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Political scientists make me happy

Political scientists believe a few things about elections, some of which I think are pretty encouraging. And this John Sides post is a good opportunity to talk about them.

First, campaigns don't matter as much as we think. I take that as a good thing: Democracy shouldn't be overly reliant on whose political consultants are better at spinning the truth into advertisements and attack mailers.

Second, "elections writ large depend more on performance than on policy -- that is, they depend more on how things are going (for which the incumbent party is on the hook) than on specific policies, bills, legislation, etc." That's a bit unfair to incumbents, who aren't totally responsible for conditions, but it's nevertheless a fairly decent way for voters to make decisions.

Third is that voters don't approach elections with strong views on policy issues. Instead, they look to the political leaders they already trust to tell them what their views should be. If President Romney had proposed ObamaCare before a mostly Republican Congress, it would've gotten an easy majority of Republicans -- both in Congress and in the country -- and almost zero Democrats. Party affiliation drives policy opinions, and not the other way around.

The political science take on elections is sometimes accused of being nihilistic, as if doubting the importance of campaigns is like quoting Nietzsche and dressing in black. In fact, it's fairly optimistic: Elections are driven by the real state of the country, not the money candidates spend to advertise to voters. You could say that it would be better if people made their judgments based on the policy Congress was passing to change conditions rather than the conditions themselves, but when you really look into how people decide which policies they support, it's actually not clear that a more policy-centric process would be an improvement. Conditions are what voters know best, and so it's good that they rely on them.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 17, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Political Science  
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"If President Romney had proposed ObamaCare before a mostly Republican Congress, it would've gotten an easy majority of Republicans -- both in Congress and in the country -- and almost zero Democrats." And you forgot to add that you and your Journalist buddies would of denounced the legislation as the stupidest thing that was ever proposed. You would of prepared charts and graphs that would show how it would only cause health care costs to rise as well as the budget deficit. That is why it is hard to take you any more seriously than a politician. You are no more or less than Obama's man-servant and chief propagandist.

Posted by: cummije5 | August 17, 2010 9:16 AM | Report abuse

You may be going a bit far here. Many policy issues are on the periphery of party philosophy, but when an issue intersects with core political beliefs, as health care reform intersects with issues of federal power, the importance of policy preference is magnified. Romneycare for all might well have split the GOP.

Posted by: jduptonma | August 17, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

The 'incumbent party' is not on the hook. This is a common myth that many power freaks circulate.
INCUMBENTS are on the hook and with any good fortune at all, they will not be returning to mismanage our government.

Posted by: bgreen2224 | August 17, 2010 9:58 AM | Report abuse

"Party affiliation drives policy opinions, and not the other way around."

I'd argue this operates on a curve. A Republican could propose Romneycare, and he'd get almost no Democrats, and many Republicans, because of party affiliation, but some would splinter off. President Romney could then propose the pro-choice amendment for government-sponsored abortion or the Gay Marriage for Everybody bill, and then he'd lose half or more Republicans, and gain many more Democrats.

The point being, party labels do matter--Republicans have to go very far to the left to win Democrats and lose Republicans, and vice versa. It's an example of why compromise--going a little bit the right, here and there, hasn't won Obama a single Republican. He'd have to go to the right of Ronald Reagan to win over a significant amount of Republicans.

And history indicates, politicians who go against the general ideological positions of their party affiliation will lose their base faster than they will win over the opposition. It's why "moving to the center" frequently cost politicians elections. Because they disappoint more of their base than they win over of the opposition.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | August 17, 2010 10:00 AM | Report abuse

cummije5, do you have any evidence for your position that Ezra's reporting on policy is different depending on which side produces it? You'd need to show policies that Ezra otherwise likes that he has criticized because it was put forward by conservatives and/or policies Ezra would otherwise be against but for that it was put forward by Democrats.

