Do candidates’ issue positions influence voters?

Utah voters may selectively think of only certain issues

This analysis was performed by Ethan Busby, a student research fellow at BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy (“like” CSED on Facebook), in collaboration with CSED faculty. The writing is mostly his. Inquiries about this research should come to David Magleby or Jeremy Pope.

Many of us would like to think that we make our voting decisions based on the political issues at stake. But is this really the case? On Election Day, we asked voters about the influence of issue positions in their voting decisions.1 Voters’ options on this question ranked from one to five, one being the most positive influence and five being the most negative influence.

Do voters say that issue positions matter?

The figure below illustrates some differences between Obama voters and Romney voters.

What percentage of voters say that candidates’ issue positions affect their vote choice?

Practically speaking, however, these differences do not seem to be very important. The overwhelming majority of voters for both candidates felt that the issue positions of their candidate of choice influenced their vote in a positive way. These results reinforce the importance of issues in citizens’ vote choice.

Do voters actually agree with their candidates’ positions?

However, do these respondents’ issue positions actually match the candidates they say they supported? We also asked voters about their views on reducing the national deficit.2 Voters who said the candidates’ issues positively influenced them broke down the following way:

What percentage of voters agree with Obama (“combination”) and Romney (“cut spending”) as a solution to the deficit?

More than forty percent of these Mitt Romney voters preferred a solution that included spending cuts and tax increases. This opinion does not match with Mitt Romney’s stated deficit plan. In the first presidential debate, for example, Mitt Romney stated that he “absolutely” would not accept a deficit reduction plan that included raising taxes.3 The Romney campaign also tried to focus on the economy and the deficit, hoping that these issues would attract conservatives and moderates across the country. These responses seem to indicate forty percent of these Romney voters either did not agree with Romney’s position on the deficit or were ignorant of his actual position. Maybe they simply missed the message.

Many Utah voters who stated that Mitt Romney’s issue positions impacted their vote positively were more moderate on the deficit than Romney himself was. Perhaps the evolution (or waffling, depending on which side of the political spectrum you fall) of Romney’s positions was lost on Utah voters. These Utah voters may simply be subscribing to an older version of Mitt Romney.

Another possibility is that Utah voters may selectively think of only certain issues.4 When asked about the influence of the candidates’ issue positions, Utah voters may also consider more than one issue. The broad category of “issues” encompasses a variety of topics, and asking voters to evaluate the impact of candidates’ issue positions may tap into something more complicated than simple agreement with a politician. In at least one case, almost forty percent of Mitt Romney’s supporters disagreed with one of his clearest issue positions, suggesting that these supporters probably agreed with him in other areas. These findings may imply that when respondents say that the candidate’s position positively influenced them, they are thinking of only select issues, rather than the candidate’s entire platform. Voters may have political blinders on, focusing on one or two issues and simply ignoring the platform as a whole.

Notes about survey methodology

The Utah Colleges Exit Poll is an exit poll administered to a multistage sample across the state of Utah. This survey was administered on November 6, 2012 during the time that voting locations were open. You can click here to read more about the exit poll.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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