Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Purplish United States


Jonathan Chait
links to a comment Hendrik Hertzberg makes on his blog at the New Yorker. The issue is over the electoral college and its implications on domination of the two-party system. Mr. Hertzberg takes the view, which I agree with mostly, that the electoral college system guarantees two party domination because people are forced to make the decision about which person has the most likely chance of winning in their state. Since there can be only one winner, people have an incentive to pick the candidate who will most likely win, which happens to be amongst the two major parties. I think his comments on the ability for people to dominate regionally, even with the electoral college, deserves attention:

So that argument is merely untrue. A second argument—that N.P.V. would empower regional candidates—goes further: it is the exact opposite of the truth. Do I really need to explain why awarding a hundred per cent of a state’s electors to the plurality winner in that state favors candidates whose appeal is regional as opposed to national? “The George Wallaces of the world, which right now have basically no impact on national elections, would have a much larger voice,” she argues. No impact? In 1968, Wallace, whose appeal was regional, got 13.5 per cent of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes. In 1992, Ross Perot, whose appeal was national, got 18.9 per cent of the popular vote and zero electoral votes.


This sort of regional appeal issue harkens back to some reading I've been doing in a book by Morris Fiorina called,
Culture War: The Myth of a Polarized America . The main thrust of the book is the notion the US is a nation embroiled in a war between 50% conservatives and 50% liberals is media hype. Instead, the nation exists on a continuum, with most people straddling the moderate category. The best example of this is his use of the often viewed electoral college map of the 2004 presidential contest:




This graph reinforces the notion that we are a starkly divided country, with the southern united states being the gun-toting, freedom-loving conservatives pit against the northeastern/western free-love, big-government liberals. However, this is misinformation, if one were to look at the percentage of blue/red individuals within states the picture becomes quite different:




If you'll notice the stark red/blue divide goes away, and instead much of the country turns purple. In other words, the red-south, blue-northeast/west coast divisions are hype. In looking at these, I agree with Mr. Hertzberg's claim that the electoral college actually makes regionalization easier on the voting level, but I also think perception has a factor in it, as well. There is a famous bias discovered by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman known as the
availability heuristic . This heuristic basically says that the most widely available information colors an individuals perception. For example, I have a friend that smokes cigarettes and yet can run miles a day, therefore I am prone to think that cigarettes impacts running less than what is actually scientifically true. The stark blue/red electoral college maps are an example of this. It is a a very nice and easy map for the media to use to portray the stark differences in the country. Nothing gets more ratings then talking about the fights that go on in american politics. Saying something along the lines of, "The US is a pretty moderate country with mixed views throughout," is less likely to get ratings then saying, "A battle is being waged between blue and red factions for the heart of the country." This sort of reporting would seem to enhance the regionalization created by the electoral college. Not only does it give electoral rewards, via electoral college votes, for those people that focus on winning the south, but it also sends a covert message to the voter that this area is more conservative/liberal, therefore it is my interest to vote/not vote because I am a blue person living in a sea of red, or vice versa This is all just speculating, but I would like to see if there's been any experiments using these two different maps as primers to see if it influences people's opinions of certain region's views.

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