On the relevance of candidates' policy positions to most voters
Most people seem able to provide cogent-sounding reasons for voting the way they do. However, careful observation suggests that these “reasons” often are merely rationalizations constructed from readily available campaign rhetoric to justify preferences formed on other grounds.17
Consider the role of Social Security privatization in the 2000 presidential election. It was a huge issue, the focus of more than -one-tenth of all campaign-related television news coverage and about 200 ads on a typical television station in a battleground media market in the last week of the campaign. By Election Day, there was a strong statistical relationship between voters’ views about privatization and their presidential choices—just as one would expect if voters were pondering this important issue and casting their ballots accordingly. However, a detailed analysis by political scientist Gabriel Lenz found very little evidence that people actually changed their vote because of the Social Security debate. What happened, mostly, was that people who learned the candidates’ views on privatization from the blizzard of ads and news coverage simply adopted the position of the candidate they already supported for other reasons. The resulting appearance of “issue voting” was almost wholly illusory.18
An example of irrational voting
Voters have great difficulty judging which aspects of their own and the country’s well-being are the responsibility of elected leaders and which are not. In the summer of 1916, for example, a dramatic weeklong series of shark attacks along New Jersey beaches left four people dead. Tourists fled, leaving some resorts with 75 percent vacancy rates in the midst of their high season. Letters poured into congressional offices demanding federal action; but what action would be effective in such circumstances? Voters probably didn’t know, but neither did they care. When President Woodrow Wilson—a former governor of New Jersey with strong local ties—ran for reelection a few months later, he was punished at the polls, losing as much as 10 percent of his expected vote in towns where shark attacks had occurred.
New Jersey voters’ reaction to shark attacks was dramatic, but hardly anomalous. Throughout the 20th century, presidential candidates from incumbent parties suffered substantial vote losses in states afflicted by droughts or wet spells.
Incidentally, according to Wikipedia, the 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks Bartels refers to inspired Peter Benchley to write Jaws