Political Research: To what extent does the rational choice model account for voter behaviour in advanced democracies?

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“In politics stupidity is not a handicap.”

– Napoleon Bonaparte –

This article will examine a brief summary of rational-choice model with a session on the positive and negative of the approach as well as a discussion to what extent does the approach account voter behavior in advanced democracies with the United States of America elections as an example. Rational choice model is a principle that states the motive behind people decision is based on their logical thinking. The theory has also brought a modern view to the ways in which political scientists learn the dynamics within democratic institutions (Green and Shapiro, 1994). In conversely, the theory has got weaker since there is no restriction on what is rational or not. Even though there is a boundary on it, people are not always able to think rationally.

According to the rational-choice theory each individual have their own ground whether they desire to vote or not as well as which nominee to vote. Niemi and Wiesberg (2001) demonstrated that people tend to vote when they sight more benefit from voting other than the cost of voting. Voters will desire to vote if after they analyze, the probability they will obtain from the nominee being elected is higher than the costs they have to pay for a vote, this including the time involved in registering to vote, encounter about the election, and others (Lewis-Beck et al., 2008). As people will make the best of any situation to satisfy their needs (Opp, 1989), it signified that people will choose to take their chance to vote if it furnishes the highest satisfaction of their necessity.

Subsequently after considering the benefit and cost of voting, if the people decide to vote, they will start to specify which candidate they will choose based on what they think will profitable them the most. The voters will also choose by which of the candidate ideological position is closest to the voter view (Lewis-Beck et al., 2008). Compared to the Michigan model, rational-choice model has stated people opinion more (Denver et al., 2012). As there is no loyalty to the party, the decision that will be taken is purely by each individual idea. This has indicated the sign of democracy.

However, there are a few controversies of rational-choice approach. Firstly, there is no evidence that people know what will benefit them the most. The voters might choose based on what they assume is the best options for them, but there is an uncertain issue whether the information that the voters received would be the right information or not. Although the voters received the right information, there is no certainty that could show how people evaluate the information they received. Therefore, how people appraise the positive aspect from competing parties need to be explored, otherwise, saying that the people vote the party that will lead them the greatest benefit is insignificant (Denver et al., 2012).

Secondly, there could be a situation when the election caused fear to the voter that unconsciously has turned their behaviour become anxious. The voter might decide to vote for “A” based on their logical thinking as the person thought that this candidate has the same interest with him or her. However, when the voter became anxious, the person might change his or her mind to vote “B”. This possible to happen as once people start to think in an anxious way, their methods of taking in information and processing it is changed (Sanders and Wills, 2003). This anxious situation could be lead by the media or news that containing the strained issue.

As an example, it could be argued that the United States of America 2016 election has cited as a pattern of the rational-choice model, to the extent that both parties try to maximize their chances of electoral victory rather than any particular ideological agenda (Green and Shapiro, 1994). Although there is a few ideological agenda on the elections, but it does not seem as the primary rationale why the voters espouse the candidate. The elections between Hillary Clinton as a nominee from Democrats and Donald Trump from Republican (New york Times, 2016) have got much attention from the media that unconsciously are affecting voters behaviour in a way that it has prevented the voters from thinking rationally.

In addition, there are few instances that shown the voters has got distracted to think rationally. Firstly, over the past half-century terrorism has come as a violence by small groups of people to achieve political change (Baylis et al., 2011). The rise of terrorism has caused fear to many people including the voters in America. Trump as a candidate for the elections has offered to expand a long-term plan to discontinue the deployment of radical Islam and forming policy goal of temporarily banning the entry of Muslim migrants into the United States (Lesperance Jr, 2016) in the purpose to liberate America from terrorism. Secondly, as it has been a difficult time in the last few decades for American workers, Trump use this to blame on immigrants that caused the Americans could not get a job (Konczal, 2016). Hence this situation has caused the voters, which in this case are the Americans feel anxious to the extent that if the information they received about terrorism and immigrants is a fact, they have to forestall it.

On the other hand, as Trump has not respected women (Gökarıksel and Smith, 2016) many Americans women feel threatened if Trump becomes the president they might lose some of their rights. Thus, beyond their rational thinking that might agree with Trump to some extent, they could not vote trump and have to vote another candidate. Based on this, there is a possible condition that the reason people will vote whether Trump or Clinton, not based on their rational thinking but because of their anxious thoughts as according to Sanders and Wills (2003) anxiety will affect the way people think and behave.

In conclusion, voters behave corresponding to the rational-model approach to the extent that they choose the candidate based on their rational thinking. Rationally, people will try to analyze the information they received and make their decision based on what will benefit them the most. However, the approach is feeble as there is uncertain evidence on how people will evaluate the information they received. Another issue is the inability for people to think rationally when they are in the anxious situation. Therefore, the rational-choice model approach does not highly elucidate voter behaviour in advanced democracies.


Andrews, W; Lai, K; Parlapiano, A; and Yourish, K. (2016), Who Is Running for President? [Online], Available at <http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/us/elections/2016-presidential-candidates.html?_r=0> [Accessed 28 October 2016].

Baylis, J; Smith, S; Owens, P. (2011), The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations, 5th ed, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, p364-381.

Denver, D; Carman, C; Johns, R. (2012), Elections and Voters in Britain, 3rd ed, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p1-52.

Green, D; Shapiro, I. (1994), Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory; A critique of Applications in Political Science, United States of America: Yale University Press, p1-71.

Gökarıksel, B; Smith, S. (2016), ‘“Making America Great Again”?: The Fascist Body Politics of Donald Trump’, Political Geography, 54 (0), 79-81.

Konczal, M. (2016), Trump’s Immigration Plan Would Have a Tiny Effect on Wages [Online], Available at <https://www.thenation.com/article/trump-immigration/> [Accessed 28 October 2016].

Lesperance Jr, W. (2016), ‘American Foreign Policy and the 2016 Presidential Election’, Society, 53 (5), 498–502.

Lewis-Beck, M; Jacoby, W; Norpoth, H; Weisberg, H. (2008), The American Voter Revisited, United States of America: The University of Michigan Press, p3-28.

Niemi, R; Weisberg, H., eds. (2001), Controversies in Voting Behavior, 4th ed, United States of America: Congressional Quarterly Press, p1-96.

Opp, K. (1989), The Rationality of Political Protest: A Comparative Analysis of Rational Choice Theory, United States of America; United Kingdom: Westview Press, p1-29.

Sanders, D; Wills, F. (2003), Counselling for Anxiety Problems, 2nd ed, Dryden, W., eds, London; California; New Delhi: SAGE Publications, p1-31.

Featured Image taken from Google search.

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”

– Groucho Marx –

Author: Valentina Laura

A dreamer & a lover.

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