Want to predict how someone will vote? Identity may matter more than policy.

Researchers say existing models for predicting voting behavior focus too much on policy positions, and not enough on voter identity.

You might expect that voters are looking at the candidates’ positions on the issues and casting their ballots for whomever best matches their own policy preferences. But researchers at Duke University say this is only sometimes the case. In a paper published in Trends in Cognitive Science, they argue that for many people, casting a vote has more to do with reinforcing a sense of self—perhaps as a progressive, a Christian, or a member of a minority community—than making a political decision. That’s why they’re calling for a new way to predict voter behavior by shifting emphasis from policy issues to voter identity.

“It isn’t always clear how a particular policy will affect one’s own interests; for example, how can I judge whether a trade deal will increase my own salary or improve my local economy?” explains psychology and neuroscience professor Scott Huettel. “It can be much easier to recognize that supporting a particular candidate reinforces my own identity, whether as a patriot, a global citizen, or something else.”

Voting as identity reinforcement has an immediate effect. You check the box or tap the screen and feel that you’ve acted in accordance with your self-image. In contrast, one vote rarely sways an election, and the effects of an election on policy are often not seen until far in the future, after a candidate has taken office, if at all.

Despite this, traditional voter prediction models still put questions about policy front-and-center. Voters are asked to rank policy issues by importance, and the model selects the candidate whose platform best matches their positions. It’s a familiar format to anyone who’s used an online tool to calculate which candidates most agree with you on election issues. “The models assume that people make decisions as if they were considering the costs and benefits of each relevant factor, weighted by the importance of that factor,” Huettel says.

Huettel and his coauthor, political scientist Libby Jenke, say these models don’t reflect how voters actually decide who to vote for. Instead, they suggest that policy preferences and identity compete; some voters will be more influenced by identity, and others will be more influenced by policy. Determining which group a voter falls into can lead to more accurate predictions: “We argue that identity factors are their own category—and that strengthening one identity factor increases the importance of all identity factors for that voter,” says Huettel.

What if the identity you’d like to reinforce at the polls is that of a voter who bases decisions on policy issues? You’re certainly not alone. “Policy will often have effects, especially in cases where there are very large differences between candidates,” says Huettel, “But, even so, we contend that identity often overrides policy, such that people vote for candidates who aren’t necessarily closest to their own professed self-interest.”

Going forward, Huettel and Jenke are planning neuroscience studies to find ways to tell whether a voter sees an issue as identity-related or policy-related. They’re also testing their predictive model in this election cycle. Huettel says they expect identity-focused candidates will mean voters put more weight on identity across the board and less on policy: “In this election, identity has played a large role in both parties, as there are large swaths of the electorate who see their vote not just as an expression of policy positions, but as saying something about who they are.”

Featured image courtesy of the IIP Photo Archive