Public choice analysts tend to place more emphasis on salience than on valence as ultimate determinants of political elections under conditions of democracy. Valence – as we noted yesterday – focuses on issues of character. Valence differences will determine presidential elections when the candidates are closely matched in terms of salience. Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford on valence differentials, of which the Nixon pardon was center-stage. Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980 on valence differentials, perceived strength versus perceived weakness on the international stage playing a key role.
The 2012 presidential election will not be determined primarily by valence. The salience differences between the two candidates will be enormous. In such circumstances, all except the most rationally ignorant among the voters will vote political position rather than personal character.
Salience is the term used to define the positions in political space adopted by the competing candidates. When public choice first began in the 1940s, it was thought that political space was completely defined on a single left-right spatial dimension. By the 1960s, public choice scholars had rejected that hypothesis. Using exit poll data archived at the University of Michigan, they retrieved three significant spatial dimensions: economic, social and military, each definable, albeit imperfectly, on a left-right line. So work proceeds now much more cautiously in identifying the multi-dimensional political positions of the competing candidates.
Presidential elections are determined, of course, not by the popular vote, but by vote majorities within the Electoral College. Thus, small States bat above their population weights in determining the final outcome. Nevertheless, the closer a candidate is able to position himself in terms of the median voter in economic, social and military space, as perceived by those voters, in general, the better his chances of victory. So the task of estimating such voter positioning – or of edging median voters through campaign spending to positions favored by the candidate – is key to the election outcome.
In any event, an incumbent president cannot move easily in political space. He is defined in such space largely by his record. So President Obama is irreversibly defined for 2012 on the left of center divide of the economic and the social spectra. Despite success in pursuing terrorists, he is also irreversibly defined as left-of-center on Iran, North Korea and Syria. In economic terms, Stimuli II and III, Obamacare, and the automobile bail-outs rule out any run from the capitalist corner. His adoption of fairness over efficiency as a campaign mantra confirms this positioning. In social terms, regulatory policy defines him well to the left of center. In military terms, the early withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan suggest a reactive rather than a proactive future role for America under his leadership.
Mitt Romney, as a political outsider, will define his salience during the GOP primaries. Thereafter, he also will be significantly, though not as irreversibly, locked into political space. As the challenger, this provides him with a flexibility that counter-balances his rival’s greater brand image. Whatever balance of policy initiatives he adopts, they will be recognizably somewhat to the right of center, in terms of economic, social and military policy. So each voter will enjoy a clear, if ultimately limited, choice between the two major candidates for office.
Those voters located in the left hand and those in the right hand tail of the voter distribution may feel much more intensely about policies than do those in the middle. But that makes no difference to election outcomes. With secret ballots, voters cannot trade their votes. Those in the tails will always be disappointed. Rarely will a presidential candidate run to the tail. Barry Goldwater and Walter Mondale are startling examples of the political annihilation that follows such a gamble.
In tomorrow’s column, I shall outline for Mitt Romney the salience that I would identify for myself, were I running for the Presidency. In choosing that salience, I shall be concerned to win the election and not to end up annihilated. So policy compromises will be essential. I shall refrain from any ‘lost cause presentation. Lost causes are just that. They are not the basis for effective politics.