Economic Interests in Electional Voting and Political Identity

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While it is true that voters tend to vote for what they perceive to be in their best economic interest, and they generally won’t vote against this interest, that is not to say that there are other determinants which, combined, may have more influence overall. Long-term primacy factors and political socialisation (determining where a voter lies on the left-right spectrum); The context of the election (with issue voting on salient issues); as well as recency factors such as the performance of the governing party or the perception of individual political candidates, all influenced by media bias (affecting the rationality of voters), combined are an equal, if not more powerful force determining voters’ preferences than economic interests.

It could be argued that economic interests are the main determinants of voters’ preferences. This follows the rational self-interested voter model. Essentially, voters will vote in accordance to what they perceive to be in their economic interest, as no rational, reasonable voter will vote in a manner which would be to the detriment of their own financial situation. A voters’ inherent desire to protect their own self-interest would trump any other factors which may influence their voting decisions, whether they be ideological, moral, or other. Wealthy individuals are likely to support policies which protect the interest of the rich, and they will thus vote for parties or candidates that uphold such policies (for example, the Conservatives in the UK). To contrast, less wealthy individuals, upon assessment of their own economic situation, are likely to vote for a party which supports welfare spending and public services. This is corroborated by Margalit, who points out from her study of the 2008 financial crash that ‘the personal experience of economic hardship, particularly the loss of a job, had a major effect on increasing [a voters’] support for welfare spending.’(Margalit, 2013: 80) She also notes that this increase in support for welfare spending dissipated once the voters’ employment situation improved, highlighting that their preferences came from a ‘rational calculation of one’s economic status’(Margalit, 2013: 80) rather than being an ideological conviction. Powdthavee strengthens this argument, coming to the conclusion that the wealthier voters are, the more right wing they are, voting to preserve their own wealth to as large an extent as possible. By comparing voters before and after winning the lottery, they conclude that ‘winners tend to switch towards support for a right-wing political party and to become less egalitarian. The larger the win, the more people tilt to the right.’

Thus, Powdthavee concludes that voting is ‘driven… by human self-interest. Money apparently makes people more right-wing.’ The trend is apparent in voting patterns in the UK. At the 2015 general election, according to the National Readership Survey, 45% of A-B Class (high income professional/managerial middle class) voted Conservative, compared to only 27% of D-E Class (lower income, unskilled working class). Meanwhile, 41% of D-E Class voted Labour compared to only 25% of A-B Class (Ipsos MORI, 2015). This emphasises the extent to which economic status aligns with voting decisions, and highlights that economic interest are a dominant factor in determining voters’ preferences.

However, this isn’t always the case. While it’s true that voters don’t stray too far from their economic self-interest, there are other factors which may be more influential in determining voters’ preferences. Krauss wrote in reference to the 2008 US election that ‘A significant fraction of evangelical voters appear more likely to ignore the candidates’ specific economic…platforms in favour of concerns about gay marriage or abortion.’ (Krauss, 2008) He makes three essential points here. Firstly, that a portion of the electorate vote on personal, emotive, religious lines. Secondly, that single-issue voting (in this case gay marriage and abortion) is extremely important in determining voting preferences, especially when the context of the election itself revolves around that issue. And finally, that a voters’ perception of a candidates’ image or views held is a decisive factor in the way voters vote. While Krauss’s specific observation of the 2008 election cannot be applied universally, it can nonetheless be helpful in explaining why economic interests are not always the main determinant of voters’ preferences.

Firstly, long-term primacy factors and social cleavages influence where a voter lies on the left-right political spectrum, making them a powerful determinant of voters’ preferences. Nationality, age, and in the case of Krauss and the 2008 elections, religion, all serve to influence voters preferences. Rather than voting purely by economic interests, voters tend to vote in accordance with their perceived identity. While the UK will be used as a case study, the same trends can be applied to countries elsewhere. In terms of nationality, ever since the 2014 Scottish referendum, the SNP have dominated Scottish constituencies, with 50% of the Scottish national vote and 56 of the 59 seats. The Conservatives, associated with its Englishness, only captured a single constituency (Electoral Commission, 2015). Clearly, the vote of the Scottish voters were aligned with their nationality, not their respective economic interests. In Northern Ireland too, the sectarian divide has meant that the entire political system itself has rested on a factional split between the Unionists and Nationalists, as opposed to any financial disposition. Similar trends are visible in other countries, for example Spain, where the Catalonians are vying for independence. Another long-term primacy factor is age. While younger voters are more likely to sit on the left of the spectrum and vote Labour, older voters tend to be right wing and vote Conservative. While this can in part be due to the elderly wanting to protect their financial assets, it is also due to older pensioners being more wedded to traditional value and attitudes, in contrast to younger, more liberal voters. Religion has also long played a vital role in determining voters’ preferences, and in some cases transgresses voters’ economic interests.

