Chris Hanretty, Benjamin E Lauderdale, Nick Vivyan, “The Emergence of Stable Political Choices from Incomplete Political Preferences”

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Survey research finds that citizens often give temporally unstable responses when asked their positions on policy issues, indicating a lack of ‘real’ attitudes on many issues. For some, this casts doubt on prominent conceptions of democracy that involve citizens making political choices based on policy considerations. In this paper, we show that despite average instability in issue opinions, voters can nevertheless make meaningful, stable multidimensional political choices based on issue considerations. We draw on a new three-wave survey of the UK public that includes repeated measurements of issue-specific opinions and of the political choices respondents make when confronted with hypothetical candidates taking positions on those issues. We show that candidate choices made after 6 months and 12 months have nearly as strong relationships to self-reported issue positions as do the candidate choices made in the same wave as those self-reports, and that choice stability is high when respondents choose between candidates who take clear and contrasting positions on the issues that respondents tend to care more about. Our findings demonstrate the mechanics underlying long-hypothesized theories of ‘issue publics’: stable political choices can arise from individuals making choices on the basis of the issues that they care about, even when most people lack real attitudes on many issues.

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