Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Joe Biden might just have won the US Presidency, but how did he do it? How do American elections work, and how do parties secure votes? Politics and Economics students, this is a must-read!
If Politics is the study of "who gets what, when and how" as Harold Lasswell famously put it nearly 100 years ago, then elections are one of the central mechanisms to decide just that. In democratic societies, our votes can be our strongest voice in the political and economic arena.
But not all elections are the same. While A-Level Politics students need to be clued-up on how majoritarian systems like 'first past the post' (FPTP) function as opposed to 'proportional representation', I want to take us on a timely visit across the pond in the first part of this blog, to find out how our American friends vote. After that, I'm going to step things up a gear, and explore some of the more difficult questions which you might encounter thinking about elections at university. If you're considering studying a Politics or Economics degree, this might give you some inspiration for your personal statement!
The American Democratic Process
At first glance, American elections don't seem a million miles away from our own FPTP system; the country is carved up into various constituencies (or states) and then the members of these local areas vote for the party they prefer, with regional outcomes aggregated on a national scale to decide the overall winner. However, there are some crucial differences:
Primaries: Long before any voting takes place, there is an extensive pre-election process to determine who will actually get to run for the presidency within a given party. During these 'primaries', various candidates will tour the US to win a majority of 'delegates', which allow them to lead the party. Typically, the incumbent president doesn't need to worry too much at this stage because they already have their party's support. So, in 2020, all eyes were on the Democrat's primary election, where Joe Biden would see off his main challenger, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.
The Electoral College: One of the central quirks of the American system is what is known as 'electoral college votes'. There are 538 of them spread out across the US and a candidate needs 270 to guarantee victory. Across the 50 states, these votes are distributed according to population, to help balance the territorially large, but less populous states against the smaller but much more densely populated ones. For example, Florida has 29 electoral college votes assigned to in contrast to Delaware has 3 - the states have approximate populations of 21.5 million and 970,000 respectively. By winning the majority of votes in a given state, that candidate secures themselves the electoral college votes associated with that region.
While the electoral college might seem like a drastic break from the UK's system, you can think of it as being quite similar to how our constituencies work. Each constituency sort of acts like one college vote (by electing an MP to parliament), which is fair given that each constituency is home to roughly 70,000 people in England. In the US, states have varying population counts, so the electoral college helps weight each state fairly - pretty neat.
So that's the broad lowdown on American elections. Now, it's time to think about elections in far less descriptive terms, let's go!
How Do Parties Win Elections?
This seems like a relatively straightforward question, right? People vote for the party that gives them what they're after; whether that's fairer taxes, increased civil liberties, better environmental policy or a superfast train line between London and Birmingham (ring any bells?). So, it would seem like the party that promises what the majority of the people want gets to run the country.
Indeed, that is what economist Anthony Downs thought way back in 1957 when he developed Harold Hotelling's rather clever and highly influential idea called the 'median voter theory'. Essentially, what Downs figured was that we are 'proximity voters' (i.e. we vote for the party that is closest to our preference on a given issue), which in turn allows parties to manipulate their stance on key issues to draw in more voters. For example, if I want the government tax rate to be around 10% and the incumbent party is only offering a 15% rate, all it takes is for a rival party to offer a rate between 5% < X < 15% to capture my vote as that will be closer to my overall preference.
While this might seem like a fairly obvious insight, it has a strange implication for electoral competition. Imagine a race between two main parties, a little like the US election (between the Republicans and the Democrats); if a party can align itself to the preferences of the 'median voter' (the person whose policy preferences are right in the middle), it will also capture at least 50% of the electorate, enabling it to win the election outright. If the other party catches on, what should they do? They will need to target the median voter as well! Game theorists might call this a 'Nash equilibrium', the point where both parties are perfectly responding to each other. More broadly, this outcome is what is described as 'Downsian convergence', the idea that both parties will move towards the political centre to try and appeal to more voters.
