Before political analysts start assigning blame and credit for victory and defeat in the 2010 elections, the first thing they should do is read about Brendan Nyhan’s excellent "tactical fallacy" concept. In short, the tactical fallacy states that the broader political climate is the primary factor in the outcome of elections, and tactical decisions about messaging, deployment of resources, organizing efforts, and ideological positioning are secondary. A good follow-up on Nyhan’s piece is Ezra Klein’s "It’s Always the Economy, Stupid." Klein’s piece has much the same thrust as Nyhan’s, but puts some persuasive numbers behind it.
The Tactical Fallacy is a refutation of the all too common "Great Man" theory of recent political history. The "Great Man" genre goes like this: Candidate, Consultant, or Party Leader X made a genius decision about messaging, deployment of resources or ideological positioning that was almost wholly responsible for winning. By contrast, Candidate, Consultant, or Party Leader Y made an idiotic decision about messaging, deployment of resources or ideological positioning that was almost wholly responsible for defeat. In this view, elections are ultimately about the genius and idiocy of a handful of people playing a game of Stratego.
In this article, I am going to look at a second common mistake in assigning blame or credit for electoral outcomes, similar to the Tactical Fallacy. I call it the "Ubiquitous Political Junkie Fallacy." This concept, (which I originally described as a fantasy) is the assumption the people who decide elections--swing voters and unlikely voters--know legislative policy minutia like the back of their hands. It further assumes that swing voters and unlikely voters vote--or don’t--based upon the difference between public policy that was enacted and their abstract, desired policies.
The Ubiquitous Political Junkie Fallacy occurs when people who spend a lot of time consuming and taking part in politics project their own motives onto people who rarely consume news and / or participate in electoral politics. Here are two common, and equally invalid, ways the Ubiquitous Political Junkie Fallacy is expressed:
- Claims that moderate and Independent voters have turned against the extremist policies of the governing party. You are going to hear this claim a lot after the November elections, especially from Republicans and center-right Dems. It's only fair, I guess, as Dems made the same argument in 2006 and 2008.
- Claims that Democrats had turnout problems because their voters were not satisfied, in the abstract, with policies that Democrats either did or did not pass. You know these claims: the base is depressed because health reform lacked a public option, and / or because many legislative initiatives (LGBT, immigration, climate and energy) didn’t pass at all. The right-wing of the Republican Party made very similar claims in 2008, too.
Like Nyhan’s Tactical Fallacy, these Ubiquitous Political Junkie Fallacies are extremely commonplace among political pundits and activists. To put it as bluntly as I can, they are both just flat-out wrong as descriptions of the major forces behind elections. The truth is that few swing voters and unlikely voters are focused on, or even have much knowledge of, legislative and policy details. As such, elections are not generally decided on people’s abstract positions on policy.
Take the 2009-2010 health care debate. Despite being the most closely followed legislative campaign in decades, public awareness of the details of the bill was always pretty low, according to the Kaiser tracking poll. Further, when Gallup asked Americans an open-ended question about why they supported or opposed the health care bill, very few of the responses were policy-focused. In fact, only 5% of the country cited either the public option or reproductive rights as their reason for favoring or opposing the bill, even though those two topics were daily hot-button topics in the media and among activists..
When people were asked to explain their positions, unprompted with scripted responses, almost all of the support or opposition to health reform was generalized. Most responses were like "we have a moral obligation to provide health care," "too many people are uninsured," "it’s socialist," or "I oppose big government." Discussions of specific policies were almost entirely absent.
So, the public was generally unaware of the details of the most closely followed legislative campaign in decades. Further, the public generally did not base its support or opposition to that legislation on what was actually in the legislation. As such, it simply isn’t plausible that swing and unlikely voters--who tend to be lower consumers of news than the electorate as a whole--are basing their voting habits on their opinion of any legislative policy details in the abstract.
Rather than the electorate being filled to the brim with ideologically coherent policy wonks who voraciously consume political news, it is far more plausible that the swing and unlikely voters act on the perceived outcomes of the governing party’s public policy. That is, when things either suck or are awesome, most swing and unlikely voters will blame it on the policies of the governing party, whatever those policies are and however much those voters know about those policies. As a result, swing voters will turn against the governing party, believing that it is time to give the most visible alternative set of policies a try. Meanwhile, unlikely voters that favor the opposition party see a reason to get involved again, while unlikely voters that favor the governing party get discouraged.
Swing and unlikely voters are acting on the perceived outcomes of the governing party’s public policy, not on their exhaustive knowledge of public policy in the abstract. This isn’t to say that arguments over public policy details don’t matter. They absolutely matter, and matter huge. For one thing, activists, also known as the people who supply political candidates and parties with the resources to reach out to swing and unlikely voters, do care about policy details. If you want the resources to win elections, you need to appeal to your activists.
More importantly, the details of public policy actually affect people’s lives. You are not going to get re-elected if most people think their lives have gotten worse under you. Hell, you probably won’t get re-elected even if most people thought things sucked when you came into office, but haven’t gotten any better. Why would they? It is entirely rational to vote out the people in charge if things are getting worse, or if things suck and aren’t getting better. That just makes sense, at least superficially.
If Democrats get booted in November, it will not be primarily because of poor tactical execution of their campaign messaging and resources. That is the Tactical Fallacy. Further, if Democrats get booted in November, it will not be primarily because people opposed the details of their public policy in the abstract, or that they were let down by not passing more. That is the Ubiquitous Political Junkie fallacy. Sure, tactics matter and appealing to activist wonks matter, but they are not usually the main cause of electoral victory or defeat. More often than not, if you lose, then you just didn’t enact public policy that helped enough people by the time of the election. This is especially the case in landslide election years, as 2010 shaping up to be.