This surprising New York Times article says many US voters can't tell what political positions their candidate espouse, and in fact appear to simply attach their favored positions onto their candidate.

Strikingly, a majority (59%) of Trump voters support requiring masks (only 18% are opposed), and 81% of Trump voters who support mandatory masking think Trump does as well.

Similarly, 39% of Trump voters support closing nonessential businesses (37% are opposed), and 75% of Trump supporters who want to close businesses believe that the president does as well. Finally, 34% of Trump voters support WHO membership (39% are opposed), and 70% of Trump supporters who support WHO membership believe Trump supports it.

The article calls the phenomenon "projection".

This phenomenon is surprising to me, seems it sounds so irrational. I am wondering if it applies to humans as a whole, or if it's unique to the US. I couldn't find anything via Google and there're no (?) relevant results on the Wikipedia disambiguation page for 'projection' either.

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    I think this is probably true to some extent everywhere. For example consider people who vote for the Green party in their own country. They may know their position on specific high profile issues but are likely to not know their position on less well known issues (eg: forestry) and may assume the party agrees with what they voter wants. The converse is true too, farmers who already don't like the Greens may assume they wish to destroy their farms to grow more trees for them to hug. Might be worth looking at this because of the way individual national Green parties differ.
    – Eric Nolan
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 8:39
  • OP, you might be interested in Ezra Klein's book about political polarization. An interesting historical note is that voters today are MUCH better at determining what parties support than just 30 years ago. In fact a low info voter today is better at determining if a policy is D or R supported than a high info voter in the 70s was. So while there's exceptions, in general voters are pretty good at knowing what issues D's and R's support (because the parties are now highly sorted as liberal and conservative parties).
    – eps
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 21:48
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    I think what you're looking for is en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_projection but the NYT uses it in the opposite sense. It's not that "thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings that cannot be accepted as one's own are dealt with by being placed in the outside world and attributed to someone else" but that desirable thoughts, feelings, political viewpoints etc. are projected (which is a sub-conscious process) onto a candidate they like for other reasons. Could also be self-affirmation.
    – YetiCGN
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 11:30
  • Not directly related to the question, but Trump has at least nominally endorsed wearing masks, so maybe these pro-mask Trump voters are not completely wrong to believe he agrees with them: twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1285299379746811915
    – bjmc
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 21:31
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    I think any attempt to measure the distance between a candidate's views and a voter's views will be skewed by the fact that candidates lie, and that voters are able to predict the ways in which they are lying. For example, Barack Obama ran for President twice nominally and officially opposing gay marriage; people who supported gay marriage did not perceive this as a policy difference because they knew his nominal position was a tactical deception and that he was the best candidate to support if you favored gay marriage.
    – tbrookside
    Commented Sep 16, 2020 at 14:49

5 Answers 5


As originally asked by Allure, the header was "Apparently many US voters can't tell what their candidate's policy proposals are. Does this also apply to voters in other countries?" I think did answer that one, but since then there have been edits.


  • There are people who vote the way their parents always did. (And people who vote exactly opposite to the way their parents always did.)
  • A large number of voters cast their vote either for or against the current government, based on that government's past performance. They do not read the party platform for the next term.

For Germany, the concepts are called Traditionale Stammwähler and Affektuelle Wechselwähler.

According to this 2017 poll, 53% of undecided voters stated that they actively researched party platforms prior to the election, 24% of them with online comparison tools, yet 82% of undecided voters (vs. 81% of stable voters) claimed to be convinced by the party platform.

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    This is a good answer in general but it doesn’t address the issue of projection of a voters views onto the candidate
    – divibisan
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 13:17
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    Both are interesting observations, but it doesn't address the issue the OP presented - projection.
    – Polygnome
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 21:33
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    I don't understand how this is a highly voted 'answer'. Don't get me wrong this is a reasonable comment as an aside but it doesn't actually answer the question asked. Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 12:16
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    @LioElbammalf: it was probably the 1st answer posted. That's how SE works most of the time, alas. (Frankly, the 2nd most upvoted answer, presently, is even worse, in terms of actually answering the q.) Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 15:07
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    @Fizz, I think it is a clear answer to the question mark in the subject line, a less clear answer to the last question mark in the main text.
    – o.m.
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 16:03

It's not inconsistent to be ignorant about policies you don't care about.

