The Funnel of Causality: Why We Vote the Way We Vote

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This is the Funnel of Causality, the series of forces that go into determining what the vote choice of an individual or group is going to be. This is only one conceptualization of how the funnel works and not necessarily the only “correct” one.

When you were first being politically socialized as a kid, you may have been taught that elections are about everyone coming together, pensively pouring over candidate profiles, and choosing who they thought was best for the nation. That everyone puts aside all of their differences and biases for the good of the country and came to a completely independent vote after some debate.

Such a depiction is an inaccurate one.

We aren’t blank slates going into elections. Our choices in elections are inevitably shaped by a series of social, political, and economic forces. How we depict this series of factors is called the Funnel of Causality. The funnel can have several different looks, but the basic premise is the same. (For the purposes of this article, I will be using the above figure.) There are broad, overarching distinctions, which have a significant effect on the narrower parts of the funnel. The broad end isn’t the end-all-be-all of vote choice, but it has the most long-term effect for many voters, while the forces closer to the narrow end are the more short-term ones. The confluence of all these factors leads to our vote choice.

Of course, this is not to say that we are robotic in our decisions or anything of the sort. But we are not quite as independent in our thinking as we may think we are. Not all of these factors will affect everyone equally. Our experiences and perceptions will affect our ultimate choice: who we vote for.

Some of the earliest public opinion researchers come from what is known as the “Columbia School,” named as such because they were political scientists from the University of Columbia. Based on research on people’s vote choice in the 1940 and 1948 presidential elections, these researchers determined that vote choice was almost if not entirely based on the social groups one belonged to and that the actual campaign had basically no effect. This was the origin of the phrase “demography is destiny” (or at least one of its earliest uses).

In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers from the University of Michigan built on this previous research. This “Michigan School” determined that vote choice was not entirely sociological. Rather, it was sociopsychological (i.e. it incorporated both sociology and psychology). Among the findings was the importance of party attachment, a fact which is perhaps taken for granted nowadays. Other sociological and psychological factors were included in it. Thus, the Funnel of Causality was born, and it has been refined over time.

At the start of the funnel are three major considerations: (1) the economic structure of whatever area we are concerned with, (2) social divisions, and (3) historical voting patterns. If we are talking about a particular individual, these three would be (1) the economic environment that the individual is familiar with or has experienced, (2) social groups they belong to, and (3) how that person has voted in the past.

Economic structure concerns things such as wealth distributions, job opportunities, prominent industries, average/median income of an area, and the like. It also can refer to an individual’s specific economic situation.

Social divisions harken back somewhat to the “demography is destiny” phrase. What social groups you belong to have an impact on your views. More important than that, however, is how much you identify with these groups. Certainly, everyone belongs to multiple social groups, and some can be generally different politically. We will come back to this in the next section of this article.

Historical vote patterns give a sense of how voting is going to play out in an upcoming election. If a district routinely votes heavily Democratic or Republican, there is a good chance that district will continue to lean that way. If an individual has always or practically always voted Democratic or Republican, they are probably going to vote that way again.

Further down the funnel, we come to these four factors: (1) social values, (2) party attachment, (3) loyalty to (or identifying with) a social group, and (4) government’s actions at a given level (i.e. national, state, local, or some combination therein).

Social values aren’t necessarily political in nature, but they oftentimes have a major impact on political views. Strongly religious voters who routinely go to church, for example, are very likely to be against same-sex marriage. But different interpretations of the same social value also matter, which can also change their view of an issue. One of these voters may believe that same-sex marriage is against their religious beliefs, while another voter in the same group may see opposition to same-sex marriage as not being a good steward of their faith.

Party attachment and loyalty is probably the most well-known factor that shapes vote choice. After all, partisanship is the strongest predictor of who someone votes for. Yet it isn’t simply a matter of whether there is an R or a D next to the voter’s name. Voters who find a significant part of their identity in whether they are Republican or Democrat are highly unlikely to vote for a candidate on the opposite side of the aisle. Meanwhile, it is more common for “weak” Republicans or Democrats to split their ticket and vote for candidates in the other party (or independent/third-party candidates).

Social group loyalty has some similarities to that of partisan loyalty, but it is more complicated. You can only be part of one party if you so choose, but voters often have multiple social group ties pressuring them. More than simply being a part of a social group is how much an individual identifies with them. Take, for example, an African-American Evangelical. Evangelicals vote very solidly Republican. African-Americans, on the other hand, vote heavily Democratic. Which demographic do they identify with more? Do they identify with both strongly? Or is there a different social group tie that pulls them? It depends on the particular individual. Relatedly, who an individual’s friends are can influence that individual’s vote choice, particularly if they regularly discuss politics.

