Polls, Paradox, Psychobabble, And How to Vote For Divided Government

Polls, Paradox, Psychobabble, And How to Vote For Divided Government


I’ve been following an interesting multi-blog discussion trying to sort out an apparent polling discrepancy between voter attitudes and voter intentions.

In chronological order, it started with a September Washington Post poll (reinforced in October) that finds record levels of disapproval of Congress, with even greater disapproval of Congressional Republicans than Democrats. At the same time, Gallup and other polls consistently project large Republican gains in the midterm election.

This created a bit of cognitive dissonance in some left-of-center bloggers, who felt this can only be explained as a paradox or irrational voter behavior or both.

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones

” Americans trust Democrats more to handle the country’s problems, they think Democrats represent their values better, they think Democrats are more concerned with the needs of people like them, and they think Democrats deserve to be reelected at a higher rate than Republicans. They also think that George Bush is substantially more to blame for our economic woes than Barack Obama. And the result of all this? They say they plan to vote for Republicans by landslide numbers.”

Matthew Yglesias at Think Progress

“I’ll take this as an object lesson in the limits of spin. If I were working with Nancy Pelosi on “message,” I’d be hoping to persuade people that (a) Democrats are better-equipped to handle today’s problems, (b) you share Democrats’ core values, (c) no matter how much you may dislike Democrats you dislike Republicans even more, and (d) therefore you should vote for Democrats. But as we see here (a), (b), and (c) aren’t sufficient to drive conclusion (d).”

Andrew Gelman (author of Red State Blue State) explains that it is neither paradox nor irrational:

“Those 10% or so of voters who plan to vote Republican–even while thinking that the Democrats will do a better job–are not necessarily being so unreasonable. The Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress, and so it’s a completely reasonable stance to prefer them to the Republicans yet still think they’ve gone too far and need a check on their power.”

Shankar Vedantam (author of The Hidden Brain) finds that explanation unsatisfactory and is happier with the thesis that voters are irrational:

“One explanation for our paradox is that Americans want divided government. If we have gridlock with one party in charge, perhaps we would have more legislative movement if power in Congress were divided? This might make sense as a national storyline, but it doesn’t make sense in the real world, because wanting divided government doesn’t tell an individual how to vote. If you are a voter in, say Pennsylvania’s 8th District, would you vote against Democratic incumbent Patrick Murphy in order to get divided government if you weren’t sure how people in all the other congressional Districts were going to vote? If you liked Murphy, would you say you are going to vote against him just to get divided government? For one thing, if people in other districts voted against Democrats, you could get divided government even if you voted for Murphy. Wouldn’t it make more sense to stop worrying about how everyone else votes and simply pick the candidate you like?…

That may not make sense, but the hidden brain is not in the rationality business. When we are stuck in a bad place, whether that bad place is a marriage, a traffic jam, or a weak economy, it is very tempting to try something new. Psychologists call this the action bias—and it turns out to have surprisingly broad ramifications.”

Andrew Gelman rebuts:

“…in his eagerness to explain undesirable political outcomes as the product of irrationality and “unconscious bias,” Vedantam is missing the point. To start with, a small swing of 10% of the vote would result in a large swing in the political outcome. To take the example above, if you like Patrick Murphy, you can vote for him, and if you prefer his opponent, you can cast your vote the other way. No problem. But there are lots of people in the middle. Preference for divided government may be only a small factor, but it can be enough to swing some votes…

I’m not saying that preference for divided government explains all or, necessarily, even most of the anticipated vote swing in 2010. But don’t be so quick to dismiss the idea. What disturbs me in Vedantam’s otherwise interesting article is the oh-so-quick move to explain away uncomfortable political trends with psychological explanations. Whether the argument is that whites voted for Obama because it made them feel good about themselves, or that people are planning to vote Republican in 2010 because “our unconscious bias favors action over holding steady, regardless of whether that makes sense,” my response is: Maybe so. But let’s consider some more direct explanations first.”

I’m with Gelman. In my mind, the most irrational vote is a vote based on any variation of the construct –“My party is good and the other party is bad.”

Occam’s razor suggests we do not need to invoke “unconscious bias” to understand a straightforward preference for divided government. If you prefer the spending restraint, greater oversight, and better legislation we get as a direct consequence of a divided government state, the most rational vote is the vote most likely to create that state. Even if you sometimes have to vote for candidates you don’t trust in a party that does not make you comfortable.

I’m good with that. I’ll vote straight GOP this cycle to secure divided government, and if the GOP takes either or both houses, I’ll vote to re-elect Barack Obama in 2012 to keep it.

