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Level-of-Analysis Effects on Explanations of Voting: The Case of the 1982 US Senate Elections

  • Gerald C. Wright


The availability of rich survey data, and concerns over the ecological fallacy, have led voting researchers to focus on the explanation of individual voting decisions at the expense of accounting for patterns of aggregate election outcomes. This has skewed our understanding of the relative importance of various factors in the electoral process. A framework for analysis of elections at multiple levels is developed and applied using data from twenty-three exit polls from the US Senate elections. Comparable parameters for a simple voting model are estimated for individual voting and for election outcomes. Election-level factors, especially candidates' issue strategies and incumbency, are substantially more important in accounting for election outcomes than in explaining individual voting decisions. Finally, working with election outcomes permits an estimate of a path model of Senate election outcomes that shows key relationships that are not accessible from individual level data.



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1 Robinson, W. S., ‘Ecological Correlations and the Behavior of Individuals’, American Sociological Review, 15 (1950), 351–7.

2 See, for example, Crewe, Ivor and Payne, Clive, ‘Another Game with Nature: An Ecological Regression Model of the British Two-party Vote Ratio in 1970’, British Journal of Political Science, 6 (1976), 4381; Goodman, Leo A., ‘Some Alternatives to Ecological Correlation’, American Journal of Sociology, 64 (1959), 610–25; Hanushek, Eric A., Jackson, John E. and Kain, John F., ‘Model Specification, Use of Aggregate Data, and the Ecological Correlation Fallacy’, Political Methodology, 1 (1974), 89107; Langbein, Laura I. and Lichtman, Allan J., Ecological Inference (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1976); Shively, W. Phillips, ‘Ecological Inference: The Use of Aggregate Data to Study Individuals’, American Political Science Review, 63 (1969), 1183–96 among many others.

3 Schmidt, Otto and van Dijk, Tibert, ‘Ecological Inference: An Empirical Analysis of Dutch Electoral Data’, and Tomaselli, Verna, ‘The Comparison of Conventionalist Goodman's Fluxes and True Fluxes of Voting and Non-voting’. Both papers were presented at the Joint Sessions of the European Consortium for Political Research, Rimini, April 1988.

4 Lazarsfeld, Paul F., Berelson, Bernard and Gaudet, Helen, The People's Choice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948) and Berelson, Bernard, Lazarsfeld, Paul F. and McPhee, William, Voting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954).

5 Campbell, Angus E., Converse, Phillip E., Miller, Warren E. and Stokes, Donald E., The American Voter (New York: Wiley, 1960).

6 Stokes, Donald E., ‘Some Dynamic Elements of Contests for the Presidency’, American Political Science Review, 60 (1966), 1928; Miller, Warren E. and Shanks, Merrill, ‘Policy Directions and Presidential Leadership: Alternative Interpretations of the 1980 Presidential Election’, British Journal of Political Science, 12 (1982), 299356.

7 Campbell, Angus E., Converse, Phillip E., Miller, Warren E. and Stokes, Donald E., Elections and the Political Order (New York: Wiley, 1966).

8 Kinder, Donald R. and Kiewiet, D. Roderick, ‘Sociotropic Politics: The American Case’, British Journal of Political Science, 9 (1979), 129–61 and Kinder, Donald R. and Kiewiel, D. Roderick, ‘Economic Discontent and Political Behavior: The Role of Personal Grievances and Collective Economic Judgments in Congressional Voting’, American Journal of Political Science, 23 (1979), 495527.

9 Kramer, Gerald, ‘The Ecological Fallacy Revisited’, American Political Science Review, 77 (1983), 92101.

10 Ranney, Austin, ‘The Utility and Limitations of Aggregate Data in the Study of Electoral Behavior’, in Ranney, A., ed., Essays on the Behavioral Study of Politics (Champagne: University of Illinois Press, 1962), 91102, at p. 99.

11 Key, V. O. Jr., ‘The Politically Relevant in Surveys’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 24 (1960), p. 55.

12 Eulau, Heinz, Micro-Macro Political Analysis (Chicago: Aldine, 1969), p. 3.

13 Elsewhere I have argued that we should use slopes to compare between populations and betas to compare variables within a single population. This perspective fails to consider that changes in beta weights across populations, or here across levels of analysis, can be of theoretical interest. See Wright, Gerald C., ‘Linear Models for Evaluating Conditional Relationships’, American Journal of Political Science, 61 (1976), 130–6; see also Blalock, Hubert M., ‘Causal Inference, Closed Populations and Measures of Association’, American Political Science Review, 61 (1967), 130–6.

