Tuesday, June 24, 2008

New Zealand Schoolgirls, Simpleminded Voters and Presidential Elections

What took voters in the US two months to figure out, New Zealand schoolgirls determined just by looking at pictures. It took over half the country's primary electorate to narrow the field of prospective presidential nominees from both major parties down to three. But that process had already been done between May and August of 2007 by college students in Australia and New Zealand and high school girls from New Zealand. And that was all based on pictures of the potential candidates that would be vying for the two major party slots in the general election. So we, here in the new world, opted to have debates and campaign in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire and fuss over Florida and Michigan delegates for nothing? Well no, but that's the beauty of an electoral system. Those rules that were the crux of the Florida/Michigan question are the rules that govern how these nominations are decided.

I'll avoid the "is the system necessary question," but the one question that lingers is, do campaigns matter? If "snap judgments" of schoolgirls thousands of miles away can accurately predict the nominees six months in advance, are all these efforts to get out the vote and advertise all that necessary? We've had this discussion in this space before, but this frames the matter in a slightly different light. If people are going to fall back on those first impression/snap judgments, then is it all much ado about nothing?

It depends on who you ask. Campaigns matter in that they are efforts to change or maintain certain perceptions about the candidates they represent. It is not unlike the web page ranking that Google undertakes. If you have a web page (and are at all entreprenurial about it--ahem) the goal is undoubtedly to get as many people to look at it and read as possible. The window into that is often a search engine. But people aren't going to find a site if it is off the first couple of pages of search results. If a voter's mind is a search engine, a campaign is an effort to make that first page of results as beneficial to their candidate (or as negative for their opponent) as they can. Campaigns, then, are ways of altering those search results. If you typed in "Obama" in Google and got a first page of results ranging from the Obama campaign's web site to news accounts about his relationship with Jeremiah Wright to rumors of his being Muslim, the Obama campaign would have its work cut out. [In fact, that's very much what the Obama campaign is doing with its Fight the Smears web site, turning those perceptions on their head.] And it is like that in the minds of voters as well. If you were to ask the man on the street to name ten things about John McCain or Barack Obama, you could likely get a glimpse into what those internal search engine results are. And those are the ten things that any campaign is seeking to maintain or change.

Of course, those percptions (first impressions or otherwise) are influenced by partisanship, a person's level of political sophistication, and/or other information shortcuts that help make the vote choice decision an easier one to make. Those heuristics or shortcuts are the root of Samuel Popkin's The Reasoning Voter thesis and more recently have found their way into the work of Lau and Redlawsk. As the latter work shows, however, the efficient utilization of shortcuts depends in large part on how much political knowledge someone already possesses. The more politically sophisticated a person, the better able that person will be to use the shortcuts to arrive at a vote decision in line with their views. For the uninformed, the result of using those heuristics is not as representative.

Even that success/failure of shortcuts is dependent upon the choices provided. If the choice is a clear one between liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, then the utilization of shortcuts has a greater chance of being fruitful. If you have a more moderate candidate, as John McCain is considered in some circles, the wires get crossed and the useful use of heursitics breaks down. Strategically speaking then, the Obama campaign would likely want to push McCain over to right. McCain has done some of this for the Illinois senator by being on the same side of several issues with the Bush administration. The clearer that choice, the better able folks will be to effectively use shortcuts. McCain, on the other hand, would value occupying the center-right in an effort to muddy the distinction between the two candidates. That, in turn, would affect how effectively those information shortcut would be employed.

...or we could just rely on New Zealand schoolgirls to cut out the middleman and let us know who the next president will be.

Recent Posts:
The Electoral College Map (6/22/08)

2008 Primary and Caucus Final Grade Sheet

Insult to Injury: Obama and His Money


Robert said...

If you think that is scary, Malcom Gladwell in his bestseller, Blink, contends on page 13 that students seeing 2 seconds of videotape of an instructor makes the same evluation of that instructor as students who attend the class for a semester!


Search inside for "student evaluations"

Robert said...

With respect to our discussion this afternoon, it looks like the steady increase in Obama's lead in the national polls since June 2 has been more of a loss of votes for McCain rather than an increase for Obama.


SarahLawrenceScott said...

Looking at the graph, it seems like the shift in the polls since the primaries ended were in two stages. First, those polled moved away from both candidates and into the undecided/other/won't vote camp. That makes sense, because the general election is suddenly "real" rather than a hypothetical match-up, and people are reassessing. The next stage was a shift from McCain to Obama, or, more likely, a shift from McCain to undecided/other/won't vote, and a shift from undecided/won't vote to Obama. The trends don't show up as clearly in the Gallup and Rasmussen tracking polls, but I think those two polls don't offer "other" or "won't vote" as a choice, and Rasmussen pushes undecideds to say which way they're leaning. That may explain some of the difference between the trends in the tracking polls and the others.

Josh Putnam said...

Here are the Gladwell and RCP links from Rob.

Josh Putnam said...

Good point Scott. There's definitely a weird dynamic at work there. Obama peaks in the RCP average on June 9, just after Clinton's concession (and yeah, there's a lag there so it may actually coincide with Clinton's withdrawal.). Then the drop off begins for Obama (while the McCain slide that began just after Montana/South Dakota continues).

And then that turns around about the time of Tim Russert's death, Obama's comment about bringing a gun to a knife fight, father's day and Al Gore's endorsement. That rise has not stopped for Obama and McCain's slide continues.