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Understanding Cross-Cultural Voting Behaviors: the surprising case of Iran and the United States


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Voting behaviors has been a popular topic of concern in the United States as these trends frequently have implications for election outcomes. Democrats, for example, have historically been concerned with increasing the voting-turnout of working-class and communities of color. Voting behaviors were also analyzed in detail following the 2016 presidential election, highlighting a growing apathy among young voters. These trends are consequential for election outcomes and also tell us something about political participants and their priorities.

Voting behaviors also have global implications. For example, in their recent article, “Ambivalent Voting Behavior: Ideology, Efficacy, and the Socioeconomic Dynamic of Voter Turnout in Iran, 1997-2005”, Aghil Daghagheleh explores voting behavior in Iran, specifically in regard to the impact of ideology and socioeconomic characteristics of voting populations. While previous literature has implied that poor populations are more likely to vote in authoritarian regimes, the author complicates this assumption by illuminating how voting trends vary by year and election.

Daghagheleh explores a variety of variables that impact Iranian’s decision to vote, including education, income, satisfaction with the status quo, pro-democracy attitudes, belief in the efficacy of voting, support of the current regime’s ideology, ethnic and religious background, age, gender, and employment. Daghagheleh finds many interesting relationships that challenge previous assumptions about Iranian voting patterns. First, while previous literature has argued that poor individuals are more likely to vote in elections, Daghagheleh adds that these voters are primarily motivated by issues like security, jobs, income, and a better life for their children rather than promoting democracy for its own sake.

Furthermore, Daghagheleh finds that although education generally spurs voting, the effects of education are largely nulled among citizens who endorsed low satisfaction with the efficacy of elections. Finally, the author argues that citizens are more likely to vote when they are dissatisfied with the status quo. These findings complicate prior assumptions about Iranian voters and demonstrate how it’s hard to make generalizations about voting patterns without accounting for the characteristics of particular elections and political moments.

While the United States and Iran are clearly very different political climates, some of these findings are relevant to the United States’ 2016 presidential election and American voting trends broadly. Like Iranians, U.S. citizens also prioritize issues like job security. The Pew Research Center reports that 84% of voters stated that the economy was a “very important” issue for their 2016 vote-shortly followed by terrorism (80%). Trump supporters were even more likely to express concern about the economy (90%, versus 80% or Clinton supporters).

Conversely, Trump supporters lagged far behind Clinton supporters on issues related to equality, such as education and the treatment of ethnic and sexual minorities. Thus, like the voters in Daghagheleh’s study, the 2016 election demonstrated how economic issues are primary motivators for American voters.

Like Iranians, Americans’ voting patterns are also determined by their faith in democratic elections. According to a 2018 NPR/Marist poll, 47% of respondents reported that they believed their vote would not be counted in the midterm election. This number was even higher among non-white, female, and Democrat respondents (compared to Republicans who overwhelmingly believed in the fairness of elections). The low voter turnout of the 2016 election is thus partially due to the belief that individual votes do not matter. With growing frustrations with the electoral college and distrust of institutions, Americans are losing faith in the efficacy of their own democratic elections. The outcome of this last election can in part be explained by this phenomenon.

Finally, Americans too are swayed by their dissatisfaction with the status quo. In fact, disrupting the status quo was a salient theme in the 2016 election. Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” was, in essence, a cry for a new status quo-one that was to be anti-elite and anti-establishment. This sentiment proved to be an effective motivator amongst his supporters and, ultimately, led to his success. Trump supporters were also motivated by the status quo in regard to race. Having imagined a nation with a new status quo wherein whites are diminished by immigrants and people of color, these voters swarmed to the polls to disrupt an emerging status quo. This election cycle thus illuminates how the status quo is also a motivator for American voting behavior.

Thus, despite their dramatic political differences, the United States and Iran demonstrate some similarities in regard to citizens’ voting behaviors. Furthermore, these similarities inspire new questions for consideration. For example, what common factors motivate voters across disparate political conditions? What do these similarities tell us about the role of socioeconomic status, race, and attitudes cross-culturally? What does the salience of these factors tell us about what to expect in future elections? Can we anticipate and attend to them before or during the election? Finally, these findings indicate that perhaps Americans have more in common with a country they have antagonized for so long in regard to their political attitudes and democratic principles.


By Jessica Polling



Daghagheleh, Aghil. 2018. “Ambivalent Voting Behavior: Ideology, Efficacy, and the Socioeconomic Dynamic of Voter Turnout in Iran, 1997-2005”, Sociological Forum 33(4).

Fisher, Marc. 2016. “How Trump broke the old rules of politics-and shook up the world”, The Washington Post; Bittman, Mark. 2016. “Hillary Clinton is the status quo candidate, and Trump is capitalizing on it”, The Guardian.

Jones, Jeffrey M. 2015. “Confidence in U.S. Institutions Still Below Historical Norms”,

Major, Brenda, Alison Blodorn, and Gregory Major Blascovich. 2016. “The threat of increasing diversity: Why many White Americans support Trump in the 2016 presidential election”, Group Processes and Intergroup Relations.

Parks, Miles. 2018. “NPR/Marist Poll: 40 Percent of Americans Think Elections Aren’t Fair”,

Pew Research Center. 2016. “2016 Campaign: Strong Interest, Widespread Dissatisfaction”, Pew Research Center U.S. Politics and Policy.

Shear, Michael D., and Gardiner Harris. 2016. “Trump Wants to ‘Drain the Swamp’, but Change Will Be Complex and Costly”, The New York Times.


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