Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Voting for the President? Best not to think about it.

In just a few hours, Americans – possibly as many as eight or nine of them – will be going to the polls to elect a new President. Much hangs in the balance. As the political divide in the United States has widened, the choice of either Obama or Romney will mean a very different world in a variety of ways in the years to come. Global warming and climate change, the management of an economy in tatters, America’s response to conflict abroad and the rise of the Chinese dragon, all these hugely important matters will be dealt with so very differently by these two men. And so the question I would like to ask is this: how much thought will the voters who bother to turn out give to their decision? And the answer I would like to offer is this: stuff all.

It’s rather harsh when put so baldly, so let me substantiate my baldness. Following the sudden interposition of Hurricane Sandy into the into the presidential race, much speculation followed as to the effect it would have on the swing voters yet to choose their favoured candidate. Would it encourage them to vote for Obama, or would they turn against him and give their vote to Romney? According to a political scientist (who shall have to remain anonymous because I can’t remember her name, but trust me, I’m not making this up – I’ll tell you when I’m making it up), history suggests that when natural disaster strikes, people blame whoever’s in office. That’s right. Earthquake? Blame the President. Hurricane? Clearly the President’s fault. Heat-wave? The President again. Cool winds with a  slight chance of rain? You get the idea. So, without going into the reasonableness of attributing to the President powers of changing the weather or moving the earth, the basic point is that, if something bad happens just before an election, it’s not normally good for the incumbent. Why? Because people look out the window at the rain falling and think, ‘Useless bloody President’.

Now, the fact is that, like most democracies, in America most voters already know who they’re voting for. They don’t need to think about it at all because if you’re a Democrat, you’ll vote Democrat even if your guy is waxing lyrical about the virtues of rounding up all short people and putting them into gulags, while if you’re a Republican, you’ll behave similarly with respect to your man, even if he is suggesting that raising taxes and increasing welfare spending is a good idea (actually, in that case, it might not be true, but again, you get the idea). This means that something like 80% of voters (and here I am making the numbers up, but I reckon they’re about right) don’t have to think about their choice – they just vote (or don’t vote, as the case is with most of them). This leaves 20% who haven’t decided, but will apparently decide solely on the basis of the following methodology:  Step 1 – did a bad thing happen before the election? Yes? Vote the new guy in. No? Vote for the incumbent. Step 2 – if a bad thing didn’t happen, choose some equally banal reason for making your choice. The fact that the outcome will have a profound effect on the country and indeed the planet is no reason to give it any more thought than that.

That suggests, of course, that I think Romney will steal it (I mean that figuratively, obviously - no one would steal the American presidency...). But I don't. I think Barack will still win. Why? Because there is, in fact, a third possible step in the voting thought process: Step 1(a) did a bad thing happen but the President's done a swell job of sorting it out? Yes, vote the incumbent. And that's what I think will happen. 
Irrational? Of course it is, but then that’s  people for you. And lest anyone think I’m picking unfairly on Americans, let me assure you all of this stands for voters in any country (and for my views on irrationality, see my column 'Whoever said we were rational?' in which I describe my irrational love for my desk).

No comments:

Post a Comment