Sociology of Elections Essay

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The sociological theories of elections date back to the 1940s, when Paul Lazarsfeld developed the Opinion Leaders Model – also known as the two-step hypothesis. According to this theory, voters rely on an ”opinion leader” when making political choices. An ”opinion leader” is an individual in a ”primary group” whose views are trusted on a subject. Instead of being swayed by the media, voters rely on the opinion-leader, who may rely on the media’s coverage of the election. The process goes as follows:

Mass media -> Opinion leaders -> Citizens

The Michigan model, developed by Angus Campbell in The American Voter (1960), is the main alternative. The central concept is party-identification. Some voters are socialized to identify with one of the major political parties. Citizens who identify with a party (party-identifiers) will tend to vote in every election – and tend to vote for their party. Non-party identifiers, by contrast, will tend not to vote (unless prompted by short-term factors). Campbell distinguished between, respectively: ”Maintaining elections” and ”Deviating elections.” In a ”maintaining election,” the campaign will typically be dull and devoid of ”short-term factors.” The outcome is determined by party-identifiers, as the party with the highest number of party-identifiers can rely on them to cast their vote. The result will converge towards the so-called ”normal vote.” In a ”deviating” election, by contrast, short term factors (e.g. a charismatic candidate), will prompt non party-identifiers to turn out to vote (thus increasing turnout) and may tempt weaker party identifiers to shift party.

While fewer people are party identifiers now (some have talked about dealignment), the model is still used both in the USA and in other western democracies.

Bibliography:

  • Lazarsfeld, P. F., Berelson, B., & Gaudet, H. (1988) The People’s Choice. Columbia University Press, New York.

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