Honestly, that's going to be really hard for you to show. I think if you go back passed more than four years you're going to get a very reasonable response of "My understanding of policy and politics has evolved since then." That puts us at 2006, which is when the Dems were in charge on Congress anyway. You'll really get more data on Ezra's reliability if/when the Republicans take back one or both houses of Congress. In the mean time I think Ezra's been very fair in evaluating Republican proposals like Ryan's long term budget/Medicare plan. I have to say though that there really haven't been that many serious Republican legislative proposals in the last four years that I think would have given us fodder for you to mine about Ezra's impartiality.

jduptomna has a fair point. There wasn't a lot of party unity/loyalty of Harriet Miers, immigration reform, No Child Left Behind, or SS privatization under President Bush.

Posted by: MosBen | August 17, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

--"Political scientists believe"--

That about says all you need to know right there, doesn't it?

Posted by: msoja | August 17, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

The third reason is just a polite way of saying people are so stupidly partisan they can't think for themselves. Politics as sport.

Posted by: Justwondering14 | August 17, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

"Second, "elections writ large depend more on performance than on policy -- that is, they depend more on how things are going (for which the incumbent party is on the hook) than on specific policies, bills, legislation, etc."

Yes, but the art (some would say "dark art") of political campaigns is largely about manipulating the voters' perceptions of current conditions and incumbent performance. Political scientists have also told us that negative ad tactics work, and we all have seen examples where candidates have blown big leads as the campaigns wore on.

Clearly when conditions are terrible, incumbents are at risk, and will lose some seats. But every local race has its own dynamic and personalities, and the content and quality of campaigns will matter where the race is close, where one side is prone to blunders, and where one side can effectively exploit a finely-tuned message that resonates with voters.

Posted by: Patrick_M | August 17, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Kevin_Willis: "And history indicates, politicians who go against the general ideological positions of their party affiliation will lose their base faster than they will win over the opposition."

Is that what history indicates? Bill Clinton won (twice) by rejecting his base on certain matters and campaigning as a centrist. W won the first time as a centrist; only in 2004 did he go hard to the Rovian partisan-appeal playbook. Obama didn't play to the left wing of the party, as much as some portrayed him doing so; he was seen as more moderate than Hillary Clinton on many issues. If policy matters, then whether one gains or loses votes by moving to the center depends on the political distribution of the electorate; is it flat, bell-curved, dumbbell-shaped?

Or maybe that's going too far. Maybe these candidates won because of conditions and not policy, as Ezra's post indicates. Clinton won because the economy was not good. W won because things were going OK in 2000 and the public was pretty apathetic about both candidates. Just about any Democrat would have won the last presidential election because the economy was not good.

That said, I'm not sure I agree with Ezra's conclusion that attention to conditions rather than policy is in general a good thing. Conditions can be the result of policy that past office holders put into place, yet present office holders get the credit or the blame. H.W. Bush did the right policy by raising taxes, but it probably cost him reelection even though it set the stage for better conditions.

Even on factual matters, there is an astonishing information gap. More people believe TARP was enacted under Obama (47%) than Bush (34%). And that includes the Sharron Angle campaign (NV-Sen), which just sent out a fundraising mailing claiming TARP as an Obama/Reid policy.

If a well-informed electorate is vital to a functioning democracy, I'm not so sure conditions-based decision process is such a good thing. If policy is important, how can we enact good policy if few voters vote on that basis?

Posted by: dasimon | August 17, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse


I don't think that's true at all. Taking your cues from politicians you trust, who in an ideal world took their cues from policy experts and constituents, seems like a perfectly reasonable way to evaluate policy. In fact, probably the most reasonable way. After all, are you really knowledgeable enough about health care, the environment, immigration, foreign policy, counter-terrorism, and building codes in lower Manhattan to really make up your mind independently on ever issue of our day?

Posted by: CarlosXL | August 17, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse


In 2006 after Mitt Romney passed the Mass. Health Care legislation, Ezra wrote an article titled "Credit Hog - Mitt Romney got more props than he deserved for health-care reform" I do not remember a similar post after Obama signed his health care legislation. There is no question in my mind that Ezra is a liberal wolf in sheep's clothing.

Posted by: cummije5 | August 17, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

CarlosXL: So take the example Ezra used: If President Romney proposes ObamaCare it's all good, and when President Obama does the same it's all bad. What do you call that?

Posted by: Justwondering14 | August 17, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

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