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The Short-Attention-Span Electorate

An election special, focusing on primaries and voters' knowledge of nominees.
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On Nov. 4, after giving the issues serious thought and the candidates careful consideration, the American people will soberly select a new set of leaders. At least, that's the deliberate way the process is supposed to work.

In fact, the average voter is anything but analytical, according to Princeton University political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels. In a pair of recent papers, they reach troubling conclusions about the way we decide which candidates deserve our vote.

In "Musical Chairs: Pocketbook Voting and the Limits of Democratic Accountability," presented at the 2004 meeting of the American Political Science Association, they examine the concept of "retrospective voting." It asserts that while the voters may not be terribly well informed on issues, they recognize when things are going bad and are prone to throw the rascals out on such occasions. Thus democracy works well enough, even with an underinformed electorate.

Achen and Bartels call this "best current defense of democracy" deeply flawed. Testing the cliché that people vote their pocketbooks, they looked at the average income growth rate for each four-year presidential administration going back to the late 1940s and found "no support for the notion that incumbents are reelected on the basis of economic competence."

In their paper, they examine the re-election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, which they assess as not a referendum on his first term but rather a response to the country's economic conditions at that moment. The scholars conclude that voters "cannot manage the task of competent retrospection. They forget all about most previous experience with the incumbents and vote solely on how they feel about the most recent months." As a result, governments are most often retained or removed due to "unexpected misfortunes unrelated to their performance in office" — or, worse, pre-election pandering.

But why are voters so susceptible to last-minute manipulation? In their 2006 paper, "It Feels Like We're Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy," Achen and Bartels suggest the answer lies in the public's fuzzy grasp of the facts, combined with a propensity for shallow, knee-jerk thinking.

Making a thoughtful decision between two candidates, they note, requires "some modicum of accuracy in perception and receptiveness to new and perhaps discomforting evidence." Their analysis of hot-button issues of recent decades, including abortion rights and the federal budget deficit, finds scant evidence of either quality. "Most of the time," they write, "the voters adopt issue positions, adjust their candidate perceptions and invent facts to rationalize decisions they have already made.

"We do not contest the notion that ordinary citizens are doing their best to construct consistent, subjectively plausible perceptions of a complex political world," they conclude. "We merely wish to note that their best should be troubling to enthusiasts of democracy."

Face Time

Also disquieting for small-d democrats is a 2005 study that concludes congressional elections can be influenced by whether a candidate's facial features inspire confidence. The report, published in Science magazine, was written by Princeton psychologist Alexander Todorov and three colleagues from the university's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Their reasoning is twofold: People tend to make snap judgments regarding the competence of others by "reading" their faces. The candidate considered most competent tends to win the election (about two-thirds of the time in House elections and more than 70 percent of the time in Senate races).

"Voters can use additional information to modify initial impressions of political candidates," Todorov concedes. But "rapid automatic inferences from the facial appearance of political candidates can influence processing of subsequent information about those candidates."

In other words, having a square jaw doesn't make you a shoo-in. But if people perceive you know what you're doing based on certain facial features, you're starting out with a significant advantage. Perhaps the spin doctors of tomorrow will be plastic surgeons.

Pocketbook Issues

However flawed the reasoning of voters, truly contested elections do serve one worthwhile purpose: They're good for the economy. That's the conclusion of a 2005 paper by Timothy Besley of the London School of Economics.

Besley and his colleagues examined the ramifications of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which removed barriers making it difficult for African Americans to register to vote. In doing so, the law effectively broke up "the near-monopoly on political power of the Democrats in Southern states," splitting that party and leading to a realignment that made the Republicans competitive for the first time in generations.

"By our bottom-line estimate, the increase in political competition triggered by the Voting Rights Act raised long-run per capita income in the average affected state by about 20 percent," they write.

Essentially, they argue that the de facto one-party system in many states produced low-quality governmental leaders who rose to the top thanks to personal connections rather than competence. In this atmosphere, "malign political influences" found it easy to manipulate the system, and officeholders had little incentive to respond to public complaints about economic hardships.

In contrast, the more competitive electoral environment in the post-1965 era led to the election of higher-quality political leaders and lessened the grip of special interests. The result, they conclude, was a significant spurt in economic growth. Monopolies, it seems, are as problematic in politics as they are in business.

Primary Problems

But didn't the all-powerful Southern Democrats hold primary elections? Wasn't there at least meaningful political competition on that level? The answer, apparently, is no — and the problem isn't limited to Dixie.

According to a 2005 paper by MIT political scientist Stephen Ansolabehere, "primaries were an important source of electoral competition" in the early decades of the 20th century, shortly after they were introduced onto the political scene.

"The Northern, Midwestern and Western states showed a modest amount of electoral competition in primaries in the 1910s and 1930s, and a steady decline in primary election competition over the succeeding decades," Ansolabehere and his colleagues write. After 1940, Southern primaries rapidly became less competitive as well. Today, in the nation as a whole, only about 25 percent of statewide candidates face serious primary opposition.

The one exception they found to this trend is in primary elections to fill open seats in Congress — that is, where no incumbent is on the ballot. Those races "are as competitive as ever," they write. "Thus the decline in overall competitiveness appears to be a consequence of rising incumbency advantages and increasingly large numbers of incumbents running for reelection."

The bottom line: Voters have fewer choices than they did a century ago. "Primaries once often served an important screening role, but now they very rarely do," the researchers conclude. "Americans have lost an important instrument of electoral accountability."

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