Whatever Happened to Blowout Elections?
By Wil Forbis
Feb 9th, 2021
"Why are modern elections so close?"
This is a question that came up while I was discussing the recent presidential election with a friend. I had a few thoughts, but it was only after the tete e tete ended that I paused to consider whether the presumption was actually true. Are modern elections close?
Fortunately, you can easily look up the data*. What I found was that, yeah, modern elections are pretty close though not as tight as I would have presumed. (I should note: I'm talking about the popular vote here. The tallies of electoral college votes often have a pretty wide spread but the popular vote is far more meaningful as a poll of voter opinions.) Joe Biden just bested Trump by almost 5%. In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Trump by about 2%. In 2012, Obama achieved victory over Romney by 3.86%. It's in 2008 that we see a more meaningful spread---Obama beat McCain by 7.26%.
* One odd thing about that web site: it denotes the Democratic party with red and then Republicans with blue. Just to be difficult I suppose.
Do spreads of 2-7% deserve to be called close? Or should that term be reserved for really tights spreads---say .5-2%. It depends on how you define the term, I suppose, but recent elections are definitely closer than those of previous eras. You see only one instance of a greater than ten point spread in the past ten elections (Reagan versus Mondale), whereas in elections 11-20 you see four such occurrences. The statistics Web site 538 has called the modern era "the most competitive era of presidential politics."
However, maybe I'm too close to the problem. Maybe instead of debating whether a seven-point spread is close I should question why we don't see more 30 or 40 point spreads. After all, people's opinions about a great many things seem to have a much larger point spread. Most people agree that Star Wars was a great film or that Marlon Brando was a great actor. (I don't have formal numbers about this stuff, indeed, I'm not sure exactly how it would be measured, but I would suspect that 80% of people have a positive assessment of those two cultural icons.)
Of course, this is an apples versus oranges comparison. With actors and movies, we have less skin in the game, and we're consequently less calcified in our opinions. If you asked someone whether Star Wars was a great movie, the response is probably more likely to be "Yeah, sure, I guess, " than "Damn straight!" Politicians and political parties have the ability to seriously affect our day-to-day lives in ways that movies and celebrities do not. In some cases, whether this or that politician gets elected can be a life or death matter. So does that explain why opinions about politics are more competitive?
Partly, yes. But I suspect there are other factors. I want to present my pet theory here as a major factor.
Let's step back for a second and consider how politics work. Politicians represent political parties. Political parties represent ideologies. These three components combine to seek power. The way they get power is by winning elections. To win an election you need just the barest plurality*. Most of the time, in an American politics dominated by two parties, this essentially means getting just above 50%. (I say "essentially" because minor third parties like the green party or Libertarians affect things, but usually not by much. Occasionally a third party candidate skews the calculation substantially. Ross Perot famously garbled the 1990 elections by garnering almost 20% of the vote, enabling Bill Clinton to win just over 40% himself.)
* Yes, it's not quite that simple when you factor in the electoral college. What's correct is to say that to win a state's electoral votes, a bare plurality is needed (except in Maine and Nebraska which have their own arcane rules.) Having said that, it's rare for a candidate to lose the electoral vote and win the electoral college, and when they do, the popular vote is still close. (See this wikipedia article for more details.)
So how do political entities win this plurality? A somewhat pollyanish view of things would posit that these entities explain their ideology, offer up certain goals and promises and present them to the voters. What's naive about that description is that it doesn't concede how willing politicians and parties are to compromise the agenda of their ideology to get votes. The Donald Trump led Republican party is a great example. For years, Republicans were pro free trade and Globalism (and even liberal immigration policies) but that flew out the window when Trump rose to prominence as a Nativist. Who can count the former advocates for fluid international commerce pre-Trump who then turned around and called for the tearing up of NAFTA in 2016?
The Democrat's counter example would be Bill Clinton in the nineties. For years, up to that point, the Democratic brand was a pro-welfare and soft on crime approach*. Clinton threw this out the window with his third way politics, passing both welfare reform and the "tough on crime" 1994 crime bill (which has hung, in recent times, like an albatross around President Joe Biden's neck.).
* I imagine some leftists will disagree with my assessment here, saying the Dems were still to tough on criminals, but even they must concede this description is true compared to Republicans.
So why do politicians and political parties compromise their views on certain issues? Well, now I'm going to make a proclamation that many would consider naive: they do this partly because they honestly change their mind about things. They look at the evidence that the historical record has generated and say, "You know, maybe this way of doing things hasn't worked out so well."
But that's not the only reason. They also realize that compromising the vision of their ideology---what some people might call "selling out"---can attract additional voters to their side. And without that beautiful, bewitching plurality, all the ideological purity in the world means nothing. Republicans who backed Trump may have loathed him (i'm talking about actual party apparatuses---Senators and such---not rank and file voters), but they knew he gave them access to power. They had to tank parts of their agenda such as free trade, but were granted the opportunity to enact other parts. And this is better than zero power. And they same can be said about Democrats in the Clinton era. As uncomfortable as they might have been about the crime bill, the presentation of being tough on crime earned them votes that kept them in office.
So they question might be, why not just sell out, er, compromise your ideology so that you get 70% of the vote? Well, that's harder than it sounds. The more you compromise, they more you risk losing the support of your base. You might grab a million votes over here only to see a million of your loyal voters walk away. To walk this line effectively, you need to compromise just enough to get a bare plurality.
And that, I posit, is why elections are as close as they are these days, As time as gone on, as politicians have come to better understand demographics and polling, they've gotten better and better at compromising "just enough." There's still a lot of fluidity---look at Obama's seven point win over McCain - but as strategists on both sides of the political aisle further master the dark arts of politicking in this new data rich environment, I suspect the gaps in election will only narrow. The goal is to win, and not by much.
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.