Monday, July 30, 2007

People Do Feel Entitled To Their Own Facts

My friend Phil Gordon takes criticism far better than I do--but that still leaves a considerable amount of room. On the other hand, I didn't endorse Andrew Thomas for County Attorney and then support John McCain for President, so maybe, just maybe, some gentle tweaking of the Mayor might be in order. My proposed title was "With So Many Facts Available, Why Shouldn't I Just Choose My Own?" but this time the editor went more clinical and less interesting.

East Valley Tribune, July 29, 2007

This year's Hindenburg Prize for badly-timed political endorsements goes to my friend Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, who endorsed John McCain for president just as McCain's campaign imploded. Gordon thus becomes the Leonardo DiCaprio of Arizona politics for portraying Jack Dawson, the lucky son-of-a-gun who won that ticket for passage on the ill-fated ship in Titanic.

High-efficacy voters in, say, the 2010 Democratic primary for governor will remember (or be reminded of) a high-profile Democratic mayor endorsing a rapidly-declining-in-popularity Republican. In Minnesota, St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly endorsed George W. Bush in 2004, then in 2005 got 31 percent of the vote in his reelection campaign -- the first incumbent to lose in three decades.

Gordon will be reelected handily (with my now-disclosed financial contribution); the McCain endorsement matters only for future races. Randy Kelly was far less popular, having been elected initially by fewer than 500 votes, and Kelly's 2005 opponent, current mayor Chris Coleman, was a popular city councilman. Coleman also had Wesley Clark, Bill Richardson, and John Kerry campaign for him, which happens if your opponent endorsed Bush.

Also, there's less to erstwhile Gordon opponent Jarrett Maupin than meets the eye. Maupin apparently assumed he could conjure up the 1,500 valid signatures needed to qualify for the ballot with happy thoughts. Once Maupin realized he couldn't get signatures merely by force of personality, his paid circulators had too little time. An election lawyer who reviewed Maupin's filing calls it the worst he's seen. It would be embarrassing, if Maupin only were capable of embarrassment.

The Democratic mayor's endorsement of the Republican senator makes sense three or four moves ahead on the political chessboard -- favorite son, won't win the GOP nomination, they're friends, gives Gordon even more bipartisan credibility. But this sort of reaching-across-the-aisle that makes pundits and people who don't pay much attention to politics alike go all weak-kneed may not have much basis with actual voters.

A new paper by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels of Princeton University, "It Feels Like We're Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy," shows that voters are indeed "rational" in a very narrow sense -- their issue positions are consistent, seemingly well-informed, and correlated to ideological preferences. But the authors' review of survey data shows most voters are much less committed to issues than to political candidates or party. In short, we choose sides first, then issues and facts to fit.

Achen and Bartels see very few voters actually engaging in "policy-oriented voting," voting for the candidate whose proposals are closest to their own preferences ("John Edwards has the best health care plan, which is my most important issue.") It's much more common to see "persuasion" voters, where the voter changes opinions to match the candidate or party they prefer (once George Bush supports comprehensive immigration reform, it becomes acceptable to certain Republicans.)

Those "persuasion" voters are joined by "projection" voters, who convince themselves that their candidate or party holds the same beliefs as they do (like Republicans who "knew" Jon Kyl's position on immigration). Unfortunately, partisan bias becomes stronger as voters' political information increases; "high information" voters are more likely to change their opinions to suit their existing loyalties.

We're not dispassionate, scientific analyzers of factual information; voters are downright tribal and unwilling to engage in what Achen and Bartels call "some modicum of accuracy in perception and receptiveness to new and, perhaps, disconfirming evidence." Or what Herbert Spencer called witnessing the "tragedy of the murder of a Beautiful Theory by a Gang of Brutal Facts."

Phil Gordon endorsed John McCain, and I write these columns, in the hope that voters actually read and consider contradictory things. But if Achen and Bartels are right, there's so much information available that not only can we choose our own opinions, we also can choose our own facts -- disregarding those that don't fit.

In other words, what people say they're doing, and what they're actually doing, aren't the same. You shouldn't need Princeton professors to teach you that.

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