The determinants of electoral choice in Latin America, 1982--1995

Date of Completion

January 1996


History, Latin American|Political Science, General|Sociology, Social Structure and Development




This study addresses the relative strength of economic and non-economic explanations of electoral outcomes in Latin America. I examine three major perspectives of voting behavior: (a) economic voting, (b) voting based on leadership considerations over non-economic matters, which embodies a model of political referendum, and (c) various socio-psychological models, focusing on class condition, partisan preferences, and candidates' appeals. Also, I inspect how different institutional and macro-economic contexts affect the way determinants shape voting decisions.^ First, I analyze the patterns of electoral choice in forty-one presidential elections held between 1982 and 1995. Second, I look at the nature of the individual electoral decision in three different contests held between November 1994 and May 1995. Examining voting choice at the macro and micro levels provides the opportunity to learn about both the impact of objective conditions on political outcomes and the individual's reasoning process at the ballot box.^ In view of the unusual economic experience of the region since 1982, I found that electoral choice responds strongly to incentives of an economic nature. Also, as the financial crisis revamped the class composition of the society, class voting remained minimally influential. However, the leading explanatory factor is not economics but the candidates' attributes. Consistent with cultural traditions of personalistic politics, I found a pattern of electoral decisions heavily colored by people's evaluations of the candidates' appeal. Likewise, electoral choice reacts systematically to public judgments about the president's performance over non-economic events. Surprisingly, neither the negative effect of authoritarian rule for the development of partisan ties nor the challenges to traditional policy standings of parties resulting from the economic collapse impeded the ability of party identities to shape electoral results.^ In addition, the institutional and macro-economic contexts strongly affect the manner in which economic and non-economic forces influence the vote. Thus, political systems that are highly developed and/or characterized by a two-party structure motivate a stronger impact of economic forces and partisan voting but weaken candidates' and leadership effects. Conversely, inchoate party systems and multiparty structures heighten the influence of the candidates' appeals and the political leadership of the president, while minimizing party and class voting. ^