It’s Not Just What You Have, but Who You Know: Networks, Social Proximity to Elites, and Voting in State and Local Elections
by Matthew T. Pietryka, Florida State University & Donald A. Debats, Flinders University
Do our interpersonal relationships affect our political decisions? People often form hundreds of relationships—friends, family, coworkers, neighbors—and connect indirectly to even more individuals through a series of intermediaries—friends’ family, coworkers’ neighbors, and so on. Rather than examine these relationships, the most prominent explanations of voting in political science focus on individual attributes such as one’s socioeconomic status and partisan identity. We develop a theory explaining one way that the social environment might influence political behavior: by introducing variation in individuals’ social proximity to political elites. Our analysis rests on newly-discovered historical records revealing the individual votes of all electors in the 1859 statewide election in Alexandria, Virginia and the 1874 municipal election in Newport, Kentucky, paired with archival work identifying the social relationships among the cities’ populations. We also find similar results using survey data from a modern municipal election. We show that individuals more socially proximate to elites turn out to vote at a higher rate and individuals more socially proximate to a given political party’s elites vote disproportionately for that party. These results suggest an overlooked social component of voting and provide a rare nineteenth-century test of modern voting theories.