In the hours following the election defeat of Alex Sink, speculation as to why she was defeated started to surface. Some talked about her as a candidate, some talked about issues, others talked about how poorly her campaign ran. Basically, all of these are factors of an overall picture, which is voter turnout.
In this race, as in any race, voter turnout is the key to victory. If Candidate A turns out more voters than Candidate B, Candidate A wins. If nobody turned out to vote and no votes were cast, then no winner would be declared. People are motivated to turn out for one reason or another. Voters do not commit the act of voting purely because they have nothing else to do on a Tuesday afternoon. They do it because they have a perceived special interest in the outcome of the election.
But the ways in which a campaign can maximize vote turnout is vitally important to the success of the election. Just using the term “turnout” to explain the situation is incorrect. Turnout is a result of a an election campaign, which is measured by the number of votes cast for a candidate. Therefore, turnout is the dependent variable that is being measured. Other independent variables influence the turnout number, which will be discussed in this essay. But turnout on its own is not casual explanation for the success or failure for a campaign. A deeper explanation is needed.
So, what are these factors that help us understand how high, or low, turnout happens? This essay will seek to explain some of those variables, which will hopefully help us understand the Alex Sink defeat.
One of the driving forces behind any political campaign is whether a candidate has the ability to attract voters. This could be because of a number of facts which includes looks, resume, speaking and debating abilities, popularity outside of politics, and a host of other issues which might make someone vote for a candidate.
To expand on this example, I am going to use a recent by-election in Canada. During the 2013 by-election in Toronto Centre to replace the poplar Liberal MP and former Ontario Premier Bob Rae, the Liberal Party and NDP picked two star candidates.The Liberals picked Chrystia Freeland (who you might remember was on Bill Maher a few weeks ago), while the NDP picked Linda McQuaig. Both of these candidates are very popular in Canada and accomplished writers. Therefore, bringing in a “star” candidates already helped turnout. The overall turnout in Toronto Centre was 38.2%, which was higher than most by-elections.
The Role of Issues
Issues do play a vital role when it comes to voter turnout, because it shows a difference between the candidate’s running for office. Using Toronto Centre yet again, both candidates received their claim to fame by writing books about how to deal with the issues of income inequality, which became the central theme of the Toronto Centre election. Freeland advocated that free trade is the best way to approach this issue, while McQuaig used a more Keynesian approach to the problem, which included increasing federal spending. While the issue was the same, the voters had a clear choice when it came to that issue. And when it came time to explain the issue, both candidates could articulate their views in an intelligent manner which showed they were educated on the subject. They were also able to define the issue on their own terms, instead of their opponent doing it for them (like Jolly did with Sink on the ACA) . Issues do play a role, mostly because it can differentiate one candidate from other candidate.
Having this contrast is important when making any choice. Let’s use soda for example. If I had a Coke and a Pepsi in front of you, there might be some differences between the two, but you could tell the two are cola drinks and it would be hard to distinguish any contrasting features (and please, soda snobs, I don’t want to debate this). But if you see that one is regular Coke and the other is Diet Pepsi, both are cola drinks, but you can easily contrast the two products by taste, nutritional information, color of syrup and carbonated bubbles. If I am a diet soda drinker over brand name loyalist, I have no interest in having either a regular Coke or Pepsi. But in second choice, I will easily take the Diet Pepsi, because the contrasting cases gave me a clear choice. Same if I was a regular soda drinker with no brand preference. The second example gives me the choice to drink regular Coke over Diet Pepsi. This is a simple way of showing how even small contrasts make a big difference.
Ideology determines rationality
Clarifying a candidate’s view on the issue and providing a contrast also helps voters on all ends of the political spectrum. Some will argue that “moving to the left will rally the base”. Personally, after much research on vote choice over the past year regarding that exact subject, I no longer follow that belief. Turning out the base is just part of a balancing act of overall turnout strategy. But “moving to the left” or “right” does help give voters clarification when it comes to the “cost” of a voter’s choice.
This is all explained in the Downs Paradox, which I wrote about earlier this year. According to this theory, voters are self-interested people and determine whether to vote or not based on a cost/benefit analysis. So, when looking at the left, if Alex Sink doesn’t give those on the left a reason to vote for her, then they see the cost of casting a vote (which includes their time) outweighing their benefit. Going back to 2008, African-Americans had higher voter turnout than whites in the presidential election because they had a self-interest of seeing a black president. Therefore, the benefit of blacks waiting hours in line to vote for Obama was much higher than the cost.
Some cases inherently cause a contrast, as Obama can’t pick what race he wants to be. This is also the same regarding past life choices, such as occupation, which cannot be changed as well. The only leeway that a campaign has when trying to help voters determine if the benefit outweighs the cost is by manipulating positions on issues. In this special election, Sink did not provide voters with any “benefit” of voting for her.
Persuadables are unpredictable
There are always those who are identified as “persuadables” in political consultant lingo. But who are these people? While this term is nice for “trying to reach the center”, trying to define it is very hard.