Since Vedantam seems puzzled by how a preference for divided government could be applied in the real world, I thought it might help to offer a practical guide on “How to Vote for Divided Government”:

First take a clear eyed look at pre-election partisan mix of the executive and legislative branches, then vote in the manner that is most likely to achieve a divided government. To show how easy this really is – here off the top of my head are two decades of divided government votes including the current and next cycle (and election results):

2012 – Barack Obama (TBD)
2010 – Straight Republican ticket (TBD)
2008 – John McCain (L)
2006 – Straight Democratic ticket(W)
2004 – John Kerry (L)
2002 – Straight Democratic ticket(L)
2000 – Al Gore (L)
1998 – No divided government vote (NA)
1996 – Bill Clinton (W)
1994 – Straight Republican ticket(W)
1992 – George H Bush (L)

You win some, you lose some, and there can be circumstances where there is no specific divided government vote, such as in 1998 (there was no realistic likelihood of single party rule in that election).”

Looking this list over, I cannot help but think how much better off this country would be today if some of those L’s had been W’s. It would not have taken a lot of votes.

Cross pollinated from Divided We Stand United We Fall

  • blackout

    Having read Vendatam’s full piece, I think Gelman (and by extension, you)has done him somewhat of a disservice. I think a good deal of this is irrational, and not just this election cycle, but the last one as well. The exuberance that elected so many Dems was irrational imo, and the pendulum is simply swinging back the other faster than it ever has in my lieftime. Mistrust in Congress is at such an all-time high, and times are so dire for so many, that the general populace is willing to shuffle the deck every chance they’re allowed. Unrealistic expectations+worsening conditions=irrational action.

    It doesn’t make much sense to for Gelman to take Vendatam to task for not considering more direct explanations when action bias is a completely viable, and no less direct, explanation in its own right.

  • kranky kritter

    The more undesirable the human behavior in a critic’s eyes, the more likely irrationality gets blamed. The The more desirable the human behavior in a critic’s eyes, the more likely rationality and wisdom gets credit.

    The problem in trying to explain this alleged phenomena of preferring democrats but voting republican is an incorrect perspective. One that suggests that the decisive voters are voting for parties, and keeping score on a partisan scoreboard where every event is scored a win for one side and a loss for the other. And then the winning team gets all that voters votes.

    ESPECIALLY among independent voters, people vote for candidates, not parties. Independents are unhappy with current results, and want to send a loud warning shot message across the bow of the folks running things. Democrats have more incumbents running, so they are going to have more casualties.

    In local races, independents are going to vote for the candidate whose descriptions of and prescriptions for current reality better match their own perceptions.

    Like it or not, independents do not approve of the nature of healthcare reform passed last summer, and they think government has grossly overspent over the past three years to no good effect. As Blackout says, this is about shuffling the deck.

    Democratic defenders such as the ones cited above just keep repeating themselves by saying that such voters are either wrong or irrational or both. Ironically, such rants not only don’t help, I think they reinforce the convictions of voters to sweep out any politician who blithely insists we’ll be fine if we just stay the current course. That message is not simply unpopular. A solid majority of Americans think it’s preposterous. By extension, they score anyone sporting this message a clueless nitwit.

    America may be divided on what the right direction is, They may well have no clue what that right direction is. But they are as a group pretty confident that they recognize the wrong direction when they see it. And they believe they have seen it. The official verdict may not be in, but the jury has made up its mind.

    Take notice that more than one noteworthy conservative has stipulated that the impending GOP takeover of the house represents a sort of last chance for an untrustworthy GOP. Glenn Reynolds has said it. And so has Tim Pawlenty. I’m sure there are more.

    The United States is going to see a tightening of the federal government’s purse strings as we step away from the unsustainably high levels of overspending seen since the last Bush budget. This is not unlike what we have been seeing in other nations over the last year. It’s going to happen. The only question is how deep and how quick the cuts will be. A divided congress populated with congresscritters who know the deck will get shuffled on them if they don’t deliver is the perfect situation for getting only the smartest things done.

    If after these midterms we don’t see much useful and sensible action from the fed gov, and the economy is still flaccid, expect to see the biggest, most credible emergence of viable independent candidates that America has seen in the modern era.

  • Buwahaha

    Blackout, this is a risky game that the Democrats are playing (and you seem to be feeding into), namely calling people who are supporting conservative candidates “irrational.” I don’t think many people have persuaded others to their point of view by telling them that they’re stupid, afraid, or crazy (soooo many pronouns in that sentence–I’m sure you get the gist).