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Religion is very important in US elections, and many European parties are often formed around religious denominations e.g. in Belgium and Germany. The more religiously observant tend to vote conservatively, assuming that this will preserve their traditional values. Overall, religious issues tend to divert voters from the mainstream economically-based voting patterns. In 2005 for example, constituencies with a large proportion of Muslims voted differently. Galloway’s anti-Iraq war ‘Respect’ party picked up 12% of votes here, compared with other constituencies where Respect stood and got 1%. (Rallings, 2005: 4). Whereas Jewish voters in the UK had a history of voting Labour out of economic interest, the 2015 election showed a different determinant of Jewish voters’ preferences. In the run up, Labour created a Bill recognising the State of Palestine, whereas the Conservatives showed unbending support for Israel. In the Finchley constituency, even a Jewish Labour candidate, Sarah Sackman, couldn’t overcome the Jews’ growing distrust of Labour. As is clear from the previous two examples, religion can be a strong determinant of voters’ preferences, in transgression of economic interests. Overall, then, it is apt to argue that social cleavages and long-term primacy factors serve as a defining factor in determining voters’ preferences.

Issue voting regarding the context of elections are another major determinant of voters’ preferences. Importantly, it is issue voting that most often supersedes voting in accordance with economic interests, meaning it is a more significant determinant of voters’ preferences. The issue voting model dictates that voters vote on the most pressing, salient issues of the day, rather than just voting out of pure economic calculation. While the salient issue might indeed be the state of the economy, it often varies from election to election. In the UK in 2005 for example, it was the 2003 invasion of Iraq that was most salient. The popular sentiment against Blair undermined Labour support. In Muslim areas, their vote share fell by over 5% (Rallings, 2005). Clearly, issue voting on salient matters played a more important factor in determining voters’ preferences than their economic interest, which would have indicated voting for Labour rather than against it. As Schofield contends, throughout the history of US elections the same trends of issue voting are palpable. He states ‘The sequence of presidential elections between 1964 and 1972 has features of a political transformation, where the race or civil rights issue played a fundamental role. Democrats had held the presidency since 1932… parties increasingly differentiated themselves on the basis of a civil rights dimension, rather than the economic dimension of politics.’ (Schofield, 2003: 218) Not only is issue voting on salient issues the main determinant on non-economic matters, but in some cases it takes precedence where economic matters are involved. In the 2015 general election the UK Independence Party won almost 4 million votes (Ipsos MORI, 2015), with the majority of them working class voters switching from their long-held allegiance to Labour. This fundamentally transgressed these voters’ economic interest– only Labour held the title of representing the working classes. Here, the single salient issue of discontent with the EU superseded voters’ rational economic interest which would have inclined them to vote Labour. According to Dalton, salient issues ‘such as environmentalism, gender equality, and multiculturalism… have entered the contemporary political agenda’ (Dalton, 2010: 106), and are starting to play an even more determinant role in voters’ preferences than ever before.

Finally, recency factors which are nether ideologically nor economically based are another main determinant of voters’ preferences, and often have a very strong effect on countering the economically self-interested vote. The image of the party leader, their perception in the public eye, and their short-term performance are hugely influential on a misinformed electorate, and should not be underestimated. These recency factors, coupled with a constant bombardment of media bias, make it easier for voters to make a decision. In terms of the image of the party leader, there is a strong link between perceptions of who will make the best leader, and voting intentions. In 2010 an Ipsos Mori study found for the first time the leaders of the party to be just as important as the party’s policies in affecting voting behaviour (Ipsos MORI, 2010). In the 2015 UK General Election, Miliband was portrayed in the press as weak and incompetent, especially in response to the rise of the SNP, and this stuck in the voters’ minds. As such, the election was a failure for Labour, and the Conservative Party captured a majority of seats in Parliament. Kaplan’s study of ‘the Fox News Effect’ further emphasises how media bias and the perception of parties or leaders affect voters’ rationality, and shows that they don’t always vote according to economic interest. While the rational voter model dictates that voters will filter out bias in reporting, the study proves that voters’ are non-rational and subject to persuasion: ‘Republicans gained 0.4 to 0.7% vote share in tows where the Republican supporting Fox News was broadcast… Fox news convinced 3-28% of its viewers to vote Republican.’ (Kaplan, 2006: 1). Kaplan concludes that Fox News had a ‘sizeable impact’ (Kaplan, 2006: 3) on the vote share for Republicans.

Another recency factor is the performance of the governing party. It is often said that “Oppositions don’t win elections…governments lose them”. Over the years of tenure of an incumbent government, voters develop a general impression of the governing party. This influences their vote at the ballot box, as rather than voting according to their economic interest, voters vote based on the track record of the government, and how well they have done. In 1997, despite a growing economy, voters still associated the Major government with the ERM fiasco of ‘Black Wednesday’, when the government’s economic policy collapsed. Voters elected Blair instead. The Conservatives entered the 2015 election having presided over economic growth and the creation of 2.2 million jobs. This proved difficult for Labour to argue against.

In conclusion, while it is true that economic interests are a significant determinant of voters’ preferences, it is also fitting to say that other factors combined, such as issue voting, political socialisation and identity, and regency factors, are a stronger determinant than economic interests, and in some cases contradict voting in accordance with economic interest. It should be noted, however, that the extent to which economic interest or other factors influence voters’ preferences is also dependant on time period. Whereas in the mid-20th century there existed strong identities with class and class based voting, and as such economic interest were the main determinant, there is now relative partisan de-alignment, with other issues coming to the fore such as environmentalism and feminism. Moreover, the introduction of television and social media over time has played a major role in shifting the determinants of voters’ preferences to more regency factors.

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