Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

January 25, 2005

Clinton and the Median Voter

Filed under: — Different River @ 10:31 pm

The Median Voter Theorem states that, if you can line up voters on a spectrum from left to right (not necessarily evenly distributed), then politicians trying to capture a majority vote will move to the “center” — the position with half the voters to their left and half to their right. If politicians care only about getting elected — that is, they don’t care at all about the issues themselves, then they’ll both end up taking the same middle posisiton, and voters might as well vote randomly. The policy that is implemented will be that preferred by the “median voter” — that is, the voter in the middle, with half the population to his/her left and half to his/her right.

Obviously, politics in the real world doesn’t work that way, but people who like the median voter theorem usually attribute this to the fact that politicians don’t know voters’ preferences exactly, so they don’t know exactly where on the spectrum the median voter is. Also, some assume that politicians care — at least somewhat — about the policies they advocate, so that in the presence of uncertainty about where they median voter is, they are willing to risk losing the election by shading their positions away from their guess of the median voter’s, and towards their own. This is, they argue, enough to account for substantial variation in candidates’ positions.

I’ve never been a big fan of the median voter theorem — not because I don’t believe the math behind it; I do — but because I don’t think the assumptions accurately capture the essential elements of people’s preferences. For one thing, preferences are not always properly represented by a linear (left-right) scale, even preferences over a single issue. For another, (at least some) politicians campaign not just by stating their position and telling you it’s like yours, but also by stating their position and trying to convince you they’re right about the issue. In other words, even if people’s inherent preferences are fixed (and they may not be), people’s preferences over policies are subject to change through persuation.

However, even I have to admit that there have been two great pieces of evidence in favor of the relevance of the median voter theorem over the last few days. Last week, Hillary Clinton endorsed faith-based initiatives, the Bush proposal most seriously derided by liberals (between his first inauguration and the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001). And, this week she called for moderating the Democratic position on abortion to focus more on preventing “unwanted pregnancies” — say, through “teen celibacy” (her words) and less on abortion.

Perhaps she is running for president, and re-evaluating her estimate of the median voter’s position in light of the 2004 election results.

UPDATE (1/26/05 11:47 am): Clayton Cramer speculates that perhaps the Democrats will turn against gun control next. They certainly seem to have de-emphasized in 2004 after the 2002 and 2000 election saw gains for pro-gun candidates.

UPDATE (1/26/05 9:36 pm): Scott Ott has a different take on this! Read it! ;-)

One Response to “Clinton and the Median Voter”

  1. Dave Schuler Says:

    I wonder if people don’t use more of a cafeteria system—they pick what they like and don’t worry so much about consistency or doctrinal purity.

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