Does Behavioral Economics Apply To Voting?


Historically, the calculus for voting behavior has centered on three elements: Candidate Preference driven by Issue Congruence (similarity between the candidate’s and voter’s position on the issues) and Turnout. Many an election has been won with just these three concepts driving strategy and tactics. Recently, however, the discussion of presidential candidates has used behavioral economics (BE) terms such as “risk,” “social acceptability” and “breaking the rules.” Does this mean that BE is really applicable to politics, or are these terms just part of the national vocabulary? Let’s actively try to apply the language of BE to the current presidential candidate discussion and determine whether value or obfuscation is the result.

Certainly Issue Congruence is a component, but what about toughness, leadership, fairness and other facets of personality? These should reflect some expectation of success regarding future crises, difficult-to-handle world leaders, sensitive domestic issues, their own party, etc. So there ought to be a calculation of Utility for each voter that would capture more than just Issue Congruence.

The uncertainty with which the candidate’s performance in office is perceived could offset their Value, including Issue Congruence with even the most closely held positions. It is conceivable that even the candidate with the highest Utility could be less preferred than one with fewer assets but more an expected, more predictable and, therefore, successful performance.

In BE experiments, the immediacy of the reward has much to do with the overall expectation of Utility. In the case of a presidential candidate, could the lead/learning time necessary to “get up to speed” impact their overall Utility?

So at least some of the major BE concepts do appear to fit a presidential election. Could these concepts be operationalized and a calculation of candidate Value be constructed? Could this estimate of Value be added to expected turnout and the ballot forecasted? Is there a methodology in existence into which these and other BE elements could be inserted and their effect estimated on each candidate? Yes, the Behavioral Science Lab’s MINDGUIDE℠ and BrandEmbrace℠ services are available today to estimate the voter decision process and likely vote outcome just as they do for buyers and their next likely purchase.