Strategic and expressive voting

Abstract

Critics of the expressive account of voting have argued that it is inconsistent with strategic voting. Since there is strong evidence that people vote strategically, this has been taken to show that many voters are at least partially instrumentally motivated. This paper argues that strategic voting in the relevant sense is consistent with entirely expressive political motivation. Building on an earlier suggestion by Geoffrey Brennan, I model voters as expressively valuing ideological position as well as the strategic pursuit of expressively-defined preferences. This model predicts strategic voting without instrumental preferences entering the voter’s calculus at all. I also suggest that expressive preferences for strategic behaviour can be usefully analysed in terms of dispositional choice.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For other objections, see Edlin et al. (2007), Mackie (2012).

  2. 2.

    Expressive voting and dispositional politics are two central aspects of the emerging “revisionist public choice theory” being spearheaded by Brennan and Hamlin (2008). There are already important connections between these ideas (Hamlin 2006, pp. 9–10), and in this paper I build on these connections.

  3. 3.

    Another way of thinking about C P would be as a transformation of k, with the transformation being motivated by an expressive preference for thinking of oneself as politically efficacious. If k is small but positive, the voter may recognize that their vote has virtually zero chance of being decisive but when making expressive choices treat the probability as much higher. I prefer the first interpretation of C P as a mathematically distinct variable, since the common idea that voters are contributing to a collective decision even though they know none will be decisive does not intuitively seem like an exaggerated probability. Yet another possibility would be to replace C P with k but insist that voters only care about which option has the highest expected value (i.e. which is the best choice) and do not discount the strategic superiority of the choice by the insignificance of the individual. On this interpretation, people see politics as a game and want to make the optimal moves. I find this intuitively appealing but I will stick with C P for reasons of analytic clarity and simplicity.

  4. 4.

    Individuals likely receive psychic payoffs from having their preferred political party win, but voting in order to increase the probability of these payoffs would be instrumental rather than expressive.

  5. 5.

    It should also be noted that closeness may increase the salience of the election and thus increase the unsophisticated expressive value of voting.

  6. 6.

    Note, however, that votes wasted in a short term and strictly electoral sense might be valuable if victory margins affect government behaviour via a mandate effect or influence a party’s prospects in future elections (Stigler 1972; Fowler and Smirnov 2007; Mackie 2010).

  7. 7.

    If we consider political dispositions as influencing not simply voting choices but a range of political activity from conversations at the pub to the signing of petitions to the wearing of campaign badges, a strategic disposition appears more attractive. Individuals have many avenues for expressing their ideological preferences—their expressively ideal point—and if standard economic logic applies here the existence of such substitutes for sincere ideological voting will decrease the quantity demanded. In the dispositional terms above, the existence of other outlets would decrease the value of β. Strategic voters could express idealism in the pub by proclaiming the rightness of the extreme view while expressing seriousness and practicality in the voting booth by voting for the lesser of two evils, and this might be expected to create higher aggregate expressive payoff.

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Acknowledgments

I thank Geoff Brennan, Keith Dowding, the editors, and two anonymous referees.

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Correspondence to Brad R. Taylor.

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Taylor, B.R. Strategic and expressive voting. Const Polit Econ 26, 159–170 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10602-014-9180-0

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Keywords

  • Expressive voting
  • Strategic voting
  • Political dispositions
  • Revisionist public choice theory

JEL Classification

  • B59
  • D70
  • H10