Electoral Monocausality

From the NYT:

Last fall, Republicans won elections on the argument that Keynesian-style economic stimulus measures had failed, and that it was time to try an austerity policy of big cuts in government spending.

No, NYT, the Republicans didn’t win elections last fall on any coherent argument about Keynesian-style economic stimulus. The public as a whole has never believed or understood Keynesian economics, they simply understand that you have to spend for some things, you can’t go too deep in to debt, and based on prices they pay, the job prospects for them and their family, friends and neighbors, and what they know at work, they usually have a good idea of how the economy is going. Just about every reasonable analysis shows that the stimulus kept the economy from getting much worse, but it was insufficient to turn around the job market, which has been the biggest political problem for Democrats. The Republicans barely offered up anything that one might call an “argument” about the stimulus, the simply reminded people that times were hard and that the Democrats were in charge. (In fact, when the Republicans did offer up something approaching an argument, it was usually about “Obamacare.”) I don’t criticize the Republicans for not offering up arguments; why should they when simply reminding people the economy sucked, attacking Democrats and scaring the hell out of old people proved effective enough to win back the House and a boatload of governorships and state legislative bodies?

Too many pundits and political journalists like to distill complicated, multi-causal events down to a simple choice or a clear conflict between A & B and say “B is the reason such and such happened.” The NYT use of monocausality reminds me of this from Ruy Teixeira & John Halpin:

Political commentators are notoriously prone to overinterpreting election results and extrapolating singular causes for victories and losses from a multitude of possible factors. These interpretations usually underlie some desire to influence ideological debates and power struggles or to shape media stories about the election. And 2010 is no different.

Teixeira & Halpin advanced the reasonable argument that the Republicans’ success was mostly due to a bad economy (which is blamed on the party in power, even if the causes go back to the previous administration and even though most voters don’t blame the problems on Obama), the mid-term electorate that’s typically more conservative than the Presidential electorate (because minorities and younger voters, who lean Democratic, vote at a lower rate in midterms) and the fact that a lot of Democrats were either senior members in districts that had long been trending Republican or new members who’d won in 2006 and 2008 in districts that had been drawn by Republicans to be represented by Republicans.

There’s no single factor that explains the results of the 2010 elections. But something that doesn’t explain the results is a significant shift in public opinion. In fact, public opinion on most policy positions and priorities has been fairly stable since 2008. What was different in 2010 was that it was a midterm following what historically had been an election with an atypical electorate: one much younger and more heavily minority than anything before. Thus, the question is not why voters changed their minds or were or weren’t persuaded by some Republican argument, but what, compared to 2008, did and didn’t motivate people to vote, and where those votes were distributed:

Finally, something must be said about the electorate that produced these results. According to national exit polls, 2010 voters broke almost evenly in terms of their 2008 presidential votes; indeed, given the normal tendency of voters to “misremember” past ballots as being in favor of the winner, this may have been an electorate that would have made John McCain president by a significant margin. Voters under 30 dropped from 18% of the electorate to 11%; African-Americans from 13% to 10%, and Hispanics from 9% to 8%. Meanwhile, voters over 65, the one age category carried by John McCain, increased from 16% of the electorate to 23%.

These are all normal midterm numbers. But because of the unusual alignment of voters by age and race in 2008, they produced a very different outcome, independently of any changes in public opinion. Indeed, sorting out the “structural” from the “discretionary” factors in 2008-2010 trends will be one of the most important tasks of post-election analysis, since the 2012 electorate will be much closer to that of 2008. That’s also true of the factor we will hear most about in post-election talk: the “swing” of independents from favoring Obama decisively in 2008 to favoring Republicans decisively this year. Are these the same people (short answer: not as much as you’d think), or a significantly different group of voters who happened to self-identify as independents and turned out to vote?

Questions like that require far more complicated explanations than “[time span] [political actor] [effect] [single causal factor offered with no qualifications or evidence].”

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