Bill Steigerwald

How do voters choose their candidates? How do they process all the political information that they are bombarded with so they can make intelligent choices during elections like next week's primaries? No one knows everything about how voters think and act, but Richard R. Lau, a politics professor at Rutgers, has at least tried to find out. Based on research from experiments with about 700 people, Lau and David Redlawsk wrote "How Voters Decide: Information Processing in Election Campaigns," a 2006 book definitely not aimed at casual readers. I recently spoke with Professor Lau by telephone from the Rutgers campus as he was grading final exams:

Q: Are voters usually rational when they choose a candidate?
A: Well, that depends on what you mean by "rational." Can voters give you a reason for why they did what they did? Yes, absolutely. A more formal economic definition of rationality is ... to very actively and conscientiously consider the consequences of the different alternatives for your own well-being, however you want to define that, and, in this case, vote for the candidate that maximizes your self-interest, however you want to define that. No. Not very many people do that.

Q: What kinds of information or forms of persuasion are voters most likely to be influenced by?

A: They're most likely to be influenced by two things. To the extent that they have strong prior political beliefs -- whether they're Democrats or Republicans or liberals or conservatives -- they really are going to see things in light of their own backgrounds, which is the nice way to say it, or their own biases, which is the less nice way to say it. If you’re a Republican and Dick Cheney tells you something, you are a lot more likely to believe it than if you are a Democrat -- and then you’ll listen to Hillary Clinton. That’s one very big factor. The other factor -- which those of us in political science tend to overlook a lot because we often don’t have the evidence -- is people that you talk to: your friends, your family, your neighbors. If somebody you trust says, "That Mitt Romney is a real jerk," then it is going to be hard for you -- particularly if you don't know enough about (Romney) to counter that information or argue against it -- to reject that person's statement.

Q: Is there anything that is least likely to sway a voter?
A: I don't think very many people are persuaded by detailed policy analysis or arguments or things like that because most people don't have the interest to pay attention to those things and/or the contextual background to make sense of the arguments that a policy wonk would make.

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..