Sunday, October 23, 2011

Walking In Circles

This cartoon resonates with me. When I read it, my mind says "Yes! That's EXACTLY what's happening!"

And then, my skepticism kicks in. After all, I'm not intimately tied into the system well enough to actually know what's going on. Perhaps this is just another knee-jerk reaction by a political cartoonist with an axe to grind or an agenda to advance. So I started hunting around for some data to look at. Of course, here I run into a problem, and any good conspiracy theorist will tell me what it is - since I can't independently verify the data, it could all be a bunch of hooey designed to throw me off the scent. And I acknowledge that risk. After all, I don't KNOW anything that I haven't seen for myself. I may believe it, but I do not know it.

Given that caveat, I started looking for voter turnout data and immediately noticed a striking parallel. If you head down to Occupy Seattle (as I have on a few occasions), you'll notice that most of the "live-in" (as opposed to "commuter") protesters are mostly relatively young people - late teens to mid-twenties - university and graduate student age, or just going into the workforce. Take a look at Washington State voter registration data from 2010 for the last general election, and you notice that of eligible voters from 18 to 34, a little less and 50% of them (46.47% to be more precise) came out and voted, leaving them with about 16% of total votes cast. Given this, (and assuming it's roughly the same nationwide - which is, admittedly, a pretty big assumption) it's no wonder that young people feel that the national political culture doesn't serve their interests, and is unresponsive. Conversely, when you head to the upper end of the age range, 65+, you find that even though they comprise just shy of one-fifth of eligible voters, they cast almost one-fourth of the votes - about 8 out of every 9 voters in that demographic voted. It doesn't take much mental horsepower to understand why retirement communities are such popular campaign stops.

Now, before I go on, let me re-iterate that I understand that Washington State is not the entire nation, so I'm engaged in a fair amount of generalization. But voter registration is a state and not a federal issue, and so federal numbers by age cohort were not immediately available to me, sitting in front of my computer. I could likely find them, assuming they exist, but that's more work than I want to put into a Sunday morning blog post.

But getting back to my primary premise. According to the United States Election Project at George Mason University, in the 2010 election "the national total ballots cast is estimated to be 90.3 million or 41.4% of those eligible to vote." This number is an estimate because not all states report it. Again, this does leave an opening for chicanery, since estimates are subject to intentional (or unintentional) biasing. It's also tricky because in this case "eligible" does not mean "registered." (According to state data, Washington has about 3.6 million registered voters, the GMU data tells us there are about 5.2 million eligible voters in the state.) But by either measure, you have large numbers of people who are not participating in the process. And one of the central characteristics of democracies and republics is that even when they are working well, they tend to punish non-participation (voluntary or not).

Okay, so that leaves us with some understanding that many people, especially young ones, have turned off politics. How does this interact with interest groups taking over government? To me, this one is easy, and it dovetails nicely with another complaint that both the Left and Right in the United States have with politics - too much ("special interest") money. I have a general hypothesis about why money plays such a large role in politics: people who are not strongly partisan one way or another tend to make up their minds in such a way that correlates more or less directly with the amount of money spent. That is to say, "swing voters" are swung by campaign advertising dollars. I suspected that it would be relatively easy to check this against data. But that turns out not to be the case. Information may want to be free, but the people who compile it want to eat, and so they don't give it away. And so the hard data on the correlation between swing votes and dollars spent isn't at my fingertips. But I did find a couple of nuggets in abstracts:
Melinda Gann Hall, of Michigan State University, and Chris W. Bonneau, of the University of Pittsburgh, used a two-stage modeling strategy to assess whether relatively expensive campaigns improve the chances that citizens will vote in the 260 supreme court elections held from 1990 through 2004 in 18 states.

Results show that increased spending improved participation in these races. Whether measured as the overall spending in each election or in per capita terms, greater spending facilitates voting and money means voters in Supreme Court elections.
Increased campaign spending improves citizen participation in state supreme court elections
In contrast to previous research showing that, because of higher marginal returns to challenger spending, the incumbent's spending advantage cannot explain high incumbent reelection rates, this article shows that in an average Senate election the incumbent's spending advantage yields a 6% increase in the incumbent's vote share.
Estimating the Effect of Campaign Spending on Senate Election Outcomes Using Instrumental Variables
Put together, these would point to the idea that the more money spent in an election, the higher the turnout, and for Senate incumbents, anyway, outspending the opposition tends to increase vote share.

All of this leads me to a hypothesis - young people are disaffected with politics because between their relatively small percentage of the electorate and their low voter turnout, they don't represent enough potential votes for professional politicians to cater to them directly. Among voters who are not strongly partisan, voting patterns correlate with the amount of money spent advertising to them. Between these two factors, more money is spent on wooing older voters, who are less likely to go looking for non-mainstream candidates in an attempt to find very close matches to their individual viewpoints. When you look at political protests, especially those on the left, the main constituency is comprised of people who don't vote in large numbers - while Occupy Wall Street (and other locations) are mainly young people, the large immigrant rally marches had the same issue - the protestors were ready, willing and able to take their message to the streets, but were unwilling or unable to vote. (Note that along with this, another voting group that tends to complain of being shut out, African-Americans, doesn't vote in large numbers, and so the major political parties don't spend much time courting them.)

I passed on majoring in Political Science in college - I was told there were a lot of papers to be written, and I dislike writing. (I blog in a continuing attempt to overcome that.) So now, some time later, I'm not immediately equipped to test my hypothesis. But if I assume that I'm at least barking up the right tree, these are the tactics I would expect would be effective.
  • Become more involved. Understand your positions, and which candidates support them, even those from minor parties. The more people understand who they want to vote for and why, the less important large advertising buys become.

  • Older people are the ones who swing elections. Communicate with them, understand what they want, and structure platforms that make getting that incumbent on you getting what you want.

  • It's about personal relationships. Television tends to be considered more credible than strangers, but less so than friends. Start forming bonds with people.
Will they work? I don't know. But I think that starting on them will break the chain of public apathy and interest group influence.

1 comment:

JohnMcG said...

One thing I think the Occupy movement has succeeded in doing, and it may be enough to justify it, is to serve notice that some people are (and will be) paying attention.