I completed my doctoral dissertation in December 2003 at the University of Mississippi.

The Impact of Political Sophistication on the Decision-Making Processes of Voters [949k]. Data used is from the 1992, 1994, 1996, and 2000 ANES and the 1998 Dutch Parliamentary Election Study, available via ICPSR.

Committee members: Harvey D. Palmer (chair), John M. Bruce, Charles E. Smith, and John P. Bentley (outside reader).


Since the origination of the scientific study of voting behavior in the 1950s and 1960s, political scientists have developed several models of voting behavior. As those models were tested empirically, scholars were faced with a seeming contradiction: while voters in general are poorly-informed about politics, they nonetheless are capable of making voting decisions that are consistent with their fully informed preferences.

Lodge, Stroh and Wahlke (1990) posited that none of these preexisting models could adequately explain voter behavior, because they failed to explain the mechanisms that led to voters’ decisions. However, relatively few studies have been done to understand how these mechanisms work, and the areas of research that have attempted to explain these mechanisms have generally been seen as lacking methodological rigor. In more recent years, scholars have looked at the use of heuristics and affect as “cognitive shortcuts,” but have generally failed to provide a compelling explanation of how and when voters can make use of them, beyond demonstrating that they appear to do so.

In particular, relatively little attention has been paid to the question of which heuristics are available to particular voters. While the use of heuristics is generally considered to be an individual-level phenomenon, we should expect that various groups of voters should process information in similar ways. In particular, it is reasonable to believe that voters who are more aware of politics can draw upon more sources of information when making evaluations, while less sophisticated voters are more limited in their ability to draw inferences due to their lack of knowledge.

This dissertation demonstrates how voters make use of political information and heuristic devices in different ways based primarily on their their level of political sophistication–their ability to comprehend and apply political information when evaluating issues or making voting decisions.