Determinant of Electoral Behaviour


Determinant of Electoral Behaviour

We are, in this article, mainly concerned with the factors which affect or determine electoral behavior, and the question we shall attempt to answer is why people vote in particular pattern or manner. The post has two interrelated segments that attempt to answer these questions.

Moreover, key public influences include the role of emotions, political socialization, tolerance of diversity of political views and the media. ... Additionally, social influence and peer effects, as originating from family and friends, also play an important role in elections and voting behavior.


Table of Content 

At the end of this post, it is expected that the student is able to do the following:

(a) Discuss the various factors that determine how people vote and in what manner

(b) Put these factors in particular contexts, especially in the politics of their own country


Read On: Definitions and Forms of Political Culture

Determinant of Electoral Behaviour

Determinant of Electoral Behaviour

There are various factors that determine how people vote and in what manner:

1. Issues and Party Identification

(a) Issues

The predominant viewpoint in the literature on electoral behaviour today is that issues are of relative insignificance in determining the way people vote. The majority of the electorate, according to this view, is, not attentive to, or motivated by, substantive policy issues. The parties themselves do not present clear policy positions or issue preferences to the electorate. Consequently, therefore, issue orientations are relegated to the background in the electoral process, with only a very small proportion of the electorate devoting any attention to whatever programmes or policies may be canvassed by the parties.

This position has, however, been attacked by some political scientists. For example, V.O. Key in his work, The Responsible Electorate, argued that the electorate has been more responsible, rational and issue-oriented than earlier accounts had implied. He observed that between 1936 and 1960 there was a degree of correspondence between the American voter's stated policy or issue preference and his reported presidential vote.

Other writers have argued that issue-voting is always very high among those citizens or groups for whom a particular issue is salient - i.e., the issue motivated public - and that it is unrealistic to expect all citizens to be interested in, and informed about, all the issues in a campaign.

Quite obviously, more empirically based research and more precise and widely accepted criteria are needed before we can arrive at a definitive conclusion regarding the relative weight of issue" orientation in voting behaviour.

Nonetheless, most behavioral researchers tend to support the conclusion that this orientation is not an important factor in the voting behaviour of the majority of the electorate.

(b) Party Identification

Party identification has continued to receive considerable attention as probably the single most important determinant of voting behaviour. A great deal of research has shown that once formed, a voter's party identification becomes a very stable psychological attitude. Thus, it has been shown that the majority of the electorate consistently vote for the same party over time, with newer voters simply inheriting party loyalties from their families. The initial source of party identification may be class, religion, race or any other factor. However, over time, this identification tends to acquire an autonomous importance of its own and to become the principal determinant of voting decision. In essence, party identification is a politically decisive emotional, psychological and traditional attachment, rather than a choice based on policy preferences.

Recently, however, some behaviouralists have contended that the use of party identification as an independent factor in electoral analysis has tended to exaggerate its impact. These behaviouralists also contend that party identification merely provides a psychological or non-political explanation for political phenomena. Nonetheless, party identification is still widely used.

Some advanced democracies: the Britain and the United States for instance, have always had their electoral behaviour coloured by political parties. In the United States people cast vote mainly for either the Republican or the Democrats while in Britain, the struggle for votes is mainly between Labour and the conservative parties.


2. Ethnicity and Class as Determinants of Voting Behaviour

(a) Ethnicity

The feeling of attachment to a racial, national or tribal group is often regarded as ethnicity. Ethnicity is an important factor in voting behaviour, particularly in plural or ethnically divided societies. An individual's ethnic identification influences much of his life. It influences his self-conception and the manner in which other people respond to him. According to some researchers, nothing is as important to the electorate of an ethnic community as the involvement of a member of the community in an electoral contest. Indeed, otherwise inactive citizens may become enthusiastic voters when a member of their community is contesting.

Many politicians have also found that whipping up ethnic sentiments and resentments are an effective strategy for mobilizing electoral support and loyalty, especially in societies where these factors are quite strong in political consideration.

In most multi-ethnic and plural polities such as Nigeria, political parties invariably come to be perceived by the electorate in ethnic or communal terms, regardless of the ideological or programmatic orientations of such parties. A good illustration of this tendency is provided by the electoral performance of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) during the Second Republic (1979-83). Despite the party's coherent and attractive programmes, and the vigorous efforts made by its leaders to sell these programmes to all Nigerians, the UPN was virtually unable to win any significant electoral support outside its core base in the Yoruba - dominated Western Region.

In plural societies, therefore, ethnicity would appear to be a far more important factor than issues in determining voting behaviour. Ethnicity would also appear in these societies to be the most important factor in the development of an individual's party identification.

(b) Class

Defined loosely in terms of occupation, income and education, class is also widely regarded as a significant factor in voting behaviour. In Britain in particular, class is regarded as the most important factor influencing party identification and voting behaviour. Here working class elements tend to identify politically with the Labour Party, while the middle and upper sectors of the society usually identify with the Conservative party. Even in America, where class is a less significant element in the electoral process than in Europe, the lower income class tends to support the Democratic Party, while the more privileged groups tend to back the Republican Party.

Class has, however, been a relatively insignificant factor in multi-ethnic Third World countries like Nigeria. Events in these countries do not appear to lend credence to the argument that with Western education, modernization and urbanization, class would replace ethnicity or tribalism as the basis of political cleavage. On the contrary, the modernization process has led to the intensification of ethnic or tribal differences. This situation has arisen from the fact that socio-economic competition in these countries have tended to be organized along communal, rather than class lines. Thus, ethnic and tribal groups have become interest groups competing for scare economic resources, with political leaders finding it increasingly necessary to speak and act as the protectors and promoters of the interests of their respective groups. In essence, class has not yet become a significant determinant of party identification or electoral behaviour in Nigeria and other multi-ethnic countries of the Third World.

Class and ethnicity may therefore contribute to the shaping of electoral behaviour. In some industrialized or developed countries, class may provide the basis for party identification.

In many multi-ethnic or plural societies, however, ethnicity is a relatively more important determinant of voting behaviour or party identification.

It is important to add that we have not exhausted the list of possible determinants of electoral behaviour in this unit. Other factors that may influence the behaviour of voters include religion and charisma. Finally, it is important that you should be able to relate the discussion in this lecture to the Nigerian experience.

 Read On: Meanings, Functions, Types and Characteristics of Election

Conclusion on Determinant of Electoral Behaviour

Politics being a game of who gets what where and when must have values and sentiments in many of its processes. Election is one of these. Voters consider a whole lot of factors before they vote, and these factors, which include ethnicity, class, issues and party identification as indicated in the foregoing, are generally considered as those affecting electoral behaviour.

The dominant position in the literature on electoral behaviour is that issues do not constitute a significant influence on the way people vote. Although this position has been attacked by V.O. Key, among others, it is still widely held by behavioral researchers. Party identification is generally regarded as probably the single most important influence on electoral behaviour. Studies have repeatedly shown that most people vote for the same party over time, and that this traditional and psychological attachment to a specific party is the most reliable factor for explaining and predicting voting behaviour.

However, while party identification has often been portrayed as an independent psychological factor, there can be little doubt that this identification is ultimately or partly rooted in other factors. In many countries, class and ethnicity may provide the basis for party identification and voting behaviour. Specifically, class may be of some importance in industrialized societies, while ethnicity is usually decisive elector ally in culturally divided societies of the Third World, including Nigeria.

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