The Persuadable Voter

I read a book in May titled The Persuadable Voter, the authors argue that while voters are generally partisan and often uninformed, the prevailing view in political science that campaigns don’t matter is inaccurate. The book is interesting, but also thick and boring at times so I’m going to summarize it here for you. I found a good quote where the authors break down their argument into six parts, so I’m just going to elaborate each point after quoting it.

“1. Partisans are likely to disagree with their preferred political party on policy issues more often than is generally believed. This finding is robust across different policy measures, surveys, and even among the most sophisticated partisans. In addition, contemporary partisans are more likely to hold policy disagreements on cultural, rather than economic issues.” This is the definition of a persuadable voter, someone who generally agrees with a party but disagree with them on one or a few issues; generally cultural issues like abortion, gay marriage, guns, and drug policy. A perfect example of this is a pro-life Catholic who generally votes for Democrats, but sometimes votes for the Republican when abortion or stem cell research are major issue in the campaign. Or a libertarian leaning Republican that disagree with the party on social issues. They show through a variety of surveys that a large enough portion of the electorate to swing elections fit the definition of persuadable voter.

“2. Persuadable voters are not a homogeneous group of unsophisticated and indifferent policy moderates, as has often been believed. Rather, persuadable voters hold diverse policy preferences, making it less clear which candidates offers a better match.” Because persuadable voters exist, people who hold political positions that conflict with their preferred party, it isn’t always clear which candidate these voters should or will support.

“3. When exposed to campaign information, persuadable partisans are more likely to be undecided about their presidential vote choice, more likely to change their mind over the course of the campaign, and more likely to defect at the ballot box.

4. Because the campaign helps determine which issue preferences receive greater weight in the vote decision, the content of campaign dialogue shapes who supports which candidate and why. Partisans who disagree with their party on an important policy issue are more likely to defect if that issue is the focus of campaign dialogue.” Campaigns matter because persuadable voters are susceptible to changing their mind if the right issues are raised during the campaign. If a Democratic candidate makes the anti-choice or anti-gay marriage position of his Republican opponent a major part of the campaign the cross-pressured libertarian Republican I described above is more likely to vote for the Democrat.

“5. Contrary to expectations that candidates will avoid divisive policy positions or target policy messages to core partisans alone, candidates deliberately attempt to prime wedge issues in order to win over persuadable voters.” There is a prevailing myth among political scientists and the media that candidates lean right or left in primaries to attract partisans then lean to the middle to attract centrist voters during the general election. The authors argue that instead campaigns are choosing to highlight controversial issues because those are the issues that might swing persuadable voters.

“6. Candidates are more likely to use divisive wedge issues when they have more information about the preferences of the voters and when they are able to narrowly target their campaign messages.” As campaigns have started to accumulate more and more information about voters, generally through buying consumer and marketing information from companies that sell information, they try to target specific voters based on the information they have about them. This is an important point because in the past campaigns were limited to a few broad mediums to express their positions. A TV or radio ad will be heard by a wide variety of voters, voters that may be repelled by a candidate focusing on a controversial issue, so persuadable voters are targeted through campaign mailers and other voter specific mediums. The pro-life Catholic I described above may receive a mailer from the Republican candidate highlighting how many times his Democratic opponent has voted to support pro-choice legislation to discourage the voter from voting for the Democrat, but the Republican may not want to highlight the same message in a TV ad out of fear of scaring the Libertarian leaning Republican from voting for him. The more voter information campaigns have the easier it is to efficiently target persuadable voters with their specific policy conflict with their party.

