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The Political Ignorance of Swing Voters:

Some reviewers have been panning the new movie Swing Voter, which stars Kevin Costner as an ignorant and politically apathetic swing voter who ends up casting the decisive vote in a presidential election. I'm sure the movie has its flaws. It does, however, get one thing right: swing 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.

I. Explaining the Ignorance of Swing Voters.

As I have discussed in various articles (e.g. here and here), most citizens know little about politics. They are rationally ignorant. Because there is so little chance that your vote will be decisive (less than 1 in 100 million in a presidential election), there's no incentive to acquire political knowledge if your only reason for doing so is to cast a better-informed vote in order to ensure that the "right" candidate wins. Numerous studies find, however, 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. For example, in my research using questions from the 2000 National Election Study, I found that self-identified "Independent-Independents" could on average correctly answer only 9.5 of 31 basic political knowledge questions, scoring much lower than self-described "strong Democrats" (15.4) and "strong Republicans" (18.7). Many other studies find similar results.

Thus, the voters who know the least are the ones who tend to determine electoral outcomes. Not exactly a comforting thought.

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, as noted above, 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.

II. The Bias of the Partisans.

In noting the ignorance of swing voters, I don't mean to praise the knowledge of committed partisans. Although they tend to know more than the swing voters do, they also tend to be highly biased in their evaluation of the knowledge they acquire, overvaluing information that makes their preferred party look good and dismissing data that cuts the other way (see this article for relevant cites). Like the ignorance of the swing voters, this kind of bias is individually rational behavior. After all, since he too has almost no chance of actually influencing the outcome of an election, the partisan's motive for acquiring political knowledge is less to seek the truth about candidates than to get entertainment value from following politics. And cheering on his party and confirming his prejudices is a big part of the latter for many people.

In the same way, committed sports fans are more interested in rooting for their favorite team and against its rival than in finding out the truth about their relative merits. When I read up on my beloved Red Sox and the rival Yankees, I do it for fun; not because I think I can influence the outcome of Red Sox games or because I want to get at the objective truth about the two teams. "Political fans" tend to be the same way. Sports ignorance and sports fan bias are mostly harmless. Not so with their political counterparts.

DCTenor1:
Great analysis, but your analogy in the final paragraph is a little weak: "When I read up on my beloved Red Sox and the rival Yankees, I do it for fun; not because I think I can influence the outcome of Red Sox games..."

Some people who follow politics might do so in order to influence the election (as irrational as that may sound), or at the very least to make better decisions. But as far as I know, no one follows sports teams in order to affect the outcome of the games, or even in order to make better decisions (for instance, about which games to watch).
8.2.2008 1:50am
Displaced Midwesterner:
I am curious and if anyone can point me to some studies or papers about this, I'd love to hear about it. Basically, in general, rational choice/economic/etc. analysis of a variety of different fields of human endeavor is quite popular these days. And, as in the case of voting, it may turn out that rational behavior can lead to arguably poor results. So what is it that makes rational behavior in the markets good, but rational behavior in politics often bad?
8.2.2008 2:08am
traveler496:
"Like the ignorance of the swing voters, this kind of bias is individually rational behavior. After all, since he too has almost no chance of actually influencing the outcome of an election, the partisan's motive for acquiring political knowledge is less to seek the truth about candidates than to get entertainment value from following politics. And cheering on his party and confirming his prejudices is a big part of the latter for many people."

Ilya, you are being too generous here. Acquiring political knowledge to "confirm one's prejudices" is pseudo-rational at best (delusions aren't rational).
8.2.2008 2:12am
Dan Goodman (mail) (www):
What about people who bet? Many people bet on sports; a smaller number bet on politics.

I've been wondering if encouraging bets on political races might lead to voters being better-informed.
8.2.2008 2:20am
EPluribusMoney (mail):
I thought that if voting allowed you to deface or blast away a picture of the candidate you didn't like rather than check the box of the one you like or hate less, more people would vote. Or at least they'd enjoy it more.
8.2.2008 2:25am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
I still want to see None of the Above required as a choice on all offices, with NotA disqualifying all other canidates in the event of a plurality.
8.2.2008 3:14am
Ilya Somin:
What about people who bet? Many people bet on sports; a smaller number bet on politics.

