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CHAPTER 2 Reasoning Voters: Sorting through the Demands of Direct Democracy Many contemporary political scientists have not been sympathetic to the idea that voters have the interest, sophistication, or information required to make policy-oriented decisions in highly visible, partisan elections. It is hardly surprising , then, to find that there has been little support for the idea that voters are competent enough to make informed decisions on policy issues that are placed directly on the ballot. Our argument, grounded in more recent approaches to voting behavior, is that voters are quite capable of making decisions on ballot propositions. A central plank in this argument is that voters are able to reason and therefore are able to decide which side of an issue they support based on readily available information. The sources and types of information may, however , be quite different from those used in candidate elections. The American Voter and Voter Competence: Early Behavioral Studies and Mass Behavior Normative theorists of democracy have implied or assumed a rnicrolevel model of voting behavior in which voters possess a number of attributes, with interest in and knowledge of politics of primary importance (e.g., Berelson 1952). Yet from the outset, empirical studies of voters have found an American electorate lacking the ability to evaluate issues and policies involved in the relatively straightforward choice between two presidential candidates. In studies of general elections from the post-World War II era, levels of voter information on, awareness of, and interest in politics were found to be extremely low. The dominant statement of this minimalist view of candidate races is found in the famed Michigan study The American Voter (A. Campbell et al. 1960). One of the more notable conclusions from this study is that voters have low levels of conceptualization and consequently are unable to think in abstract terms about politics and policy. According to the paradigm, few voters are sufficiently sophisticated to think about politics on the basis of issues and ideology. Voters were said to lack sophistication in two key ways: (1) they have limited abilities to think in the abstract about candidates and issues, and (2) they lack factual knowledge 21 22 Demanding Choices (Smith 1989; see also Luskin 1987). This early research found that most voters lacked any ideological constraint that might allow them to make sense out of the array of issues presented during high-profile presidential elections (Converse 1964). Moreover, the Michigan study found that voters simply did not know much about politics in general, or issues in particular, when making choices about candidates. Many postwar surveys, for example, asked voters to name a set of politicians (Cabinet members or Supreme Court justices) or asked them to place named candidates on policy scales that related to specific issues of the day. Voters tended not to know who the Supreme Court justices were, and they could not say with any great degree of precision what unemployment levels were. Where "issue voting" was identified (e.g., racist or segregationist voting associated with the 1968 Wallace candidacy), these authors noted that observed issue-based voting was distinctly different from, and inferior to, "sophisticated" voting (Converse et al. 1969). It was necessary for issues to be "easy" matters that touched on gut reactions to such topics as race relations in order for voters to respond to them (see also Carmines and Stimson 1980). Since then, some amendments have been made to the bleak picture ofvoter competence revealed by the earliest studies. The Michigan-inspired portrait of a nonideological electorate composed of voters with a limited ability to conceptualize politics has, for example, been challenged as a product of the time period (the 1950s) during which it was conducted (Page and Brody 1972; Nie, Verba, and Petrocik 1976). Some other conclusions were challenged on the grounds ofmeasurement error. When some ofthe earlier studies were replicated to account for measurement error, the attitudes ofAmericans appear more consistent and stable than Converse's work (1964) would suggest (Achen 1975; Jackson 1979). Another line of criticism of The American Voter emerged in the fonn of evidence that voters systematically use policy-specific infonnation when evaluating candidates. Although the initial impression of the electorate was that of a minimally informed and minimally alert group, some subsequent literature made the picture less bleak. Although the evidence often appears stronger at the aggregate (Kramer 1971; Tufte 1978; Kramer 1983; Lewis-Beck 1988) than at the individual level, opinion studies from the 1980s and 1990s demonstrate that voters often respond...


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