Tuesday, October 14, 2008

More from "The Irrational Electorate"

In a recent post ("Contingency and Causation") we posted an excerpt from an article ("The Irrational Electorate") in The Wilson Quarterly by Larry Bartels, the director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics in Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The article is worth reading in full, but here are a couple more excerpts from it.

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


J K said...

Its what I've been saying for a while. People frequently vote and act according to decidedly irrational instincts and then use backwards rationalization (usually via regurgitated party line) to pretend they thought their way to where they are now. That's the major problem I have with philosophies or political beliefs that make hypothetical social structures based on the premise of humans acting logically in their own self interest. We just don't, and although it makes for good psychology to pursue such self-advancement, it makes for lousy sociology to assume that is our natural state of being. We're all just apes in clothes, mobbing around in our tribes.

DaveinHackensack said...

For that reason I think we'd be better off as a country if one of two things happened:

1) More economic decisions were ceded to appointed technocrats (e.g., the way monetary policy is handled by the Fed). This is highly unlikely, since it would require Congress to cede much of its Constitutional power of the purse.

2) The compensation structure of our elected leaders were changed in a way that encouraged them to enact better long-term economic policies. For example, if they were given a smaller base salary (say, $120k) and the chance to make seven figures in deferred variable compensation indexed to a composite of metrics (unemployment rates, interest rates, stock market performance, inflation rates, debt as a percentage of GDP, etc.). The variable comp could be deferred for 5 or 10 years to take into account the lag times before certain policies effect the economy and to keep Congress from trying to enact policies that might temporarily goose some metrics but will make things worse down the road.

BTW, J.K., EGY closed at $4.07 today, with the drop in oil prices. A lot of E&Ps are going on sale now.

J K said...

Interesting ideas. I'm not too crazy on 1), but I like 2).

Re: EGY, yeah I saw that, good stuff. I think its a great time to load up on oil. Unfortunately I used up all my dry powder last week during the big drop. Trying to squeeze some more out here soon. There are tons of bargains out there. Great time to be investing.

DaveinHackensack said...


I'm not too crazy on idea 1) anymore either.

Anonymous said...

LOL Dave. It really seems like a whole different world now, doesn't it?

DaveinHackensack said...