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Why do people vote the way they do?

It can be perplexing for people of one country to understand what's happening in another by just reading the news.

Some of the recent election results, for example, have seemed improbable.

When then Filipino presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte campaigned and was quoted making outlandish statements, many in Singapore must have silently ruled out his chances of being elected.

Among other things, he had said criminals were legitimate targets of assassination, he openly admitted to being a womaniser and he was roundly criticised for an outrageous remark he made about an Australian missionary who had been raped.

Would Filipino voters not know better than to elect someone with such wayward views?

To be fair to him, he has sounded a great deal more presidential since winning the election.

Still, I think a fair number of Singaporeans would have been surprised he won.

How do voters make up their minds about who to support?

But if you thought President Duterte was an unexpected winner, the news from the United States would have been even harder to fathom.

Mr Donald Trump is now the presumptive presidential candidate of the Republican Party and some polls say he is neck and neck with the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the race to the White House.

Have Americans taken leave of their senses, supporting a man who has said that, if elected, he would impose a ban on Muslims visiting the US, build a wall at the border with Mexico to shut out immigrants, and stop trading with China?

Despite all this, and to the surprise of many pundits and seasoned political observers there, Mr Trump won the Republican primaries handsomely.

His campaign obviously struck a chord with many there, even if it sounded nutty to people here.

For a third example of how we don't understand voting behaviour, look no further than the result of the British referendum on membership in the European Union (EU) last Thursday.

It must have seemed a no-brainer of a choice to Singaporeans, given the warnings by economists, political leaders and corporate chiefs of the dire impact a vote to leave the EU would bring.

But a majority of Britons thought otherwise.

What accounts for these electoral surprises?

Is it because we don't quite understand what's happening outside Singapore and are only getting a one-sided view, or is there something else taking place?

How do people vote anyway?

A new book - Democracy For Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, by political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels - provides some interesting insights.

It argues that the popular notion that voters decide based on a careful analysis of candidates' positions on issues, what they say or do, isn't borne out by reality.

Based on extensive research, the authors show that people vote based mainly on their social identities - which could be political, ethnic, racial, religious or gender.

In the New York Times last month, the authors wrote: "The notion that elections are decided by voters' carefully weighing competing candidates' stands on major issues reflects a strong faith in American political culture that citizens can control their government from the voting booth. We call it the 'folk theory' of democracy... (but) decades of social-scientific evidence show that voting behaviour is primarily a product of inherited partisan loyalties, social identities and symbolic attachments. Over time, engaged citizens may construct policy preferences and ideologies that rationalise their choices, but those issues are seldom fundamental."

Another interesting finding: Voters seldom hold politicians accountable for policy successes or failures, and they are often voted out for events they cannot logically be held responsible for, such as droughts or floods. On economic issues, US presidents have been voted out based on what has happened only a few months before an election.

The book might make dreary reading about the failings of democracy. But by applying what Achen and Bartels say to what is happening in the elections mentioned above, it is possible to make some sense.

When I asked a Filipina working in Singapore what she thought about President Duterte, she replied that she liked him because he was a "disciplinarian".

She wanted him to rid the Philippines of drug peddlers and criminals, and saw in him the man he had portrayed himself to be: tough and uncompromising on crime. It didn't matter what he might have said or done, he stood for law and order, and it was all that mattered to her.

His social identity as a leader who understood what the common people wanted made him eminently electable to large numbers of Filipinos.

Mr Trump's success isn't so hard to understand, given what the authors say about people not voting according to considered analyses of how competing candidates stood on policy issues.

He has been able to position himself as an anti-establishment figure who can change the much-maligned way in which the political elites in Washington have operated. His social identity as a straight-talking reformer has made him popular with those disenchanted with the status quo.

Does any of this matter in Singapore?

Voting is a complex issue and there are differences in culture and political history between countries that make it hazardous to apply what research says about one country to another.

But some aspects of the study are relevant here.

Singapore is fortunate that its politics isn't shaped by racial or religious issues or affiliations.

What looms large instead is partisan loyalty - or lack thereof - to the ruling People's Action Party.

The PAP has a strong track record and people identify it with the country's progress and the qualities that have made it successful: uncorrupt, meritocratic and multiracial.

That's a winning identity that has helped it remain in power.

But it also suffered from a perception leading up to the 2011 General Election that it had lost touch with the people and become overly elitist.

For some people - and it was enough for the party to suffer a setback in the 2011 GE - it was no longer the party they had identified with and were loyal to.

To its credit, the PAP recognised this, made adjustments, and rebounded strongly in GE2015.

For the opposition, people have long identified it as the underdog struggling against the might of the PAP to provide alternative voices and options.

The actual substance of their policies is not as important as the hope they offer to those who believe an overly dominant ruling party is bad for the country.

These competing identities of the PAP and the opposition will continue to influence the way people vote for some time to come.

One bright spot in Singapore, though, and contrary to the title of the book - recent elections have led to responsive government.

Perhaps, there is hope for democracy yet.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 26, 2016, with the headline 'Why do people vote the way they do?'. Print Edition | Subscribe