Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Median Voter Theorem 

Virginia Postrel summarizes a research paper by a Harvard economist in today's New York Times. The paper (which I have not read through yet) concerns voting behavior and extreme views, and might help to provide an alternative explanation for how George Bush assembled his win on tuesday. In the paper, politicians take extreme views because they can get their core to turn out voters more than they will energize the opposition turnout (note that this is still a vote-maximizing strategy, but turnout is no longer exogenous). This is because a politician might be able to target his messages so that his base hears his more extreme views without the broader public getting the message. In fact, this very much squares with what we know about Bush and his use of code words, and the paper provides another example:

In this paper, we present an information-based theory of strategic extremism. The key assumption in this theory is that awareness of a politician’s policies is higher among the politician’s supporters than among his opponent’s supporters. This asymmetry means that when a politician’s policies deviate from the median, he energizes his own supporters (who are more likely to be aware of this deviation)more than he energizes his opponent’s supporters (who are less likely to be aware of this deviation). That politicians have an edge in communicating with their own supporters is reflected in recent efforts by the Bush and Kerry campaigns. For example, during the Republican National Convention there was a "closed, invitation-only Bush campaign rally for Christian conservatives" at which "Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas called for a broad social conservative agenda notably different from the televised presentations at the Republican convention" (Kirkpatrick, 2004b). The Kerry campaign also appears to be targeting public appearances to reach loyal Democrats (Borsuk, 2004).

The paper also mentions another interesting result, which is that you should be able to tell whether certain political views are strategic or heartfelt. If an extreme viewpoint is strategic, then policy will be less extreme than the message, while the opposite is true for a heartfelt viewpoint:

A key difference between a model of strategic extremism and a model in which extremism reflects politicians’ preferences is that, when extremism is strategic, politicians’ policies will be more moderate than their messages. When extremism reflects leaders’ preferences, policies will be more extreme than political messages. We examine policies and platforms on tax policy and abortion over the last 25 years to examine these implications. The economic messages in platforms are extremely moderate, but there are big differences in mean tax rates between Democratic and Republican regimes. Conversely, political messages about abortion tend to extremes, but abortion rates are independent of the party in power. These results suggest that differences in economic policies between the parties reflect preferences of party leaders but that differences in abortion and other religion-related policies reflect political strategy.

Their paper also provides some numbers for the rise of religiousness as a political issue, and the decline of labor unions:

We end the paper by examining a key prediction of the model: religious determinants of political orientation will be maximized when about 50 percent of the population attends church regularly and that economic determinants of political orientation will be maximized when about 50 percent of the population is in labor unions.
Finally, we use our parameter estimates to see whether declining church attendance and declining union membership can explain the rising importance of religion in American politics. Unions have declined from being close to 35 percent of non-agricultural employment in the 1950s to being less than 15 percent of the labor force today (Freeman, 1998; Hirsch, MacPherson and Vroman, 2001). Church attendance has declined from 1968 when 57 percent of the population went church once per month or more to 2000 the point when 47 percent of the population went to church this often. Both of these declines should have caused politics to focus less on economics and more on religion.

I find the model of this paper very clever and useful (keep in mind I still haven't read very far in), and it captures the intuition in the median voter theorem in more detail. It still seems to suggest that a change in focus towards religion and morality is needed for the Democrats; either that, or a new group to target that maximizes the probability that members of that group will vote Democratic. If we knew what that group was, though, we'd have probably found it by now.

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