03/28/2009 10:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Risk and Political Preferences

Anyone who has ever watched Deal or No Deal has noticed that some people are far more willing to take risks than others. Not only does a person's tolerance for risk affect their decisions about whether to open another suitcase on a game show, but it also influences countless daily decisions like what to eat or whether to drive over the speed limit. But what might a person's tolerance for risk have to do with their political views?

This past Fall, I was part of a team that had a module on the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. To shed some light on the role that risk might have on political preferences, we borrowed a set of questions developed by economists to gauge an individual's tolerance for risk. Essentially, the questions ask individuals the circumstances under which they would be willing to take a new (and equally good) job. The chart below shows the distribution of responses.

Not surprisingly, the results suggest that the American public is quite risk averse. Most Americans were not willing to take a new job even if the potential for increasing their income was greater than the potential income loss. In fact, over half of the respondents would not take a job even if it offered them an even chance of either doubling their income or cutting it by just 20%. These findings are similar to those of other studies that have looked at how risk tolerant (or intolerant) the public is. But what does this have to do with politics? Take a look at the charts below which show the partisan/presidential vote breakdown among each of the four levels of risk tolerance.

How a person feels about risk is related to that person's choice of party as well as their vote choice. In particular, as one becomes less tolerant of risk, they become more likely to affiliate with the Republican Party (and less likely to be a Democrat). The relationship was even stronger when it came to vote choice. The most risk tolerant respondents preferred Obama by more than a 2-to-1 margin. The most risk averse respondents went for McCain by a margin of 6%.This relationship persisted even when I controlled for other factors that tend to influence vote choice.

When you think about it, there are lots of reasons that an individual's tolerance for risk would influence their political views. It makes sense that the most risk averse Americans were less likely than others to get behind the candidate who was viewed as relatively inexperienced. (Risk averse Americans are probably more likely to vote for incumbents as well.) It also seems logical that those who are more averse to risk would be more likely to affiliate with the party that tends to be more conservative.

There are several recent academic papers on this topic (including
my own
). Yet, despite the growing evidence showing that risk matters for how people think about politics, pollsters rarely include questions that allow us to capture respondents' feelings about risk. Is it time that they started to do so?