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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Why Elections Are Basically Just Surveys

And they matter about as much.

My Myth of the Rational Voter argues that elections are surveys.  The essence of a survey is that you state an opinion, secure in the knowledge that your stated opinion is non-binding.  While there remains an off-chance your vote changes political outcomes, there’s also an off-chance your survey response changes political outcomes!  Indeed, a response to a nationally representative survey is probably more likely to sway policy, because a survey respondent is one voice out of thousands instead of one voice out of tens of millions. Nearly three in four people did not realize they had joined the American Independent Party.

For a comic illustration of this insight, see this fascinating story about registration for the American Independent Party (AIP) in California.  From the LA Times:

With nearly half a million registered members, the American Independent Party is bigger than all of California’s other minor parties combined. The ultraconservative party’s platform opposes abortion rights and same sex marriage, and calls for building a fence along the entire United States border…

But a Times investigation has found that a majority of its members have registered with the party in error. Nearly three in four people did not realize they had joined the party…

What went wrong?  Voters treated their party registration forms about as seriously as any other survey:

Voters from all walks of life were confused by the use of the word “independent” in the party’s name, according to The Times analysis.

Residents of rural and urban communities, students and business owners and top Hollywood celebrities with known Democratic leanings — including Sugar Ray Leonard, Demi Moore and Emma Stone — were among those who believed they were declaring that they preferred no party affiliation when they checked the box for the American Independent Party.


Of the 500 AIP voters surveyed by a bipartisan team of pollsters, fewer than 4% could correctly identify their own registration as a member of the American Independent Party.

Since each voter is just a grain of sand on the beach of politics, they can overlook their error indefinitely.

How is this different from product confusion on, say, Amazon?  Two big ways.  First, customers have an incentive to check their work, because ordering the wrong product is selfishly costly.  Second, customers can easily check their work, because they directly experience their purchase once it arrives in the mail.  When voters face the choice to go AIP, in contrast, they have no selfish incentive to review their order.  And since each voter is just a grain of sand on the beach of politics, they can overlook their error indefinitely – or at least until the LA Times comes calling.

P.S. The AIP registration expose also neatly illustrates the principle that rare survey answers tend to be even rarer than they look.  If a survey found 2% of Americans favored abolishing the minimum wage, for example, we should suspect that many of those who said “abolish” misunderstood the question or misspoke.

Republished from EconLog.

  • Bryan Caplan is a professor of economics at George Mason University, research fellow at the Mercatus Center, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and blogger for EconLog. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.