Field experiments allow researchers on political behavior to test causal relationships between mobilization and a range of outcomes, in particular, voter turnout. These studies have rapidly increased in number since 2000, many assessing the impact of nonpartisan Get-Out-the-Vote (GOTV) campaigns. A more recent wave of experiments assesses ways of persuading voters to change their choice of party or alter their social and political attitudes. Many studies reveal positive impacts for these interventions, especially for GOTV. However, there are far fewer trials carried out outside the United States, which means it is hard to confirm external validity beyond the U.S. context, even though many comparative experiments reproduce U.S. findings. Current studies, both in the United States and elsewhere, are growing in methodological sophistication and are leveraging new ways of measuring political behavior and attitudes.
Field Experiments on Political Behavior
Voting Advice Applications
Diego Garzia and Stefan Marschall
Voting Advice Applications (VAAs) are online tools that assist citizens with their voting decisions. They are offered to voters before elections in many countries and have experienced remarkable success. Recently flourishing research on VAAs addresses this phenomenon and provides explanations for the dissemination and popularity of these tools. Moreover, VAAs have been analyzed regarding their effects on political parties, candidates, and on voters in regard to their electoral behavior. Research shows that using a VAA indeed makes a difference, while the effect depends strongly on the way a VAA is designed and by whom it is used. The abundance of data generated by VAAs bears potential for comparative studies of public opinion and party systems over time and across countries, and thereby bridges research on VAAs to general questions of political science research.
Party System Polarization and Electoral Behavior
Ruth Dassonneville and Semih Çakır
When deciding whether to turn out to vote and what party to support, citizens are constrained by the available options within their party system. A rich literature shows that characteristics of this choice set, which capture how “meaningful” the choice is, have pervasive effects on electoral behavior and public opinion. Party system polarization in particular, which captures how ideologically dispersed the parties are, has received much attention in earlier work. More ideologically polarized party systems are associated with higher turnout rates, while both proximity voting and mechanisms of accountability appear strengthened when parties are more ideologically distinct. However, party system polarization also strengthens party attachments and entails a risk of fostering mass polarization.
The Decision to Vote or to Abstain
Why voters turn out on Election Day has eluded a straightforward explanation. Rational choice theorists have proposed a parsimonious model, but its logical implication is that hardly anyone would vote since their one vote is unlikely to determine the election outcome. Attempts to save the rational choice model incorporate factors like the expressive benefits of voting, yet these modifications seem to be at odds with core assumptions of rational choice theory. Still, some people do weigh the expected costs and benefits of voting and take account of the closeness of the election when deciding whether or not to vote. Many more, though, vote out of a sense of civic duty. In contrast to the calculus of voting model, the civic voluntarism model focuses on the role of resources, political engagement, and to a lesser extent, recruitment in encouraging people to vote. It pays particular attention to the sources of these factors and traces complex paths among them. There are many other theories of why people vote in elections. Intergenerational transmission and education play central roles in the civic voluntarism models. Studies that link official voting records with census data provide persuasive evidence of the influence of parental turnout. Education is one of the best individual-level predictors of voter turnout, but critics charge that it is simply a proxy for pre-adult experiences within the home. Studies using equally sophisticated designs that mimic the logic of controlled experiments have reached contradictory conclusions about the association between education and turnout. Some of the most innovative work on voter turnout is exploring the role of genetic influences and personality traits, both of which have an element of heritability. This work is in its infancy, but it is likely that many genes shape the predisposition to vote and that they interact in complex ways with environmental influences. Few clear patterns have emerged in the association between personality and turnout. Finally, scholars are beginning to recognize the importance of exploring the connection between health and turnout.
Generations and Political Engagement
Miroslav Nemčok and Hanna Wass
The concept of “generation” constitutes a useful tool to understand the world of politics. Trends in political behavior typical for the youngest generation are indicative for future development. In a wider perspective, large differences between generations also reveal potential for intergenerational conflict and a shift in the entire political paradigm. Four important topics need to be addressed in order to properly understand the body of research studying specifics of political behavior across generations and the use of generation as an analytical tool: (a) conceptual definition of generation, (b) its distinction from other time-related concepts, (c) methodological challenges in applying the time-related factors in research, and (d) understanding the wider implications of these factors for individuals’ political behavior which has already been identified in the scholarship. A political generation is formed among cohorts who experience the same event(s) during their formative years and become permanently influenced by them. Therefore, members of the same generation share similar socialization experiences which create a sense of group belonging and shape the attitudes and behavior throughout their lives. This definition of political generation is distinctive among the three time-related factors—age, period, and cohort—each of which has a well-grounded and distinctive theoretical underpinning. However, a truly insightful examination of the time-related development in political engagement needs to utilize hybrid models that interact with age and period or cohort and period. This imposes a challenge known as identification problem—age (years since birth), period (year), and cohort (year of birth) are perfect linear functions of each other and therefore conventional statistical techniques cannot disentangle their effects. Despite extraordinary effort and outstanding ideas, this issue has not been resolved yet in a fully reliable and hence satisfactory manner. Regardless of methodological issues, the literature is already able to provide important findings resulting from cohort analysis of political engagement. This scholarship includes two major streams: The first focuses on voter turnout, exploring whether nonvoting among the youngest generation is a main reason for the turnout decline in contemporary democracies. The second stream examines the generational differences in political engagement and concludes that low electoral participation among the youngest generation may be explained by young people being more engaged with noninstitutionalized forms of political participation (e.g., occupations, petitions, protests, and online activism).
Direct Democracy and Political Decision Making
Shaun Bowler, Reagan Dobbs, and Stephen Nicholson
Direct democracy in the United States is the process whereby voters decide the fate of laws, through either an initiative or a referendum. Initiatives allow voters to approve or reject a policy proposal, whereas referendums permit voters to decide the fate of laws passed by the legislature. Although some high-profile ballot measures, especially those related to ‘moral’ issues, may induce people to vote, most ballot measures are unfamiliar to voters and so have a limited effect on participation. Rather than mobilizing voters, the more choice confronting voters faced with ballot measures is whether to “roll-off” or abstain from voting on them. The subsequent decision, how to vote, is intimately related to the decision over whether to vote and is largely motivated by the same factors. In deciding whether and how to vote, voters must know what a ballot measure is about, discern the political motivation underlying it, and match that information to their political predispositions to cast a Yes or No vote; otherwise they abstain. The more voters know about a given proposition, the more likely it is that they will vote and, furthermore, that the vote they do cast will reflect their underlying political values. In contrast both to the claims made by many critics of direct democracy and, also, some current studies in political science, votes in direct democracy are often underpinned by substantive, policy-based considerations. Voters are thus capable of meaningfully participating in the direct democracy process.