What's the term for the problem where voters have to pick a single person to vote for, but they may support different candidates on different issues?

For example, maybe you like the Democrats position on the environment and foreign affairs, but the Republicans position on taxes and abortion, and you ultimately have to pick one.

Perhaps 90% of voters support the Democratic position on the environment, but end up electing the Republican one due to other issues. Then the Republican goes on to claim he represents the will of the people, when that's not at all clear since so many of the issues are muddied together and you have to pick one.

Is there a name for this problem in polisci?

  • "Two-party system"? "Majoritarian democracy"?
    – endolith
    Sep 1, 2018 at 23:03
  • 3
    This is a shortfall of Representative Democracy (what Americans think of as Republicanism). I don't know the name for it, but it is pretty much inherent in the definition of Representative Democracy -- you vote on people instead of policies, so your wishes can't be perfectly enfranchised on all issues. A good starting point might be to search for criticisms of Representative Democracy.
    – John
    Sep 2, 2018 at 6:05
  • "I represent the will of some of the people on some of the issues" doesn't sound nearly as good :)
    – user2565
    Sep 2, 2018 at 20:44

1 Answer 1


The most specific term used seems to be "issue bundling":

The analysis isolates three reasons why the forces of electoral competition may not, by themselves, be sufficient to produce congruence between citizen preferences and policy outcomes on both issues. These are (i) when there are divergences between elite and popular opinion on an issue and that issue is not salient in the election; (ii) when there is a group of voters who hold a minority view on an issue but vote as single issue voters; and (iii) when a minority view is supported by an organized interest group that provides campaign contributions to candidates sharing its position. The logic of each of these arguments rests on issue bundling — the fact that citizens have only one vote to cast for a representative who must decide on a bundle of issues. This echoes a familiar theme in political science.

It's been often discussed as one of the problems that direct democracy attempts to solve:

The theory of direct democracy revolves around three ideas: principal-agent problems, asymmetric information and issue bundling. [...]

Legislatures often bundle issues together in omnibus bills that are voted on as a package. This “logrolling” allows legislators to trade votes with each other and gain approval of their top priorities by giving ground on issues they consider of secondary importance. Initiatives and referendums give citizens a way to unbundle specific issues. In terms of efficiency, unbundling can be good or bad depending on whether logrolling itself is efficient. [...]

Candidates are also bundles—they take positions on multiple issues—and voters must accept or reject them as packages. By stripping out individual issues, direct democracy reduces the number of issues on which candidates take positions, which theory suggests improves the representation process. When candidates run on fewer issues, citizens can send stronger messages at the voting booth and are less likely to have to support a candidate who is right on some issues but wrong on others.

It has also been studied in terms of this bundling occuring at party level:

We present results of a U.S. survey experiment in which candidate platforms are held fixed and only the number of candidates is altered across treatment conditions. We contrast conditions with and without issue bundling, and discover that in a hypothetical four-party system, the correlation between policy preferences and vote choice increases for both the economic and moral dimensions, but far more for the latter. We interpret this as evidence that policy bundling asymmetrically suppresses the moral values dimension of conflict.

And as you may guess from the above, issue bundling may be a problem even in the absence of representatives (or parties), e.g. having to yea or nay a single large legislative package (like a constitution) in a referendum:

Bundling is generally viewed with some skepticism in the public choice literature. By aggregating several issues together, voters may, in some circumstances, choose a bundle that does not reflect their true preferences. Of course, if there were no transactions costs to bargaining, it would not matter whether issues were presented individually or as a bundle. In the real world, however, the agenda setter may determine the outcome by presenting issues as a bundle. Bundling might allow interest groups to piggy back on generally-approved principles by sneaking in unnecessary policies. This might take the form of logrolling (when two policies supported by different minorities are aggregated to generate majority support), or a rider (in which a policy supported by the majority is bundled with one that would only generate minority support).

When voters are presented with a choice is as momentous as the adoption of the constitution, in which the prospective costs of reaching no agreement might be overwhelming, they may accept a certain amount of interest group benefits in the bargain. Bundling at the outset of the constitution could produce a document full of special interests and logrolling. In contrast, the more incremental change of a constitutional amendment is rarely as momentous. The cost of failure is less high. Further, because amendments are focused on fewer subjects, we might expect them to produce a more accurate reflection of voter preferences than would an up or down vote on the initial bundle of compromises. If a single subject rule is in place, it might restrict interest group activity, and eliminate Condorcet losers (Levmore 2005). From this point of view, we might favor amendment over constitution-making as less susceptible to rent-seeking in some circumstances.

Broader terms that may encompass other things are "limited choice" or "constrained democracy", although these are not strictly about individuals, e.g. they can refer to having to choose among a given set of parties too. These latter notions may even apply to direct democracy, e.g. to referenda.

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