Jae C. Hong, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Romney? Gingrich? Santorum? The Republican race for the presidential nomination is like a game of musical chairs. It makes you wonder what's going on in the heads of voters as they cast their primary ballots.
But give them a break. Choosing a candidate in a party primary is fundamentally more complicated than in a general election, experts say.
Scholarly research into how voters choose a candidate in primaries is limited, compared with studies of voter behavior in the general election. But as major contests loom in Arizona and Michigan on Tuesday, with Super Tuesday following on March 6, experts agree that voting in primaries is a challenging task.
For starters, you can't simply vote your party. "People use party as a cue extensively in voting," says political scientist David Redlawsk of Rutgers University. It's "the simplest piece of information we normally have. ... Not having that party cue really makes it much more difficult for voters," including independents.
—There are more candidates to consider than just the two leading nominees in November.
—Voters know less about primary candidates than they'll hear later on about the eventual nominees.
—There are generally fewer differences among those candidates than a voter will see between a Republican and Democrat. People who spend a lot of time studying the policy differences "might in fact find themselves more confused than better informed," Redlawsk says.
As his Rutgers colleague Richard Lau sums up in an analysis of the 2008 nominating process, "Voting in primary elections is downright hard."
In fact, Lau's research concludes that voters in primaries and caucuses often do barely better than chance in choosing the candidate who best represents their own values and priorities. (He says voters do far better when the general election rolls around.)
Plenty of party members just stay home; turnout is usually lower than in the general election. That leaves the task to those who are the most interested in politics and their own party.
So what makes a primary voter choose one candidate over the others? Lau says that has proved hard to pin down, but others have some ideas.
Samuel Popkin of the University of California, San Diego, author of a forthcoming book about presidential politics called "The Candidate," says primary voters often face conflicting goals.
"One of the things we know is that there's a constant tension all the time between the ideal and the practical," he said. "You want somebody who's pure and clean and ideal, yet somebody who knows how to wade through the swamp and clean up Washington."
"You want two things that are somewhat incompatible," said Popkin.
Voters want somebody who agrees with them on the issues they care about, although as candidates introduce themselves they need not be very specific about what they'd do if elected, notes Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. Voters can get worked up about a bad economy if they see it in their own lives and they hear the government is responsible for wider economic troubles, he said.
And voters also ponder who can win in November. That and the issues were on the mind of Matthew Coker, 20, a political science major at the University of Memphis who cast his first vote ever in a presidential primary the other day. His ballot, filled out in early voting in Tennessee, went for Mitt Romney.
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