What Elections Can’t Tell Us and What Candidates Can

What Elections Can’t Tell Us and What Candidates Can

One of the favorite activities of analysts (admittedly including myself) is to assign meaning to events involving mass behavior.

If one reads market information, for example, one frequently encounters explanations for market swings in which the market is anthropomorphized (is described as though it were a human being). Consider this quote from a story on Marketwatch.com about last month’s overall strong showing for Wall Street:

“Shrugging off global-growth fears that dogged the market back in August, Wall Street managed to log one of its best monthly gains in years.”

The second half of the statement is simply about the numbers. The first half, however, evokes an image of an industrial behemoth shaking itself free of worries, much as Rip Van Winkle shook himself free of his long, long sleep.

Wall Street isn’t a person. It can’t “fear” anything.

What happens on Wall Street results from the aggregation of thousands of individual and institutional investor decisions. There’s no “Wall Street” to interview to find out why; there are only analysts speculating about the connection between events and market swings.

So how do we know it was “global-growth fears” that held the markets down in August?

We don’t.

Certainly we can surmise that it was likely to be a factor. But without drawing a careful, representative sample of traders, investment firms and individual investors, we cannot know what drove the market’s movements. We can suggest, and we may be right in part, but we cannot hope to summarize the driving forces in a single phrase.

The same is true for elections. Elections also are the result of the aggregation of innumerable individual decisions. In fact, elections are much more of a simple aggregation of individual decisions than market movements; there aren’t any large “institutional” voters casting blocks of votes. Even organized groups ultimately cannot dictate how individuals choose to vote in the privacy of the voting booth. At least, they better not be able to do so!

When scientific exit polls are conducted, we can learn something about what tended to drive voters’ decisions. Within the limits of their samples and their questions, they can provide some insight, help us understand a little of what “the public” might have been thinking. But they are not definitive. Truth to tell, what we say as voters leaving the polls may not be (and often isn’t) the whole story about why we voted as we did. We might not even know ourselves.

And in the absence of such data (the normal state of affairs), analysts interpreting elections are left to grasp at phantoms in the air. Even if the candidates who win all agreed on some issue of seeming importance, and the candidates who lost all took a different view, one cannot say that the issue was the reason for the outcome. Correlation does not assure us of causation.

What we can do is talk about what the policy and political consequences may be. It’s not “the voters clearly wanted.” It’s “with so-and-so elected, we can expect.”

In St. Petersburg, just across the bay from me, Tuesday’s election appears to have nudged the needle in favor of letting the Tampa Bay Rays look beyond the jurisdictional boundaries of St. Petersburg for a site for their new home. That’s because a candidate who made statements favoring such an arrangement took the seat of a councilmember who had opposed such arrangements (term limits caused that councilmember to step down).

That the needle has moved on the council is not the same thing as saying the public wanted the needle moved. We just don’t know what “the public” thinks; we only know how some of them voted.

And that’s enough.

Representative democracy isn’t about bound delegates elected to execute the express will of the majority. It’s about the accounts elected officials and candidates give of their actions and plans. The work of government, municipal, county, state and federal, is vastly more complex than a bound delegate model could handle.

Which is why elections should be, in large part, about why candidates say they will do what they say they will do (or why they did what they did). It’s not just about the decision, it’s about the rationale.

We should expect candidates and elected officials to tell us why. And they should answer in terms that make sense to us, that express our hopes and aspirations for our community, give priority to our goals and values, and demonstrate practical thinking about the best way to get the job done.