Whether Voters are Rational

If they aren’t, why are they so good at getting what they want? Consider the Presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Clinton had to do conservative things to appeal to the median voter, and Bush had to do liberal things for the same reason. Some note that despite this, liberals hated Bush, and conservatives hated Clinton, and say that this shows irrationality. But it also shows voters getting what they want. To the extent both candidates offer the same basic set of substantive policies, the only remaining source of differentiation is a set of symbolic policies, and various forms of cultural signaling. So voters are rational enough, or politicians think they’re rational enough, that they get what they want substantively regardless, and the only thing left to vote on is irrational factors.

On the other hand, there are differences between the Parties. After all, not everything is about chasing the median voter. Another part of winning is to appeal to various constituencies. But aren’t these constituencies pretty good at getting what they want? Pro-gun voters are famously good at getting their way, for instance. The abortion issue has been one of the biggest substantive disagreements in American politics for decades, and people passionate about that issue quite rationally became single-issue voters and took over the respective political parties. But not everyone is strongly pro-life or pro-choice; you need to give people non-substantive reasons to vote as well.

“But wait,” you might be saying. “If similarities between the Parties proves voters are rational, and differences also prove they are rational; if voting on substance proves voters are rational, and voting on style also proves they are rational, what would make them irrational?” Indications of voter irrationality might include: an inability to get what they want; routinely voting for exciting, charismatic or superficially appealing candidates; and voting on style at the expense of substance (not just in the absence of substantive reasons to vote.

The only time recently that I can think of when an American political party really defied the voters was the Democrats passing Obamacare in 2009. When that was happening, voters in Massachusetts rejected their superficial preference for the Democratic Party and elected Scott Brown, a pro-choice, anti-Obamacare Republican perfectly suited to the state’s actual political preferences, to try to stop the bill’s passage. In the 2010 election, similarly, voters rejected Democrats in a landslide. This doesn’t add up to a proof that voters are rational, but it adds up to a lack of evidence that they are irrational. If you go back far enough, you can find other instances of Parties defying public opinion: Dukakis opposed the death penalty in 1988, and lost big; Goldwater rejected the New Deal in 1964 and lost in a landslide.


Sometimes, people indict voters by pointing to their ignorance of certain facts. For instance, “A…1996…survey found that…70 percent believed the federal budget deficit had risen in the previous five years while only 12 percent said correctly that the deficit had declined.” True, but the times when people appear to actually treat the deficit as a voting issue are those times when it really is peaking, such as 1992 and 2010. “Interviewees on the average thought that the unemployment rate of a little over 5 percent stood at over 20 percent.” Sure, but election results famously correlate well to actual economic data. Similarly, I’ve read that voters told pollsters in the mid-80s that they still thought inflation was really high. But again, they seem to have treated inflation as an actual voting issue in the 70s, when it really was high. When it declined, they rewarded Reagan with a 49 state landslide in 1984.

Of course, if election results correlated too perfectly with economic data, we could object that voters were only slightly rational- that they were using a crude criterion and ignoring circumstances. But there are outliers. In the 1982 election, for instance, the economy remained in recession, but Republicans lost only 26 House seats and no Senate seats, less than models would have predicted. Reagan’s “stay the course” message succeeded. As a 2010 New Republic article described it:

“Reagan blamed the Democrats for leaving him with ‘the worst economic mess in half a century.’ ‘Slowly, but surely, we are lifting the economy out of the mess created over the past several decades,’ he said. ‘We are on the road back.’ The Democrats, he charged, had caused the recession through profligate spending, which had caused inflation, which had caused unemployment…

“According to the NBC/Associated Press exit polls, when voters were asked whether Reagan’s economic program would eventually help or hurt the economy, 46 percent said it would help and 45 percent said it would hurt. Forty-four percent of voters blamed the Democrats for the country’s economic ills and only 41 percent blamed Reagan. A mere six percent of voters saw Reagan’s program as a ‘success,’ while 36 percent thought it was a failure. But 49 percent thought that ‘Reagan needs time for his economic program to succeed.’ That was, public opinion analyst William Schneider concluded, ‘precisely the president’s argument in his “stay the course” campaign.’” So apparently, voters can be persuaded to evaluate the policies themselves, not just take a “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” look at the results.


Mark Twain’s “Corn Pone Opinion” was a typical essay on the stupid, conformist masses. In it he wrote “men think they think upon great political questions, and they do; but they think with their party, not independently…In our late canvass half of the nation passionately believed that in silver lay salvation, the other half as passionately believed that that way lay destruction. Do you believe that a tenth part of the people, on either side, had any rational excuse for having an opinion about the matter at all.” But people lined up according to their interests. As Wikipedia says : “Everyone agreed that free silver would raise prices; the question was whether or not this inflationary measure would be beneficial…The debate pitted the pro-gold financial establishment of the Northeast, along with railroads, factories and businessmen, who were creditors who would benefit from disinflation (resulting from demand pressures on the relatively fixed gold money supply against a backdrop of unprecedented economic expansion), against poor farmers who would benefit from higher prices for their crops (resulting from the prospective expansion of the money supply by allowing silver to also circulate as money).”