Voters: Not So Stupid?

By James Kwak

In July, a New York Times article on Priorities USA Action mentioned a focus group in which participants refused to believe that any presidential candidate could be in favor of “ending Medicare as we know it” (replacing guaranteed coverage with vouchers that will pay for an unknown percentage of guaranteed coverage) and tax cuts for the rich. At the time, I called this no less than “the problem with American politics.” 

But perhaps the problem isn’t so bad. Here are some results from recent Times/Quinnipiac polls of swing states (click on the image for a bigger version):


So, I must admit, a majority of voters realize that Mitt Romney’s policies will favor the rich. They know what’s going on. However you define them, the rich are a small minority of the population. Yet he remains within striking distance of Barack Obama in those states.

Logically speaking, there are a few main possibilities:

  • Many Americans think they will be rich someday, or their children well. I recall being insulted by a listener to a radio call-in show saying that she was unemployed but we shouldn’t raise taxes on the rich because she wanted her daughter to have a jet someday. (Empirically speaking, however, we now have lower social mobility than the typical Western European “social democracy.”)
  • Many Americans think that, as a matter of principle, we should have policies that favor the rich, even though they are not themselves rich. Call it “rewarding success.”
  • Many Americans are voting for Romney in full knowledge that his economic policies will not help them, either because of so-called “social issues” or because they just hate Barack Obama that much.

I’m not sure which of the possibilities is most discouraging.

22 thoughts on “Voters: Not So Stupid?

  1. i don’t really understand the title of your blog post. it would be more accurate to say “half of voters not so stupid.” clearly they see romney for what he is. but what can be said of those who fail to see obama for being just like him? mr. “no crimes were committed leading up to the financial crisis”, who’s justice dept. refuses to prosecute offenders like corzine, seems to have telegraphed his position quite clearly.

  2. Obama will lose because he’s such a disappointment not because Romney deserves to win. We punish disappointments more than we punish the undeserving.
    And Obama IS a massive disappointment

  3. One last possibility that you may have overlooked: Many poor people do not vote, therefore the rich (or the upper middle class which is hopping to get rich) might represent a disproportionate share of the electorate, in addition with the elderly which are more prone to social conservatism. The abstention (at levels not seen in many European democracies, at least for the main elections) is one of the main drivers of the upper-class democracy that the US enjoy right now…

  4. Americans love winners, and most Americans still regard becoming rich as winning, and becoming poor as the deserved result of poor choices. Americans have long viewed wealth as the scoreboard of the moral contest that is life. But Taibbi has it right: today’s rich in the US are either born that way or they’re cheaters. Until Americans wrap their heads around that–and it could take a generation or two–there won’t be much political will for fundamental change. That, or Americans revise the American Dream from its current meaning of “Gangta’ Rich” to “decent middle class.” That’s what it used to mean, and I suppose it could mean that again–though I doubt it will happen in any of our lifetimes.

  5. Many believe in trickle down, not as a policy, but as reality. In this view the rich do what no one else does or is capable of doing and we are only poorer without them. This, rather falsely, equates rich with entrepreneurial rather than rent seeker, and concludes we are best off leaving money in their hands to invest, calling them job creators rather than require them to demonstrate they actually create any or, in fact, don’t destroy many more.

  6. I would venture to say that just as high a percentage of the poor and middle class are cheaters as the percentage of rich that are cheaters.

  7. Jo: Obama is a disappointment– he campaigned center-left, but has governed center-right; however, I can’t see anyone voting for Romney because of that.

  8. bhans has a point. Well, he would have a point if efficacy had no importance to real-world results. [And if we made policy based upon conjecture, but that’s just a second level to his ignorance upon which we need not focus].

  9. bhans. So, we could consider, for those who got rich by cheating (and getting away with it), that their riches are their reward, in the capitalist scheme of things, for being better at cheating than the others.

  10. Well, it’s worth remembering that many people infer their position on these sorts of things from their political support rather than vice-versa (eg how many people support one candidate but think the other will have a better foreign policy?)
    So I think this is easily explained by Obama supporters having a clear-cut “f^$& Mitt” response, but Romney supporters not having such a clear cut “f&$^ Barack” response. That is, Romney is polling in the low-to-mid 40s, and pretty much everyone else thinks he’s just for the rich guys. (I mean, Im sure there’s some crossover between people who think Romney is for the rich and Romney voters, but if I had to guess Id say not that much).
    Whereas Romney supporters have several possible answers re: Obama, and none following such a consistent narrative. Is Obama secretly for the rich, as 10% of (presumably Romney or Green Party) supporters believe? Is he for the poor- probably a mixed group of Obama and Romney supporters but again if I had to guess more Romney-ites than Obamians. And it looks to me like the 55-odd percent who think Romney is for the rich may have been close to the numbers for (Obama=middle class) and (Obama=everyone the same). That is, likely Obama supporters.

