Why did Scott Walker defeat Tom Barrett in yesterday’s Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election? There is no single, simple answer to that question, any more than there is a single, simple answer to the question of why the Celtics defeated the Heat last night. But based on our knowledge of elections, we can identify some guideposts. Any reasonable analysis of an election’s outcome should start with this list:
– Physical characteristics of the candidates. Generally speaking, candidates that appear at first glance to be more competent and compassionate will defeat candidates their opponents.
– Incumbency. Incumbents tend to have an advantage in any election, due to a variety of factors: name recognition, familiarity, and the selection bias of having been already proven to be the kind of candidate who can win an election for that office.
– Publicity. Huge advertising discrepancies can matter, especially in building name recognition or in determining whether most voter’s first impression of a particular candidate is positive or negative.
– Big issues. Voters are not sophisticated about issues, but extremely positive, negative, or polarizing publicity surrounding a very small number of important issues can drive voters to the polls in some cases. Think corruption charges, rumors of an affair, or in the Walker case, his anti-union stances–which likely did affect a couple percent of the vote.
– Campaign apparatus. Campaigns matter a lot. Why? Because the biggest driver of turnout is whether or not a neighbor called you on the phone that day and asked you if you voted. Campaigns that don’t have the volunteers or the organization to drive name recognition and turnout among potential supporters will tend to get beaten in otherwise close races.
– Macroeconomic indicators. These provide rough indicators for how satisfied people are with their lives and with their government. Particularly rising unemployment and/or inflation can cause more people to feel poor and dissatisfied, and lead to a pretty strong anti-incumbency effect.
There are certainly other factors that might affect particular elections, but in most cases you probably don’t need to go any deeper than those six factors. And so, if you want a pretty good post-election analysis of why Walker won the Wisconsin recall, check out the Washington Posts’ Fix blog.
What does bad post-election analysis look like? What’s the equivalent of an analyst proclaiming that the Heat lost because Bob in the third row didn’t wear lucky socks tonight? Well, bad analysis looks like this New York Times Ross Douthat article, which tries to place the Wisconsin recall inside a broader sweep of modern political history in which the voters act as the hyper-rational arbiters on the sidelines of an epic political clash between the two parties.
Bull. Show me the evidence. Oh wait, he can’t. Because there is no evidence that “the electorate is getting more conservative”; it’s the 21st century equivalent of blaming cancer on an imbalance of humors. At best you can argue that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy; more likely, it is an attempt to find a pattern in a series of largely unrelated events. And moreover, to extrapolate from this one election in Wisconsin to a broader trend about American politics is as absurd as saying that the fact that it warmed up this afternoon when the sun came out points to a broader trend of global warming.