I like the book because it examines campaigns from a perspective that the media tends to ignore. It’s easy enough to find a TV spot that every voter sees and break it down, but going out and finding different mailers that are being sent to specific cross-pressured partisans and breaking down those is more work. I think the idea of a persuadable voter reveals something about campaigns that’s often missed in the media coverage of campaigns. There are a few problems with the book though, the last election the book describes is the 2004 presidential election. An election that is known to have been possibly swung by the gay marriage wedge issue. Perhaps the findings are significantly skewed by that, though I kind of doubt it since wedge issues continue to play a role in general elections. The other issue is that in my final example, the pro-life Catholic, the issue of abortion was not highlighted by the Republican campaign because they didn’t want to scare away the vote of the libertarian leaning voter. The flaw, of course, is that if you vote for a Republican you know you’re voting for a pro-life candidate, so it seems as though some wedge issues aren’t particularly affected by having more voter information and the ability to target more effectively. I think the book offers an interesting perspective on the power of campaigns and the nature of swing voters. They’re not necessarily all ignorant, uniformed fools voting for whichever party hasn’t apparently destroyed the economy most recently, some are informed cross-pressured partisans that change their minds on the basis of the issues highlighted in the campaign.

(The Persuadable Voter, Hillygus, D. Sunshine, Shields, and Todd G., 310)


Political Interviews Are Now Pointless

A thought struck me recently when I was listening to a podcast, adversarial interviews are only possible when the media source is big enough to offer the interviewee a benefit that makes the risk of looking stupid worthwhile, so as the media breaks into millions of smaller shows all we’re going to have are effectively pointless friendly interviews that offer the audience nothing but reinforcement of their own beliefs. The question, I suppose, is what is the value of an interview that challenges the interviewee? When people state their beliefs or policy ideas they generally seem reasonable, it’s only when they’re challenged that you can truly see if they hold up. As an example, consider the idea of tenure for public school teachers, people on the political right find the idea essentially absurd, which is understandable because tenure evokes an image of a professor that can’t be fired to allow intellectual independence. I think we can all the agree that a high school teacher doesn’t really need that kind of tenure, but when you hear the teacher’s unions reply you realize tenure isn’t as absurd as it’s made out to be. They argue that it only ensures due process when a school tries to fire a teacher, but doesn’t make it impossible to fire someone. Having that due process allows teachers to fight administrators for their students without the risk of being fired simply for not going along with the administrators. I’m not here to argue either side of this argument, but the argument against tenure sounds good in a vacuum and I’m guessing most people making and agreeing with that argument haven’t heard the response because I’ve yet to see anyone making the argument against tenure confronted with the response. Similarly, I’ve never heard anyone defending teacher tenure have the response challenged. My point is that a perspective almost always sounds reasonable without an alternate view to contrast it with. We’re all hearing a comforting narrative almost exclusively now because the media has fragmented and there’s no incentive for people to endure a adversarial interview.

It’s natural to want to have your beliefs reinforced, but it’s not good for us to only hear things we already believe. The discomfort of cognitive dissonance is basically the only thing that might convince us to think we’re not right all the time. There’s very little incentive to do what we should do, seek out opposing opinions, so most of us don’t – I don’t even though I’m writing something like this. It’s odd to defend the idea of centralized media, the old only three channels days, but it seems to be the only real solution to this. Unless people have no choice they’re going to tend to reinforce their beliefs. I don’t really know what to make of all of this, I’m no more interested in limiting choice than anyone else is, but I do think the fragmented nature of media is only worsening partisanship.


What is the Endgame of an American Intervention in Iraq, Syria Against ISIS?

About a week ago I started to type a post arguing against a large intervention against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but I never managed to finish it because I couldn’t organize my thoughts into one or two coherent paragraphs. By the time I had a better idea of what I wanted to say President Obama had given the world a little bit of time to cool off, saying there was no specific plan for action in Syria. With the upcoming NATO summit and Prime Minister Cameron calling for a unified action against ISIS it seems more and more likely that eventually the US, the UK, and probably some contingent of Western Europe will do something to stem the tide of ISIS. The argument for such an action is obvious, ISIS is doing terrible things like beheading journalists and crucifying people, is stuck in the 8th Century, and has members with American and European Union passports that could easily inflict damaging attacks in Europe and America. I have no argument against stopping ISIS, it does seem like a good idea, my problem is that we don’t actually seem to have much of an attainable goal after that. Let’s assume we can stop ISIS, what then? Iraq and Syria will still be highly unstable and susceptible to another similar organization gaining traction, Iran and Saudi Arabia will still want to fight a proxy war, and the Kurds will still want an independent Kurdistan. Stopping the existence of ISIS as the Islamic State is obviously possible, arguably it won’t be all that difficult, but all that will do is drive the survivors underground where they will start to operate more like a terrorist group and less like a state. That doesn’t improve Europe and America’s chances of avoiding attack at home. The Syrian civil war will presumably continue, so it’s seem likely another jihadist group will rise from the ashes of ISIS because the jihadists seem to attract the most support in terms of bodies and cash. Iraq will remain incredibly unstable, teetering on the edge of civil war it will be susceptible to yet another ISIS-esque push for territory if that occurs. ISIS should be stopped, but we should actually have a plan, and not a Nixon style secret plan, for what we’re going to achieve and how we’re going to do it. There should be Congressional debates, there should be authorization for a specific use of force, and the American people should have to right to decide if the plan makes sense instead of scaring them into support a terrible plan with the possibility of terrorist attacks on American soil. There currently appears to be no plan, so it seems unwise to jump to the action step out of a justifiable disgust of ISIS and their actions. Let’s pause, formulate, and debate a plan before jumping into any unwise intervention.