14 Hanushek, et al. , ‘Model Specification, Use of Aggregate Data, and the Ecological Correlation Fallacy’, pp. 90–5.

15 Cartwright, Desmond, ‘Ecological Variables’ in Borgatta, Edgar F., ed., Sociological Methodology 1969 (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1969), pp. 205–12.

16 Cain, Bruce, Ferejohn, John and Fiorina, Morris, The Personal Vote (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 130–4, use analysis of variance terminology to make this and several of the points made here in their discussion of problems of relating congressmen's service and advertising behaviour to citizen evaluations of incumbents. By implication, the conclusions offered below can be extended to many instances in which the analyst wishes to assess elite behaviour or system characteristics (such as economic performance) using mass survey data. Two promising instances are the study of representation and voter perceptions of party positions. These are explicated very nicely in chapters that came to the author's attention after this article was written. See Converse, Philip E., ‘Popular Representation and the Distribution of Information’, and Stimson, James A., ‘A Macro Theory of Information Flow’, both in Ferejohn, John A. and Kuklinski, James, eds, Information and Democratic Processes (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming).

17 The exact wording and scoring (in parentheses) used throughout are as follows: Party Identification: ‘Do you usually think of yourself as a: Democrat (– 1), Independent (0), Republican (1)?’ Voter Ideology: ‘On most political matters do you consider yourself Liberal (– 1), Moderate (0), Conservative (1)?’ Presidential Popularity: ‘Do you approve or disapprove of the way Ronald Reagan is handling his job as President?’ Approve (1), Disapprove(– 1) (undecided was volunteered by some respondents, 0); Family Finances: ‘Compared to a year ago, is your family's financial situation better today (1), worse today (– 1), about the same (0)?’

18 Candidates and incumbents were asked if they favour or oppose constitutional amendments to: (1) allow individual states to prohibit abortions; (2) permit organized prayer in the public schools; and (3) require a balanced budget. In addition, they were asked about positions on (4) the Equal Rights Amendment; (5) a mutual nuclear freeze with the Soviet Union; (6) domestic content legislation for foreign cars sold in the United States; (7) cancelling the July 1983 tax cut; (8) cutting back increases in military spending; (9) additional reductions in domestic social programs; and (10) regulation of air pollution.

19 The use of the midpoint as a summary of candidates' issue positions is adapted from Robert Erikson's ideas on measuring party elite preferences in comparative state politics. See Erikson, Robert S., Wright, Gerald C. and McIver, John P., ‘Political Parties, Public Opinion, and State Policy’, American Political Science Review (forthcoming).

20 One generally needs to be concerned with heteroscadascity when using OLS regression with a dichotomous dependent variable. Regression creates no distortions in these data, however. All the individual-level equations were run with probit and the same conclusions resulted. Regression is used at both levels here to achieve comparability of the estimated coefficients.

21 Barone, Michael and Ujifusa, Grant, The Almanac of American Politics 1984 (Washington, DC: The National Journal, 1984), pp. 781–8, at p. 785.

22 Wright, Gerald C. and Berkman, Michael, ‘Candidates and Policy in United States Senate Elections’, American Political Science Review, 80 (1986), 567–88; Wright, Gerald C. and Berkman, Michael. ‘Do US Senators Moderate Strategically?’, American Political Science Review, 82 (1988), 242–4.

23 In this analysis we use only Democratic incumbency because Republican incumbency had no electoral payoff in 1982. Changing the variable of incumbency to reflect values for Republican in cumbency (i.e., 1,0, – 1 for Republican incumbents, open seats and Democratic incumbents) does not affect the results reported.

* Department of Political Science, Indiana University. This is a revised version of a paper prepared for the European Consortium for Political Research workshops, Rimini, April 1988. I am grateful to Joseph Aistrup for his assistance, and to the ‘Macro and Micro Election Analysis’ ECPR workshop participants, especially John Curtice, Jon Pammett, Elinor Scarbrough and Lawrence Silverman as well as to Christine Barbour and Morris Fiorina for their helpful comments. This research was supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation (SES 86-09562). The data analysed here were made available by the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, and by the Elections and Survey Unit of CBS News.


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