Friday, September 7, 2012

Political Polarization and the Modern Presidential Campaign

Let us begin with some simple arithmetic. About 60% of eligible voters will show up and vote in a presidential election. In a year when the presidency is not at stake the turnout drops to about 40%. About 40% then are dedicated voters and can be trusted to show up for each election. About 20% show up, but are less trustworthy and campaigns must worry about making sure that those who would vote for their candidate if they voted, actually show up and do it. How many of these voters are actually in play? How many of them are actually waiting to be convinced by the arguments of the candidates? Bill Bishop, in his book The Big Sort, tells us that in the 1980s these people made up about 20% of the electorate, but with increased polarization this number has dropped to 10% or less. That means 6 out of 60 voters can be thought of as truly undecided in an election. The remainder can be considered to compose each candidates "base." Note also that recent campaigns have been extremely close, so it is a reasonable approximation to assume that each campaign starts out with about an equal number of potential voters.

A campaign will look at these numbers and conclude that it has a solid base of 20 out of 60 who will vote. It also has about 7 out of 60 who will vote for its candidate if they decide to show up, and can expect a good chance at 3 out of 6 undecided. If it works real hard on attracting the undecided vote, perhaps it gains another 1 out of 60. That means the undecideds voted 4 to 2 in favor of its candidate—a landslide. There are seven times more base voters who need encouragement—but are sure votes—than one is likely to accrue from the undecideds. How should one then allocate resources?

Recent campaigns have decided to concentrate most of their resources on turning out their base. This is an important change in emphasis. It means that you try to win elections by ensuring that the most extreme partisans view the candidate favorably, rather than depending upon wooing voters from the other side. This type of campaigning only serves to increase the polarization between the two parties.

Bishop provides an excellent discussion of the methods now used by the campaigns to turn out the vote. He describes the 2004 election as a turning point when new understandings of how voters reacted and how to reach them were put into play. The subject of his book is the segmentation that has occurred in our society over the last 30 years as our population has "sorted" itself into distinct regions populated by like-minded citizens. The segmentation and voting patterns are intertwined. This subject was discussed in Politics in the USA: The Big Sort—1976—2008.

In 2000 two researchers from Yale University, Donald Green and Alan Gerber performed an experiment to determine the most effective way of encouraging registered voters to actually vote.

"Some residences had received a piece of mail asking them to vote. Paid solicitors made the same pitch over the phone to another group of people. And a third group of residences had received a visit from a paid canvasser. When Gerber and Green checked who actually voted they discovered that direct mail and, especially, phone calls had had little effect. But face-to-face canvassing had raised turnout rates from 44 percent of registered voters to 53 percent."

This was an effect of enormous size. This proof of the efficacy of face-to-face interaction with voters was realized by both parties and became part of their strategies in the 2004 election. Bishop details how the Republicans were more successful than the Democrats because they better understood the interpersonal dynamics at play after Bishop’s big sort.

"Nationally, Democrats increased their vote by 8 million over 2000. Republicans, however, bumped up their votes by 11.5 million and that was the election. The Republican increase came from turning out Republicans, not by persuading independent voters. Kerry increased the Democratic party’s take of the independent vote over 2000, but his party still lost by more than 3 million votes....Bush won because his campaign understood how communities and politics have changed over the past thirty years."

What did the Republicans understand that the Democrats didn’t? Bishop attributes it partly to the Republicans’ better utilization of micro-targeting schemes, similar to those commonly used now in advertising, in order to make contact with likely Republican voters. By collecting data about individuals one could accurately predict how they were likely to vote. Here is a glib example:

"Republican organizers could tell (with a reported 85-90 percent accuracy) whether a person—any person—was a Republican or a Democrat. ‘If you drive a Volvo and you do yoga, you are pretty much a Democrat,’ Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman liked to say after the election. ‘If you drive a Lincoln or a BMW and you own a gun, you’re voting for George Bush’."

Bishop describes micro-targeting as a component of the winning strategy, but the Republicans’ main advantage was in better understanding how to interact with the individuals they targeted.

"....the Republicans learned from their 2002 experiments that door-to-door canvassing came with an asterisk. The more closely tied the person making the appeal was to the neighborhood, the more likely it was that the appeal would result in an additional vote. A friend worked best, but if the person coming to the door was clearly from the community, that also worked well."

The Republicans concluded that the right sort of contact could increase the probability of garnering a vote by a factor of four. While the Democrats would bus in paid or volunteer canvassers to various locations, the Republicans focused on utilization of existing social circles in the various communities. They were able to recruit individuals who resided within these groups and would propagate the word. The goal was to have people contacted by those who would be recognized as someone "just like them." Republicans had a distinct advantage since their voters tend to be church goers. The churches themselves were organized into small groups of individuals so that even a megachurch provided a feeling of an intimate community. These people were easy pickings for the Republicans.

By the time the 2008 election rolled around the Democrats had learned their lesson and assembled a "ground game" that was much more efficient and carried the day. The election of 2012 looks like an amplified version of 2008.

This has provided a rather depressing picture of politics in this country. Polarization grows as people look to live in groups with people like themselves. The attributes they recognize as attractive to them also contribute to similar political views. The dynamics of such a homogeneous group is such that beliefs get reinforced and amplified. Conservatives become more conservative and liberals become more liberal. Those who should wander into these communities face pressure to conform or to move on. In an area dominated by a single party, the candidates who wish to represent the party mainly have faithfulness to party principles to argue over. This tends to favor the most extreme candidate and further exacerbates the polarization. And arguing over issues seems to have little effect on anyone’s opinion.

Bishop contributed this thought:

"Americans joined communities, churches, and political parties in a manner that was almost tribal....People were siding with a party and then voting a straight ticket, from city council to president. Political party affiliation had more to do with social identity than ideology. Choosing to be a Republican or a Democrat reflected a way of life."

How does this all end? Can the political polarization be reversed? A cataclysmic event can jolt the system perhaps? The Great Recession only served to make matters worse.

Stay tuned. This can’t go on forever.

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