Why So Many Close Elections?

Franken v. Coleman.  Prosser v. Kloppenberg.  Kamala Harris v. Steve Cooley. And, of course, Bush v. Gore.  What’s going on?  Why so many hotly contested elections all of a sudden?  I can think of five theories offhand.

1)  50-50 Country.  Probably the one favored by the national press corps, and thus probably the one least likely to be true.  We have become an evenly divided nation.

2) The Reagan-Gingrich-Limbaugh Era.  On this theory, there aren’t any more close elections than before; it’s just that we pay more attention to them because of the hyper-partisanship brought about by Movement Conservatism.  In 1974, Democrat John Durkin and Republican Louis Wyman ran in a hotly contested New Hampshire US Senate race, which Durkin won by 10 votes.  But while it made news, it mattered relatively less because unlike today, the Republican Party was not trying to repeal Medicare and institutionalize plutocracy.  After the second recount, Wyman went ahead by two votes, and Durkin appealed to the US Senate, which declared the seat vacant.  Finally, Wyman challenged Durkin to a new election, which he accepted, and then won.  I can’t imagine that happening today: it would be litigated and decided by the state Supreme Court.

3)  Better targeting.  Given the ability of the parties to better identify voters, perhaps the latent balance in the electorate is better reflected.  The problem with this theory is that there is no reason to think that one party is inherently better than the other at it, although Democratic brain-deadedness is always a factor.  This is obviously related to Explanation #1.

4)  Randomness.  As Leonard Mlodinow pointed out so beautifully in his wonderful book, The Drunkard’s Walk, what appear to be patterned results might just be random.  There might not be anything more to it than that.

5)  Media.  This related to #2: there aren’t any more close elections than previously, but they achieve much greater salience in our minds not so much because of partisanship, but because of the 24-hour news cycle, and the ability to do things like track election results, post developments on Facebook and Twitter, etc.

Any thoughts?

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

11 thoughts on “Why So Many Close Elections?”

  1. When elections are so close, it shows that the electorate is voting against one politician or another.

    The clear, true and exact meaning is that the electorate does not want either one of the asshats.

    With the single party system of Republican/Democratic and Democratic/Republican, there is no choice.

    In 1992, Ross Perot showed what a third party candidate could do, even with his on again/off again campaign.

  2. There was precisely *one* close state election in all of California last year. A wave of nail-biters? Eh.

  3. I think 3 is pretty close. Parties evolve by packaging themselves to attract new voters while not necessarily losing others (though that happens) for the purpose of winning elections (Downs via Petrocik). In the absence of a shocking event, that should reach equilibrium at 50/50. Schattschneider’s (sp?) analogy of a political party to a losing fighter who is recruiting from the audience is apt; eventually the audience is all-in, and because of the back-and-forth of politics they won’t be all-in on one side but should be balanced. Add to that the randomness of politically salient events that can turn a comfortably 55-45 district into a 50.1/49.9 nailbiter, and I think you’ve got the recipe for more close races.

  4. Two considerations apply:
    My Econ professor, Malcolm McCleod, suggested that two-party politics resembles the market for hot dogs on a beach that is bounded at both ends. No one will walk past one vendor to buy from the other, so each vendor gets all the customers between his position and the extreme end of the beach that is void of vendors and 1/2 of the customers between his position and the other vendor. This creates a strong incentive to move to the center (not the position most convenient for the average customer).
    The incentive to engage in electoral fraud is strongest when faced with the prospect of a narrow loss. Fraud is risky and massive fraud is very risky. Small fraud has no upside when one side or another will win by a landslide.

  5. Malcolm, that’s pretty much Political Science 101 (for a two-party system, anyways) and I agree that it is a large part of what we’re seeing. However, that’s been true forever.

    I would add: The Internet. The internet allows for the efficient identification of superficially uncompetetive but actually feasibly competetive opportunities. Once one of these opportunities is found, the internet facilitates funding, media attention, and other campaign essentials which can raise a formerly sleepy race (such as this current race in Wisconsin) into a closely-fought battle.

  6. I’d say mostly 2 and 5. It used to be that the precise numbers of Democrats and Republicans didn’t matter as much because the parties were ideologically incoherent, so you couldn’t count on all of the Democrats voting against all the Republicans all of the time. You had to know where each member and each candidate stood on individual issues to know how much an individual race mattered to your ideological agenda. But now that all Democrats are to the left of all Republicans, progressives all around the country know that the progressive agenda depends on each seat, so every seat is important. Add to that that it’s much easier to follow what’s going on around the country in real time: Californians were examining returns from Ashland County, Wisconsin last night, when 15-20 years ago, it would have been hard to do from Madison.

  7. Malcolm Kirkpatrick says:
    April 6, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    “Two considerations apply:
    My Econ professor, Malcolm McCleod, suggested that two-party politics resembles the market for hot dogs on a beach that is bounded at both ends. ”

    As has been pointed out, this is a reasonably old theory. However, it does not explain the current state of the GOP. The GOP has been systematically scr*wing over people, and the proportion of the target for scr*wing has gotten bigger and bigger. After trashing the working class, they’ve hurt a fair chunk of the middle class, and are undeniably and openly eager to trash the rest.

  8. Yeah, and Republicans are puzzled as to why anyone votes for Democrats, too. But that’s still the explanation: The two parties, competing for votes with increasingly detailed information and extensive computational resources, converge on 50%. Doing this doesn’t require partisans of either party, who’d never in their wildest nightmares vote for the other party, to find anything to like about the opposition. They’re not the votes in play…

  9. And I have never seen evidence that the ‘hot dog vendor’ theory of politics actually matches what happens in real life. It doesn’t even happen for hot dog vendors!

    Really, when have you seen all the vendors clumped like that in a linear space. More likely, they would collude to space themselves farther apart, but work together to squeeze any competition that does show up.

  10. When we talk about targeting, there’s also the matter of targeting to discourage voters. The more you can alienate the general public from the political process, the more elections will be decided by the minorities on each side who turn out to vote.

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