Voting rationality as altruism (take that, Ayn Rand!), and the mysterious psychology of the Yellow-Tailed American Voter

If one must use “D,” one ought to at least do it well. Brian Weatherson on CT links to a paper, and subsequent discussion, that presumably does just that (since Gelman* is involved, and Gelman is one of the best political scientists/statisticians alive). The basic argument: by voting, you do a crapload of charity to others. I haven’t read the paper, so won’t comment on the argument, but if you’re curious, it’s bound to be worth a read. Brian’s post, which I have read, is also worth reading.

There’s one thing I don’t get:

Moreover, that effect need not be localised. It’s pretty unlikely that New York will be a swing state any time soon. It’s unlikely that it will be close, and conditional on it being close, it’s unlikely that the national race will be close. But cross-voter incentives can work across state lines. People pay attention to what the national popular vote number is, and it effects their marginal disposition to vote/campaign for candidates that you like. So a vote in New York now may translate into benefits in swing states (which probably means the Mountain West) in the future.

People keep saying things like this, and I don’t get it. Why should the fact that people in New York voted for X give someone in Colorado a reason to vote for X? Is the idea something like “the people of X affiliation in Colorado get dispirited if their allies in New York don’t turn out?” Or is it “people get excited by lots of other voters/update their priors on the worthiness of voting by evidence from others voting?” What’s going on here? And why should we believe it’s true? I demand empirical evidence for this.

In a similar vein, but with the opposite conclusion, Larry Lessig thinks that democrats, at least, vote less often when they think others are voting with them:

But here’s the weird deja vu I feel. In 2004, I got on a plane Tuesday to fly to London. When I got on the plane, I watched every pundit, as well as Kerry’s daughter, speak about how all the polls were with Kerry. The “exit polls” indicated a clear Kerry victory. But then when I landed, I sat it utter disbelief in the United lounge at Heathrow, watching the Ohio numbers go against us, and therefore, delivering 4 more years to Bush.

We Democrats have trouble closing the deal. We have trouble continuing the push to the very last moment. We have repeatedly been blindsided by the fact that the other side votes regardless of the expected result, while we’re more contingent — making the effort if it seems necessary, relaxing when it doesn’t.

This notion has the virtue of matching a sensible notion of rationality: if one thinks one’s candidate is going to win, one has no real reason to vote (except for the perfectly legitimate** expressive reasons, like when I bothered to write in my Obama-Nader vote so as to have voted for the first black president). But it seems to express the opposite intuition on how voters’ minds work from Weatherson’s. Not completely opposite, because we might imagine that the Lessig effect works within states, and the Weatherson effect comes across state lines. But the underlying psychological models sem to be very different. Again, I demand empirical data on this!

Conclusion: political scientists ought to still have jobs.

* Speaking of Gelman, here’s another interesting working paper:

What will we know on Tuesday at 7pm?
Gelman, Andrew, Silver, Nate
Abstract: Using 10,000 simulations from a probabilistic election forecast, we compute the conditional distribution of the Obama and McCain’s vote margins and electoral vote totals, given the outcomes of the states whose polls are the first to close. We consider the scenario in which the vote margins are available in each state, and separately consider the possibility that we are only told each state’s winner.

** I think it is perfectly rational to vote for Obama in part because he’s black. (On the whole “black”/”half-black” question, the one-drop rule was used against black folks for decades… it’s part of our social construction of race.) Crispin Sartwell puts it well:

ruminations on voting for obama:
it’s relevant that he’s black. obama’s election would be an amazing moment for the country. dubois said in 1903 the 20th century would be the century of the color line; maybe the 21st will not be. it would be an incredibly hopeful moment, sort of a bookend, the other end of the civil war. people are saying that it shows something great about us even if he loses. no. if he loses people will say it’s race and that we still live in a fundamentally racist country. they will have a point.

Let us not forget that racism is still alive, even in liberal Palo Alto.


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