Voting for All the Wrong Reasons - Why We often Choose Candidates Based on Issues they Have No Control Over:

In a recent interview (linked by Todd), Fred Thompson astutely pointed out that people often vote for presidential candidates on the basis of issues that the president has no control over. This is absolutely correct. For example, short term economic conditions often have a decisive impact on the outcome of presidential elections even though presidents have little or no ability to prevent recessions. No modern incumbent president has ever won reelection in a recession year, and no modern incumbent has ever been denied reelection in a time of strong economic growth. Yet short term growth rates are almost certainly caused by factors that presidents have little or no control over.

The problem is not confined to presidential elections. Candidates for other offices also often win or lose elections on the basis of issues that they can't control. For example, a recent study finds that farm state voters routinely punish the incumbent party whenever agriculture is hurt by bad weather - even though state officials obviously can't control the weather.

Why does this happen? After my last few posts, it probably comes as no surprise that widespread political ignorance is a big part of the answer. Because each individual vote makes so little difference to the outcome of an election, voters have very little incentive to acquire even basic information about politics and public policy. Not surprisingly, extensive evidence shows that most citizens have very low political knowledge levels.

As a result, they often rely on crude "information shortcuts" to choose who to vote for. One of the most common shortcuts is what scholars call "retrospective voting" - punishing incumbents when things seem to be going badly. Retrospective voting is not a stupid or irrational strategy. Unfortunately, however, it breaks down when voters punish incumbents for events that are beyond their control - or reward them for positive events that they didn't cause. And highly ignorant voters often find it difficult to tell the difference between those events incumbents have the power to influence and those they don't. They also often can't tell the difference between a bad outcome that could have been mitigated with improved policies and one that would have been even worse if the incumbents hadn't adopted the best policies they could. To take the recession example, they often can't tell the difference between the following three scenarios:

1. There is a recession, but the president can't affect it in any way, positive or negative.

2. There is a recession, but it would have been even worse if not for the incumbent president's good policies.

3. There is a recession, and the president helped cause it or made it worse than it otherwise might have been by adopting suboptimal policies.

Whenever some visible bad event happens, voters tend to assume it is a case of 3, discounting the possibility that it's really a case of 1 or 2.

For more discussion of retrospective voting and its flaws, see this paper I wrote for the Cato Institute.

Is this a joke? You think the President has no control over issues beyond those explicitly provided by the constitution? Where have you been the last century?
4.28.2008 12:55am
Kolohe (mail):
Retrospective voting is not a stupid or irrational strategy. Unfortunately, however, it breaks down when voters punish incumbents for events that are beyond their control - or reward them for positive events that they didn't cause.

I think 'breaks down' is a little too strong of a word - suboptimal, maybe, except then you get to a different version of the old quote: 'suboptimal, except for every else ever ever tried.'

What may be 'obvious' as someone's fault, (or not their fault), is not always the case. I venture to say it's rarely the case, unless you can see outright graft.

But, if you assume that 'good' politicians will tend to have more 'good' results, and 'bad' politicians will inevitably get 'bad' results over the long term, then retrospective voting is a close to an optimum strategy that I can think of. Furthermore, what is the downside of turning out a 'good' politician? If he/she is in fact 'good' then they should be able to make a 'positive contribution to society' wherever they wind up - if not a greater one. Last, getting a marginally bad pol out of the mix is far more useful than keeping a marginally good one in.
4.28.2008 1:11am
I think this is actually a pretty effective voting strategy. As a voter it is hard to tell whether we have case 1 2 or 3; especially given the superior information possessed by politicians and other elites. Incumbents surely possess a strong incentive to make it appear to be case 2 while the challengers will always argue for case 3. Who is the voter to believe? Maybe a voter could expend a great effort and untangle the truth - but I suspect this is not usually the case as even very highly credentialed economists disagree about these issues. However a voting rule of always punishing politicians who have a recession on their watch overcomes this informational asymmetry. It may be unfair to the politicians but is quite effective (and low cost) for voters. If things aren't going well, through the bums out, repeat as often as necessary. (This solution has other problems such as what happens if politicians avoid short term pain for long term gain but that is a different problem.)
4.28.2008 1:11am
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Often had that thought. We fire or hire presidents based on the economy. Yet

1. Government as a whole has modest effect on that. Witness the fact that recessions tend to hit worldwide, regardless of political systems, let alone incumbents. Government can move money from one area to another, by taxing here and spending there, or borrowing here (which raises interest rates and kills industries dependent upon borrowing, such as construction) and spending there. Net effect, about zero.