As strong a pull as these loyalties can have, they are not unbreakable. The government’s actions can put a strain on them or even sever them for a particular election or race (of course, those actions can also reinforce those ties). Many Never-Trump Republicans, for example, have only hardened their stances in response to the Trump administration. In the 2016 election, they either voted for Clinton, Libertarian Gary Johnson or some other minor-party candidate, wrote-in a candidate, voted in races other than for president, or sat out the election completely. Trump’s presidency, of course, has also hardened the loyalties of many Democrats.

At the end of the funnel, we have everything about the campaign in question itself. This concerns how the campaigns operate, how the media influences the election, the economic and political conditions surrounding the election, the key issues, and how the candidates are presented.

When talking about campaign activity here, we are referring to how they strategize and what tactics they use to reach voters. Obviously, many voters need to be reached out to in order to get their vote (although some will come out for a candidate regardless). Even if they wouldn’t ever vote for an opponent, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to come out for a candidate or that they even know that an election is going on.

The media can set the tone for the election in many ways. They can influence what issues are most important based on how they cover them. The media is also needed in some way by campaigns to reach voters. Then, of course, it matters how the media cover the candidates themselves. Here we have a distinction between what is called paid media and earned media. Paid media, as the name suggests, is media advertising that candidates and campaigns specifically pay for. Earned media is more or less free publicity. A marquee election is likely to have a lot of earned media because there is wider interest in it, and subsequently more coverage because of it. Some of this media may be more hostile, while others are more approving.

The economic and political conditions, both dependent on and independent of the media, have their role. Not surprisingly, negative impressions of both can have a negative impact on the incumbent. Voters who are more satisfied with these conditions are more likely to keep the status quo. For all non-presidential elections, the national economic and political climate can play a role along with that of the particular district or state in question.

Key issues will differ from district to district, although the key issues at the national level can still play a role. But it should not be assumed that the national conversation automatically applies to a state, district, or locality. Voters care about different things in different areas. Even those who care about the same issues may have different reasons that they are concerned about them. Take the environment, for example. Whereas one voter may care about the environment because they are passionate about conservation, another voter may instead have economic interests such as a tourism business. Of course, they don’t have to be mutually exclusive reasons either.

Lastly, we have the candidates themselves. In tight races, how the candidates present themselves and each other is crucial. Candidates need to make sure to have the right theme and message that resonates with voters. But it isn’t just a matter of gaffes, how they debate, or whether they can talk about what voters care about. Even seemingly-trivial reasons to vote for somebody may make a difference for some people. In one study, candidates’ physical attractiveness had a substantial impact on how voters evaluated them when they didn’t have other information to go on.¹

All of these forces, however, are going to filtered through the forces in the previous sections of the funnel for many voters, however. Highly partisan voters, regardless of what the candidates say or do or what the media says or writes, are going to vote their party no matter what. Voters with strong loyalties to a particular social group are unlikely to buck that group’s choice regardless of what happens in the campaign. Even a relatively weak incumbent can still handily beat a challenger because the historical results of a district so heavily favor them. These are just a few examples, and it is why the campaigns themselves aren’t the only thing that matters.

The average voter probably has no reason to care about the funnel, unless it is something like general interest in voter psychology or someone wanting to understand why people they know vote the way they do. The funnel has the most applicability and usefulness for campaigners, candidates, and political consultants. One should not simply go into a race and just try to persuade anyone they can to vote for a candidate, because that is a recipe for disaster. An actual plan needs to be put in place that includes knowledge of how this funnel works so that campaigns know who needs to be (and can be) reached for votes and what the chances of winning are.

As many things as there are in politics that are predictable, though, there is just as much that is unpredictable. The Funnel of Causality is not a 100% guaranteed prediction of how someone votes. We cannot directly look into someone’s mind or have perfect information about that voter’s experiences and their characteristics. Nevertheless, it is a very good predictor. At least a basic understanding of how the funnel works is critical to understanding how general voter psychology works.

  1. Ellen D. Riggle, et al. 1992. “Bases of Political Judgments: The Role of Stereotypic and Nonstereotypic Information.” Political Behavior 14 (1): 67–87.

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Senior Page Editor - Sayfie Review, Assistant Staff Writer - Ballotpedia (my views do not express those of my employers), M.A. in Political Science

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