Bruce Buchanan is professor of government in the university's College of Liberal Arts. His specialties are presidential and American politics, American institutions, public policy and political behavior. Buchanan is writing a book on presidential accountability. A chapter from "Presidential Accountability for Wars of Choice" is available online.
How are the voters doing this mid-term season? It's a question not often asked, but it is worth raising because intentionally or not, voters create most of the incentives that influence the candidates and the news media. Here are some examples of how incentives are working in 2010.
1. Some polls show that pluralities think Democrats have better ideas for fixing most problems than Republicans, yet the same polls show that more voters plan to support Republican candidates in the mid-term elections. Why? History suggests that angry voters think it's more important to punish incumbents for perceived or actual incompetence than to chart the way forward. An ever larger group of independents intensifies this trend, as they tend to side with whatever party is not in charge. Recent Pew polls suggest that the current Republican advantage stems mostly from its lead among independents. These voter tendencies reduce the Republicans' incentive to press a detailed substantive agenda of their own.
2. Many analysts say campaign strategies will matter far less to the outcomes in 2010 than the fact that the economy is in dire straits. Yet most mid-term election media coverage lavishes attention on the state of the Tea Party in particular, followed by the ebbs and flows in the polls which, despite minor changes, still show Republicans ascendant and Democrats in trouble. Why does this coverage pattern persist? It does so because novelty and conflict grab eyeballs, whereas economic and other policy analysis makes them glaze over. It's all about newspaper sales and TV ratings, after all, and voters determine those.
3. Why is it that campaigns in this and most election years strive above all for a winning message for candidates with little concern about a useful briefing for voters? Whose election is it? In theory it's the voters, but they're not complaining about the focus of the campaigns. That leaves it to those with the money and the will to set the terms of political combat. The Supreme Court approves, yet many thoughtful observers do not think it healthy for secretive big money to have such sway in the electoral process. That influence endures in part because the issue of "billionaire politics" doesn't rank very high on lists of voter concerns.
There are self-interested political calculations by financiers, candidates, media and voters behind each of the problems above. Yet all this "rational self-interest" leaves us in a fix when it comes to solving big national problems after the mid-terms, when congressional supermajorities will be a thing of the past, and veto politics dominant. The dilemma is well-summed by political scientist Larry Diamond: "(W)ith all the vested interests that have accrued around (our) two parties (we) cannot think about the overall public good and the longer term anymore because both parties are trapped in short-term, zero sum calculations," where each one's gains are seen as the other's losses.
Could voters, who are not presently attuned to this paralysis, become part of its solution? They will have to if the incentives that created it are ever to change.
Visit the mid-term elections blog series home page for a complete lineup of faculty experts' analyses.