Friday, May 18, 2012

Q Day 4: Independents, the Economy, and Elections?

Via email, Dan Rice asks:
From your writing and that of other political scientists I've absorbed two main messages about presidential elections.  1) There are few true independents; most people have a clear partisan voting record, including many who identify as "independent." 2) A dominant factor in determining the outcome of a presidential election is the state of the economy.  My question is, in a political system marked by strongly partisan voting behavior, where does the flexibility to respond to the economy come from?  Do the few "true independents" vote almost purely in the direction of the fundamentals and swing the election by themselves?  Do the partisans of the party facing bad fundamentals not show up to vote?  Is the action mostly with a large number of "weak partisans?" Something else?  All of the above?
That's a good question. I'll take a shot at it, but if anyone is lurking around here who is more expert about voters than I am, I welcome additions/corrections/better explanations.

First, the quick tour of the numbers. The rule of thumb here is that the electorate is equally split three ways between Democrats, Republicans, and those who say that they are independents, and that the latter group is split three ways between functional Democrats, functional Republicans, and real independents. I just like to repeat that formulation whenever I get a chance.

Okay, on to the question. The way to think about it, I think, is in terms of multivariate probability at the individual level. Suppose we think of a voter, and assume to begin with that she has a 50/50 chance of voting for either candidate. If she has a partisan attachment, that's going to make her far more likely to vote in the direction of her partisanship (with that number being bigger for strong partisans than for weak partisans). Then there's her evaluation of the economy and, more generally, of the in-party's record; that's also going to have a good-sized push on her vote decision. And then there's everything else: to the extent that we can separate them from party and retrospective judgement, there's her feelings about the candidates, and specific issues, and her reactions to campaign materials, and whatever else. Those things may have real, but very small, affects. Add up each of those effects, and you wind up with her vote. You can also separate out the "retrospective effect," if you like, at least conceptually -- the biggest part of it will usually be the economy, but there might be real if small bits for evaluation of  foreign policy, or allowing major US cities to drown, or whatever.

So, yeah, a lot of what's happening is going to be among true independents and weak partisans, because they're closer to 50/50 after factoring that in. And, then, it's certainly possible that turnout could play a part, too -- but generally remember that the hardest partisans are also generally going to be the ones most likely to vote.


  1. Some data on this here:

  2. This is something I've wondered about as well. Thinking about it at the individual level isn't helping me. I'm wondering how the math works out in the aggregate?

    I get that the more weak of a partisan you become the more likely you will consider the economy, incumbency, etc. But it would seem like that happening from both sides would cancel a lot of things out, at least depending on turnout.

    So to me it seems like that leaves the true independents that are driving the economic effects on elections. Am I correct then to say that the ~10% of true independents is driving the big effect the economy usually has on the election?

  3. Well, first we have to drop the true loser candidacies: Goldwater and McGovern For these folks, yes, partisanship predicts votes in those years almost as well as in the other years, but you know one side has nominated a real stinker when only 80% of PARTISANS vote for their own guy.

    With '64 and '72 out of the picture, vote shares for the Dems only vary between 40 and 61%. It's just a 20 point range. And, the VAST majority of the vote shares fall in a much narrower band: 43-53% (same thing obtains on the R side for obvious reasons, just with different numbers). So, a 10 point range, and that only requires a 5 point swing to come from the Indies, which would translate to (calling the Indies 10% of the voters) to varying between 25% and 75%. That's not the HUGEST range, but it's still kinda large. If we allow those leaners to fluctuate A BIT, though, we could constrain the Indies to the 30-70% range and still get the aggregate results. And we're starting to get pretty close to a range that I think we'd find acceptable for quadrennial variation amongst folks who are undecided. Start tossing in bad economies suppressing your side's turnout by a couple of points, and it starts to be a more reasonable assumption.

    That's just the logic, though. Sides has some data at MonkeyCage that he linked above. Suffice it to say that the economy affects everyone (except Reps when their guy is in the WH), but it affects Indies twice as much. Which is to be expected, because they're on the fence, and therefore ABLE to be moved by the economy. Your Dems and Reps have made up their mind a long time ago, and see the world through rose-colored lenses that reinforce their previous choice. They still feel the economy, but it's rarely enough to convince many of them to change their minds. They might not be AS MUCH in favor of their guy as they normally would be, but he's still not the OTHER guy!

  4. I think everyone has it wrong here. The real story works like this. Everyone's vote preference is predetermined. The only real choice that anyone makes is whether or not to vote.

  5. Of course the "real independents" lean left or right or are "really real independents". Ad infinitum; it's the Cantor set, of politics!


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