Many vote for someone who is most like them Gut feeling overrules head, studies find

March 03, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff writer

Conscientious Maryland voters will head to the polls today to pick the presidential candidate they think is best qualified to lead this country to peace and prosperity. Right?

Well, not exactly, say some political scientists and psychologists who have studied the way people decide how to vote.

People bring a variety of concerns, biases and calculations into the polling booth that have little to do with the description of elections in civics textbooks.

With some exceptions, most of us prefer to vote for candidates who are like us -- who belong to our social, ethnic or economic group, or who enjoy the support of the leaders of those groups, several political scientists said.

"The progressive model of voting is, you have unattached citizens who . . . listen to the candidates' positions on the issues, decide which issues are important to them and . . . then vote for the candidate whose views are closest to their own," said Dr. David Bositis, senior political analyst of American politics at the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington.

This picture, he added, is pure fantasy. "Most people do not operatein that realm at all," he said.

Some well-educated voters, particularly upper-income Republicans, will study a candidate's record closely and vote shrewdly according to their self-interest, he said.

Some high-minded voters will choose the candidate, regardless oftheir connections, who has what they believe is the most detailed and workable program for the country.

But most of us go with the gut, paying relatively little attention to the details of a candidate's position.

Instead, Dr. Bositis said, we choose politicians who seem closely identified with the groups we identify with and trust the politicians to faithfully represent our interests once they get in office.

"Take the Democratic primary in particular," he said. "If you look at the various candidates in the primary, you will see that most of them that are doing particularly well are associated with some group or interest in the party." Former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, he said, is closely allied with women, gays and other "social" liberals. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton is backed by blacks and southern whites.

Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Dr. Bositis said, is doing poorly because he doesn't represent any of the core groups of the Democratic Party. "For the life of me, I have to ask myself, how could Bob Kerrey get the Democratic nomination for presidency?" he asked.

Voters are uncomfortable with candidates who seem either much better, or much worse, than they are, said Dr. Stephen Worchel, head of the department of psychology at Texas A&M University.

"The attraction that [President John F.] Kennedy had was that he was a charismatic person," Dr. Worchel said. "But what was interesting was that his popularity went up after the Bay of Pigs," the failed invasion of Cuba by U.S.-backed Cuban exiles. "Here was a guy who stumbled, and it made him seem more human."

In some psychological studies, he said, strangers were introduced to test subjects. Researchers found, he said, that "if they [the strangers] made a simple little mistake, spilled coffee on themselves, people felt more positive about them than if they kept this polished exterior."

Dr. Worchel says issues do not always play an important role in elections because voters are justifiably cynical about campaign promises. More importantly, he said, issues like health care are often too complex for most people to study in depth, and would be difficult to make decisions about even if they did so.

So most of us tend to look for someone whose judgment we trust.

PRIMARY ELECTION

* When: Today, polls open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

* Where: If you're registered to vote anywhere in Maryland, your voter card should show your voting place. State Elections Board's tool-free number will be operating all day today for any questions related to voting: 1-800-222-VOTE.

* Who can vote: Registered Democratic and Republican voters. The state's independent voters can only vote in non-partisan local races, such as school board or, in Carroll County, charter board members.

* Who's on the ballot: Candidates for president, one U.S. Senate seat, all eight House seats, delegates to the Democratic and Republican conventions, and local judges.

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