2. Of all federal officials, the president has the least control in this area. At most he can propose ideas to Congress. Often he isn't even of the same party as the majority in Congress, and thus has no clout at all.

3. He can veto appropriations bills, whereupon he is criticized for shutting down the government. This can at best constrain government expansion, but cannot contract it, given the protections given to careerists (such as I once was). In the end they get their wages anyway.
4.28.2008 1:30am
Cornellian (mail):
I suppose it beats voting for a candidate based on whether he/she is/isn't wearing a flag pin.
4.28.2008 1:31am
mouse (mail):
Sounds like a good reason to not encourage the young, the ignorant, or the otherwise uninvolved to vote!

Whether or not a politician had within his power certain remedies doesn't mean and didn't take them is not usually the real reason for the voters to turn against him. It's usually because of a perception that he didn't care, or was out of touch, or otherwise ignored their anger, rather than actually fix the underlying mechanism.

Look at the recall of Gray Davis. Schwarzenegger can't govern that state any better, because it's ungovernable--the people vote to increase spending but never to pay for it, they vote to kill industry every chance they get, they refuse to be sane. The deficits are worse now, but Schwarzenegger appears to "care" in some way that leaves him having high approval ratings.
4.28.2008 1:40am
ratel (mail):
In fact one reason that most citizens have low levels of political information might be that the political pundit class spends so much time talking about flag pins, former pastors, the wife's private jet, and other such meaningless drivel
4.28.2008 1:43am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
Even the conventional thought that while the president may have little direct control over the economy he can still greatly effect people's perception of it seems to be breaking down. This seems to be something that Bush is particularly bad at.
4.28.2008 1:45am
Kent G. Budge (mail) (www):
I think voting for a candidate based on whether it is wearing a flag pin is a good illustration of Ilya's point. The flag pin has become a proxy for a constellation of political views of genuine interest to the voters. For example, many voters will assume that the candidate wearing a flag pin supports the war in Iraq, while the candidate not wearing a pin does not. And the war in Iraq is a genuinely important issue.

Is flag pin wearing a good proxy for a politician's stand on the war in Iraq? Perhaps not, given (for example) Obama's on-again, off-again pin-wearing habits. But it's certainly a cheaply measured proxy, compared with listening to a long speech or reading a position paper.

Furthermore, once politicians become aware that voters are using flag pins as a proxy, they adjust their flag-pin-wearing behavior accordingly. It isn't entirely clear that this improves the proxy, though, as politicians are masters at gaming any system.
4.28.2008 1:47am
Thoughtful (mail):
It's worse than Ilya indicates. As he knows, not merely are the voters ignorant (and this is by no means confined, as mouse suggests, to the young or otherwise uninvolved), but they are irrational (as Bryan Caplan has argued). Clearly one need not be politically conversant to know that politicians cannot control the weather, yet Ilya indicates incumbents are voted out on that basis. This is not a matter of ignorance. ("OH! Now that we've read up on meteorology, we understand our prior vote was foolish!")

OTOH, it political ignorance and irrationality actually led to a policy of routinely outing incumbents, it wouldn't be that bad a system. Sadly, more often than not, it leads to them voting them back in.
4.28.2008 1:56am
fishbane (mail):
But it's certainly a cheaply measured proxy, compared with listening to a long speech or reading a position paper.

Yes, by a class of people who make a point of it while not wearing a lapel flag.

I've been wearing a lapel flag every day since this nonsense started. People who know me know I'm a bit of a bomb-thrower, a fan of bringing the troops home, and a serious civil-libertarian. It started as a bit of a joke, I admit. But I'm damn proud of our country, and don't want something so silly to be an issue. Everyone: wear a pin. They're cheap. (Most of them are made in China, in fact.)
4.28.2008 2:13am
David M. Nieporent (www):
What do you mean, politicians can't control the weather? Everyone knows Bush caused Hurricane Katrina!
4.28.2008 3:04am
Retrospective voting at least pays attention to the facts. An alternative approach would be to simply interpret the past in a way most favorable to the candidate whose values you most generally agree with. Given that a lot people tend to think that the latter strategy (voting for candidates who share your values) most closely corresponds to people's actual behavior, I am heartened to see that people bother looking at the past with an objective eye at all.

