Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Rational and the Reasonable In Voting?

As voters in Indiana and North Carolina go to the polls, I can't help wondering: how perverted has our electoral system become? Senator Clinton is, by most measures, still in the race for the Democratic nomination at all because of her support from voters who are not "vocal" or "caucus-going" Democrats. They lack, in other words, any kind of ideological loyalty to the Democratic party. They are just as likely to vote for a Republican candidate or not vote at all when the general election comes around as they are to vote for the Democrat. One could even say, as this story in the Times almost does, that Clinton has duped the voters who should have such loyalties into thinking she's their candidate even while, in reality, she was pro-NAFTA, pro-Democratic Leadership Council, and is herself now fabulously wealthy.

How perverse is it, then, that our nominating process might allow such voters to defeat the Democratic candidate that most "true-blue" Democrats are for, only to put Senator Clinton against a Republican candidate that those same voters would then prefer over Senator Clinton? Given the rules pitting Senators Clinton and Obama against each other in this primary election, it is perfectly rational for voters to choose their "preferred" candidate in one election who then is not the preferred candidate in another election. (It could be strategic or just plain short-sighted.) It would be, however, unreasonable of a party to nominate someone by ignoring these defects in elections and it would be just as unreasonable for observers to conclude that Senator Clinton's victories in the primaries are at all reflective of her chances in an election against another opponent.

Posted by Jamie Colburn

14 comments:

Michael C. Dorf said...

As a confirmed Obamaniac, I'm sympathetic to the spirit of Jamie's post, but I would point out that it's not at all irrational for a party to adopt a nomination process that permits marginal party members and swing voters to have a substantial---even a controlling---voice. The worry otherwise is that the most committed party members will pick someone who is less able to capture the middle during the general election. Further, having adopted such a strategy, it would also be rational to then insist on following these rules even when they end up picking someone who appears less electable in the general than the choice of the party faithful on the sorts of grounds we generally have for following rules even when they fail to achieve the background justification for the rules.

Jamison Colburn said...

I agree on the initial reasoning for allowing not-so-ideological voters into a nominating process. But two things in response: (1) this is not what's happening here (incidentally, even if it were, I wonder whether it would be "rational" at all: you NEVER have assurances against the cycling I mentioned come general election time); and (2) parties should learn from their experiences and that of their competitor: McCain wrapped things up notwithstanding Huckabee's persistence not just because of the winner-take-all primaries but also because the RNC knows they can package ANY candidate as both a Republican loyalist and as a centrist. Exhibit A: the spanish language ads now running from an Arizonan who personally pushed the "English as Official Language" bandwagon to get it rolling.

Yonatan said...

It seems rather naive to argue against a "push to the middle" in a primary - or a general election - taking place within the context of a two-party system.
Nominees - yes, even Obama - will invariably shift their positions (at least to some degree) to attract votes. A party that would NOT allow marginals/swing voters to participate in the primaries would likely ensure a "race to the margins", which would usually (though not always) be suicidal come November, when a race to the middle is generally the way to go. Maybe Obama transcends all that, and is electable by both right and left, but that is not usually the case. Thus, the exact same post could have been written a few months back by an outraged evangelical who felt that Mike Huckabee was the only Republican nominee who truly represented "hard core" conservatives -- and they may have even been right.

Ori Herstein said...

The fact that the supporters of candidate A are more enthusiastic, younger, inspired etc, on average, than the supporters of candidate B and therefore are more vocal and active, does not entail that the supporters of candidate B are less idealistic, or marginal to the party or fewer in number. It more likely means that although they like B over A, they are not as enamored with B as the supporters of A are in love with A.

Yonatan said...

Ori - I don't think that even those "in love" with A (or should I say O) think that ALL supporters of B (or should I say C) are marginal/swing. If that was the post's suggestion, that's a seriously flawed analysis, because it would suggest that only about 25% of the country are "real" supporters of the Democratic party (in which case this whole primary process is redundant, and McCain can just go ahead and swear in). I think the suggestion is that while O is currently in the lead with about 53% of the votes, all 53% are "truly" clue whereas C's 47% is made up of, let's say, 40% "true blues" and 7% marginals; under this scenario, as the post suggested, it's the marginals that keep C in the race.

Ori Herstein said...

If that is the case, then how is O the candidate with the better chances in the general according to the polls? And why does the O campaign claim that in fact it is less divisive and so on? Would this not entail that O has more “swing vote” support? Does C have the swing-vote in the primaries but O has it in the general?

This is the inference I was arguing against:

“Senator Clinton is, by most measures, still in the race for the Democratic nomination at all because of her support from voters who are not "vocal" or "caucus-going" Democrats. They lack, in other words, any kind of ideological loyalty to the Democratic party.”

I do not think there is sufficient evidence to support this inference and that another possible explanation is that some are less vocal or caucus-going because they are less enthusiastic, not because they are not committed to democratic ideas.

Nathan said...

Was there some insinuation that if the Super Delegates at the convention voted in favor of Clinton and secured the nomination for her, despite her being behind in pledged delegates, it would be somehow not following the rules?

I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of the democratic nomination process that affords the Super Delegates any other role than that of tie breaker, despite the insistence of politicos worried about how they'll appear to their constituencies that Super Delegates were never intended to cast a deciding vote.

Just as electability is a reasonable criterion for ordinary voters, it seems like a reasonable criterion for the Super Delegates too. Its just not necessarily the only criterion that they should take into consideration.

Yonatan said...

Ori - I agree with the lack of factual basis for the post's assertions (last I've seen, C is in fact leading M by a larger margin than does O, but that may well change come November). I also agree that the Obama party-line that his campaign is less divisive, more about bi-partisanship, etc. etc. etc., is in tension with the post's position that O is the only "true" Democratic candidate. As I said in my initial post - maybe O transcends this tension; maybe he will be a real lefty (by U.S. standards) that is endorsed by hard core right-wingers, or at least by swing voters. I very much doubt that's the case, but I'm willing to assume that to give some credence to this post (if Obama is a non-electable candidate, then I think the post is just self defeating - as is the case if it turns out that in fact he's a centrist, which I suspect he will turn out to be should he win the nomination).

Leaf said...

i'm not sure i buy the premise of this post that Obama is the candidate of the "true blue" democratic voters? I thought he was the one who was supposed to appeal to the anti-establishment McCain voters and moderate swing voters looking for a change and Clinton to the "democratic base" ? Likewise on a host of issues (e.g healthcare) Clinton's line is at least as "true blue" as Obama's

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