06 November, 2008

Why are there so many close elections? pt 1

Why does it feel like so many elections are decided by less than a few points, or even much less than a single percentage point? This time around we had Missouri, North Carolina, and Indiana for the presidential race, and Alaska and Minnesota for the Senate (along with a few as-of-yet undecided House seats).

In my limited experience in elective politics (that is, graduate student gov't and high school student council), most people recognize one of the candidates as being clearly the best, and then peoples' desire to not be on the losing side or be in the social minority pushes the winner to a commanding victory. In state and national elections, a person's vote is private and and most people probably don't worry about losing friends over who they go with, but it's still not clear why there are so many close-calls. Statistically, we would expect a really close election every once in a while, but one wouldn't expect them to occur a quarter of the time, or even as little as 10% of the time.

I haven't looked at any statistics on this, so it's very possible that very close elections are very rare over the entire history of U.S. politics. Hence the "part 1". Hopefully a more informed post with some actual data will materialize in the near future.

I think we could expect elections always be close if the following things were true:

  • The major political parties have almost identical platforms.
  • All people want the same types of things in the same way.
Conversly, we would expect elections to rarely be close if were true that the major political parties have distinctly different platforms that represent different ideals and (somewhat mutually exclusive) worldviews. This seems to be more of the case to me.

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