The Intersection

The American Voter

by Philip H.

[Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog piece are the opinions of the author alone. They do not represent the opinions, policies, procedures, or sentiments of any government agency for which he currently works or has worked in the past. If you disagree, please contact the author, not your Congressmen.]

i-58b053bdb25572fd7d481fe0bb818502-ballot.pngNow, here’s some interesting news about American voters. It turns out that they are not, generally, policy wonks. Nor are they truly ignorant about important issues. Rather, they vote based on a small handful of issues, often selecting party affiliation based on emotional and familial traditions.

This explains a lot. It explains why Democrats are generally Democrats, Republicans are generally Republicans, and third parties (like the Greens) are not doing well in America. It explains why so many Republicans voted for George W. Bush twice, even though by the second election it was clear he was neither compassionate nor conservative (at least in the fiscal sense). And it explains why one or two issues usually define an election, no matter what qualifications or expertise the candidates bring to the plate. After all, to quote fellow ex-pat Cajun James Carville “It’s the Economy, stupid!”

Equally interesting to me as a scientist and framer of scientific messages, is how the writer talked about the academic work she reported on. She talks about academic conclusions from a multi-year study “couched in academic understatement.” My guess is the social scientists here were doing the usual, scientifically correct thing and describing their data and conclusions within the statistically appropriate confidence intervals. Probably something along the lines of: “our results appear to apply, statistically to the American population within a 95% probability. Alternately, bootstrapped ANCOVA without regression might have yielded…” That may be correct in a talk to the National Academy of Public Administration, but somehow it always leads newspaper reporters…. to wonder what the academics area really saying, and try to get “other sides” of the story. In other words – this is bad framing for an general audience. Thankfully, in this particular case, the “fairness in reporting” stchick works – and it contributes to the reporting. In the case of Creationism/Intelligent Design vs. Evolution, it doesn’t.

I know, I know, scientists hate to make firm conclusions when the data do contain the possibility of error or omission. They even hate to make black and white statements when there is a really LOW probability of error. I took those courses too.

But this is a public policy debate. It is about how to get American voters more engaged, or if they can be more engaged. And if the truth is Americans are one or two issue voters who inherit their political allegiances like a house or a trust fund, those facts tells us something. And no one will fault the scientists for saying so directly, and with out describing the confidence interval.


  1. #1 Christophe Thill
    July 29, 2008

    Just one little point: I’m not sure I understand what “scientifically correct” is supposed to mean. It seems to have a slightly derogatory connotation, but I can’t figure out exactly why.

  2. #2 Dunc
    July 29, 2008

    Rather, they vote based on a small handful of issues

    Or at least, that’s what they say (and probably believe) they vote on…

  3. #3 mk
    July 29, 2008

    This is something I think most of us already knew. But like Keith Olberman said recently about Scott McClellan’s revelations that the WH feeds FOX news talking points…”yeah, we kinda knew it all along, but it’s still jarring when it’s laid right at your door step like this.”

    This also underlines the need for a press that isn’t as pliant and in far too many cases utterly incompetent as it often clearly is! Ugh.

  4. #4 Matt Hussein Platte
    July 29, 2008

    @mk: we have a “…press that isn’t as pliant…” and you are an important part of it!

  5. #5 Marilyn Walker
    July 29, 2008

    What stands out to me in this post is that scientists need to become better communicators with non-scientists. Americans are interested in science and want to know more, but like you say, the press doesn’t respond the same way a scientist will.

  6. #6 Linda
    July 29, 2008

    I think that your first paragraph really hits the mark. People who have the interest and take the time to ‘tune into the political dialogue’ will vote for the ‘best candidate’ available. Many, however, either do what’s familiar, or what issue immediately affects them personally, or even which candidate makes the connection visually.

  7. #7 mk
    July 29, 2008

    Yes, Matt. Well aware of that.

  8. #8 Coturnix
    July 29, 2008

    I agree:

    It is against the Philosophy of Science to make over-confident statements – that is why we always focus on our p-values and Confidence Intervals and standard errors. This does not work on TV. On TV, making any such statements comes off as you being unsure, insecure, having something to hide, perhaps even lying. That is the nature of the medium – only absolute confidence wins.

  9. #9 Holly Cairns
    December 4, 2008

    I think voters ask “What can this candidate do for me?” They also ask “What is the right thing to do?”

    Perhaps in tough, “economic struggle” years they are more likely to lean towards “what can this candidate do for me,” but perhaps not. The radical right using the church audience was the smartest thing they could have done.

    The Democratic message now has negative connotation associated with it. It needs a change, and it needs to cater to the middle (which has shifted slightly left due to financial collapse, INHO).

    Philip said:

    Democrats are generally Democrats, Republicans are generally Republicans, and third parties (like the Greens) are not doing well in America

    That’s why it’s time to re-evaluate and change the message. But your point might be that many voters don’t think about it very deeply… yes…

    Change can happen over a period of time.

    The bottom line is regulation and how much– Republicans want less regulation, Democrats want enough to protect the middle class.

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