Schumer Might Be Operating Under The Wrong Model: Voters Use Heuristics

I might have been foolish in my recent praise for Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer. It appears, that despite the tough talk, some Democrats (the usual suspects like Claire McCaskill and others) are thinking of collaborating with Trump on healthcare. While this sort of politically craven and brain-dead strategy is par for the course for the New Democrat wing of the Democratic Party, it forgets that voters typically use heuristics to decide whom to vote for (or if to vote at all; boldface added):

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.

By the way, I wrote that in 2014. But back to Schumer (boldface mine):

The latest such dispatch comes from Politico’s Annie Karni, who writes, “Schumer, by nature, is a dealmaker, not an ideologue — and insiders said he’s more interested in keeping open a line of conversation with Trump Tower in the hopes of holding the seats of the 10 Democratic Senators up for reelection in 2018 in states where Trump won, a move designed to protect his caucus.”

Schumer’s idea is a faithful reflection of the way Congress thought about politics years ago, when Schumer was coming up through the system. It’s a totally plausible model, which assumes that vulnerable members of Congress can shore up their standing by proving to their constituents that they can win concrete achievements. That is how Schumer has built a career, and he wants to help Democrats in red states do the same, by finding some bills where they can shake hands with Trump and cut ribbons on some bridges, and so on. Schumer’s idea can be boiled down to:

Senate Democrats work with Trump → Voters conclude Senate Democrats are doing a good job → Senate Democrats win reelection.

Yet both empirical research and recent experience show that this dynamic, which seems to make sense, does not actually work at all. The truth is that voters pay little attention to legislative details, or even to Congress at all. They make decisions on the basis of how they feel about the president, not how they feel about Congress. And a major factor in their evaluation of the president is the presence or absence of partisan conflict. If a president has support from the opposition party, it tells voters he’s doing well, and they then choose to reward the president’s party down-ballot.

This dynamic played out during George W. Bush’s first term. After 9/11 — an extraordinary event, to be sure — both parties rallied around Bush. This caused his approval ratings to skyrocket, and as a result, Democrats in Congress suffered an unusual beating in the 2002 midterm, which ordinarily would have been an opportunity for the opposing party to record gains. Indeed, the bipartisan halo around Bush persisted long enough to let him win reelection in 2004. Only in Bush’s second term, when partisan cooperation collapsed, did Democrats make major gains.

Under Obama, Schumer logic would have dictated that vulnerable Republicans demonstrate a willingness to work together with the extremely popular new president. Instead, the Republican Party denied any bipartisan support for almost any bill, despite the popularity of both Obama and the proposals at issue. This created a sense of partisan dysfunction that allowed Republicans to make major gains in midterm elections, despite the fact that their party and its agenda remained deeply unpopular. The actual dynamic, then, is:

Senate Democrats work with Trump → Voters conclude Trump is doing a good job → Senate Republicans and Trump win reelection


Senate Democrats don’t work with Trump → Voters conclude Trump is doing a bad job → Senate Democrats win reelection

If Schumer wants to prevent bad outcomes, he might cut some deals with Trump. But those deals are going to put his members at risk. If he wants to protect his red-state seats, he needs to drive down Trump’s approval ratings, which means fighting Trump on everything. It’s unfortunate for the Democratic Party that its most powerful elected official does not seem to understand the basic political dynamic.

There’s the added disadvantage that any slight compromise with Trump will still produce a shitty healthcare bill–which Democrats will then be complicit in passing. If Senate Democrats don’t understand how people actually vote–using heuristics–then we’re fucked.

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One Response to Schumer Might Be Operating Under The Wrong Model: Voters Use Heuristics

  1. scottfree43 says:

    Here is a great paper on how we can give our Representatives some spine when facing Trump – Read it and do it!

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