increase in household income cluster. Being actively employed does have a significant impact on voting. Per analysis of the Census bureau — Reported Voting and Registration by Labor Force Status for the Population 18 and Over: November 1964 to 2016, employed adults vote at a 54.5% turnout rate per election, those not in the labor force (including retirees and persons with disability who can’t work) vote at a 52.3% turnout rate per election and unemployed adults vote at a 38.2% turnout rate per election. Participation increases by 29.7% between employed voters and unemployed voters and 5.3% between employed voters and voters not in the labor force.

The dominant voter consumer based upon income is also more likely to be a fear of the alternative voter or logical voter than a gut emotional connection voter and will not make a final purchasing decision until they have become fully convinced of the belief that picking the alternative “product” will have negative consequences on their lifestyle or they believe the “product is the best option on the market. A dual sales approach of candidate relatability to their income position, tax situation and value of governmental services for their purchasing decision while demonstrating the poor capacity or decision making practice of the alternative candidate will help drive the consumer to purchase more quickly and in less contacts than the lower income voter. This voter however will also tend to follow the consumer crowd, as their income level grows. They are not interested in feeling left out by their peers and want to have similar or better products that their peer class. The “fear of the alternative” model can also play into their choice by convincing them that they will be left out of the product market if they don’t get on board early. If they can beat their friends to be the first to purchase the product, they can be the influence driver with their peers and not be afraid of being the last person to catch to the new trend.

Education — traditional behavioral and statistical assumptions

Citizens with more formal education are more likely to vote; each additional year of education has a direct positive correlation with higher turnout. Turnout increases at an average rate of 9.5 points or 21.65% by each increase in education attainment (Census bureau — Reported Voting and Registration by Educational Attainment for the Population 18 and Over: November 1964 to 2016), from high school drop out to post graduate degree). Education could motivate people to vote by instilling civic duty, interesting them in the political process, or placing them in social settings in which voting is normative. The more a person’s educational attainment exceeds that of the people in his or her neighborhood, the more likely he or she is to vote. Similarly, the more a person’s education attainment exceeds that of others in his or her age group, the more likely he or she is to vote. Less educated individuals living in highly educated neighborhoods are less likely to take political actions than are less educated individuals living in neighborhoods occupied by people with little education.

Despite the advantage of achieving a college bachelors and the decision making capacity that comes from it, this voting consumer is more likely to make a decision based upon gut emotional connection and then fear of the alternative, while the non-college educated voting consumer is more likely to purchase a candidate based upon fear of negative alternative outcomes with other candidate choices. The bachelor level and higher voting consumer is less interested in making a logical purchasing choice because their selection or purchase of products is one of the few places where they can turn off their research and just let their emotions drive them. If they see something that they like, they will be more likely to move off of that emotional connection. They will only rebel and drop their purchase, if one makes them that the “product is a lemon or defective” A great example of that is the interest that college educated Republican voters had in former Tennessee Senator and star from Law & Order, Fred Thompson. As New York District Attorney Arthur Branch, he seemed like the perfect product, smart, tough with a good heart, great grasp of the law and comfortable with women and minorities. They didn’t have to use their college education to vet him, they could just rely on the emotional connection and watch him become the American President they dreamed of without having to think about it. Once he became a candidate, however, people realized that the product they clamored for was very defective. He wasn’t as knowledgeable or confident as seen on TV. He seemed to be less comfortable with women and non-traditional Republican voters as he did on TV. Suddenly, the product in the store and on TV didn’t work once it was brought home. Another comparable candidate product to this is President Barack Obama, only he continued to make you feel that the emotional connect was of great value and that it would never go defective.

If they don’t have to think about you, can gain an emotional connection with you and keep that good feeling without a lot of work, this voter will be extremely loyal. Part of the dynamic of winning this voting consumer over however, is by showing them your intelligence. They may not want to use their intelligence to research and determine the best value candidate, but they do want their candidate to demonstrate a level of intelligence and capacity. This requires more work and destroys the emotional connection that made them a loyal customer in the past. This is the same type of reaction to a candidate that shifts from intelligence to base emotion to drive their message.

Understanding the voting consumer and how does their lifestyle impact their voting purchases?

Similar to selling products to consumers, behavior analytics modeling will let modern campaigns to do the following:

· Identify the market segmentation of voting consumer groups,

· How they move through the purchasing process

· Determine their purchasing priorities and tailor policy & platform to address their purchasing priorities

· What are the selling activities necessary to reach and move these consumers through the purchasing process & to buy your “product”

· Building your campaign team to fit the consumer demographics of the voting jurisdiction.

· Measuring and managing ROI on campaign activities, resource allocation and voter conversion tracking

How and why people vote has evolved over the years, as the lifestyle and consumerism of life has taken hold. Identifying the purchasing model of voters in your election and how they fit within the functionality and rationality of voting.



Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade