Strategic voting and democracy

Posted: 8 August 2016 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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Presidential polling and forecasts (such as those from FiveThirtyEight) in the United States have quite definitively moved in favor of Hillary Clinton. And, by the time this gets posted, the gap between Clinton and Donald Trump will probably have grown even more.

We should remember all such polling presumes voters are “sincere,” that is, they will vote for the candidate they think is the “better” choice.

But what if voters are strategic, that is, they make tactical decisions in their voting? Then polling, and the forecasts that stem from them, are going to be deceptive. And the loser in the polls might be the winner in the election.

The obvious strategic choice, for those who don’t want Trump elected but also dislike (for a whole host of valid reasons) Clinton, is to vote for the Green Party’s Jill Stein. The idea is that, at least in states where Clinton appears to be a “lock,” it’s important to run up the numbers to Clinton’s left, in order to put pressure on her electoral campaign and post-election policies. This is presumably the option that at least some, and perhaps a large number, of Bernie Sanders’s supporters will choose in November.

But there’s another strategic choice, which will also lower Clinton’s final numbers: those who are indifferent between Clinton and Trump (because both have moved “too left,” or at least more populist, on economic policy) but certainly don’t want Clinton to win in a landslide. It’s the argument Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. has recently made in the Wall Street Journal:

let’s also remember that even if Trump defeats himself, it would not be the same as reaccrediting the Depublican and Remocrat leadership class of which Mrs. Clinton is so spectacular an example. Our system of institutions is not designed to find us the “right” person to be our national hero/role model. Its job is to harness and constrain the forces and personalities that democratic populism throws up.

Voters are perfectly entitled to ask themselves if one of our major parties has thrown up a candidate unsuitable purely on grounds of personality and temperament, but we also should have some humility about the historical moment we’re living through. A narrow Hillary victory or Trump victory might not be outcomes all that distinguishable from each other in the end—whereas a Clinton landslide that produces, like the first two Obama years, one-party government fundamentally out of sync with the American electorate and out of sync with the national moment could be the larger misfortune.

This is an argument for continued “gridlock,” which may be precisely what American businesses want at the national level. Presuming Clinton is going to win the presidential election, they want to make sure at least the House, if not the Senate—in other words, the result of the down-ticket races—remains in the opposition’s hands. And that’s the reason they may vote strategically for Trump.

I can well imagine both these strategic voting decisions affecting the presidential vote, especially if the polling and forecast gaps between Clinton and Trump continue to grow.

To be clear, I am not trying to make an argument for or against voting (or, for that matter, for or against strategic voting). Precisely because it raises the possibility that the winner might lose (or, alternatively, the loser might win), the case I’m trying to make is that voting in elections is merely the semblance of democracy and that democracy falls far short of the horizon of the politics we actually need today.

Comments
  1. I certainly think that your conclusion is true, and you have argued for it in numerous other places. How it exactly emerges from the thoughts you have just shared is unclear to me. Except that your reference to WSJ indicates that powerful interests regard elections as a device for stifling the popular will. Otherwise the distinction between sincere and strategic voting is also useful, but serves to support your intended conclusion only if we know in advance that the society is not just or egalitarian– that there is a small dominant class whose strategizing is more efficacious. Apart from this minor point, of course the post is helpful, as usual…

  2. So I would say you are not here a r g u i n g. — in the sense of presenting a self-contained set of premises and conclusion within this one post– but rather r e m i n d i n g. your readers of a point you have argued for in numerous places….

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