Does this sound particularly convincing to you? It might seem a little familiar, if you can think back to Tony Blair's successful 1997 'New Labour' campaign (which aimed to make the traditionally left-wing Labour Party more centrist and thus more appealing), but I think there are few problems we can tease out here.
Firstly, I'm not sure that the overall pattern in global politics is one of convergence. I can't think of a more polarized election than the recent UK battle between Jeremy Corbyn's Labour and Boris Johnson's Conservatives. Secondly, Downs, like many economists, is using an awful lot of assumptions to achieve his convergence result: that voters have single-peaked, highly symmetrical preferences, that parties can have a pretty accurate idea of what these preferences are and target accordingly, that political races are fought by two parties, that the number of voters are odd ... the list goes on! Most critically, he is assuming that political issues are uni-dimensional. What on Earth do I mean by that? A uni-dimensional issue is one where positions can be drawn on a straight line, just like the tax example above.
Let's pause for a moment. Think about the issues that are important to you, are they uni-dimensional, or perhaps they are more nuanced than that?
A good example is a 'valence' issue - the types of issues we all typically agree on. Take corruption. It doesn't really make much sense (unless you have some particularly rogue interests!) to say "I want more corruption", so most people will say "I do not want a corrupt government". How do parties differentiate themselves on these issues where there is a broad consensus? Donald Stokes argues that we often view parties in non-ideological, non-rational ways in this domain. For example, we might think of certain parties or leaders as 'competent', 'irresponsible' or perhaps even 'naive' - this certainly sounds very familiar!
Take another moment to reflect, what reasons motivate you to support a particular party?
It's The Issues That Are The Issue
So far, we've thought about electoral competition with a pretty issue-heavy focus. Even when we decided to question Down's simple model, we still thought about party politics through an issue lens. But what if issues aren't really what's central to winning an election? Sure, they might be one aspect of a party's appeal, but lots of people vote for parties which might not always act in their best interests. Might it be the case that we vote for the party that best represents who we are? Welcome to identity politics.
We hear this term thrown around an awful lot, but it's really rather simple. I quite like the Stanford Encyclopedia's definition: "identity political formations typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within its larger context". That said, I feel that we can understand this idea on a much larger scale, and consider the possibility that identity politics can appeal to non-marginalized groups.
It's entirely plausible to vote for a certain party because it reflects the social and cultural groups you belong to, and its supporters are people you actively identify with. We often see portrayals of a certain types of voters in the news, hinting at this idea. Sceptical? Check out this interactive data sheet on the ever-divisive topic of Brexit, what sort of social groups and identities does it suggest for Leavers and Remainers? Now have a think more broadly about political parties in general, do you think they have particular social groups attached to them, or do people just vote rationally based on policy? Watch this clip, adapted from Barack Obama's final presidential speech. What is Obama appealing to here? Is he talking about issues, or perhaps he is talking about something which outlives those issues, the broader institution of the Democratic Party?
I, for one, think there is great mileage in this idea of identity, but it raises some rather difficult questions for median voter theories. If issues aren't at the centre of why people vote, can we really create a unified theory of voters and elections which reconciles both issues and identity? Is it possible to create a predicitve model in this context? Or, is the highly mathematical approach taken by economists an inappropriate way of tackling electoral politics?
On that last point, I'm going to leave you with some reading. Have a read of this short debate between Michael Kitson and William Janeway, and try to think about the advantages and limitations of using mathematics to predict human behaviour. If you have a library card and are feeling very ambitious, check out the first chapter of Tony Lawson's fascinating "Reorienting Economics" (2003). Yes, it's pretty heavy-going, but focus on his idea of 'open' and 'closed' systems and connect it to our discussion about elections and politics.
Blog Post Crafted by Oscar
Oscar studies Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Warwick.
When he's not studying PPE or tutoring GCSE Maths and Science, Oscar plays the saxophone and is the Musical Director for the University of Warwick Big Band.
In 2017, he set up his own jazz function band, Mirage Quartet, and has been a keen collaborator and ambassador for Bromley Youth Music Trust.