Capitol Insider: How Do Voters Really Choose Candidates? | KGOU

Capitol Insider: How Do Voters Really Choose Candidates?

Aug 10, 2018

Oklahoma State University political science professor Jeanette Mendez joins KGOU’s Dick Pryor and eCapitol’s Shawn Ashley to discuss her research on voter decision-making. Mendez explains that voters often use short-cuts called heuristics to make decisions about candidates, whether they realize it or not. The most common heuristics, according to Mendez, are political affiliation, gender and race.



Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly book inside Oklahoma politics, policy and elections. I'm Dick Prior with eCapitol News Director Shawn Ashley. And our guest is Dr. Jeanette Mendez, professor of political science at Oklahoma State University. Jeanette, welcome.


Jeanette Mendez: Thank you.


Pryor: As part of our Oklahoma Engaged political reporting we're working to learn about what's really important to voters. Now you've done research on voter behavior. Is there a method to how voters decide which candidate to support?


Mendez: It depends on a few things. It'll depend on their level of education, which usually forms some sort of political sophistication. And so we'll expect them to make their decisions a little differently than we would expect someone with no knowledge of the political process, or kind of a new voter. A newer voter probably more likely to use what we call heuristics, or shortcuts-- something that's going to give them a quick look at what they think a candidate might be like.


Pryor: Jeanette, give us an example of a couple of those cues that voters read into candidates.


The three biggest heuristics that we've always had are party identification, gender and race: Democrat means this. Republican means this. Women must support these issues.


Pryor: What happens when voters use that shorthand, though, to label candidates?


Mendez: Well, in a perfect world, they're correct in that they say 'You're a woman. You must be a Democrat. You must support these things.' But we know that that doesn't always line up. The downside of heuristics is they often fail. And so while a voter might be using it to simplify the decision for them, they might not be making the right decision.


In fact I have some research with a co-author Rebekah Herrick--we published it in Social Science Quarterly--that was kind of a unique look at appearance. We do a lot on kind of facial appearance, candidate gender. This one, specifically, was about men with facial hair. The argument was that facial hair signals some sort of masculinity, and that is a signal to voters that this masculinity might pair well with conservatism. Interestingly enough, voters did think that. They saw pictures of current members of Congress, and they judged them to be more ideologically conservative than men without facial hair. What was interesting, though, is we then were able to pair these exact members of Congress with their actual voting records, and they were actually more liberal than the men without facial hair.


Pryor: So voters can be tricked.


Mendez: Voters can be tricked.


Pryor: ...and it's not always by the candidates.


Mendez: Not necessarily. I think the takeaway for the candidate, though, was that your appearance does matter. You make a snap judgment. You say, 'Facial hair... I think he's conservative. That must mean I'm for him or against him.' And then what happens is you make a decision based on that, but then you're wrong. And so these heuristic, while they give you the simple tools, they often fail you.


Shawn Ashley: You mentioned new voters versus more established voters, but what about men and women? Do they choose candidates differently?


Mendez: Yes, definitely, and somewhat in a heuristic type way. There are these stereotypes in terms of men and women, but there are stereotypes that don't just play out for voters. So, media coverage plays into these stereotypes. So the media, oftentimes, will describe female candidates in a particular way, usually based on their appearance, based on their clothing, based on the emotion that they use in a speech. And a male candidate very rarely is ever described by his appearance, or what he's wearing, or how he might sound in a speech. So again all of these types of stereotypes, from the information that we're given, to just what we see ourselves about the candidates lead us to make these decisions.


I have a book also with Rebekah Herrick. We looked at what we called "descriptive elections." The term "descriptive representation" means that we like our representatives to descriptively match us in some way. So a female might feel more comfortable with a female candidate. We looked in terms of just in terms of the election. So what happens when two women run against each other and we compared that to when a man and a woman ran against each other, and two men ran against each other. And our theory was that these descriptive elections should bring about a little more interest to the race. And, interestingly, we found more media coverage, we found higher turnout, and we found that voters really did use the stereotypes on informing their decision.


Pryor: Jeanette Mendez, thanks for joining us.

Mendez: Thank you.

Pryor: That's Capitol Insider. If you have questions e-mail us at or contact us on Twitter: @kgounews. You can also find us online at and Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.

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