The Simplest Shortcut of All: Sociodemographic Characteristics and Electoral Choice

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Abstract

Voters’ decision criterion of last resort is their similarity to candidates or party leaders. Most normative theories would denigrate this form of reasoning. But the recent argument that voters can make up for information shortfalls by employing heuristics seems to require that the most poorly informed respond to these characteristics if they are to make anything other than a random decision. In this article I test the hypothesis that increasing dissimilarity of sociodemographic characteristics from a political figure (e.g., party leader) decreases a voter’s expected utility from the election of that person. Secondarily, I ask whether decreases in a voter’s store of policy information will necessitate greater reliance—a tendency to “fall back”—on this similarity/dissimilarity criterion. I draw on survey data from two Canadian federal elections with adequate variation in party leader characteristics. A model of vote choice is estimated by conditional logit. All voters are found to respond negatively to increasing sociodemographic distance from party leaders, net of partisanship, economic retrospections, policy, and uncertainty. Voters equipped for policy voting do not ignore these characteristics, and voters without policy information do not respond more strongly to their similarity or dissimilarity to party leaders.

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