Friday, November 11, 2016

The Whatever Vote

The "surprise" election of Donald Trump to the presidency has a number of people asking how such a thing could have happened. In listening to the coverage, I've started to piece it together. There are four elements to it, in broad strokes.

One) Elections aren't about what we think they're about. Our common understanding of elections is that they're a form of referendum on the relative merits of the candidates involved. And while that may be true of many elections, it's not really true of the presidential elections. And this is why Allan Lichtman has been batting close to a thousand with a formula that has nearly nothing to do with the actual candidates who are running - of the 13 factors examined, only three of them relate to the current contenders, and, according to the model, those three factors alone can't determine the outcome.

Taken together, Professor Lichtman's other 10 factors mostly represent a referendum on the term of office that is ending as the election is being held - the represent the likelihood that voters would want to continue the policies of the previous stint of the presidency. And that's something that tends to be independent of the actual candidates in the current election. In fact, Professor Lichtman's Keys to the White House are aimed at party - Will the incumbent party retain the Oval Office, or will it go to the challenging party? Which brings us to...

Two) The role of party. Any number of people, among them David Brooks, had mentioned that part of the reason why Donald Trump had such a large pool of potential voters was the simple fact that he was the Republican nominee. No matter how little one otherwise knew of him, that affiliation was a sort of shorthand. And an effective one. Third-party candidates in presidential races aren't even considered also-rans; instead they're considered hopeless and best and wastes of time (and votes) at worst. Given this, the candidates of the major parties have a huge advantage. If you don't like one party, and you don't want their policies (something that most people understand from partisan shorthand, if {and usually} nothing else) to be enacted, your only viable option is the other major party. A vote for the Libertarian Party or the Socialist Worker's Party isn't considered a serious form of political engagement.

One interesting point that I'd heard made during this election cycle is that many of us have political causality backwards. Most voters (although certainly not all) don't consider their positions on important political issues and then select a party accordingly. Rather they choose a party affiliation, and then adopt the platform positions of their chosen party to one degree or another. And for many people selection of candidates is the same. Once people have chosen a political party, they tend to vote for that party's candidate, and that means...

Three) Love my party, love my candidate. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both had substantial negatives, many of which were considered character flaws of the highest order. Yet each racked up tens of millions of votes. And, I suspect, that the reason for this is simple - once people had made up their minds to vote for a given party, they adopted that party's candidate, and set about to justify that decision to themselves. So the tendency of Republican voters to take Mr. Trump "seriously, but not literally" (a phrasing that seems often applied to the Bible) and to therefore brush aside his more incendiary comments as hyperbolic rhetoric (while contending that Mrs. Clinton's words were sincere insults) was driven by the understanding that they were going to vote for the man, and so they had to tell themselves that he lived up to whatever standard they'd set for political candidates.

Perhaps one of the most important factors is one that very much contradicts the way we think about how people vote...

Four) It's not about who voters support - it's about whose supporters vote. On Wednesday morning, I was listening to a story that noted that Mrs. Clinton had "underperformed" among Black voters. It seemed unlikely that, given Mr. Trumps abysmal polling numbers in the Black community that a lot of them had crossed over (although some may have). Instead, the Black voter participation rate dropped slightly from 2012. It's likely that many of those votes not cast would have gone Democratic. Social media has been at pains to remind me of how poorly Mrs. Clinton had fared when compared to other recent Democratic candidates.

One think that we tend to forget is that a rather large number of people didn't vote in the election. Among all eligible voters, and all registered voters as well, the single most popular choice was not to cast a ballot at all. There is nothing unusual about this. Every election, a sizable minority of voters sit the contest out. But that doesn't mean it's the same sizable minority in each election.

Each party has what we could call a number of "marginally attached" potential voters - people who somewhat identify with the party to some degree, but not enough so to be consistent voters. And it's these people who are what we've always heard referred to as "swing" voters. Other people have noted that the number of genuinely undecided or swing voters is very small - for many people, you know roughly how they're going to vote - if they vote. And that becomes the issue. Getting the marginally attached voters to either turn out or tune out. Get-out-the-vote efforts are aimed at identifying these voters at are on your side and urging them to go to the polls - negative campaigning is aimed at convincing those on the other side not to bother.

In spite of the fact that Donald Trump was the nominee, in key swing states enough of the marginally attached Republican electorate came out to cast a vote for president, while enough of the marginally attached Democrats stayed home that it made the difference. And for the most part, it wasn't about the candidates.

It runs counter to the prevailing understanding of how elections work, and I think that this is why we don't hear more of this theory, outside of the footnotes here and there. It's less dramatic, and frankly, less interesting. Political coverage tends to focus on the "horserace" aspect of elections, and the intersection of Professor Lichtman's model and people's voting habits tends to render the horserace moot. But I think that an understanding of it all is helpful, because it illustrates the underlying thinking that goes into things. And more insight never hurts.

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