Do Policies Matter to Voters? Not post-partisan: post policy.

The recent midterms have led to much talk of how even mid-term local elections have become nationalized, leading to a partisan sorting, where there are few red elected officials in blue states, or blue officials in red states. No politics is local now, it seems.

Setting aside the very legitimate question of how much can be drawn from a single midterm election, and one that looks to have the lowest turnout since WW2, I would suggest that a kin to this nationalization is that policies are not foundational elements of voting patterns. (The question of how much they ever were key elements of voting patterns has to be left for someone with more historical knowledge than me.) That is, I argue that politician’s support for or opposition to actual policies has very little effect on voter support. This, of course, raises the issue of why we do vote for anyone in particular.

The most obvious example is that, while voters even in very red states strongly backed raising the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana, they also strongly backed Republican candidates who were opponents of both these policies. However, one can also look at polling on issues, and find that Democratic policies consistently poll very well and have widespread support even in conservative areas (often more than Republican policies, in fact). So the most obvious conclusion is that policies aren’t the primary basis by which voters select candidates. But let’s be a bit my systematic about the whole thing, and review some possible explanations for these results.

  1.  This election was an anomaly, and the low turnout skewed the electorate. But, for this to explain the whole thing, one would also have to explain why Democrats stayed home. And perhaps the particular policies in question simply didn’t motivate them enough. But there’s surely more here.
  2. Voter ignorance. There is likely something to this. Poll after poll shows voters know far less about candidates, policies, and even current events, than the fanatical followers of politics would imagine. For instance, few people recognize that employment is up and the deficit is down under Obama. (poll about what people thought unemployment rate is)
  3. Candidate “spin.” Candidates are often masters of saying what the audience wants to hear, or at least not saying what it doesn’t want to hear. One clever way to do this is to speak in terms of values rather than policies. The classic example here is the right’s focus on “small government.” Indeed, when asked, most people will say they favor a smaller government. However, when asked which government agencies or functions should be cut, the only one that is consistently on the chopping block is foreign aid (less than 1% of the budget). So voters can like the value, but hate policy that would flow from the value.
  4. Good enemies. I personally suspect politics is not primarily about who you support, but who you oppose. The President is always the face of the party, and being a single person can be easily attacked. Thus attacking Obama is easier than attacking some unknown Republican, and furthermore, in doing so, it feels like one is attacking the whole of the Democratic Party. There is no comparable out-party attack that can be structured. The out-party folks just aren’t sufficiently well known.
  5. Pavlov rings the bell and then gives the dogs food. After a while, the bell alone is enough to make the dogs salivate because they have been conditioned to associate the bell with dinner. It may be that the parties have been sufficiently associated with particular issues that the issues themselves have dropped away. Candidates no longer need to mention the issues very often, and can in fact propose policies that run contrary to the issues and not receive blame or praise. So Obama cuts a trillion dollars from the deficit and presides over the first reduction in the size of the federal workforce since the end of WW2, and Republicans (and many Democrats) still believe he’s increased the deficit and expanded the government. We’ve been trained to think tax & spend Democrat. No need for dinner; we still salivate.

Like any complex situation, there may be a variety of causal factors, and it may likewise be that policies work better with some groups than with others (perhaps Democrats are still receptive to policies, but simply didn’t show up to vote because they didn’t have anyone to vote against, for example). Anyway, enough musing for now.


Author: Steve

Researcher of narrative and political identity. Teacher of English at South Texas College. Would-be middle distance runner.

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