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Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Are the Voters Idiots?

In an interesting article in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, Louis Menand discussed political scientist's theories of voting behavior. Basically, Menand is asking if voters are idiots.
Findings about the influence of the weather on voter behavior are among the many surveys and studies that confirm [political scientist] Converse's sense of the inattention of the American electorate. In election years from 1952 to 2000, when people were asked whether they cared who won the Presidential election, between twenty-two and forty-four per cent answered "don't care" or "don't know." In 2000, eighteen per cent said that they decided which Presidential candidate to vote for only in the last two weeks of the campaign; five per cent, enough to swing most elections, decided the day they voted.
Princeton political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels estimate that 2.8 million people voted against Al Gore in 2000 because their states were too dry or too wet as a consequence of that year's weather patterns
Achen and Bartels 2.8 million estimate is calculated by comparing the actual weather, which was a little worse than average, to perfect weather (I've read their paper, although I don't think it's posted on the web). But even comparing actual to average weather suggests that Gore lost something like half a percentage point -- half a million votes -- because of the climate.

Bartels also says that shark attacks have been known to swing elections. Specifically, the 1916 Presidential election in New Jersey, when a series of shark attacks devastated the tourist industry on the Jersey shore, cause voters there to swing sharply against the incumbent.

Bartels is cagey about how exactly he thinks voters make up their minds. But his view seems to be that many voters respond to their immediate circumstances (their taxes, their job situation, the weather) and draw connections to policies and politics based on, at best, folk wisdom. Their evaluations of politicians have little to do with whether a candidate can or will do anything about the problems they face.

For example, Bartels says (and he has the regressions to prove it) that voters tend to support repealing the estate tax because they think their own taxes are too high. Repealing the estate tax is supported, by large majorities, even among those with below-median incomes, who support more government spending, want the government to fight rising income inequality, and think the rich don't pay their fair share of taxes.

And of course recent presidential campaigns have prominently featured issues where the federal role is fairly minimal: like crime (e.g., Willie Horton and the death penalty), and education (about 7% of funds spent on education come from the federal government).

In this light, things seems fairly good for Kerry. Gas prices are skyrocketing, as are health insurance costs, and swing-state Florida has been devasted by multiple hurricanes. Bush may have have done relatively little to cause these problems, but he may get the blame.

UPDATE: See also second post and third post.

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