That's true. I would bet that regular sports bettors are more knowledgeable than most other fans and also probably less biased in their evaluation of evidence.
8.2.2008 3:46am
Ilya Somin:
Basically, in general, rational choice/economic/etc. analysis of a variety of different fields of human endeavor is quite popular these days. And, as in the case of voting, it may turn out that rational behavior can lead to arguably poor results. So what is it that makes rational behavior in the markets good, but rational behavior in politics often bad?

I don't think that rational behavior markets is always good. HOwever, one reason why it's often better than rational voting behavior is that there is far less incentive to be rationally ignorant as a market consumer. When you choose to buy a product (or not to), your choice is individually decisive, so you have more of an incentive to acquire accurate information and evaluate it without bias. I cover this point in more detail in some of the articles of mine I linked in the post.

Obviously, there's a vast academic literature out there on market behavior, rationality, and related issues.
8.2.2008 3:49am
Tritium (mail):
In reading your posting, I am surprised you haven't pointed out that the Constitution made provisions for such ignorance, which was later unconstitutionally changed (since the power in Article V does not give the power of repealing any part of the constitution.) by the 12 Amendment. (There is much debate in the convention notes from multiple sources, that expressed concern about expressly forbidding certain acts, but not including such an act would not forbid them if ever such an instance arose in which such an act became necessary. It implies that what is forbidden is always forbidden, what is excluded could when necessary be included.)

The founding fathers knew that people within the several states would not necessarily be informed enough to make an educated choice about who they should vote for. So they proposed that within a community, they would elect a person to vote on their behalf. This was usually a person that was trusted by the people within their district. Though, this didn't work well for the politician of that time, (nor would i suppose it work for politicians of this time) because party influence could never rise higher than a duty to fulfill a trust. So now instead of corrupting a trust, we merely rely on ignorance to get elected. My, how far we've come.

It further amazes me that people don't seem to find a problem in the fact that both houses of Congress are elected directly by the people. The purpose of the two houses is to have two distinct sources of interest so that no impositions of either the state or of the people would be agreed to unless they were reasonable. How can these interest be distinct if they must appease the same group?

It is yet another example of ignorance that continually becomes ignored because... if it's not argued in paper, it can't be an argument, Can it? And the Constitution is ultimately a contract, so then how can a state by ratifying amendments impair the obligations of that contract? That was one of the protections laid out in the constitution to prevent a state from having any power to change the existing constitution.

I also wonder how many people that have read and commented on this blog also consider themselves Democrats or Republicans... And in choosing one or the other, can anyone tell me what the difference is between a Democracy and a Republic would be?
8.2.2008 7:07am
Brett Bellmore:

So what is it that makes rational behavior in the markets good, but rational behavior in politics often bad?


I think it relates to the fundamental difference between the market and politics: In a market you chose for yourself, in politics you chose for others. If we voted on car brands, and the losers were forced to buy the car the winners selected, or go to jail, I suspect things would get rather nasty in short order, too.
8.2.2008 7:37am
corneille1640 (mail):

After all, since he too has almost no chance of actually influencing the outcome of an election, the partisan's motive for acquiring political knowledge is less to seek the truth about candidates than to get entertainment value from following politics.

This is the crux of the issue, I think. It is only in the very rare and highly improbable situation where a single vote decides the outcome of a presidential election.
8.2.2008 10:46am
corneille1640 (mail):

(since the power in Article V does not give the power of repealing any part of the constitution.)

Why not?
8.2.2008 10:46am
Byrd (mail) (www):
I followed the links through several blog posts and gave up before tracking down the 31 questions. I'd want to know what they are before concluding that the inability to answer them indicates political ignorance. It may simply indicate indifference to the values of the person compiling the questions.
8.2.2008 11:02am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I agree:
After all, since he too has almost no chance of actually influencing the outcome of an election, the partisan's motive for acquiring political knowledge is less to seek the truth about candidates than to get entertainment value from following politics.
Part though may be the feeling of powerlessness. If you feel that you have no real power to change things, then why bother to spend the time and effort to be involved.

