Voters Don’t Think Linearly: The Second Choice Edition

Sometimes, I think Joshua Holland and I are the only ones who realize that many voters don’t orient themselves linearly along some axis of political ideology. Holland notes (boldface mine):

Every day, you will find opinion columns and news reports that assume, for example, that Joe Biden’s supporters would search for another moderate Democrat if he fades, or that warn that Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders would struggle to win the votes of mainstream liberals in Wisconsin, or otherwise begin with similar “political lane”-based premises.

But in the cumulative exit polls for the 2016 Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton among voters who wanted the next president to be more liberal than Obama, just as you would expect, but he also won over Democratic voters who wanted a more conservative president than Obama. Clinton won handily by dominating among those who told pollsters that they thought Obama was about where they wanted the next president to be ideologically.

Currently, and very much contrary to the conventional wisdom, progressives Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are tied as the most frequently cited second choice by those who prefer the more moderate Joe Biden, according to Morning Consult’s polling. Warren supporters are only slightly more likely to name Sanders as their second choice (28 percent) than to pick Biden (24 percent), and the same is true of Sanders voters–32 percent say Warren is their number 2, and 28 percent pick Biden. The top second choice among those backing Pete Buttigieg, who is often described as competing in Biden’s “moderate” lane, is Warren.

The reality is that most voters aren’t nearly as ideological as the people who write about politics (and political junkies on Twitter) believe. There is some evidence that the electorate has become more ideological with our rising polarization, but even as more identify as “very liberal” or “very conservative,” when you drill down a bit, most people still aren’t consistently so in their actual beliefs.

One shouldn’t overstate the case. It’s not that ideological affinity plays no role whatsoever in voters’ candidate selection, or that voters who place a great deal of emphasis on ideology don’t exist. Rather, perceived ideological alignment is only one among a mishmash of factors, often irrational, that go into voters’ choice of candidates. The media tend to report as if it’s the primary factor, but it’s probably pretty low on the list after personal affinity–the one you’d want to have a proverbial beer with–cues from your in-group (or in-groups), the view that a primary candidate can win in the general election, etc.

Some asshole with a blog has described the political consequences of this reality:

Despite what the internecine snipers on the leftward side of the party would have you believe, Sanders and Warren are each pulling away significant votes from Biden. If one of them drops, Biden moves up in absolute terms, and this race suddenly becomes the centrist versus the leftist, with Biden the centrist having the advantage. That won’t play out well, as the political press corps will begin to marginalize the left-ish candidate, and Biden could pull away.

Likewise, if there isn’t a clear winner by the time the convention rolls around, both Sanders and Warren will have turned a significant portion of willing Biden supporters into lefty delegates–which is a good thing…

We need both of them in the race right now, unless you want a Biden candidacy.

To digress a little, during Democratic primary season, one of the regrettable, and possibly disastrous, realities is that many Democratic voters spend far too much time trying to guess what some voter they don’t really know–and who is probably very different from the mental construct in their heads–is going to do. It’s a problem, since many of these amateur psychologists are wildly off-base in how general election voters will choose candidates.

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1 Response to Voters Don’t Think Linearly: The Second Choice Edition

  1. Joe Shelby says:

    “but he also won over Democratic voters who wanted a more conservative president than Obama. Clinton won handily by dominating among those who told pollsters that they thought Obama was about where they wanted the next president to be ideologically.”

    I think this is something Hillary missed, and (this is critical) Biden is not only missing it, he’s embracing the failure.

    Why vote Sanders if you’d rather someone more to the right? Because it isn’t a matter of policy so much as a matter of *change*. This was crucial in the rural portions of the rust belt states that were lost (fortunately, their Senate seats remained safe the next cycle).

    When you are having a hell of a time of it, and someone campaigns on the idea of “stay the course”, they won’t vote for you. They will vote for change or just let change happen JUST BECAUSE THE CHANGE IS IMPORTANT. The fact that it will change is more important than the actual details of what the change are.

    And here, Biden’s “nothing will fundamentally change” absolutely should be the epitaph on the gravestone of his campaign. He openly said to white conservatives that he intends to do nothing to help minorities in any way at all, nor do anything to stem the incoming disaster when the personal tax rules revert while the corporations keep their breaks.

    Nothing will fundamentally change is the best way to lose voters, because most voters don’t like things, one way or another, and want the change. Any change.

    Trump sucked, and many of his supporters actually know that and admit that.

    But they voted for change.

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