Sunday, May 27, 2007

Are American Voters Irrational?

Today's New York Times published a brief essay on voting behavior by Princeton political scientist Gary Bass. Here's the opening paragraph, which is interesting:

Of all the people who deserve some blame for the debacle in Iraq, don’t forget the American public. Today, about two-thirds of Americans oppose the war. But back in March 2003, when United States troops stormed into Iraq, nearly three out of four Americans supported the invasion. Doves say that the public was suckered into war by a deceitful White House, and hawks say that the press has since led the public to lose its nerve — but the two sides implicitly agree that the public has been dangerously unsure, or easily propagandized, or ignorant.
Bass uses that introduction to get into reviewing a recent book by economist Bryan Caplan of George Mason University: "The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies." For Caplan, voters aren't just uninformed, or even ignorant, they are irrational. To quote Bass:

Caplan’s complaint is not that special-interest groups might subvert the will of the people, or that government might ignore the will of the people. He objects to the will of the people itself.
Now, I need to give a hat tip here to Ann Althouse, as I discoverd the Bass piece on one her Sunday morning posts: "Do Voters Have Any Idea What They Are Doing?" She's mostly commenting on the little debate on Caplan's thesis that's taking place within Bass's essay. But this was a rare chance for me to jump into an Althouse comment thread with something to say on a topic that I might actually know something about! My remarks must have been a bit too political science-ish, because the comment thread continued along its merry way, diverging further and further from voting studies (and my comments) into anti-Bush rants and what not.

For what it's worth, I thought I wrote an informative note, so I'm posting here:

Voter decision-making has a long research history in political science. I haven't read the Caplan book, nor any reviews of it. Surely he's trying to add a new twist to a well-established literature. But much is known about voting behavior, and the argument that voters are ignoramuses is simplistic (though certainly some may be like that). Voters base their voting decisions on the number of factors: Party identification's a big one. Party ID works as a heuristic, giving voters a cue (or shortcut) on how to vote on the issues. When issues are particularly complicated (hard issues), they are not easily broken down into campaign slogans, and voters can generally use party ID to guide them in their choices. (Note that using party ID as a voting shortcut is great example of rational voting, as people have a self-interest in simplifying the voting process). Besides, party ID, voters also evaluate candidate characteristics: What kind of experience does a candidate have? Are they smart? Do they have integrity, and so forth? This is where the media campaigns come in, because research shows that voter decisions can be manipulated by candidate framing and image distortion. Some argue that one reason Bush beat Kerry in 2004 is that the Bush strategy of labeling Kerry as a "flip-flopper" stuck in voters minds, and the argument was credible based Kerry's legislative record. Note that paying attention to candidates' personalities (characteristics) is not irrational, and in fact some research argues that the more educated one is, the more likely one will stress candidates' personal attributes. Another important factor is policy voting (especially retrospective issue voting [what has the party or incumbent done for me?] and prospective voting [what will the party or candidate do for me?]). Then, there are all the demographic issues that political scientists love to sort through: levels of education, socioeconomic status, religious infuences, race and ethnicity, gender, geographic region, and so on. In sum, it's a complicated business, but I don't think voters are necessarily dumb. They may not read the papers and be as well informed on the issues as they might, but a whole bunch of variables determine voting behavior.
Bass concludes his Times essay with something similar, though a bit more intriguing:

Caplan recognizes that politicians, like voters, are prone to error. In his zeal to question the public’s judgment, however, he may underplay the role of political elites in shaping that judgment. Would the public choose badly if it had better guidance? John R. Zaller, a U.C.L.A. political scientist, argues that even the more politically aware citizens are driven largely by partisanship and by the cues they take from political leaders. That sounds like George W. Bush leading the country into war in Iraq or, more happily, Bill Clinton tirelessly explaining how deficit reduction would reduce long-term interest rates and thus strengthen the economy — quite a complex argument. Maybe the public doesn’t measure up because the politicians are not doing their job properly, not the other way around.
Well, that's an interesting thought!

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