07 November 2012

Voting in Washington

We all were a little tired of 10-month campaigns, like this little girl:


But we could understand a few things with the help of political science:

Turnout tends to be higher in competitive elections.

I visited voting polls in DC, where more than 90 percent of votes went for Obama, and in Arlington, Virginia (just at the other side of the bridge over the Potomac River), which was expected to be decisive to make a winner.
I was told that from 6a.m. to 8a.m., that is before many people went to their regular jobs, one could have to wait for two hours on line to vote. When I was in Arlington, at about 3p.m., it still took about half an hour. At the expected time for closing the polls, there was still a lot of people waiting so they expanded the schedule. In some parts of the country, people waited for up to five hours on line.
With more than 131 million people voting, the media trumps record turnout --it was 58 percent four years ago, highest record in 40 years.

This is the Virginia ballot (as distributed by Democratic activists, with all the choices already marked in favor of the party's candidates):

(You can click on it for larger size)

The electoral college electoral system simplifies a vast and varied territory.

Actually the two campaigns focused on a few states, as shown in this map:

And 10 of these 11 states went to swing on the side of the Democratic presidential candidate.

The incumbent's advantage counts.

Once more, so many repeated exercises in "election forecast" don't make sense, as they are based on variables observed months before the election and thus implying that the electoral campaign is not going to make a difference. In this vein, this year the mantra was "no president has won reelection with more than 7 percent unemployment" (already criticized in this Blog: CLICK 1, CLICK 2).
Yet, beyond the state of the economy and some other salient issues in the campaigns, beyond the race, the religion and the personal character of the candidates, the crucial factor seems to have been the incumbency advantage. The explanation may be that even when the record in government is not brilliant, as is the case, the incumbent can be evaluated on the basis of facts, while the challenger has to be estimated only from speculative hypotheses about what it could be. As that guy said, "power erodes... especially those who don't have it." Indeed, since 1948 the incumbent president running for reelection has won in seven of nine elections (while in open elections without the incumbent running the opposition party won in six of eight cases).

Divided government.

Not much is going to change, as the Democrats will control the Senate (but submitted to the filibuster rule available to the Republicans) and the Republicans will control the House. In the United States, the Presidency is an aggregative mechanism to make some unity in such huge and varied country. But with two-term limit and strong institutional checks and balances, the Presidency is not that powerful. Its actual powers tend to be overrated; in fact the system increasingly approaches some features of an elective monarchy in which, as was traditionally said, the president reigns but does not rule.
Which is not bad at all, after all.



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