After every election, the questions I usually hear from half of the electorate are: What is wrong with people? How can there be so many idiots? With everything that was going on, how was it not a landslide? There is a lot of mystery not only of what drives voting behavior, but how people think in the most basic ways. There is a huge lack of understanding between different groups of people. Not only do people not understand why more people don’t think like them, they find time and time again that predictions based on how they think others think are spectacularly wrong. The truth is none of us even knows how others think, let alone why. Unfortunately, I’m still working on the answers myself, but in this post I describe several theories I have heard. Discussing them ought to help point us in the right direction.
The first point we need to cover is that many people vote for someone more as a vote against someone else. Sometimes “third party” candidates split the vote, allowing a candidate with less than fifty percent to win. Even in the absence of strong “third party” candidates, many people just find they aren’t interested enough to bother showing up at the polls. In the recent presidential election, this seems to be the case. Obama got fewer votes (in actual numbers) than he got in 2008, and Romney got fewer votes (in actual numbers) than McCain did. Many people don’t vote, and it is important to keep this in mind when asking what is wrong with people. The number of people that “have something wrong” is actually a tiny percentage of the whole.
One of the usual explanations for why somebody loses is that the other guy lied. It was claimed that Bush would have won by a much larger margin had Gore not lied about him. It was claimed that Kerry would have won had Bush not lied about everything. Now, many are claiming that if not for Obama’s lies and the sympathetic reporters backing him up, Romney would have won.
This explanation doesn’t convince me. Romney (and the reporters sympathetic to him) had plenty of opportunity to answer Obama’s lies. Except for those that isolate themselves in fact-free bubbles of Democratic propaganda, there were ample rebuttals permeating everywhere to everything Obama said. In addition, there were even a few Republican distortions. For those truly unable to separate fact and fiction, they should have broken evenly for either candidate, so this still doesn’t explain why Obama won.
Of course, there are always those that give the relative stance on the issues between the voters and the candidates great importance. The theory is that liberals will vote for the liberal and conservatives will vote for the conservative, while those in the middle will vote against the most extreme candidate (the one they disagree with the most). For example, while the legality of abortion as an issue tends to split the electorate evenly, partial-birth abortion is frowned upon by almost everybody. According to this logic, Bush should have had an advantage over Gore on abortion-related issues (Gore supported partial-birth abortion while Bush showed little desire to change the status-quo).
The problem with these theories (other than that there seems to be no agreement on what a “liberal” or “conservative” position is on most issues, and that different people elevate different issues in relative importance over other issues) is how often people vote against their supposed interests. From my perspective, based on where I have been led to believe the “middle” is, the last four presidential elections saw Democrats take more extreme positions than Republicans. I know a lot of you will disagree and we can talk about that some other time, but from my perspective: Gore was much more extreme than Bush on a variety of issues. Kerry was hard to pin down and couldn’t be trusted, but still seemed more extreme than Bush. McCain and Obama were very similar, but McCain had decades of experience actually “reaching across the aisle,” often to the chagrin of his own party – something Obama, then an unknown, had only said he could do. Romney – like Kerry – was a bit hard to pin down and couldn’t be trusted – but still came across as more of a moderate than Obama, who we now know from his first term is very extreme. Why weren’t each of these landslide GOP victories?
Going further, it is sometimes claimed that those who are not pre-disposed to favor one party over the other care about things such as compromise and civility, so a candidate that panders to this group should have the advantage. In my lifetime, I have seen the Republicans doing a better job of this. They don’t always keep their promises, but they at least have the rhetoric down. Democrats seem to push people away. When I disagree with Republicans they attempt to explain what makes me wrong, even while seeing some merit to my arguments. When I disagree with Democrats, they often call me a NAZI, or mean-spirited, or an extremist, or just plain deluded by corporate propaganda, even when I admit to seeing some merit in their arguments. Why hasn’t every election been a GOP landslide?
Others suggest that while there are those that will vote Republican no matter what and those that will vote Democratic no matter what, many in the middle are swayed by charisma. If this was the case, Bush should have won twice with landslides and McCain-Obama should have been a lot closer to a tie than it was.
Others suggest that while there are those that will vote Republican no matter what and those that will vote Democratic no matter what, most people only care about whether the country is doing well or poorly financially, not caring to discern who should get the most credit/blame. If the economy is bad, the incumbent loses. If the economy is healthy, the incumbent wins. If this were true, Gore (who was Vice President) should have won in a landslide over Bush, and Obama would have lost badly to Romney.
Others claim that nobody wins on a campaign of negativity; one needs to actually run on some positive idea that brings people in. Kerry ran as the anti-Bush with no clear ideas of his own and lost. Romney ran as the anti-Obama, the main thrust of his campaign being that Obama had failed and he (Romney), using his business experience, could turn things around. He also lost. The incumbent always has the advantage in such races.
This explanation currently makes the most sense to me. Of course if taken alone, it fails to explain why the Bush-Kerry and Romney-Obama races were so close; the truth must be that a conjunction of many factors determines voting behavior. All of these theories may be true in part, but this one is probably dominant and it seems to make the most sense.
I have even heard it suggested that some people vote only for who they think is going to win anyways, just so they can feel they are with the majority and selected a winner. This gives those that analyze the polls incredible power. I don’t understand this mindset at all.
There is also the theory that voting behavior is driven primarily by selfish personal gain (or loss). Many people are now directly or indirectly dependent on government largesse, whether they are on Medicaid, welfare, are employed by a government agency, receive subsidies, receive special tax treatment, or bid on government contracts. According to the theory, these people will always vote for the candidate that will give them (personally) more goodies. Thus, Republicans that promise more defense spending gain votes from workers in the field of military hardware, but may at the same time lose votes from public-sector union workers if they promise to cut pensions.
Another theory I came across here and also here is the theory that the Democrats had superior campaigning techniques and logistics in 2012. The Republicans had a system of voter contacts that valued quantity over quality yet still had only half as many contacts as the Democrats did. The Democrats made superior use of social media as well. Why are Republicans so far behind in technology? What kind of person can be swayed by a phone call when ads haven’t worked? This theory just raises more questions than answers.
Then of course are the theories that will be thrown around by those wanting to obscure the truth and raise a ruckus. Some claim that Hurricane Sandy gave Obama a chance to finally look presidential after he failed to do so during the debates. I have seen others claim that Romney lost because he is against women and that Republicans “run on hate.” There are even a few suggesting that Obama could only have won through extensive voter fraud. None of these theories are helpful.
Please discuss. What do you think drives America’s voting behavior? What drives your voting behavior? What about people you know?
Related Post: Understanding Why Independents Voted For Obama (2008)
Hi, I'm Dan. I like chocolate, hiking, and politics.