Elections In a Time of Shattered Heuristics: A Hypothesis For Tuesday’s Debacle

Ezra Klein lays out the predicament of anyone trying to develop a simple political narrative for the 2014 results:

It’s easy to say elections are complicated and elegant explanations inevitably oversimplify. So what’s the right narrative of the 2014 election?

The answer — to be a bad pundit for a moment — is I’m not really sure. And nor is anyone else. My guess is there is no one narrative that really works. We’re in a period of extreme volatility in American politics. The 2012 election — where Democrats dominated at every level — was only two years ago. The Republican wave of the 2010 election was only two years before that. The massive Democratic gains in the 2008 election were only two years before that. And the massive Democratic gains in the 2006 midterm were only two years before that.

The last five elections, taken together, wreck almost every clean story you might try to wrap around them. They show an electorate that veers hard and quickly between left and right and back again — shredding any efforts one might make to draw deep ideological conclusions from a single campaign. They show that Democrats can, in the right circumstances, win midterm elections. They show that incumbents can win presidential campaigns. They show an electorate that seems to be searching for something it cannot find.

In a country that is divided–and the recent election results, even in ‘sweep years’, have been very close in many races–the low-information content voters become very important. Now, I don’t mean stupid people (though they may very well be stupid). Democratic-aligned professionals and activists forget that most people are relatively low-information voters. But many voters don’t follow the ins and outs of national politics (or any politics). They do what knowledgeable voters when forced to make a decision about some ridiculous position like Registrar of Probate in Boston (the probate: isn’t that the one where the doctor puts the scope up your…), or in D.C., the area neighborhood council. If you have the time, you hastily try to find some information and figure out whom to vote for. If not, you just use a simple heuristic or rule of thumb (“I haven’t heard of any Probate problems”, “She’s a Democrat”, etc.). If the economy sucks, guess what the low information voters are going to do? They either switch, choose not to vote for a candidate, or else stay home, figuring it doesn’t matter.

Our current media system makes it very difficult in a short period of time to accurately find information that would help a voter who isn’t a politics nerd make up her mind (as well as providing historical context); with rare exceptions, it is utterly failing at informing citizens about local, state and national races. It doesn’t help that both parties have blurred the distinctions between them: Republicans claimed the mantle of defending Social Security and contraception accessibility, while Democrats, including Obama, have repeated talked about cutting Social Security benefits under the guise of ‘protecting it.’ Republicans railed against TARP and the other bank bailouts, while many Democrats supported them. Obama has supported the Keystone pipeline. How could a voter, especially when faced with a Democrat intentionally trying to blur the differences*, know what he is voting for?

We politics nerds will realize that it’s more complicated than that, but remember that we’re dealing with heuristics, cognitive shortcuts. The previous paragraph isn’t an inaccurate ‘Cliffs Notes’ summary of where the parties stand, especially the candidates in the swing regions. So what is a voter to do? The few independents will vacillate–and in the close races, this matters. Low-intensity ‘partisans’ will be discouraged, confused, or stay home.

As a result, we get these wild swings Klein describes (and you should read his post as he crushes many of the conventional narratives).

I realize ‘broken heuristics’ and the electoral equivalent of sampling error (i.e., close elections) aren’t very exciting. Worse, if correct, it suggests that our political system is truly broken, as, even if we** are so inclined, it’s hard for many of us to cast a reasonably informed and intelligent vote.

*This wasn’t a bug, but a feature. The Democratic consultant class, both during and between campaigns, encourages Democrats to be one step to the left of Republicans. What did they think would happen?

**I was about to write they, but let’s be honest, at the local level (which in D.C. is the only level I have any control over) it was very hard to find the relevant information. And I really tried.

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