Do voters behave rationally? This question has dominated political scientists and strategists minds for decades. Political strategists have an inherent interest in arguing voters they want support from do not behave rationally by voting the other way. For example, Republican strategists argue blacks do not behave rationally voting for Democratic candidates who want to tax and regulate businesses more. Likewise, Democratic strategists cannot understand how rural, blue-collar and college educated whites can continue to vote Republican when they don’t offer the helping hand of government.
So let me posit a nonpartisan theory on voter behavior. Voters do behave rationally. They just behave rationally according to something political scientists and strategists struggle to grapple with at the individual level; personal values.
This theory is harder to support than counter theories arguing most voters vote their interests. Under this older theory small business owners lean Republican because of their low tax and less regulation policies. Environmentalists and union bosses lean right because Democrats defend and support their interests.
But interests are subjective and often lead to partisan tinged arguments. Republicans can argue blacks should vote Republican because it is in their interest to support lower taxes that allow businesses to create jobs. Likewise, Democrats can argue the GOP base of rural whites should support Democrats because it is in their interest to back the party that supports infrastructure spending and increased access to Healthcare.
Values are subjective as well. But it is far harder to argue where a voter’s vote should go if their values are clear. For example. if a voter values the environment above all else they will vote on that value (likely Democratic). But if another voter values life over everything else they will vote that value (likely Republican).
Some pollsters have asked this question despite the media’s intense focus on horse race numbers. In a January, 2014 poll Gallup found that Republicans and Democrats are separated by the issues they value most. The four most important issues for Democrats were the environment, income inequality, poverty, homelessness and education. Republicans four biggest issues were national defense, taxes, terrorism and government surveillance of US citizens.
Now, unless you are a hardcore partisan it is hard to not see Republican voters care about the homeless and poverty (NCLB, CHIP, Medicaid Expansion, all GOP ideas). They just may value it less when they go to the ballot box or more likely, believe in different policy solutions. Republican voters, even with the advent of the Tea party, have continued to regularly vote for candidates that pledge to keep but also reform welfare programs, most notably Paul Ryan. Likewise, Democrats do care about taxes and defense but those issues are outweighed by others.
This voter behavior is not only rational (voting my values) but also can do an excellent job explaining America’s current political polarization along virtually every spectrum; race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, etc. Political scientists may struggle to grapple with whether voters are rational or not but the political parties seem to operate on the assumption they are. As a result, Republicans make appeals to specific groups designed to appeal to their values. Ditto Democrats. Voters have noticed and partisan, ethnic and socio-cultural lines have hardened along voting habits.
For example, Republicans appeal to social conservatives with their anti-abortion stances. Republicans appeal to upper income individuals with calls for lower taxes and less regulation and they appeal to almost all groups with calls for welfare reform but maintaining the welfare state. Democrats appeal to the social left by supporting abortion rights, environmentalists and the wealthy with calls for renewable energy and the lower class with calls for higher taxes on the wealthy.
Both parties have also entered the digital age and begun targeting even smaller and smaller groups of voters with micro and nano targeting. This sort of targeting is based on maintaining a rigorous voter information database that sends out specific info to voters that target their values. Voters with more nuanced views and values are not easily swayed by these efforts (explains their lower turnout rates).
The long and short of it is that voters are rational. They prioritize the issues they value most and vote on those issues. Both parties have made it easy for voters to see what issues they value most and voters vote accordingly. This in turn has led to the higher level of polarization in today’s contemporary politics.