Contradictory findings

August 30, 2009 at 2:29 pm 3 comments

| Gabriel |

Last week on econtalk, the guest was David Brady who, among other things talked about how Congressmen very precisely tailor their voting to their districts. So Congressmen whose party platform is unpopular in their district will vote to the center so as to decouple their particular identity from that of the national party. The “people in my district know I’m not a typical [Democrat/Republican]” thing. Furthermore, he presented some evidence that this strategy is effective and the guys who practice it get reelected. OK, fair enough, my vague understanding is this is typical of the poli sci of Congress literature.

Of course, there’s another poli sci literature that can be summed up as the “voters are morons” school. (One famous paper compares voters to Homer Simpson, another by the same author showed that voters seem to blame politicians for the weather and shark attacks). The general thrust of this literature is that voters don’t know who their congressman is, yet alone the subtle intricacies of his voting record, but if you’re lucky voters understand party platforms fairly well and use party as a heuristic. (This doesn’t strike me as a particularly bad voting strategy, for instance if you are a Nevada voter very interested in culture war issues, which is actually better to predict how Harry Reid will vote on important things like filibustering a conservative SCOTUS nom, his party affiliation or his centrist voting record?).

What I don’t get about political science is how you can have the “I vote with my district” and the “voters are morons” findings in the same quadrant (American) of the same discipline (poli sci). This is like finding out that your friend writes the most amazingly personalized love letters to his wife and they seem to have a good marriage but he has never noticed that she doesn’t speak English. The only way I can think of to reconcile these two findings is if opposition candidates were able to use campaign ads to draw attention to voting records that are out-of-whack with the district — “Congressman Incumbent says he shares Utah values, but what he doesn’t want you to know is that he voted to teach masturbation to kindergartners.” Hopefully some political scientist has squared this circle, if so, I salute him/her.

On another note, despite not being a political scientist, I still feel qualified to call this one for the Tories.


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  • 1. Noah  |  August 31, 2009 at 2:25 am

    I don’t recall this tension coming up that much when I took all those polisci classes, including classes specifically on Congress. I think one way where you could put these together. Of course, bear in mind that I went to grad school in sociology instead of polisci.

    Assume that as a general principle, especially when lacking other information about the candidates, people vote for a party and assume the candidate’s positions fit the label. But there are a number of exceptions. Individual politicians can get reputations which differ from the party’s reputation. The only way to survive as a politician when your party label is unpopular is to develop your own reputation (usually as closer to the center).

    In other words, party affiliation is a better predictor of someone’s aggregate voting record than how they will vote in any particular race. On balance, people will vote for people of their own party. But this is only one of many reasons why they pick a given candidate over another.

  • 2. gabrielrossman  |  August 31, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    i was hoping you’d pipe in.
    honestly, i don’t get your solution. it seems like what you’re saying is that voters do know their congressman’s record. you could qualify it as voters only know their congressman’s record if the congressman is a centrist, but there are a lot of centrist congressmen so this translates in the aggregate to a lot of knowledgeable voters. this seems to me like less a reconciliation of the “i vote my district” and “voters are morons” literatures than a straightforward claim that the former is right and the latter is wrong.

    • 3. Noah  |  August 31, 2009 at 2:37 pm

      Yeah…note that I never said this was a GOOD way to try and reconcile these things. I think it is likely that voters in some districts are more knowledgeable, if only because their representative is campaigning a lot to try and make sure voters know what they did. If you’re a centrist democrat in a republican leaning district, you’ve got to get your message out there.

      Henry Waxman doesn’t need to campaign. Do the voters of Santa Monica and West LA know his voting record? Maybe they do a little, now that he’s in the majority again and in the news a lot. But Waxman can probably figure that the people of Santa Monica and West LA will always vote for the Democrat on the ballot.

      I think competitiveness of the race, or anticipated competitiveness, is an omitted variable here. It may be omitted in the literature too…this is just me talking. If politicians think a race will be competitive, they campaign more. Along with all the various crap of campaigns, some useful/valid information about the candidates’ records and positions gets through to the voters, so they are more informed. Of course, voters may decide to vote based on some sort of nonsense they hear about in the campaign instead of a candidate’s record, but some will be much more likely to be exposed to a candidate’s record than others.

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