Why It’s Likely to be a Close Election Decided by Ignorant Swing Voters

In this recent column, political analyst Sean Trende explains why the current state of the economy is likely to lead to a very close election in November. Various pundits have suggested that Romney should be doing much better in the polls, given the weak economy. Romney is indeed a far from inspiring candidate. But, as Trende explains, his performance in the polls is roughly in line with standard economic models of presidential elections. The economy is not good. But there has been a modest recovery since 2009, enough to bring Obama’s chances to the point where the outcome is a close call. As Trende puts it:

2012 is simply not a year like 2008 or 1980, which stand as the worst or second-worst presidential years in recent history in almost every category. Nor, of course, is it a year like 1984, 1964, or 1972, when the economy was going full-bore ahead….

Instead, this is a middling sort of year, like 1960, 1976, 2004, or 1992, where the economy is limping along, but not contracting. Those years have generally produced close elections….

So think of it this way. In 1980, Jimmy Carter didn’t have an argument for re-election that appealed very far beyond the Democratic base. Similarly, in 1984, Walter Mondale simply didn’t have much of an argument for getting rid of Ronald Reagan…

This year, Barack Obama has an argument — he didn’t inherit the mess, and the economy is slowly expanding. That’s an argument that is probably good enough to get him to 46 or 47 percent of the vote. Similarly, Mitt Romney has a pretty good argument for electing a new president, one that will shore up his base and Republican-leaning independents. Thus, we should probably expect what we’re presently seeing in the polls: a close race, to be decided by a relatively small slice of the electorate.

Trende makes a strong case, and does a good job of explaining the relevant economic models and data in an accessible way.

Obviously, the situation might change if the economy improves or worsens significantly over the next few weeks, or if some major scandal or foreign policy crisis occurs. Barring some such dramatic change, this race will be decided by a small minority of fence-sitting voters – those with little or no commitment to either party. These true “independents” also happen to have by far the lowest levels of political knowledge of any part of the electorate, as I explained here:

[S]wing voters – on average – tend to be far more ignorant about politics than the rest of the electorate. Like any statistical generalization, this one isn’t true in every case. There are some swing voters who know a great deal about politics. They, however, are the exception, not the rule….

Numerous studies find… that swing voters – defined as those who are in the ideological center and don’t have any strong identification with either party – are among the most ignorant…

Why do swing voters tend to be so much more ignorant than the rest of the electorate? It’s tempting to assume that it’s because they are stupid. However, ignorance is not the same thing as stupidity. Even very smart people are inevitably ignorant about a great many things. Indeed… for most voters political ignorance is actually quite rational.

Part of the reason why swing voters tend to be ignorant is that they have lower average education levels than committed partisans, and education is correlated with political knowledge. But another important factor is that they tend to be less interested in politics; in most studies, interest in politics is a stronger predictor of political knowledge than any other variable, including education, income, race, gender, etc. Their lack of interest is part of what prevents them from developing strong ideological or partisan commitments in the first place.

As I discuss in this article, the fact that there is little incentive to acquire political information in order to be a better voter suggests that most of those who do acquire such knowledge do so for other reasons. They find politics entertaining or they enjoy “cheering on” their political “team.” In the same way, the people who know the most about pro sports tend to be those who enjoy watching games and those with the strongest commitment to their favorite teams. Because swing voters generally don’t find politics to be very interesting and by definition have no strong commitment to a party, they have far less incentive to acquire political information than strong partisans do.

My commentary on the the ignorance of swing voters should not be interpreted as praise of committed partisans. Although they have much higher average political knowledge levels than swing voters, they are more likely to be highly biased in their evaluation of the information they learn, often behaving as “political fans” rather than truth-seekers.

UPDATE: Readers interested in elections may also want to check out Trende’s interesting recent book, The Lost Majority, explaining why it is so difficult for either party to achieve a lasting political realignment that ensures it a long period of dominance similar to that which the Democrats accomplished with their New Deal coalition from the 1930s to the 1960s.