Political Ignorance and the 2010 Election

Even before the election ended, some liberals argued that public ignorance explains the big Republican victories that just occurred. There is, I think, some truth to that contention. For example, a recent Bloomberg poll shows that 52% of voters thought that “middle class” federal income taxes have gone up in the last two years, even though they have actually gone down. The same survey also found that 61% believe that the economy has shrunk during the past year, even though it has actually grown slightly. I doubt that the Democrats would have avoided significant losses if the majority of the public had accurate information on these two points, but those losses might well have been smaller.

I. Ignorance Cut Both Ways.

On the other hand, there are probably areas where voter ignorance helped the Democrats in this election. For example, research by economist Bryan Caplan shows that most voters have a strong “antiforeign bias” that leads them to greatly overestimate the dangers of foreign influence, trade, and investment, while ignoring most of its benefits. This may have led voters to be more receptive to dubious Democratic charges that the Republicans were using “foreign money” in the election, and to union claims that we need protectionism to save American jobs. Most voters are also unaware of the extensive role of prominent congressional Democrats such as Barney Frank in supporting mortgage lending policies that helped cause the housing bust and financial crisis.

There are also cases of ignorance that didn’t clearly help one party or another, but are still lamentable. For example, even in his home state of Ohio, 42% of voters say they don’t know enough about soon-to-be Speaker of the House John Boehner to have an opinion about him (this figure probably understates the true degree of ignorance, since many poll respondents don’t like to admit ignorance to pollsters). This mirrors public ignorance about Nancy Pelosi right before she became speaker in 2006.

II. Why Ignorance Probably Helped the Republicans on Net.

That said, the net effect of ignorance in this election probably worked to the advantage of the Republicans this year, for much the same reasons as it helped the Democrats in 2008. This year, as in most elections, the vast majority of voters cited “the economy” or “jobs” as the most important issue. Historical data strongly suggests that voters punish incumbents for bad economic conditions regardless of whether the incumbents actually caused the problem or made it worse than it would have been otherwise. As political scientist Larry Bartels explains, this is a very consistent pattern in American history. Indeed, Bartels and Christopher Achen show that voters tend to focus primarily on short term trends while largely ignoring long term ones and failing to consider the possible longterm future impact of present policies.

In this case, the voters probably held Obama and the Democrats responsible for current conditions despite the fact that they only partly caused them and that even optimal policies over the last two years would not have come close to ending the recession by this point. In my view, the Democrats’ policies did more to make things worse than better, though I recognize that there are serious contrary arguments. But even those economists who believe as I do would probably concede that there was no way to quickly end the recession.

The Obama argument, essentially, is that things would be even worse were it not for his policies. That argument may be wrong. But it is striking that voters have rejected the same claim during virtually every recession for the last 60 years, no matter what the policies followed by incumbents. It didn’t work for the Democrats in 1938, 1952, 1968, and 1980, among other cases. And it didn’t work for the Republicans in 1976, 1982, 1992, or 2008. It seems unlikely that every incumbent party that presided over a recession pursued worse policies than its opponents would have in their place. At the very least, therefore, political ignorance probably increased the magnitude of the Republican victory this year, just as it aided the Democrats in the last election.

The Democrats also adopted some other unpopular policies, such as their health care bill. But it seems clear that they would still have avoided major setbacks had the economy shown significant improvement over the last year. A recent Gallup survey found that some 58% of Americans saw the economy or jobs as the most important issue this year, while only about 7% cited health care. Moreover, the popularity the Democrats would have derived from improving economic conditions might well have spilled over to boost the ratings of their other policies, as sometimes happened for incumbents during previous economic upturns.

III. The Broader Impact of Ignorance.

The real impact of political ignorance, however, goes beyond its effect on voter decisions between the two parties as they now stand. With a much more knowledgeable electorate, the parties would probably have adopted different platforms and possibly nominated some different candidates as well. Controlling for other variables, increases in political knowledge lead voters to be more supportive of spending cuts, deregulation, and tax increases. More knowledgeable voters are also less vulnerable to deception and internally contradictory arguments.

With a much more knowledgeable electorate this year, the Republicans would have been less likely to pretend that we can greatly cut government spending and balance the budget without touching entitlement programs or raising taxes on anyone. And they would not be making the nonsensical argument that “government should keep its hands off my Medicare.” The Democrats, for their part, might not have pretended that we can adopt massive spending increases on health care and other areas, leave entitlements largely untouched, and avoid fiscal crisis without raising taxes on anyone but “the rich.” Voters in both parties would understand that unconstrained entitlement spending is a major cause of our looming fiscal crisis. The resulting party platforms would still be far less libertarian than I would personally prefer. But I think they would have been a considerable improvement over what we actually got.

UPDATE: CNN exit polls show that 62% of voters thought that the economy was the most important issue facing the country, and 53% of this group voted for Republican House candidates (44% picked the Dems). By contrast, only 18% said that health care was the most important issue, and 53% of them actually voted for the Democrats. This further reinforces my argument that the election turned primarily on the state of the economy, and that the health care bill, despite its unpopularity, was only a minor factor in the Democratic defeat.