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Popkin: The reasoning voter

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.

Popkin. 1994. The reasoning voter: Communication and persuasion in presidential campaigns. 2d edition. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

In Brief


To develop a theory that explains how voters form opinions and make decisions.

Main Argument

Popkin relies on a theory of low information rationality to explain how voters are able to make rational choices between candidates. Voters do this by using information shortcuts that they receive during campaigns, usually using something like a "drunkard's search." Voters use small amounts of personal information to construct a narrative about candidates. Essentially, they ask themselves this: "Based on what I know about the candidate personally, what is the probability that this presidential candidate was a good governor? What is the probability that he will be a good president?"

Place in Literature

Draws on the Columbia school's insights about campaigns, and socialization, Downs's theory of information shortcuts and voters as investors and on modern political psychology and behavior studies to develop his theory. Argues against theorists such as Converse and those who argue that political behavior is irrational. See Lupia and McCubbins for further development of Popkin's arguments.


Develops theory by drawing on previous research. Supports theory with analysis of recent elections.

The Argument

Low information rationality

Popkin's analysis is based on one main premise: voters use low information rationality gained in their daily lives, through the media and through personal interactions, to evaluate candidates and facilitate electoral choices.

Political "Knowledge": Despite a more educated electorate, knowledge of civics has not increased significantly in forty years. According to Popkin, theorists who argue that political competence could be measured by knowledge of "civics book" knowledge and names of specific bills (i.e. the Michigan studies) have missed the larger point that voters do manage to gain an understanding of where candidates stand on important issues. He argues that education has not changed how people think, but it does allow us to better interpret and connect different cues.

Information as a By-Product: Popkin argues that most of the information voters learn about politics is picked up as a by-product of activities they pursue as a part of daily life (homeowners learn about interest rates, shoppers learn about prices and inflation etc.--thus, people know how the economy is doing). Media helps to explain what politicians are doing and the relevance of those actions for individuals, and campaigns help to clarify the issues. Voters develop affinity towards like-minded opinion leaders in media and in personal interactions.

Media and Friends: Interpersonal communication is seen as a way of developing assessments of parties and candidates. Information received from the media is discussed with friends and helps to create opinions. While voters do care about issue proximity, they also focus on candidate competency and sincerity and rely heavily on cues to make these evaluations.

Party ID as a Running Tally

Drawing on Fiorina (1981) and on his own earlier work (Popkin et al. 1976), Popkin views party identification as a running tally of party assessment and looks at party identification of candidates as providing an important default value which voters use to evaluate them. He sees "a sophisticated pattern of transmission from past elections and interactions among and between people in the current election" (p.71).

Creating Narratives about Candidates (ch 4)

Popkin argues that voters often function as clinicians (who gather limited information and infer from it a broader narrative), in contrast to statisticians (who weigh only facts in order to make a decision). He illustrates a few concepts to explain this relationship:


Popkin also focuses significantly on the role of the campaign in facilitating choice. He argues that the campaign (1) increases the importance of (some) issues, (2) strengthens the connections between issues and the office, and (3) increases the perceived differences between candidates. Details:

Data: Primaries

Popkin draws on lessons from presidential primaries to illustrate his theory, noting that, since primaries are more complex than general elections, it should be more difficult to apply the theory to them. He notes how candidates who do well in early primaries get large bounces in approval. Popkin argues that this is due to new info people receive about the candidate, as well as to the victories making a candidate a better strategic choice, not to mention having a persuasion effect by themselves. He links the failure of some experienced candidates to their (perceived) incompetency or to their failure to create a strong narrative about themselves in relationship to the presidency. After laying out the theory, Popkin uses it to analyze the Democratic primaries of 1976 and 1984, the Republican primaries of 1980, and the election of 1992.

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Popkin, Samuel (author)McCubbins, Mathew D. (author)American PoliticsVotingInformationShortcutsSignalingPartisanshipPublic OpinionMedia Effects

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