Something to remember in the Year of Trump: Voters aren’t always rational

REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich
Donald Trump thanking the crowd after receiving Sarah Palin's endorsement at a rally at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, on Tuesday.

Woodrow Wilson, our 26th president, was reelected to a second term in 1916, running on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” (Within a year of his reelection, Wilson got us into the war he had kept us out of.) Anyway, his 1916 reelection was actually quite close, just 277-254 in the Electoral College (which, you perhaps know, is not actually a college in any way nor, you might not know, is it called the Electoral College in the U.S. Constitution).

OK, I’ll stop with the snarky parenthetical asides, and within a couple of paragraphs, I’ll give you a clue why I’m writing about Wilson in 1916.

Wilson was, surprisingly perhaps, beaten badly in 1916 in his own state of New Jersey, of which he had been governor until 1912. He lost by double-digits in certain New Jersey coastal areas that had been hit with a dramatic series of fatal shark attacks. Wilson, as I mentioned, was president at the time, but even if he had still been governor of New Jersey, it might be unfair to blame him for the shark attacks. Still — at least according to a famous political science article titled “The Irrational Electorate” — voters near the New Jersey beaches were highly motivated to vote against Wilson because the shark attacks had occurred on, in some absurd sense, Wilson’s watch.

“The Irrational Electorate” was written by Princeton political scientist Larry M. Bartels and published in “The Wilson Political Quarterly” during the height of the 2008 presidential election season. Since I first read it, I have dug it back out occasionally for a look-over during campaign seasons to remind myself that whatever insanity seems to be occurring is normal, or at least not unprecedented.

In the Year of Trump — and omigod, have you watched that Sarah Palin video? (warning: it’s 20 minutes long) — it may be especially necessary to let go of the belief that citizens make their voting decision on logic backed by facts. But in a few short pages written well before the rise of The Donald , Bartels assured us that many voters spend their precious franchise in strange ways. On the slight chance that you won’t click through and read the Bartels article, a few quotes and examples from the piece:

New Jersey voters’ reaction to shark attacks was dramatic, but hardly anomalous. Throughout the 20th century, presidential candidates from incumbent parties suffered substantial vote losses in states afflicted by droughts or wet spells. [Historian/author Rick] Shenkman argues that “throw the bums out may not be a sophisticated response to adversity but it is a rational one.” However, punishing the president’s party because it hasn’t rained is no more “rational” than kicking the dog after a hard day at work.

There is little doubt that how a candidate looks and sounds is a powerful force affecting voters’ reactions to him or her. Studies have found that in far more than a random number of cases, the taller candidate and/or the better-looking one wins. But a study to which Bartels alludes (and which I wrote at slightly more length about here) found that voters make a judgment about the “competence” of a candidate based on a glimpse of the candidate lasting one one-hundredth of a second, and that judgment is a powerful predictor of a voter’s ultimate choice. “Competence” might be a nifty criterion for choosing one candidate over the other, but not if the impression is based on a fraction of a second’s glimpse of his or her face.

The largest single expense for most modern campaigns is to air television ads, which are not exactly known for their honesty or probative value. In fact, they are notorious for using such tools of persuasion as scary music and manipulated images, not to mention half-truths. Perhaps the impact of TV ads are declining in the online world. But when Bartels wrote in 2008, he summarized some of the then-current research thus:

The ideal of rational voting behavior is further undermined by accumulating evidence that voters can be powerfully swayed by television advertising in the days just before an election. A major study of the 2000 presidential election by Richard Johnston, Michael Hagen, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson tracked prospective voters’ responses to changes in the volume and content of campaign ads as well as to news coverage and other aspects of the national campaign. Their analysis suggested that George W. Bush’s razor-thin victory hinged crucially on the fact that he had more money to spend on television ads in battleground states in the final weeks of the campaign.

A team of scholars from UCLA elaborated on this analysis in an attempt to clarify how long the effects of advertising last. They found that most of the effect of any given ad on voters’ preferences evaporated within one week.

That reminded me of a favorite remark of former U.S. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-MN), whose political career followed his success building the Plywood Minnesota chains, which gave him some marketing experience. He liked to say that the weird thing about politics is that it’s the only business where you have to make all your sales on one day.

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Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/21/2016 - 09:29 am.

    Behavioral Economics

    This is just a special case of current work in behavioral economics on decision making.
    Cass Sunstein has written some good popular articles on the topic.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/21/2016 - 09:33 am.

    I’m reminded of Adlai Stevenson

    Who supposedly replied to a woman who called out to him, “Senator, you have the vote of every thinking person!”

    “That’s not enough, madam, we need a majority!”


  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/21/2016 - 09:54 am.

    Academia Catches Up

    It was only recently that economists realized that peoples’ behavior is not always rational. If you didn’t realize this when people voted for Dubya because he seemed “like he’d be more fun to have a beer with”, you haven’t been paying attention. (Hadn’t he stopped drinking alcohol well before 2000?)

    Good to see political scientists types are catching up, too.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/21/2016 - 10:30 am.

      Well I had to laugh at Rubio’s choice of one who he would like to have a beer with–MalalaYousafzai.

      Underage, and Muslim, too.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/21/2016 - 03:45 pm.

