Toward a New Theory of American Electoral Psychology

Author: Zhang, Chunhou and Margolis, Michael
This book reexamines the fundamental principles of American electoral psychology. The argument challenges and augments the psychological approach to partisanship and the rational choice approach to voting. It partially confirms theories of retrospective and economic voting, but its analysis of polling data from the American National Election Studies from 1948 through 2000 moves beyond them. The theoretical framework takes in psychological aspects of information processing, personality psychology of Freudianism, humanistic perspectives of psychology, conflicts of interest theories drawn from group psychology, and interest group pluralism in political science. The analysis uses the framework to explain seemingly contradictory phenomena in the behavior and psychology of American voters. The principal findings include: (1) American voters’ recognition of the differences between the major parties and the closeness of the likely outcome of presidential elections is contingent upon the information they receive regarding the degree of political mobilization and the intensity of political competition; (2) American voters’ judgments of presidential personalities tend toward duality; they use separate standards to assess natural and acquired traits as opposed to those traits they perceive as political; and (3) American voters behave differently in presidential elections from how they behave in other group conflicts. They use three benchmark fields when making their choice for President: economic prosperity, group compatibility and national security. These form three vulnerable points in the psychology of the electorate. The analysis demonstrates that the results of American presidential elections can be predicted largely by the voters’ perceptions of the presidential candidates and their parties in terms of the economy, group relations and national security.


“ ... In this work, Drs. Zhang and Margolis tell us that the vote decision is not so much about partisanship or rational choice as about how voters perceive the positions of the parties and their candidates in achieving the superordinate goals of the nation state as an interest group: (1) its national security or survival; (2) its economic prosperity; and (3) its management of inter-group conflicts. These represent the three enduring psychological themes of American politics, the latent forces that decide election after election … The electoral equation thus becomes a relatively simple one in which small movements in voters’ issue perceptions on the long-term interests of the nation generate shifts or ‘edging’ in party identification which, in turn, determines the vote ...” – (from the Foreword) Professor George Bishop, University of Cincinnati

“This is a book that teams together the perspectives of a younger Chinese political scientist (Dr. Zhang) and a seasoned veteran analyst of mass political behavior (Dr. Margolis). The result of this partnership is a fresh perspective on American electoral politics, on the American public, and on thinking about public rationality ... The authors neither object to nor reject theories based on cognition, rational choice or other bodies of work focusing on individual decision-making. Nor do they deny that party plays a big role and, over time, a variable one. Their pitch is simple: ultimately, elections turn on big issues that have to do with the fate of the nation. This book is a welcome addition to the serious debate about what moves the American electorate.” – Professor Bert A. Rockman, Purdue University

Table of Contents

List of Tables; List of Charts
Foreword by George Bishop
1. The Relative Rationality of the American Electorate
2. Partisanship as a Social-Psychological Constraint
3. Interest Conflicts and the Three Long-Term Themes in American National Elections
4. Partisan Support as a Dependent Variable in Forecasting Presidential Elections
5. The Long-Term Themes as Vulnerable Psychological Points