In the days after the US midterm elections cable news outlets, radio programs, political pundits, newspapers, and activists on both sides of the ideological spectrum have exerted a great deal of blood and sweat to explain the nationwide drubbing of the Democrats. Democrats are predictably covering their behinds—conceding voter anger, but cautioning that the country has not lurched to the right in just two years. Republicans are claiming validation of their position and a greater ideological alignment with the American people. Activists and enthusiasts of all stripes are weaving narratives that use the election results to validate their personal political perspective. The question, of course, is whether any of this is correct or meaningful. Was this election a mass repudiation of Democratic policies? Was it a validation of the Republican platform and/or Tea Party-style conservatives?
Elections are like Rorschach bots—everyone sees something different, and often times what they see is what they want to see. Particularly with elections, people like to place causation in the hands of people—agents—whose efforts, words, thoughts, etc, drive the outcome. And to be sure, individual agents can and do wield a great deal of influence on events. But an overemphasis on agents can lead to spurious conclusions about why something happens. You must also look at structural or environmental factors. Over at the Monkey Cage, John Snides has a great piece precisely along these lines. Snides and his colleagues looked at which factors where the best predictors of voter choice:
If you had one thing, and one thing only, to predict which Democratic House incumbents would lose their seats in 2010, what would you take? The amount of money they raised? Their TARP vote? Their health care vote? Whether they had a Tea Party opponent? A Nazi reenactor opponent?
Not surprisingly, it’s none of those. Continue reading