Sunday, October 2, 2016

The median voter theorem, or why major parties are relatively similar

When people are looking at our two major parties they're often dissatisfied.  If you're a socialist or a libertarian or a Nazi then in most elections neither of the major candidates will represent your views.  Well, this election we have someone who at least appeals to Nazis and we nearly had a candidate who called himself a socialist even if that wasn't totally accurate.  But this election is a bit weird and usually the people who complain about the major candidates being close to each other have a point.

Thankfully political science has an explanation for this: the median voter theorem.   At this point I was going to give my own in depth explanation of it but I don't think I could possibly do a better job than Chris Hallquist does here.  Please read that link because otherwise the rest of this post might not make too much sense to you.  Or maybe you're already familiar with the theorem, in which case cool.

The one thing I'd like to add to that analysis is that probably the gap between the parties is partially based on the desires of the people within the parties.  Ego and wanting to be in high office is probably a significant motivation for politicians but I'd assume that many have real preferences for certain policies too.  Polling isn't perfect so nobody knows exactly where the median voter really is on an issue.  If your opponent has set their policies exactly at where the median voter is expected to be then if you care about outcomes more than ego than it makes sense to pull in your public policies a little towards what you really want.  If your opponent wins then the same policies win out but there's still a chance that you might win and get a better outcome than that.  Still, polling is pretty good so the gap caused by that factor shouldn't be large.  And I guess that process would tend to favor less honest politicians, as if we needed another explanation for that observation.

Still, I'd assume that most of the divergence between the two parties is due to having to win primaries and needing motivated party members to go around and drum up turnout.

One objection people might raise to this whole 'median voter' business is the role of money in politics.  Well, I already wrote one post on how I think money is the least important part of lobbying.  Also really we're talking about official positions here and I'd expect donations to effect what a candidate does later, not what they say before they get elected.  Also, money doesn't do as much as you might think.

There is a large correlation between which candidate wins an election and which candidate raises the most money but the problem there is that you'd expect a candidate who is more popular to be able to raise more money.  So to isolate the effects of money on a candidates ability to win a race you can look at non-raised money.  That is, mostly, money spent by rich candidates on their own races above what they could raise from donors.  The result I remember, sorry that I can't find the paper, is that for every factor of 2 one candidate outspends the other then the vote count shifts by 1%.

Well I used to look at that and think that 1% isn't very much.  These days and especially this election I'm less sure.  We'd all like to think that every voter considers the issue carefully but of course many are busy or lazy people and haven't paid attention this election so they just pull the lever for D or R based on their sense of what positions a candidate of that party tends to have.  And many just engage in retrospective voting, usually a good thing.  But between those maybe the number of voters up for grabs isn't actually a large amount, and maybe 1% actually is a pretty significant chunk of votes.

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