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Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee: Voting

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee. 1954. Voting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

In Brief

Sociological contexts are the main influence on voting decisions. Family is the core group that shapes the interests and preferences the individual has in politics. Groups that we might think would influence voting (unions, parties, and the media) didn't; labor unions were inactive during this campaign, parties were involved in administrative duties rather than in proselytizing, and mass media reinforced previous voters' predispositions rather than changing them. It is sociological affiliations (e.g. family, religion, friends) that determine vote choice.

If the modal opinions of your various affiliations (family, religion, friends) differ, then the social pressures to conform with these various groups pull you in divergent directions. Result: You decide later (closer to November) how to vote; you're less likely to vote at all.

People who vote for the same candidate may have completely different conceptions of what the campaign is about. "People all vote in the same election but they are not voting on the same election."

Main Findings

The conclusions about media and campaigns have been dubbed the "minimal effects" hypothesis: Media and campaign ads supposedly have "minimal effects" on voting behavior.


The authors study Elmira, New York, during the 1948 Presidential election as an exploratory study. Authors employed a four-round panel study. Also, they conducted content analyses of the local press and candidates' speeches, and observed the activities of local party organizations. The group context of voting behavior, the role of issues, and the part played by the community were analyzed in this study. Nevertheless, it has been clearly stated that this study was not designed to sustain the analysis and review to which it was later subjected. As one of the first in-depth studies of voting, the authors intended it as an exploratory study.

Place in the Literature

With: Lazarfeld, et al. (1944); together, these studies are referred to as the Columbia studies. This study is one of the groundbreaking studies about the sociological explanation of the vote. Sides with those who explain that campaign effects only reinforce previous predispositions.

Against: 'Pure' rational (Downs 1957), retrospective (Key 1966), and psychological (Campbell, et al. 1960) schools of voting. Also, against those who maintain that campaigns really make a difference in an election (Fiorina 1981; Iyengar and Kinder 1987; Popkin 1994).

With (partially): Much of the "information shortcuts" school of thought (e.g. Lupia and McCubbins 1998), which supports the idea that we would look to our friends, family, and opinion leaders when deciding for whom to vote.

Chapter-By-Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1: Case Selection and Method

Elmira, NY: A "normal" American city (50,000 or so people, varied industries, typical ethnic makeup, etc.) in 1948 (Dewey (R) vs Truman (D)). A panel study (interview the panel a few times during the election year).

Chapter 6: Social Processes

Chapter 7: Social Effects of Campaigns

Chapter 11: Political Processes

Chapter 12: Political Effects

Potential Democrat voters were more likely to shift away from a Democratic vote (from June to August) if class issues weren't salient. Class issues and candidate personalities were mentioned equally often as a reason for change to Truman early on, but later class issues were mentioned far more frequently.

Research on similar subjects


Berelson, Bernard (author)Lazarsfeld, Paul (author)McPhee, William (author)American PoliticsVotingSociological Models of Politics

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