Are voters stupid or smart?

Are voters stupid or smart?

It is a trick question. Read on to find out why passing value judgements on electoral victories and losses are futile unless the vote swings are huge.

By Rain Man

Published on :

Every electoral victory has a class of pundits explaining the underlying moods of voters and how the vote reflects something smart or stupid about voters.

We are going to examine narratives and the underlying data from two different elections in the United States and India, and try to get a sense of whether voters are indeed smart or stupid.

2008 Barack Obama victory in US presidential elections

Sample narrative: This piece published in The New York Times on November 4, 2008, notes:

The election of Mr. Obama amounted to a national catharsis — a repudiation of a historically unpopular Republican president and his economic and foreign policies, and an embrace of Mr. Obama’s call for a change in the direction and the tone of the country. But it was just as much a strikingly symbolic moment in the evolution of the nation’s fraught racial history, a breakthrough that would have seemed unthinkable just two years ago.

What the data says 

Barack Obama beat John McCain by 7.27 per cent, a swing of about 10 per cent from the previous elections. (Republicans led by George Bush won the 2004 election by 2.46 per cent). This implies that a maximum of 10 per cent of the voters “repudiated” economic policies of George Bush and changed their mind to vote for Barack Obama. Are these 10 per cent of voters carrying the burden of all voters in creating this “symbolic, breakthrough moment”. Are the 10 per cent of voters smart or stupid? And did the other 90 per cent continue to stay smart or stupid?

Two years later, in 2010, the Democrats lost the majority in the Congress to the Republicans in an apparent repudiation of Obama’s policies. Then in 2012, the voters voted back Barack Obama in the 2012 Presidential elections. There are lots of peculiarities in each voting cycle as documented by Jogmon. Regardless, every electoral victory and loss in every election cycle is given some moral dimension. So, the question becomes what happened to the smart/stupid voters in 2010 and 2012? Did they go through schizophrenia, oscillating between smartness and stupidity?

2014 Narendra Modi victory in the Indian General Elections

Sample narrative: This piece published in The Wall Street Journal on May 16, 2014, notes:

India’s 60-year-old democracy may be young compared with the United States–the world’s oldest–but there are parallels between this election and Barack Obama’s first presidential victory. Both Mr. Modi and Mr. Obama hugely appealed to young voters and ran on a message of change, expanding economic opportunity and making government more responsive.  Indians desperately want economic growth and have grown frustrated with the corruption and incompetence of the ruling Congress Party. Some think tanks have rated this parliament the least productive in India’s history. And so Indians turned to Mr. Modi, a charismatic campaigner with a compelling story. Born to the lower caste, he is a former chaiwalla (tea seller). In 12 years as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, he developed a reputation for getting results and fostering economic development, job creation and improving infrastructure.

What the data says: 

BJP and its allies got about 38 per cent of the vote share in 2014. This is considered to be about a 10-15 per cent swing towards the BJP+NDA in the 2004 elections compared to the 2009 Indian elections. Did only 10-15 per cent of the voter base vote want “economic growth” and thought the BJP was the party to deliver on the promise? Were these the 10-15 per cent of voters who were the smart or stupid voters who believed in the BJP? Did the rest of the voters continue to stay smart or stupid? What happens to all the voters who voted for the Congress for the past 30 years? Are they smart or stupid?

The point of juxtaposing the data with the media narrative is to show the flaws in assigning intellectual and moral justifications to election results. Whenever, there is an election results, the swings are not more than 10-20 per cent and even in those swings, it is not easy to say if voters made the right or wrong choice. So, the next time one tries to assign a moral or intellectual dimension to voter choice and generalising to the larger society, remember roughly half the people are contradicting that narrative.

(This is the first of four articles on voter opinion and the ways it influences politicians, corruption and government systems.)