As lovers of democracy, we’d all like to think that elections are decided on policies and performance, but a new study shows that may not be the case.
“Election outcomes are mostly random events shaped by things like whether the economy happened to grow in the few months before the election,” says Larry M. Bartels, chair of public policy and social science at Vanderbilt University and co-author of Democracy for Realists: Why Elections do not Produce Responsive Governments.
For example, Bartels and co-author Social Sciences & Politics Professor Christopher Achen, at Princeton University, determined that shark attacks along the New Jersey shoreline in 1916 cost U.S. President Woodrow Wilson crucial votes.
“Just as in the Jaws movies, which were based on the New Jersey events, people stayed away from the beach in droves, and the Jersey Shore economy was devastated,” says Bartel.
“Woodrow Wilson was running for re-election that summer. He and his administration did everything they could to solve the problem, but then as now, no one could control sharks. The attacks were no one’s fault, but the voters bit back anyway. In the Shore towns, Wilson’s vote in November dropped precipitously.
President Woodrow Wilson served in office from 1913 to 1921 [Image: Biography]
Just last month, West Australian shark attack victim Ben Gerring died in hospital after losing a leg. Just a few days later, a diver was killed by a shark at a beach in Perth’s northern suburbs.
Bartel and Achen say there’s also strong evidence that other natural events can influence elections.
“We looked at droughts and floods for the whole course of the 20th century and found there’s a pretty consistent pattern of people voting against the incumbent party when their states are too wet or too dry. When collective misfortune strikes a society, someone must be blamed.”
It’s a long-held belief that election results are based on the incumbent’s performance, but that’s challenged by this latest study.
“People have studied that for a long time, and I have studied that, but it doesn’t work as well as people like to think,” Bartels says. “We’ve looked at people’s ability to assess an incumbent’s responsibility and found that they are not very good at that.”
“So there really isn’t a very strong incentive for politicians to respond to any particular policy agenda, and what they end up doing is implementing the set of policies they believe are good for the country.”