      Economists always knew

      that individuals behaved irrationally.
      The flawed assumption was that groups of individuals would somehow average out the weirdness and behave rationally.

  4. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 01/21/2016 - 10:25 am.

    blame the voters…

    Are “journalists” always rational?

    I must admit it is more “fun” watching the “independent media” campaign than trying to understand the voter.

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/21/2016 - 10:27 am.

    It’s easy to be irrational when one is indoctrinated to regard all other sources of information, other than your preferred, as lies.

  6. Submitted by Bob Petersen on 01/21/2016 - 10:47 am.

    True Bias Here

    Why is it that with Trump, being a current GOP nominee, is being correlated with a lack of rational voters? There is zero substance to support that here.
    If anything, it would be better if you put Hillary in the title instead because everything she stands for does not make sense. Benghazi, email scandal, record of her not supporting women, and overall just negative, shrill tone.
    Then again, its easier for journalists to paint those of the GOP in a bad light than they will with liberals.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/21/2016 - 01:48 pm.

      There are those who think that the person who literally has life-or-death power over most of the world should have a calm and deliberative manner, well thought out policies and goals, be able to clearly express and persuade others to those those policies and goals, be able to work within the limits of democracy, and be able to think beyond the exigencies of the moment.

      And then there is Trump….

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/22/2016 - 09:53 am.

      Generally speaking

      Xenophobia, ignorance, and bombastic, self-congratulatory arrogance (bordering on self parody) are not aspirational goals for most rational human beings. Therefore support of such would be, by its nature, irrational. I can think of many qualifying, rational, characteristics for a President that would be more pertinent than how much of an equine posterior the candidate is. That this appears to be the Donald’s main selling point speaks to the rationality of his support.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 01/22/2016 - 11:41 am.

      One example

      It is rational to think that we need to stop illegal immigration. It is irrational to think this can be accomplished by talking Mexico into building a wall along the border. But Donald says he can do it & people support him for it.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/22/2016 - 04:37 pm.

        It COULD be rational

        Were the concern the realities of illegal immigration, that it is the result of “race to the bottom” consumerist capitalism, that it exploits immigrants far more than they harm us, that it could be ended far more easily by punishing those hiring these folks than by trying to hunt down the immigrants themselves as if they were some species of dangerous animal, then sure it could be a rational concern. Unfortunately, the main argument I hear is “foreigners bad, Americans good “(well at least the proper color and ideologically minded ones anyway). This is not rational in any way, it’s simple fear, prejudice, and ignorance. Not accidentally, the three cornerstones of the Trump campaign.

  7. Submitted by Tim Smith on 01/21/2016 - 11:16 am.

    No one should believe

    Voters base their vote on “facts” backed up by logic. That is a left wing fallacy. Core voters from both parties tend to vote emotionally and interpret facts n statistics in a way that fits their core beliefs and view of the world. There is a socialist making a serious run, enough said.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/21/2016 - 07:08 pm.

      Let’s just say that

      lefties hope (often vainly) that voters will act rationally.
      righties hope that they won’t.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/21/2016 - 11:32 am.

    Powerful TV images

    Being an old person, I recall television images on our flickering grayscale screen of nuclear mushroom clouds and a deep voice intoning the danger of voting for Barry Goldwater in 1964, and how a vote for Lyndon Johnson would prevent American boys from being sent overseas to die in some foreign war. 50,000+ lives later, Mr. Johnson decided not to run for office again in 1968, his progressive legacy mostly ruined by a southeast Asian quagmire of his own creation. Images do much to reinforce the notion of voter irrationality.

    Images are not always necessary, however, and Mr. Petersen’s rant is a case in point. After asserting that Trump supporters are *not* irrational, gosh darn it, and that there’s no support for the notion that support for Mr. Trump is itself irrational, he then goes on to lambaste Hillary Clinton because of, well, “…everything she stands for,” followed by a list of supposed transgressions for which he, too, offers no support. I especially enjoyed the part about Hillary “…not supporting women.”

  9. Submitted by Jim Million on 01/21/2016 - 11:48 am.

    Lectures on Economic Growth by Robert Lucas, jr.

    After my conventional graduate school micro/macro econ courses, I found the development by Dr. Lucas of his Theory of Rational Expectations to be quite sensible. Here’s a simple summary:

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/21/2016 - 03:58 pm.

      I was struck by the statement

      “Therefore, the unemployed take jobs more quickly, and the unemployment rate falls.”
      How does this apply to the current situation where there is a shortage of jobs.
      Rationally expecting there to be jobs does not make it so.

      On a more basic level, like most economic theory, it is more theory than data.
      In a field where controlled experiments are usually impossible, theories are hard to verify or disprove.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/21/2016 - 07:12 pm.

      Not quite sure

      why you used the (nearly defunct) Britannica as your source;
      the Wikipedia article is more thorough, and more direct about identifying Lucas with the Chicago/Milton Friedman school of economics beloved of Republicans.,_Jr.

  10. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/25/2016 - 09:10 pm.

    Since we are on Quotes

    “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought” (JFK)
    “Any fool can criticize , condemn and complain, and most fools do” (Ben Franklin)
    A lot rational thinking in both those quotes about irrational thinking

    On last one:
    “I am patient with stupidity, but not with those that are proud of it”
    Edith Sitwell

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