    Id expect to see this sort of result- favoring one candidate over another- whenever there is a clear-cut screw-the-other-guy option for one candidate but not the other. eg if we asked whether each candidate would raise, lower, or keep middle-class taxes the same, the Romneyites would have a clear anti-Obama choice (raise ’em), but the Obamians would likely be divided on their choice for Romney between lower (ie not fixing the deficit) or higher (ie fixing the deficit while cutting taxes on the rich).

  11. Oh, and logically you missed a big category: people who think Romney’s positions favor the rich and think that is not necessarily a good thing or are ambivalent, but prefer Romney’s overall policies or competence etc to Obama. That is, it’s possible for Romney’s policies to favor the rich but still be better for everyone *if* Obama’s policy choices are a disaster. I think “hate Obama that much” is a little too slanted way of saying that.
    And, “so-called” and scare quotes around social issues doesn’t seem fair either. I may not agree with pro-life voters, but it’s not like their fundamental position is irrational or something. I certainly wouldn’t take it well if someone referred to “so-called ‘civil rights’ issues”.

  12. Who knows what is going on anymore? When you have a corporatist military force of “contractors” that are bigger and badder than the 18 year old bullet catchers on some kind of messianic and delusional mission conjuring up a mothership piloted by Jesus, I can imagine *ANY* half decent human being President’s family being held hostage – putting him/her on his knees and rendering him unable to be a TRUE Commander in Chief because of blackmail, can’t you?! Seems like maybe Obambi puts up more of a fight than we thought…

    From Obambi’s acceptance speech, “….I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, “I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go….”

    Not to worry, there are MILLIONS across the globe who will NEVER bend their knees to the WILL of GLOBAL War/Drug/SLave Lords. Freekin’ scum bag psychos…

    NEVER. Not know, not in eternity. Not to infinity and beyond. NEVER.

    So yeah, it really really really does matter who gets to stand up for the useless moochers and answer, “….this is my army….”, you Scum Bag War Lord…

  13. Do remember, also, the scale of the identity politics of this election. For a major faction, this election is about identity, not about any policy issue.


  14. rg – All I was trying to say was that to accuse one class of people for cheating and pretending that the other classes don’t do the same thing is not logical. If you are saying that it is more wrong for the rich to cheat as they get the larger reward, I disagree. If 25% of the 1% of rich people cheat on their taxes, for instance, that is a very low percentage of people cheating. Yes, the spoils go to a few. But if 25% of the 99% of the rest of us cheat on their taxes, that is a lot of people cheating and it can take a big chunk out of the government revenues. Yes, the rewards for the rest of these cheaters are spread out more among them, but the loss in revenue may be eually as large or larger than the few rich people cheating. It is the honest people who are the “suckers” in this game, sorry to say.

  15. The title is a bit rude and politically — if you would ever run for something, a foot in mouth moment for you. I am not agreeing with you or disagreeing with you, but you might not want to call the populace who disagrees with you “stupid”.

    Also your poll numbers seem to be off, Wisconsin has about a 6% lead for Obama over Romney.

    Finally, people outside of the state need to remember Wisconsin values their recall ability for true offences and not for people who are elected for doing their job as they say they will. It does not mean these people will stay elected once they hit their regular election cycle. The question in the recall was, did these people violate their position? Republicans really need to understand this when they point that Walker is a Republican who stayed in office. Currently, the courts are dealing with the legality of the union legislation and the pontificators outside of Wisconsin need to sit back and see how it plays out. Few can say with any real data numbers that Ryan is helping Romney with the poll numbers in Wisconsin.

  16. I think either man’s policies will favor his donors. Because that’s what the evidence shows.

  17. Paul Ryan found out very recently that the members of AARP are “not so stupid” or maybe in Mr. Ryan’s mind “not so senile” as he thought, when he tried to blow smoke up their a.s.s recently. I guess the seniors who paid REAL money into the system are having a tough time believing that their doctors will accept Republican issued vouchers as payment for costly health procedures.

    Which doctors, and more importantly how many doctors, would accept vouchers as payment for high skill procedures they learned to do while taking out huge loans in real money, now owed in real money??? Nobody with a sane mind believes that doctors would accept vouchers, yet this is the podium script the insurance companies have handed Paul Ryan to read. Sorry Mr. Ryan, this doesn’t pass the bullsh*t sniffing test, and seniors of this country are better at smelling bullsh*t than apparently you and Mitt Romney think they are.

    Remember people, and this is especially typed for the slow-witted (i.e. Teabaggers) who haven’t figured it yet: REPUBLICANS HAVE NO PROBLEMS “RATIONING HEALTH CARE”, SO LONG AS IT IS DONE ON INSURANCE CONGLOMERATES’ TERMS.

  18. I shared this provocative post with a group of six lawyers and retired lawyers, all but one definitely on the business side and then shared these thoughts with them:

    I think Kwak makes a fundamental and very, very common mistake in assuming that decision making is, or even should be, rational. Perforce, it’s an even bigger error to assume there is only one simple explanation or a predominant simple explanation for self-disadvantaging beliefs and decisions by voters.