Imagine someone who is weakly in favour of mask wearing, but very strongly against abortion. So much so, they select their party based on abortion policy alone.

If you survey such a person, they'll say they're voting for Trump, and that they're pro-mask wearing.

And if they don't know Trump's mask policy, why should they when it won't change their vote?

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    The question isn't about people who say "I don't know Trump's mask policy", but about people who wrongly say that Trump's mask policy matches their own (even when given the option to say "I don't know"). So this answer doesn't address it.
    – ruakh
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 18:31
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    Oops, correction, re: "even when given the option to say 'I don't know'": I misread before. It looks like the neutral option is to say that Trump "neither agrees/disagrees", not that the respondent doesn't know how Trump feels. So that's a bit limiting; they apparently weren't allowed to just admit ignorance.
    – ruakh
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 18:45

This article is based on conclusions from a survey conducted through a company called Lucid, which does not release any of its data online. Some of the authors may have released more information, I haven't been able to find anything, perhaps it's merely pending publication.

So my answer will simply presume that the information is correct and well-controlled for biases, and it was written by academics whose focus is attempting to answer these kinds of questions, so it's a reasonable thing to presume.

The question of whether or not people vote based on party affiliation or knowledge and consideration of policy is not limited to the US. In fact one of the authors of this article, Eric Guntermann, has a paper under review titled Policy Preferences Do Influence Vote Choice: Evidence from the 2017 French Presidential Election in which they write

Scholars have long debated whether policy preferences motivate vote choice, as expected in models of policy representation. This debate has persisted for so long because nearly all analyses of vote choice are liable to the critique that the policy preferences in question are endogenous to party preferences. [...] We conclude that policy preferences clearly do matter to vote choice and that this effect is most visible when a new party emerges.

So in the absence of information, people presume that the views of their political party aligns with their own views. The authors imply that as election day approaches, people will become more and more informed (citation needed, though it seems a reasonable assumption), and that this will likely have an impact on voter choice:

Since voters increasingly pay attention to the presidential race as Election Day approaches, Mr. Trump has reason to worry that voters will learn more about his stances.

Casual reading could infer from this article that US citizens are completely irrational, but I would argue that the idea is instead that when you are faithful to a party, and you do not know its position on a question, you will not pay much attention and assume by default that the party agrees with you. Until the day you realize that it doesn't. This day is much more likely to happen the closer you get to an election. There is nothing uniquely american about this process.

There is another component that argues that affiliation with a party influences your policy beliefs, and that you will change your beliefs to conform with the party you adhere to, particularly in certain contexts. You can find more information about that in a previous paper by Eric Guntermann.

Study 2, a survey experiment in Galicia, shows that party cue effects only occur when participants are exposed to competing cues from their preferred party and from a disliked party. Parties thus influence opinions when they adopt contrasting positions even on issues that are rooted in identity.

For evidence that the specific cognitive bias of projection, or assuming that the party you support agrees with your values, occurs in other parts of the world, I recommend reading more about assimilation and contrast effects in voter projections. Assimilation is when you presume that a political party you like will agree with you, and constrast is when you presume that a political party you don't like will disagree with you. The study I linked is a bit old (2001) but shows this effect in three countries, and now that you know what it's called (more than just projection), you can easily find more example for other parts of the world.

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    There's probably also a bit of cognitive dissonance involved. If you're faithful to a party, you're likely to tune out policy details that conflict with your own views, and give more weight to the ones that match your views.
    – Barmar
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 16:36
  • You should include a quote and/or more info from the last paper, which is the one that actually answers the question.
    – OrangeDog
    Commented Sep 16, 2020 at 7:59
  • @Barmar About "cognitive dissonance" -- years ago I read a book about the political battle in the USA regarding whether to join that newfangled "League of Nations" in the post-World War I era on the theory that it would prevent other big wars. The authors said that the Republican Party's national platform in 1920 was written in such a way that a couple of paragraphs appeared to endorse the mission statement of the League, and the next few paragraphs appeared to reject the idea of joining the League. Some joked that whatever you personally believed, you only had to "choose your paragraph!"
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Sep 16, 2020 at 16:11

Yes, there is a site in the UK https://voteforpolicies.org.uk/ that clearly demonstrates this. During an election* it presents a survey/questionnaire with issues and the policies of all the main political parties, but does not show which party any of the policies belong to. You go through selecting each policy you think is most important and at the end it shows you which party is most in line with your choices.