Sure, it is difficult to know whether and to what extent a president was responsible for the direction of the economy, but I am not certain how much more we can expect of voters on this point. Is it clear even now how much responsibility Roosevelt deserves for recovery from the Great Depression? Not to my mind, and we know exactly what happened. How then do we expect even the best educated of voters to decipher this in the middle of a shifting economy? Rational ignorance just doesn't seem relevant when even the most informed people cannot agree.
4.28.2008 3:17am
Yes, fullerene, "voting for candidates who share your values" makes more sense than voting based on how things are going at the moment. A politician can lie about his/her values, but clues to those values will peek through the lies--especially during an endless campaign like the present one--and voters can get a fairly clear idea of whom to support.

Part of the problem comes from our increased dependence on government. If we expect government to heal the sick, raise the dead, and control the weather, we will blame bad results on the President. If we hold a more modest view of what government can and should do, we won't expect our President to resemble the Messiah.
4.28.2008 9:25am
I think in the last 40 years 3 has been the case more often than not.
4.28.2008 9:34am
It's too bad we can't convince someone as intelligent and straightforward as Fred Thompson to run for president.....
4.28.2008 10:01am
ed in texas (mail):
You make it sound like punishing politicians is a bad thing.
4.28.2008 10:22am
Dan Weber (www):
Telling your fellow citizens that Presidents aren't responsible for economic results is like telling your fellow tribemates that Witch Doctors can't control the weather.
4.28.2008 10:23am
juris_imprudent (mail):
The myth of the rightful ruler puts this in proper perspective (see The Lion King for an outstanding presentation). Funny how myths are supposed to be the province of primitive peoples.
4.28.2008 12:12pm
The Unbeliever:
Telling your fellow citizens that Presidents aren't responsible for economic results is like telling your fellow tribemates that Witch Doctors can't control the weather.

Maybe your witch doctor can't, but my witch doctor can fix global warming by simply signing a treaty. (One with, ironically enough, a huge negative economic impact.)

He can also bring about Change, Hope, and National Unity by invoking his magical talisman Bipartisan Stone.
4.28.2008 12:29pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
I suppose it would help if politicians and their partisans quit promising to fix all the things they cannot fix. Eventually, the citizenry start believing them. That's a MAJOR flaw in the citizenry. But repetition works.
4.28.2008 12:41pm
Gary McGath (www):
Economic ignorance is often a factor. I know someone who firmly believes that presidents are responsible for shifts in the economy which occur as soon as they take office, though she applies this theory only when the shift is a downturn and the president a Republican.
4.28.2008 2:41pm
IS seems to be missing the fact that the people and the politicians understand presidential politics to be somewhat of a proxy for indicating approval of the national parties.

I don't think most Americans literally believe candidates' promises about economic programs, etc. as PERSONAL promises of the executive's course (if elected) - they understand that the President will lead his/her party in the promised direction, subject to the political process in the legislative branch.

I think it explains why GWB was re-elected despite a lack of economic strength in 2004 - the people cared more about GWOT/Iraq than the domestic economy, and chose the Republican approach to those issues. Oops.
4.28.2008 2:50pm
Unfortunately, politicians of all stripes aren't above exploiting this particular brand of ignorance for their own purposes. See, e.g., "Next Tuesday all of you will go to the polls, will stand there in the polling place and make a decision. I think when you make that decision, it might be well if you would ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?"; and "the misery index,"
4.28.2008 3:04pm
People vote according to their own priorities and interests, and the degree to which the candidates in the field reflect those priorities and interests. The choices that Somin attributes to "widespread political ignorance" are just differences between their priorities and interests and his -- "if only they were as enlightened and well informed as I am" isn't an unusual sentiment among the smart and well-educated...

Another way to look at the issue is that the results of an election are a composite look at the priorities and interests of the electorate -- both the "high-minded" voters and those who pick candidates that they identify with in some way -- and the candidate whose aggregate support is highest wins.
4.28.2008 4:05pm
Randy R. (mail):
"Not surprisingly, extensive evidence shows that most citizens have very low political knowledge levels."

And here I thought that Rush and Sean were doing such a great job on educating us.
4.28.2008 6:37pm
Andrew Paterson (mail):
Isn't this what Winston Churchill was really saying when he said " Democracy is the WORST form of government --except for everything else"???
4.28.2008 11:52pm