Income Inequality and Climate Change

Income inequality and economic injustice effects every issue this country faces, let’s just consider climate change. I’m sure you’ve noticed that there isn’t a lot of actual movement on the issue. Why? To my mind there are two big reasons for this and they both tie into income inequality. The most obvious is the fact that oil and gas tycoons have enough income to buy politicians and block real reform. If they had less money to spend they wouldn’t be able to block reform so easily. The second is less obvious, but nearly as important. There isn’t enough populist support for climate change legislation to overcome the money. Why not? I think there’s two reasons for this. First, there’s a media machine dedicated to denying climate change; again all the money showing its influence. Second, poor people have limited, but legitimate reasons to worry about how effective legislation will affect their lives. There’s a lot of people in this country balancing the cost of heat, gas for their cars, and food. A slight increase in energy costs could lead to more days going hungry every month. If these people had more money they wouldn’t have to worry and could be more supportive of climate change legislation.

Political and Economic Frustration

 Middle class people look at the political process and become frustrated and hopeless, understanding that they’ll never get what they want from it; that’s how poor people see the economic system. The worst part is, they’re both right. So the next you hear someone attacking the poor for being lazy, ignorant, or malicious consider their perspective. Do you donate money to political campaigns knowing it will achieve nothing? Do you go door to door spreading the word? No, most likely you vote, maybe, and you sign your name to online petitions, even less common but still remarkably easy. The rational response to a game whose odds are unfairly stacked against you is to not play. 

A Response to Disingenuous Interpretations of Piketty’s Capital in the Media

I finished Capital in the Twenty-First Century last night. It’s an extremely interesting, though also long, read. I imagine that most people who are talking about it haven’t actually read the book because most people seem to be using the book to promote whatever ideology they had before reading a review or summary of the book, which means their analysis and policy suggestions are weak and at most tangential of the book. For example, I listen to Fareed Zakaria’s show as a podcast. It’s not my favorite show, but it’s by the far the best thing on CNN. That said, his brief comments on the book basically acknowledged Piketty’s thesis, that r>g and it’s leading to inequality, but then he went on to highlight the importance of access to education. Piketty does consider education, especially easier access to higher education, important, but he rejects the idea that is all that needs to be done; he actually suggests that the belief in education alone is actually just a reinforcement of the meritocratic myth. I’ve seen others suggest things along the same lines, people, especially those on the left who want to push market ideals but don’t want to accept the consequences of the market, high and undemocratic inequality, argue that the book’s main lesson is that we need to increase growth. Piketty firmly rejects the suggestion, arguing that the idea that growth can be increased enough to reduce, or at least stem the tide of growing inequality, is essentially absurd due to the impossibility of keeping growth at such high levels. One important point that you don’t really see unless you read farther into the book than the introduction, is that the raising growth to the average return on capital, 4-5 percent, wouldn’t be enough the reduce inequality because those with the highest levels of capital already receive returns higher than that, 7-10 percent; the idea of maintaining for 4-5 growth seems incredibly unlikely, but 7-10 percent growth is practically impossible. The real lesson from Piketty is that relatively high, progressive income and inheritance taxes are the most important steps individual nations can currently practically achieve; so raise those taxes, especially in the US. The final part of Piketty’s solution has been pretty roundly rejected as absurd due to its impossibility, which is something he essentially acknowledges so it’s a fairly weak criticism, a progressive wealth tax; Piketty’s ideal version of this tax would be world-wide. The part that people who reject the idea as impossible out of hand are missing is that he suggests that such tax could possibly be successful on a regional level, so if the European Union wanted to create such a tax it’s possible they could succeed. Even more important for Americans, he suggests that America alone could impose such a tax. After all, the most important roadblock to a wealth tax working is the existence of opaque tax shelters. We have the power to essentially eliminate tax shelters with sanctions, so we could, if we were interested, get the necessary data to impose such a tax. My primary problem with all the disingenuous responses to Piketty’s work, other than revealing that most people never get out of college style skim reading which annoys me by itself, is that it’s a long book that is fairly boring, not to me or everyone, of course, but I imagine to fairly large number of people, so most people, even, I suspect, a lot of those that buy it, won’t actually read the entire thing; they’ll read the introduction and maybe the conclusion. That means that what media commentators say about the book will have an even larger influence than usual. That means that the ineffective neo-liberal prescriptions to the malady Piketty diagnoses will seem reasonable when they are not and the book will fail the achieve its primary goal. That’s not surprising, but it is annoying to point of nearly being infuriating; I imagine it’s the feeling climate activists feel when right-wing politicians reject climate change. This is worse because you have one party outright rejecting Piketty and another essentially misappropriating him for their preexisting political ends, actually imagine it’s still pretty damn similar.

