Sunday, 2 November 2008

2008 US Election: Understanding Voting Behaviour

Can Barack Obama still lose the election despite leading in all the polls less than 3 days before election day? Of course he can. Nothing is certain in politics. A lot can still happen between now and Tuesday. As Obama himself pointed out, "it’s gonna get nasty" in these last few days. Already, news of Obama's Kenyan aunt's illegal status in America has just 'conveniently' emerged. And the Republicans, not wanting to appear personal in it's attack, simply commented that "it is a family matter". Nice!

Analysis and predictions on how Obama could still lose the election range from sensational conspiracy theories to some very pertinent and real social psychological phenomena. Of the latter, one that I am most curious about is the Bradley effect. In 1982, Tom Bradley, an African-American, ran as the Democratic Party's candidate for Governor of California. All the polls before the election showed Bradley with significant leads against his White-American Republican rival. Bradley however narrowly lost the election and his defeat was attributed to a large number of White voters who voted against him despite proclaiming their support prior to the election in response to polling questions. Why? Because these White voters feared being labelled as racists if they told pollsters they were not going to vote for Bradley.

The Bradley effect will certainly come into play in this year's US Presidential Election. That is without a doubt. The only question is how significant will it be? Will it be significant enough to give John McCain an unlikely victory? Many political commentaters and Obama supporters think that it won't. The McCain camp agrees while at the same time hoping that it would. We'll just have to wait and see.

Whether Obama or McCain gets elected is not of direct concern to us non-Americans. However, once you consider that the US President is the leader of the world's largest economy and most powerful military, hence arguably the most powerful man on earth, we, citizens of the world should observe the elections with keen interest. There is no doubt that most people outside America want Barack Obama to win. His multicultural background indeed is a major factor, but above all, I believe Obama's plan to reinvigorate international diplomacy in his foreign policy; a refreshing change to the Bush doctrine, that has really endeared him to the international community.

Furthermore, for many non-Americans like myself, the choice is pretty obvious. As W Scott Thompson pointed out, "McCain came in near the bottom of his (Naval) Academy class, Obama the top (Harvard Law School). Sarah Palin had to try five times to get through college (earning a bachelor degree in journalism). Obama ran the Harvard Law Review — you can’t get higher. Why wasn’t the choice obvious?" I can't agree more.

Which brings me to the issue of political sophistication. In 1960, psychologists from the University of Michigan conducted a landmark study on how Americans decide on who and which party they would vote for. The survey's result, published in the book The American Voter, categorised Americans into four groups of levels of conceptualisation. The first two groups; the ideologues and near-idealogues who account for 2.5 percent and 9.5 percent of the American population respectively, are party loyalists who vote for their respective parties partly due to their strong belief in the party's ideology, but arguably more because of blind loyalty. The rest in the population are 'independent voters', who may be persuaded to vote for a particular party or candidate because of "group benefits" (42 percent of the population), "the nature of times" (24 percent), and for no reason whatsoever (22.5 percent, which represents the number of Americans who don't care and not interested about politics, and most likely has never voted in any elections). This study was of course done almost 50 years ago but a recent study published in the book The American Voter Revisited presents some very startling similar results.

What these studies have basically concluded is that the majority of Americans are unsophisticated voters; they don't understand the main issues in the elections and they don't do any research or serious thinking when they cast their votes. A damning revelation considering that the reason why we have direct presidential elections in the first place is to choose the best leader to lead a country. How can the 'best' person be elected if the majority of the population are ignorant on the issues? In reality, the person who is elected is one who has the most number of votes (in America, that would mean the electoral college votes), but when the people who voted them in are considerably ignorant, does the person who receives the highest votes really is the BEST person to lead the country? This is what we call the paradox of democracy.

If the reason not to vote for Obama is his inexperience, that is quite understandable. His lack of executive experience is indeed an issue but the fact that he has managed to run a successful and discipline campaign (he has never used race as an issue) against firstly the Clintons, and now against John McCain, shows what an astute person he is, a quality I believe is more important than mere number of years of experience (and a mounting political baggage that comes with it) in the senate. Even then, I can understand why some people would still vote for McCain because of his greater experience and image as a maverick.

What I don't understand is why many Americans are still supporting McCain's running mate Sarah Palin? The case for Sarah Palin is that she is an average American, a hockey mum, who connects with the American people. Well yes, she is just as ignorant! Her public statements in the last two months have shockingly exposed the vastness of her ignorance, which for a person who could be a heartbeat away from the presidency, is really unbelievable. In that sense, yes, Sarah Palin can relate to the hockey mums and Joe Six-Packs in America. But as Jon Meacham's Newsweek wrote, "do we (Americans) want leaders who are everyday folks, or do we want leaders who understand everyday folks?"

I would argue for the latter for America and all other countries in the world. And for that to happen, voters need to acquire greater political sophistication.


bubu said...

Well written indeed. To some extent, this has made me to become more interested in voting behaviors.

fat_elephant said...

the Americans were tested yesterday (4th November 2008) and they performed. although the world is now witnessing a new political paradigm, we are yet to see the real result.

i'm sure we can learn something from the Americans in terms of political sophistication. while they managed to convince us that in American politics everything is possible, we need not to forget that out political perimeters are different from them. Hence we need to critically assess the Americans before further discussion regarding their political system take into place.

however, i agree with your point on the paradox of democracy. can i say, its an unsolved dilemma? should we review again the meaning of democracy? dunno...

Zaki Samsudin said...

mr./ms. bubu & fat elephant,

thank you for your comments.

i was in the US on September last year and at that time, the talk among Americans i met was that the country was not ready for a African-American president. how fast things have changed? could Obama be elected if he was a Malaysian? the article linked below would be an interesting read:

as for the paradox of democracy, i am essentially against the 'one-man-one vote' principle. i'll try to deliberate more on that one of these days.