If the latest election were a horse race, the Cape Charles Mirror could have made a lot of money at the track, as we accurately predicted the outcome. We did this without sophisticated polling, or elaborate demographic modeling software. It was instead accomplished by using the basic observation that the Cape Charles voter is predictably irrational.
In his essay The Irrational Electorate, Larry M. Bartels provides an analysis that sheds some light on the local Cape Charles electorate, and attempts to illuminate what leads them to vote the way they do. Bartel’s points to Paul Lazarsfeld of Columbia University who concluded that electoral choices “are relatively invulnerable to direct argumentation” and “characterized more by faith than by conviction and by wishful expectation rather than careful prediction of consequences.” In our town, for example, voters consistently misperceived where candidates stood on the important issues of the day, seeing their favorite candidates’ stands as closer to their own and opposing candidates’ stands as more dissimilar than they actually were. (Bernard Berelson, Paul F. Lazarsfeld, and William N. McPhee, Voting: A Study of Opinion Formation in a Presidential Campaign (University of Chicago Press, 1954), 311.)
In 1960, the study The American Voter described “the general impoverishment of political thought in a large proportion of the electorate,” noting that “many people know the existence of few if any of the major issues of policy.” In essence, they noted that electoral choices were made by “relatively unsophisticated voters with little grasp of issues or ideology”. Sound familiar? ( Angus Campbell, Philip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes, The American Voter (John Wiley & Sons, 1960), 543, 170. ,Michael S. Lewis-Beck, William G. Jacoby, Helmut Norpoth, and Herbert F. Weisberg, The American Voter Revisited (University of Michigan Press, 2008).
More recent scholarship poses the question of whether it is even possible to make a rational choice, and whether uninformed voters—using whatever “information shortcuts” are available to them—manage to make similar choices to those of voters who are better informed. In Bartel’s 1996 study, Uninformed Votes, he examined presidential elections from 1972 to ’92, using statistical analyses of votes cast in each election by well-informed and less-informed voters with similar characteristics; that is, he attempted to assess “ how closely voters’ actual choices matched the votes they would have cast had they been ‘fully informed’.” He found it all worked out about the same, just as if everyone had cast their ballots on the basis of a coin flip.( Larry M. Bartels, “Uninformed Votes: Information Effects in Presidential Elections,” American Journal of Political Science 40 (1996): 194-230).
From Bartels, “These and other recent studies offer abundant evidence that election outcomes can be powerfully affected by factors unrelated to the competence and convictions of the candidates. But if voters are so whimsical, choosing the candidate with the most -competent-looking face or the most recent television ad, how do they often manage to sound so sensible? Most people seem able to provide cogent-sounding reasons for voting the way they do. However, careful observation suggests that these “reasons” often are merely rationalizations constructed from readily available campaign rhetoric to justify preferences formed on other grounds.( Wendy M. Rahn, Jon A. Krosnick, and Marijke Breuning, “Rationalization and Derivation Processes in Survey Studies of Political Candidate Evaluation,” American Journal of Political Science 38 (1994): 582-600).”
Given that voters “simply—and simple-mindedly” cast ballets, based on a criteria that is apropos of nothing, and are, “predictably irrational” (Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (HarperCollins, 2008), why do we rely so much, and give so much power to Town Council? I guess, that’s the joke…and it’s really on us.