Drones in Iraq?

Iraq, will Obama will start to covertly use drones? The answer is probably yeah, he will. It’s becoming seen as a hotbed for terrorists and terrorist sympathizers so he’ll probably use drones there, just like in Pakistan and Yemen. That’s hardly surprising, regardless of the ethics or utility of such a decision; which are, as with most things, pretty debatable. I get the use of drones, in theory it makes a lot of sense to use precision strikes and avoid full-scale invasions or occupations, but it seems to me that determining the ethics of a practice in real-time is a bad way to reach solid ethical ground. Then there’s the utility of drones strikes, which is a question of the cost versus the benefits. It seems that a lot of the costs are really hard to predict, after all it seems entirely plausible that drones will attract more violence to American territory, plus there’s the questionable benefit of killing someone who doesn’t appear to have a lot of means to pull of an attack. If the United States occupies a country, then all that ire that we build by unjustly, accidental or not, killing, hurting, or harming, socially or economically, will be meted out in that country on the occupying force. Now, I don’t like the idea of American soldiers being the ones that take the hit, I much prefer the dumbass warhawk politicians take the hit, but it’s better for a terrorist to attempt to kill Americans in their own country than someone else’s; especially since that implies, at least a little bit, that the occupying force could leave and solve most of the problems. How do we assess the value of killing an individual terrorist — and the rest of whatever group of people he’s with? Well shit, we have no fucking idea and that’s part of the problem. I guess we could trust the government and intelligence agencies to know what they’re doing, but if you’ve ever looked into the history of the CIA, I recommend Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, then you probably don’t see a lot of reasons to trust the intelligence agencies; long story short, they alternate between incompetence, evil, and evil incompetence. From my point of view, it seems pretty unlikely that there are thousands of terrorists worth killing considering the high potential for blowback in a region that’s already skeptical of American influence, military power, and its support for the Israeli occupation. It’s not as though pulling off a massive terrorist attack is easy, so killing some guy with a radical ideology, the money for ticket to New York, and access to a little bit of explosives doesn’t seem worth it. The chances are pretty high that he’ll be caught, or just be an idiot, and the plan would be foiled without having to risk slaughtering innocent wedding parties. The only explanation of the cost/benefit analysis the Obama administration uses seems to be that they all think about really hard, yes even the president, and then they decide. Great, but thinking about it isn’t necessarily thinking about it correctly. There seems to be a pretty loose definition of imminent, let alone all the other words they use to justify drone attacks. Loose definitions and calls to trust people who don’t explain their thought processes doesn’t evoke much faith.