    As an example and just as an example of the typical reductionist thinking by people generally thought to be very smart and rational, much of mainstream economics assumes rational, utility-maximizing agents for one necessary reason and one normative reason. The necessary: It is simply impossible to do the kinds of mathematical rigor that modern economists and their journals require of themselves unless they make this simplifying assumption; if decision-making is admitted to be complex and not very predictable within one individual and highly variable amongst individuals, one is no longer doing “economics” but sociology or brain science or some other ology that economists regard with utmost disdain. The normative: The numerous economists of the free market libertarian variety believe at a deep emotional level (or are paid consulting fees to seem to believe) that that’s the way people should behave and that political and economic systems therefore are doing God’s work when they disadvantage people who are not 100% selfish automatons, homo economicus.

    Just to explain to myself how diverse are the real reasons why people believe what they do, I compiled this list—which I’m sure is partial—of what I speculate are evolutionary advantages of irrational belief: Aids Learning. Constitutes Intellectual Capital. Minimizes the Discomfort of Uncertainty. Provides Tribal Glue. Improves Social Status. Reinforces Authority. Each is explained in this Realitybase post. In Belief is more a social process than a rational one. I quote someone else who sees evolutionary advantages to irrationality. All together, I have 11 posts on various aspects of the irrationality of belief and decision-making. Among those posts is the idea that most people do not proceed linearly from analysis of their self-interest (or any other facts) to candidate selection; rather, I suggest, people typically select a candidate and then justify their choice to others by making arguments, including arguments that the actor knows or suspects are bogus. In today’s LAT Doyle McManus argues that it often goes way beyond that—in order to avoid the personal discomfort of cognitive dissonance voters may actually adopt the beliefs of the chosen candidate; in other words, the arrow of causation flies in the opposite direction.

    Voters, it turns out, don’t like cognitive dissonance; they may revise their sense of reality to correspond with their political choices. To take an example from the other side, one poll found that 15% of Ohio Republicans gave Romney credit for the death of Osama bin Laden. Did they really believe that? Probably not, but they didn’t feel comfortable praising Obama.

    “People are increasingly lining up their policy preferences to match their views of the candidates,” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman told me.

    Probably none of you will have failed to notice that, despite my view that the vast majority of voters are irrational sheeple, I still devote most of my efforts to attempting to batter down irrational positions using facts and logic. Recall that the subtitle to my blog is “putting conventional wisdom through the wringer.” So am I acting irrationally and implicitly believing something irrational? Maybe, but on my more optimistic days I think that conventional wisdom changes, if it changes, because opinion leaders change and I continue to think (despite much evidence to the contrary) that some opinion leaders (y’all for example) are influenced by evidence about reality. On my less optimistic days, I choose not to make the effort to keep on with the Realitybase mission statement. In any event, I’m using the only skills I have to try to make a difference—I do not have the background to say anything enlightening about the psychology, sociology, political science, etc. that I suspect is more important to elections and social change.

    One more point: There undoubtedly are individuals for whom maximizing income and wealth is their paramount or only value or goal. All of us have worked with and facilitated their efforts right up to the edge of criminal conduct. These single-minded people tend to get what they want, money, to the economic disadvantage of those with different top goals or a balanced portfolio of goals. In the Romney 47% talk, a guest complains that he should be immune from criticism because, in order to make his contributions to the economy he has endured the hardship of being away from his family five days a week! It seems obvious to me that that rich whiny bastard is just living his values. And, no, I don’t feel sorry for him—his hardships (and compensation) are nothing like those of Wal-Mart associates documented in a TV program I watched last evening.

    So, to wrap it up, many people are going to vote for Romney in spite of, not because of, their expectation that his economic policies will favor the rich at their expense, and that should not be a surprise. One thing that helps them get there is that pollsters have found that people simply do not believe Romney/Ryan support policies as extreme as they actually do support. Denial as a first reaction to really bad news is normal.

  19. I don’t think that any “economic” doctrine concocted by GLOBAL War/Drug/Slave Lords to create perpetual hell on earth can be considered “god’s work”.

  20. How could anybody ever support Mitt Romney all he has ever done is lie and lie badly. Obama may not be the best Prez but he is 150% better than Dubya was and a vote for Mitt is just a vote for the same ole Dubya BS we were so sick of as Americans 4 years ago. Look what the GOP has done to this country, and these Mitt Morons really rant that its all due to the past 4 years. How quickly and conveniently they forget what lead up to the issues we face today. I’m almost inclined to think that these Romney supporters are just closet racists, what other reason could there be. Now this is where 500 dumb a** republican brainwashed rednecks start spewing off all of these BS Fox News stats as to how Obama is going to turn us into the 4th Riech or some crazy BS. Wake up people check the facts the real ones not on Fox news. A vote for Romney is a vote for evil plain and simple if you don’t want to vote for Obama vote independent then.

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