The survey outcome is very much out of line with the parties that people tend to vote for. In the 2015 election the Greens and Liberal Democrats came out with a much higher proportion in the questionnaire than was reflected as votes in the actual election; meaning that people generally liked policies of parties that they didn't vote for. Despite winning the election, the Conservative party came last in the questionnaire, behind (in order) Labour, Lib Dems, Greens, then UKIP.

Policy Survey Result Vote share

  • note that the questionnaire is only active during an election period and there isn't one right now
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    I don't think you can draw this conclusion easily based on the data. The UK uses first-past-the-post, so there really isn't much incentive to vote for your favourite party. Maybe one could argue that overall some people seem to be voting right wing but prefer left-wing policies, but thats about it.
    – Arno
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 14:03
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    I would also add that there could be one or two crucial policies that make people vote for a given party even if they disagree with every other policy of that party.
    – Thymine
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 15:05
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    The questionaire is a tool for letting politicians escape accountability for their actions by pretending that promises of future policies are supposed to be more important then what the politicians did in the past. It's not about actual policy of the parties but about promised policy. By the standard of the questionaire Trump does support covering all pre-existing conditions and protecting social security and medicare.
    – Christian
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 15:53
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    -1, sorry. The questionnaire you've cited gives absolutely no evidence that British voters think their party supports policies it doesn't; all it shows is that a certain algorithm for deriving votes from policies is not a good predictor of how people actually vote. (Actually it doesn't even show that, because the pool of survey respondents may differ significantly in some way from pool of people who ended up voting.) Even if we assume that every well-informed voter would follow this algorithm, this gives no evidence that ignorant voters will have false beliefs like the OP describes.
    – ruakh
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 18:39
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    The first two comments do a great job of illustrating why this answer is very misleading. Maybe the Official Monster Raving Loony Party's policies correspond 100% to my political beliefs. That doesn't mean I'm going to waste my vote on them. In the last election a decent chunk of people probably voted solely on their party's Brexit position and ignored everything else.
    – JBentley
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 19:07

As with most psychology research published in English, the US dominates as research grounds, but "social projection" (applying more strongly to groups that the subject identifies with, aka in-groups) is hardly a new discovery, even when applied to politics:

As early as 1954, Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee investigated individual’s perception of how certain groups would vote. They found that when people felt a group to be close to them, they expected group members to vote in the same way as themselves. Likewise, Fields and Schuman (1976) inferred from survey data that assessments of general public opinion showed evidence of projection effects, or, in their terms, the looking-glass perception. People 'look out onto the world and somehow see their own opinions reflected back' (p. 437).

In more statistical terms that gloss over the strength of the projection on in-groups vs out-groups, this has been reformulated as

the false consensus effect (FCE)—the tendency to of people who hold a particular attitude to generate higher public opinion consensus estimates compared to people whose attitudes are different (Ross, Greene, & House, 1977) [...] The false consensus effect has been demonstrated in numerous studies of political opinions, consumer choices, religious preferences, investment decisions, dietary and exercise habits, and much more (see, e.g., Marks & Miller, 1987; Mullen, Atkins, Champion, Edwards, Hardy, Story, & Vanderklok, 1985; Mullen & Hu, 1988; Wetzel & Walton, 1985) and has been mentioned in more than 1,800 academic publications to date.

So I don't expect this to be a phenomenon unique to Americans, although the degree of mis-information and projection on a particular topic might depend on some contextual factors that might vary between countries. According to a 2019 paper, cross-cultural studies of the false consensus effect (FCE) are not that numerous... There's even some controversy (and contradictory findings) on whether the effect is stronger or weaker in countries that have more individualistic vs a more collectivist culture.

When it comes to the effect in the political domain, some cross-countries research has pointed to some "populist" factors that are not country specific, at least across some Western countries:

this article argues that populist citizens assume that public opinion is congruent with their own opinion and that mainstream media reporting is hostile toward their own views. To date, only anecdotal evidence suggests that both assumptions are true. The relationships are investigated in a cross-sectional survey with samples drawn from four Western European countries (N = 3,354). Multigroup regression analysis supports our hypotheses: False consensus and hostile media perceptions can clearly be linked to populist attitudes in all four regions under investigation.

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