I am sure that most of the Volokh readers here have some connection with power. I have known the kids of governors and Senators, had some in my law firm, known a lot of judges, etc. I assume that this is fairly common here. But this is not typical of much of America.

So why bother? Stress is often seen as a result of lack of power over some situation, and why stress yourself over something that you can't affect?

It doesn't help that there often isn't a big difference between candidates. Many of them, from both parties, are corrupt, and most often, the longer they are in politics, the more corrupt they are. The voters who brought in the Republicans in 1994 to clean up the corruption in Washington, D.C. were ultimately disappointed when those Republicans ended up standing side by side with the Democrats at the public trough.
8.2.2008 11:08am
TDPerkins (mail):

(since the power in Article V does not give the power of repealing any part of the constitution.)


Whaaa???

Amendment 99 can say Amendment 98 is null and void. Or Article 7 is inoperative and text following controls.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
8.2.2008 11:35am
James Eaves-Johnson (mail) (www):
This helps me understand the frustrations that many libertarian-minded people, like myself, face when talking to people about major party candidates.

I have given up on the Libertarian Party, for a variety of reasons, and so now that I look at the major party candidates, I find it easy to be a swing voter. However, when talking to other people interested in politics, it amazes me how invested they are in particular outcomes. When Clinton signs DOMA, and Bush is a spendaholic, it is amazing to me that people can be so invested one way or the other.

Thanks for the post.
8.2.2008 11:41am
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
One of the reasons I'm a party-line voter is out of respect for my own political ignorance.

Swing voters, on the other hand, are "issues" voters, presumably because they believe they are equipped to analyze all the issues on the merits.

That being so, and to add to the sad ironies involved, I'm guessing that swing voters as a group more robustly overestimate how politically informed they are. Any data on that question?
8.2.2008 1:24pm
Jmaie (mail):
Voting in particular is an embarrassment, being a public display of weak character and low intelligence. Let us face the truth: Democracy, like spitting in public or the Roman games, is the proper activity of the lower intellectual and moral classes. It amounts to collusion in one's own suckering.

Fred Reed
6/22/2004
www.fredoneverything.net
8.2.2008 4:34pm
Charles Strouss (mail):
The idea that "swing" voters are less informed does not match my experience. In this presidential election year, for example, a lot of us haven't decided who to vote for, despite being political junkies and caring a great deal. It would seem to me that any well-informed voter would take more time and effort in evaluating issues and candidates, and would be less inclined to snap judgments based on labels or flowery campaign language.

I also think increasing the number of politically naive voters tends to favor the Democrats. You know the old saying about the young man being a socialist, etc... I suspect that novice voters tend to fall heavily towards Dems. Certainly the appeal of the Democrats socialist ideas of providing plenty for everyone, etc., is an appealing concept to the naive, on a gut emotional level rather than doing any real analysis.

I think this is why Democrats especially push mass voter registration efforts, things like motor-voter laws... to get people into the voting box who are too lazy to even make an effort to register -- like they are seriously going to research and understand issues?

I would contend that the things that make people lean Republican take more abstract reasoning... understanding that high taxation hampers an economy, thus lowering the real standard of living... understanding that "generous and humane" government handouts can unfortunately, in many cases, do more harm than good, understanding that poverty is not caused by the affluence of others, etc.

A child can understand and appreciate Robin Hood.

(I'm ignoring the other large part of the Republican coalition, the pro-lifer anti-gay marriage people, who often are responding at an intutive rather than reflective level.)
8.2.2008 4:59pm
Repeal 16-17 (mail):
since the power in Article V does not give the power of repealing any part of the constitution.

See Section 1 of the 21st Amendment.
8.2.2008 6:33pm
Roscoe (mail):
We shouldn't be giving ignorant voters the backhanded compliment of calling them "rationally ignorant" for failing to learn enough about politics to cast an informed vote. A free society depends on people being willing to do stuff that doesn't have a lot of direct benefit to themselves, in order to benefit the society as a whole.

