Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Voter theories

Louis Menand's New Yorker article The Unpolitical Animal was a fun read. Some interesting sections:
1. Skepticism about the competence of the masses to govern themselves is as old as mass self-government. Even so, when that competence began to be measured statistically, around the end of the Second World War, the numbers startled almost everyone. ... About forty-two per cent of voters, according to Converse’s interpretation of surveys of the 1956 electorate, vote on the basis not of ideology but of perceived self-interest. The rest form political preferences either from their sense of whether times are good or bad (about twenty-five per cent) or from factors that have no discernible “issue content” whatever. Converse put twenty-two per cent of the electorate in this last category. In other words, about twice as many people have no political views as have a coherent political belief system.

2. In a paper written in 2004, the 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 think that these voters cost Gore seven states, any one of which would have given him the election.

3. The most widely known fact about George H. W. Bush in the 1992 election was that he hated broccoli. Eighty-six per cent of likely voters in that election knew that the Bushes’ dog’s name was Millie; only fifteen per cent knew that Bush and Clinton both favored the death penalty. It’s not that people know nothing. It’s just that politics is not what they know.

4. There is nothing in the Constitution requiring candidates to be listed on the ballot with their party affiliations, and, if you think about it, the custom of doing so is vaguely undemocratic. It makes elections a monopoly of the major parties, by giving their candidates an enormous advantage—the advantage of an endorsement right there on the ballot—over everyone else who runs. It is easy to imagine a constitutional challenge to the practice of identifying candidates by party, but it is also easy to imagine how wild the effects would be if voters were confronted by a simple list of names with no identifying tags. Every election would be like an election for student-body president: pure name recognition.

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