November 24, 2007

Two heuristics that swing elections

Quico says: Political scientists have a dirty little secret. It's not really polite to say it in mixed company, but it's a fact: casting a smart vote is just not worth the effort.

To cast a fully informed vote, a voter would have to conduct an exhaustive search. In the case of the current Constitutional Reform Referendum, this would involve carrying out a full review of the juridical implications of each of the 70-odd articles up to be reformed, and then formulating a fully informed, perfectly rational judgment about it. Even assuming that's possible in principle (which some philosophers will tell you it isn't), it's surely not worth it.

The cost in time and effort is wildly out of proportion to the 'benefit': the negligible chance that your one measly vote will swing the election. Coldly considered casting an informed vote just doesn't make sense.

Note that this isn't an attack on regular people for being ignorant; just the opposite. It's an acknowledgment that, in trying to decide how to vote, ignorance is rational.

So rational voters do what they can to cut the costs of voting. They look for quick and easy solutions to the problem of making a decision. Academic types call them heuristics: rules of thumb designed to save time and effort. Heuristics are, by their nature, not fully rational: the whole reason they exist is to meet the need for shortcuts to full rationality.

A couple of heuristics seem to play a particularly important role in voters' behavior:

1. The nature of the times heuristic: When times are good, you vote for continuity. When times are bad, you vote for change.

2. The identification heuristic: You are more likely to vote for people you identify emotionally with, with people who, you sense, "get you."

It's due to the power of these two heuristics that so many surveys ask those familiar questions: "is the country on the right track or on the wrong track?" and "does X understand the problems of people like you?" Depressingly, those questions seem to predict voting outcomes almost as well as asking people straight out who they plan to vote for.

So how are these two heuristics likely to pan out next Sunday?

1. Sporadic shortages notwithstanding, the times are definitely good. With a massive oil bonanza fueling a 70s style consumption boom, people will tend to vote for continuity. But does that mean voting SI or NO? That's not so clear. Continuity with the government means discontinuity with the constitution, and vice versa.

The Nature of the Times heuristic explains why both campaigns have struggled to define themselves as standard bearers of continuity.

Chávez has implied that voting "No" would introduce a radical discontinuity (musing publicly about quitting his job if the No wins), and using the unambiguously continuista slogan: "SIgue con Chávez".

The opposition has stressed just how radical the proposed changes are (e.g. "it's not a reform, it's a new constitution"), and saying it would be better to start respecting the constitution we already have than to change it. And the "No" side is aided by the fact that it is the "No" side - an advantage when voters want no change.

2. The Identification heuristic has always worked brilliantly for Chávez. He's a charismatic guy, and has long had a knack for convincing regular folks that he's just like them and, like them, totally unlike the fat cat opposition.

But think how long it's been since we've heard him ask "MariPili, ¿a cuánto está el pollo?" With time, Chávez has morphed from garrulous populist to sectarian socialist. Certainly, Chávez in 2007 is a far more ideologically oriented speaker than he was even a year ago.

But here's the rub: it was always Populist Chávez that folks identified with. Socialist Chávez vaguely scares people: he's too strident, too rigid. His speeches are too abstract to tug at the old identification heuristic heartstrings like populist Chávez could. If there's one point that all Venezuelan pollsters agree on, it's that Chávez is popular despite his ideological agenda, not because of it.

For a long time, people were smitten with him because they felt that he cared about their individual, personal problems; so much so that many went to great lengths to write those problems on a slip of paper and put them - literally - in his hands. But the more esoteric and strident his discourse gets, the more detached from the mundane problems of day to day life in a poor country, the less people feel his government is all about their problems.

Chávez doesn't seem wise to these trends. Instead of realizing he's in a tight race and focusing, the guy spent the last month traveling all around the world, picking big fights with everyone in sight, spending all his time worrying about FARC's hostages or an American attack on Iran, and generally not paying any attention at all to "the problems of people like you."

All of which helps explain why polls show a big majority think constitutional reform is about what's in Chávez's interest, not about what's in the people's interests. And why Datanalisis has NiNis trending No by a bone crushing 5-to-1 margin. Which is huge.

Comando Zamora is fighting the last war. The basic flaw in the its "SIgue con Chávez" strategy is that personalizing the campaign, in 2007, means personalizing it around a figure people identify with considerably less than they once did. In fact, it means centering the campaign on a guy people suspect is doing this for his benefit, not theirs.

It's going to be an interesting week.