Philip Converse: Understanding the American Voter

By Susan Rosegrant
September 2012 (updated in April 2013)

Philip Converse

Phil Converse in 1985

Jobs. Government corruption. Health care. Terrorism.

Polls have shown these to be among the hot button issues for voters in the upcoming presidential election. But if the theories put forth more than 50 years ago by Philip Converse still hold true, many voters don’t have consistent opinions about these burning issues of the day. Nor do they vote based on a coherent ideology.

Converse, now 83, was a young research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research (ISR) back in 1960 when he collaborated with fellow ISR researchers Angus Campbell, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes to write The American Voter, a groundbreaking book that reshaped the world’s understanding of political behavior. Among the central—and controversial—themes of the book was the assertion that most voters were remarkably unsophisticated in their thinking.

Converse developed that argument further in his 1964 article, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.” Drawing on surveys conducted during the 1950s, Converse concluded that less than four percent of the voting public had a well-formed political belief system and the ability to think abstractly. The rest of the pack based their decisions on how they felt a particular party treated different groups; on whether they associated a party with a particular good or bad event, such as a war or a recession; or on “no shred of policy significance whatever.” Converse put that last group at 17.5 percent.

Many political scientists, including Converse, would argue that the voting public has become somewhat more sophisticated in the five decades since he wrote his article; Converse credits a more educated populace and the easy availability of information for that improvement. But the ideas from his legendary article are still discussed today. In fact, ISR’s Center for Political Studies (CPS) will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the article at two events—the annual Miller-Converse lecture in April 2013, and a conference one year later. The events will also feature the seminal article by colleagues Miller and Stokes, “Constituency Influence in Congress,” examining the degree of control that voters have over the congressmen they choose to represent them.

Converse Miller Campbell

Philip Converse, Warren Miller, and Angus Campbell (left to right) discuss the National Election Study in 1956.

And CPS is making sure that the ideas and energy of these two scholars lives on in other ways. With early financial support from Converse, the Center recently created the Philip Converse and Warren Miller Fellowship in American Political Behavior, to be given annually to a U-M graduate student and his or her faculty mentor to pursue research on elections, public opinion, or representation. The first Converse Miller fellowship was awarded in April at the Miller-Converse lecture to John Jackson, professor of political science, and Elizabeth Mann, a Ph.D. student in political science, who will be using the award to study American political behavior.

Contributing to a student fellowship was a natural move for Converse, given his formative experiences as a student and young academic at ISR in the 1950s and ‘60s. Before coming to Michigan, he earned a master’s degree in English literature, and did research for a Shakespearean scholar; he liked the details, but was convinced there was more significant research to be done in the social sciences. Then, as a graduate student at U-M, he discovered ISR. “I managed to infiltrate the place by hook or by crook, and that’s where it all started,” Converse recalled in a 1997 interview. “I was absolutely thrilled off my feet by this marvelous new tool of survey research which could give one snapshots of what was going on in the minds and behaviors of the American public.”

Converse went on to head CPS in 1982, and he became the fourth director of ISR in 1986. He left that position in 1989 to become director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. But after retiring from Stanford in 1994, he moved back to Michigan, where as a professor emeritus of sociology and political science he has continued his close association with the Institute. The Fellowship, he says, should help students continue to make breakthroughs in understanding American voting behavior.

More than fifty years have passed since Converse came to U-M as a student, but the intensity of his early years at ISR still resonates. “I felt like a kid in a candy shop,” Converse said. “I felt I had come to exactly the right place at exactly the right time.”