First, what is a “persuadable”? Is it people who are in the middle of the political spectrum without party identification? If so, how do we label them? Yes, someone might show up on the VAN as a minor party or NPA voter, but vote exclusively for one party. A perfect example of this is in Senate District 14. NPAs and minor party registrants comprise of 32% of the electorate, with Democrats at 46% and Republicans with 22%. If turnout numbers equated to voter registration numbers (for the sake of this argument) and100% of Democrats voted for Darren Soto and 100% of Republicans voted for McBride, conventional and uneducated wisdom would say that those who identify as “NPA or minor parties” are de facto “moderate” voters and would split. This would have resulted in Soto winning 62% to 38%. Instead, Soto won 70% to 30%. Using the same 100%-100% party number, this means that NPAs and minor party voters split would have highly favored Soto as well. While party ID turnout numbers are a little skewed to this example of just using registered voters, the point is still valid since it would give nearly the same result.
But let’s say that we have identified a voter as a moderate NPA. How do we target them? Why do they consider themselves moderate? Are the not interested in politics? Are they on the center on every issue? Do they consider themselves moderate because they are balanced by saying they are pro-life and anti-death penalty or pro-choice and pro-death penalty? The reason why the “rallying the base” strategy is talked about is because it is absolutely impossible to target NPA or minor party voters (with the exception of some minor parties) because we don’t know where the hell they stand on any of the issues. The only way to figure this out would be to conduct house-to-house surveys, which would be mighty expensive.
So, if these voters cannot be accurately targeted, their impact on the turnout of an election is an absolute shot in the dark until the exit polling data tells us how they voted.
Interest in campaign
Lack of interest in a campaign can lead to lack of an interest to vote. Unlike us those of us who follow politics on a daily basis, a vast majority of registered voters do not. They are more concerned about meeting their friend at Starbucks and then going shopping than they are voting. Many times this is the case because there is no enthusiasm in the campaign.
The 2013 Canadian by-elections were a perfect example. The Toronto Centre campaign mentioned previously received a lot of national press in Canada and was a “front-and-center” campaign. On the same day, in Quebec, a by-election was being held to replace current Montreal mayor Denis Coderre. But there was very little attention given to this campaign on the news compared to the Toronto Centre by-election campaign. As a result, the turnout in Bourassa was only 26%.
National media is a good indicator as to whether a campaign has sparking interest or not. This is especially the case when there is a special election that has no other elections competing for media coverage. The nation media did not really talk about the Sink-Jolly race until the day before the election. Personally, because I have been closely following the upcoming Quebec election, I forgot about this race until Monday! Basically, the lack of media coverage, especially for an election that is seen as a toss-up, indicates very little interest in the campaign.
While overall campaign interest can be a damper on voter turnout, targeted interests can increase turnout for one party. This is the case with David Jolly campaign. Because they targeted the ACA as their campaign issue, they increased the interest level of those on the right. As for Alex Sink’s campaign, they did nothing whatsoever to motivate voters who have targeted interests.
All of these variables mentioned above determines the end product, which is voter turnout. How events play in a campaign will determine how many people come out to vote for Candidate A or Candidate B. Some are ideological, while many other reasons are not.
When looking at the final turnout numbers, the percentage is important as well. This is not included in the variables mentioned above because this is a result instead of a cause.
When looking at this, simple math does the trick. Let’s say that we have an election where only two people voted. One person controls 50% of the vote. If we increase that number to four voters, one person controls 25% of the vote. I am sure you see where I am going with this…the lower the voter turnout, the higher the influence of an individual voter.
This is where the “turn out the base” part works. Inherently, special elections are low turnout elections, which means that each individual voter has more influence in the final result. Because of this, campaigns seek to turn out voters who will find the benefit of voting higher than the cost. As benefit goes down, turnout decreases. In the case of Alex Sink, she didn’t provide anyone with a benefit, which is not limited to ideology. Still, ideology was the only place where she should have provided a contrast for voters. But she failed to do this.
The problem with those in the Florida Democratic Party, who eventually ran most of the Sink Campaign, is they are highly uneducated when it comes to understanding voting behavior, voting patterns, as well as understanding how turnout works. Instead of researching the subject in a scientific manner where empirical evidence is examined, Florida Democratic Party consultants and vendors run their operation in a “folklore” style system where campaign strategy is “passed down from generation to generation”. When a consulting decision is made, it is purely made off of the “opinion” of a consultant or vendor instead of examining and testing evidence and creating a plan surrounded by the facts. These opinions, such as targeting north Florida, are not based on anything but an outdated opinion. These opinions carry themselves from election to election without being challenged. That is the reason why Alex Sink lost.
Still, the concept of turnout is highly misunderstood. Once those in the political consulting arena realize that turnout is a result of a number of different variables and not a cause, then we can move toward a more intellectual discussion on the subject.