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Race and weather may
influence US elections
By Tony Favro, US Correspondent
22 October 2008: Earlier this year, the US Conference of Mayors released a 10-point plan to revitalize American cities. The mayors pressed the presidential candidates to adopt their plan as official campaign policy and take a position in support of cities. The mayors assumed that voters pay attention to a candidate's policies and positions. However, studies of American voter behavior suggest that such factors as the color of a candidate's clothes or the weather outside may play at least as important a role as a candidate’s policies in determining the outcome of a presidential election.
Do political positions make the difference?
It isn't a coincidence that both Barack Obama and John McCain wore dark blue suits in all their debates or that Sarah Palin frequently wears red in public. "Blue is a positive color, signifying authority and control. But it is a negative color for women. Red is a warm, sentimental color for women." This advice is from the book Winning Elections: Political Campaign Management, Strategy and Tactics by Robert Faucheux. The book is a compilation of articles from "Campaigns & Elections,” a magazine for professionals who manage political campaigns.
The common thread in all the articles in the book is: Don't assume that a candidate's positions are going to make the difference in a close election. By most estimates, according to the research presented in the book, fewer than half of American voters fully understand the issues and decide for whom to vote based on a candidate’s personal traits or other factors.
Political scientist Philip Converse writes that only 10 per cent of the American public has a reasonable grasp of "what goes with what;" in other words, how a set of beliefs add up to a coherent political philosophy. According to Converse, about 25 per cent of Americans have no coherent political views. They don't understand, for example, how a belief that taxes must be lower should logically rule out a belief that government must provide more services.
Converse analyzed American public opinion surveys over a number of years and found random, inconsistent answers to the same questions. He concluded that "very substantial portions of the public" hold opinions that are essentially meaningless. They are derived from no underlying set of principles.
Other studies reach the same conclusion. Rephrasing survey questions, for example, demonstrates that many people don't understand the question they just answered. For example, according to one study, 25 percent of Americans believe that too little is being spent on welfare, and 65 percent believe that too little is being spent on assistance for the poor.
So what exactly do Americans consider when they enter the voting booth? The weather is one option. Political scientists Christopher Aachen and Larry Bartels found that "2.8 million people voted against Al Gore in 2000 because their states were too dry or too wet" as a result of that year's climate patterns. Aachen and Bartels estimate that this cost Gore the majority of votes in eight states, a victory in any one of which would have won him the presidency over George Bush.
Bartels also points out that when people do focus on specific policies they are often unable to distinguish their own best interests. For example, when people were asked whether they favored George Bush's proposal to eliminate the estate tax, two-thirds said yes, even though 98 per cent of Americans do not leave estates large enough to trigger the tax. Repeal of the estate tax was supported by two-thirds of the people who believe that the income gap between the richest and poorest Americans is increasing, and that this is a bad thing for the country. It was also supported by two-thirds of those who say the rich should pay more in taxes.
In other words, most Americans don't make a connection between national tax policy, the country's economic condition, and their self-interest. Instead, they vote repeatedly to transfer more wealth to fewer people.
Rationality and intuition
Are American voters so trivialized in their thinking that they can no longer responsibly elect a President? Or do the cues they respond to, in fact, form an adequate base for rational decision making?
Political scientist Samuel Potkin argues in his book The Reasoning Voter that American voters don't have the time or inclination to assess candidates in depth, so they rely on the advice of "experts" -- television commentators, political activists, trusted friends, newspaper editorials, Internet blogs -- combined with their own intuition to make a judgment on candidates. Usually, people feel satisfied with decisions they reach in this way, Popkin argues, because this is how they arrive at most of the big decisions in their lives. When people decide to purchase a house, for example, most rely on the experiences of two or three friends who have recently bought a house, some comparison shopping, and the pitch of the real estate sales person. Most people are happy with their purchase, and they conclude the transaction in a relatively short period of time. Rarely, is the time involved in shopping for a new home anywhere near the length of a presidential campaign.
Popkin argues that some voters will get it wrong, choosing the liberal candidate when they really preferred the conservative; but their error will be cancelled out by voters who mistakenly choose the conservative.
The Race Factor
The 2008 presidential election is complicated by the fact that, for the first time in American history, one candidate is Black. Numerous polls show that 70 per cent of Americans disapprove of Republican President George Bush, suggesting that the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, should have an advantage over his Republican counterpart, John McClain. However, an Associated Press-Yahoo poll conducted in August and September found that 40 per cent of white Americans hold a negative view of Black people.
Many political observers recall the "Bradley Effect" or the "Wilder Effect."
The references are to Tom Bradley, the African-American mayor of Los Angeles who lost the 1982 California governor's race to a white opponent despite a significant lead in the polls. A similar event took place in 1989 when Douglas Wilder barely defeated a white opponent for the governorship of Virginia after polls suggested he was comfortably ahead. In both cases, large numbers of whites refused to vote for the Black candidate simply because he was Black.
Other observers, such as writer Daniel Okrent, believe that increased participation among black voters will offset the Bradley Effect, should it occur.
The Obama Effect
Only two accurate predictions can perhaps be made about the upcoming US presidential elections. The first is that the candidates' specific policies and positions will be a secondary factor for a large number of voters. Many voters will base their decisions on intuition, perceptions, and prejudices. This has been true of all US presidential elections since at least World War II, when political polling and statistical analysis of election results became routine, and is not likely to change in 2008.
The second prediction that we can make with any accuracy is that, if Barack Obama wins, the election will foster a new industry of books, dissertations, articles, and other political analysis and commentary about the "Obama Effect."
This article contains reporting from Louis Menand’s “The Unpolitical Animal.”
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