Politics and the "median voter"

The following is how GMU economist Tyler Cowen chose to summarize his NYT op-ed. I agree with most of Tyler’s points, though please keep in mind that the median voter theorem is a one-dimensional (L/R) simplification of voter preferences. And that voter preferences are illusive, especially given that only a few voters are informed (see comment below on the Homer Simpson Voter Theorem).

That’s the header of my New York Times column today, here are some excerpts, starting with the health care issue:

The point here is not to belittle or praise the president, but to point out that his hands are tied. The biggest leftward move in American economic policy occurred during the Roosevelt and Truman years, when the Democrats had the upper hand for five consecutive presidential terms. Because of depression and war, people were looking for real change. Competitive forces in politics were relatively weak, and the Democrats had the chance to make their policies stick.

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling on campaign spending also comes into clearer focus through the median voter theorem. The court ruled that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections. Critics fear that the political influence of corporations will grow, but some academic specialists in campaign finance aren’t so sure.

For all the anecdotal evidence, it’s hard to show statistically that money has a large and systematic influence on political outcomes. That is partly because politicians cannot stray too far from public opinion. (In part, it is also because interest groups get their way on many issues by supplying an understaffed Congress with ideas and intellectual resources, not by running ads or making donations.) It is quite possible that the court’s decision won’t affect election results very much.

Here are the concluding two paragraphs:

The median voter theorem doesn’t predict that the legacy of the Obama administration will be a wash. But it does imply that we might find the most important achievements in areas that don’t always linger on the front page. For instance, the president’s ideas on education, which involve accountability and charter schools and pay for performance, may please the American public and thus make their way into policy. And because education transforms the knowledge and interests of the median voter for generations to come, such acceptance could make for a lot of other improvements.

If you’re looking for change to believe in, and change that will last, the odds are best when political competition is pushing the world in your direction.

Jacob Weisberg has a not unrelated column. And, for another perspective, here are the comments over at Mark Thoma’s blog. A few further points:

1. “How tough Obama is” matters less than is usually portrayed. That is the fallacy of anthromorphizing the outcome of political battles. Obsessing over either positive or negative evaluations of key actors probably interferes with one’s abilities to understand underlying structural forces.  

2. Even the Supreme Court usually tracks voter sentiment reasonably well.

3. On the health care issue, I don’t think the electoral calculations of the Democrats are over.

[From “When Politics is Stuck in the Middle”]

I was amused by AndyfromTuscon’s comment on this piece at Mark Thoma’s blog: the Homer Simpson Voter Theorem .

(…) Here is my alternative to the median voter theorem, which I call the Homer Simpson Voter Theorem. Approximately 30-50% of voters have coherent views on political issues, and these opinionated voters are more or less evenly split between conservative and liberal points of view. The remaining 50-70% of voters have no coherent views on political issues, mostly because they don’t spend any time thinking about them. When it comes time to vote, or answer questions from pollsters these “Homer Simpson Voters” decide on their votes/answers based on what they perceive as normal or mainstream at that moment, and they base their perception of what is mainstream on the smidgen of political information in the media that has managed to slip into their awareness despite studiously not paying attention to political matters. Thus, the Homer Simpson Voter Theorem predicts that politicians cannot stray far from what someone not paying much attention would think is the mainstream view based on headlines casually scanned and snippets of cable news overheard in public places.