For example, I guess it would be irrational for anyone to join the Marines. You get yelled at a lot, way more exercise than you want to have, lousy working conditions, poor pay, and not much of a social life. But we would be in a hell of a fix if enough people weren't willing to make that choice.
8.2.2008 7:07pm
whit:
"That's true. I would bet that regular sports bettors are more knowledgeable than most other fans and also probably less biased in their evaluation of evidence."

In sports, you have an edge in betting if

1) you have superior knowledge/analysis such that you have an edge over the conventional wisdom. Because the odds are purely set by the # of people who think team A will win/lose. Iow, if twice as many people think team A will win vs. team B, then the odds reflect that such that a bet for team A will only yield 1/2 (slightly lower actually given transaction costs) if A wins vs. what you get if you bet for B and B wins.

Iow, the edge is based 1) on your understanding of the relative merits of the teams. If team A will pay 2:1 for a win, and has only a 40% chance of winning, then that's a positive expectancy bet.

The political issue is a little different. Unlike in sports betting, in politics, the "betting" (vote) IS the game.

It doesn't matter (unlike in sports betting), how GOOD the candidate is, only how good people THINK he is, and/or how bad they think his opponent is.

That's a qualitative difference between politics and sport (and their respective betting).
8.2.2008 7:21pm
David Warner:
Prof. Somin,

How do you answer Roscoe's point? It seems pretty fundamental from a basic moral/game theory perspective. How do you get around the whole Kantian/disappointed mother (what if everyone did that?) calculus? Would a prisoner's dilemma strategy that ignored the behavior of other actors be "rational"?

I think I know where you are heading (voting is clearly sub-optimal to alternative decision arrangements), and I want to head there too. Given the present arrangement, however, how do you square disengagement with your own moral theory?

Is it a sort of moral disobedience as protest?
8.2.2008 7:45pm
Can't find a good name:
Just for the record, the movie is called Swing Vote, not Swing Voter.
8.2.2008 9:31pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
And the Constitution is ultimately a contract, so then how can a state by ratifying amendments impair the obligations of that contract?
Well, there's another problem you have with your argument. The Constitution is not ultimately a contract.
8.2.2008 10:39pm
Smokey:
What worries me more than political ignorance is the fact that 25% of Americans don't know that the Earth revolves around the Sun [hint: it's called a "year"].

Thanks for that, government education.
8.2.2008 11:32pm
Doc W (mail):
If the feds, at least, stayed within their Constitutional bounds, then they'd have far less to do, there would be far fewer issues to consider, and folks would have a fighting chance of sorting them out and voting for the better candidate.
8.3.2008 1:16am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
Something else I think should be added to this discussion is a definition of what voting group is under consideration. I've seen figures that most people without a party affiliation nonetheless tend to follow party line trends from election to election. While I haven't taken the time to look for a citation, the figure I seem to recall is that only 10-15% of non-affiliated voters are actual swing voters. Thus the Rove strategy of doing everything possible to get those you know will vote for you to the pools, rather than trying to convince those at the margin.
8.3.2008 2:58am
mariner (mail):
I've been wondering if encouraging bets on political races might lead to voters being better-informed.

It might make them better-informed about who is more likely to win.

It wouldn't make them any more informed about the issues of the day.
8.3.2008 4:39pm
Tritium (mail):

Well, there's another problem you have with your argument. The Constitution is not ultimately a contract.


Abraham Lincoln has been cited as saying the Constitution was a binding contract among the states and no contract can be changed unilaterally by one party.

Then you have to ask yourself, what constitutes a contract? The Constitution was written up in order to form a more perfect union. A contract is as good as law between the parties involved. And the constitution is formed to establish the federal government and the powers as well as restraints on those powers. While clarifications were expected, I believe in order to change any part of the original body of text, such an amendment would need to be ratified by state convention, which was the mode that established the Constitution, and would seem the correct place.

Any amendment established by the legislatures of the states may be repealed by them. Party A cannot change a contract written for Party B by Party C. Party C would need to consent before it should have affect. Thus the purpose of having 2 modes of ratification.

The federal wasn't formed to govern the people. It was formed to govern the states. Checks and balances have been set aside and well... things will likely continue to get darker and darker. as we move on. thanks.
8.4.2008 8:12am