On Interpreting Primary Results

Is a vote for Gingrich (or whomever) necessarily an anti-Romney vote?

In evaluating what various vote totals mean in given contests at this point (e.g., “Romney only won Iowa by 8 votes!” or “he can’t break 25%” or “did he win NH by a large enough margin?” etc.) we need to remember a central point about multi-candidate races wherein the final vote count is not decisive:  voters can vote first preferences with impunity.

By this I mean that voters aren’t stupid:  they understand the difference between a contest that will decide who will win a given office (or nomination) and one that is not decisive in that way.  If a contest if not decisive (i.e., does not pick an actual winner) then voters are freer to vote their first preference.  If, however, a vote does pick a winner, voters have to decide whether they are willing cast a vote for their first preference if it means that a candidate they find unpalatable will win.

A simple example:  I may prefer the Libertarian candidate in a given race, but know that there is a very close contest between the Rep and Dem in my district.  This knowledge will lead to me to consider what I prefer:  the psychic reward of voting my first best preference or casting a ballot to help elect the Rep, whom I prefer over the Dem.  In other words:  in such a situation I have to decide what the odds are that a vote for my first preference might lead to a my least preferred candidate winning.  This might entice me to vote for my second preference.

In a primary, especially one early in the process, the odds are quite good that my vote will not determine ultimate outcomes, so I can vote my first preference without worrying about whether it helps choose a nominee I can’t stand.

This is why, for example, in two-round electoral contests we tend to see a proliferation of participants in the contest, because it is known that voters can afford to cast their first preference votes in the first round with a diminished risk of their least preferred option winning.   In a one-round contest, the risk is higher that one’s least preferred candidate will win, so one is more likely to vote second (or even third) preferences if voting for one’s first preference might increase the odds of the least preferred option winning.

We have to understand, in evaluating primary results, that the early presidential preference caucuses and primaries have this dynamic in operation.  To wit:  if one is a voter in New Hampshire. one knows that one is not voting in a decisive contest, i.e., the nominee is not chosen by the NH primary.  This means that if I really, really, liked Rick Santorum, I can “afford” to vote for Santorum even if I believe that he would be a worse candidate to face Obama in November than would Romney.  This is not to say that there aren’t true believers who will vote first preferences no matter what, but many voters do engage in these types of calculations.  Further, some voters may vote second-preferences from the get-go because they fear the selection of their least preferred option more than they anything else and so may eschew first preferences in a hope of warding off a least favored candidate.

All of this is inspired by John Sides observing the other day that “votes for someone who isn’t Mitt Romney aren’t necessarily votes against Mitt Romney.”  In other words:  in these types of contests where a final victor is not chosen, any given vote for Santorum, Gingrich, et al., should not be construed as an anti-Romney vote, and any attempt to analyze them as such misses the nature of the process.

The bottom line is that we have every reason to think that voters have a general rank-order preference of any given list of candidates and that they often vote based on how they think both their most-preferred and least-preferred candidates would benefit from a particular vote.  In contests where an absolute victor is chosen the strategic choices of voters will be different than in processes that are not decisive (i.e., that are part of multi-stage selection processes).

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. All of this is inspired by John Sides observing the other day that “votes for someone who isn’t Mitt Romney aren’t necessarily votes against Mitt Romney.”

    Indeed, I guarantee you that all of the conservatives who are so anti-Romney right now are going to be voting for him in November. The idea that they are going to stay home and pass up the chance to vote against Barack Obama is simply absurd. They’ll complain. They won’t be happy. But, in the end, the vast majority of them will go to the polls on November 6th and vote Republican. And Romney knows it.

  2. @Doug Mataconis: That much is certain.

    But beyond that: the press often seems to ignore the fact that it is possible for voters to have 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. preferences.

  3. @Steven L. Taylor:

    Your lack of faith in the wisdom of the political press is disturbing

  4. Mads Singers says:

    always something that can cause some debate!

  5. Kylopod says:

    >I guarantee you that all of the conservatives who are so anti-Romney right now are going to be voting for him in November.

    While I’d quibble a little with the wording (I don’t know what “all” anti-Romney conservatives in the entire country are going to do), I agree with the basic point that the lack of enthusiasm for Romney among conservatives is probably not going to hurt him in the general election. One of the things I noticed from looking at exit polls from previous elections is that there’s no evidence to support the claim I always hear from right-wingers, that nominating a more “conservative” candidate leads to greater conservative turnout (and that nominating a “RINO” depresses conservative turnout). From 1976 to 2008, the percentage of self-identifying conservatives among the general electorate has always been in the range of 28% to 34%. You know which election had the lowest, at 28%? Answer: 1980. So apparently even conservative demigod Reagan didn’t have an appreciable effect on conservative voter turnout. Here are the stats:

    2008: 34%
    2004: 34%
    2000: 29%
    1996: 34%
    1992: 30%
    1988: 33%
    1984: 33%
    1980: 28%
    1976: 31%

  6. This is why, for example, in two-round electoral contests we tend to see a proliferation of participants in the contest, because it is known that voters can afford to cast their first preference votes in the first round with a diminished risk of their least preferred option winning. In a one-round contest, the risk is higher that one’s least preferred candidate will win, so one is more likely to vote second (or even third) preferences if voting for one’s first preference might increase the odds of the least preferred option winning.

    Except this isn’t actually true. As soon as a candidate becomes competetive, they suddenly become a possible spoiler again. Obvious example: there are four candidates (A, B, C, and D) who are the first choice of 25% of the voters, and a compromise candidate (E) who is everyone’s second choice, but no one’s first choice.

    If everyone votes for their first choice in the first round, guess who gets dropped with 0% of the vote?

  7. @Stormy Dragon: I am unclear s to how your response addresses the quoted paragraph.

  8. mattb says:

    Great post Steven.

    All of these points also lead to a reason why Liberals and Democrats should not be too happy about Romney’s ascendance. A few of the more astute political journalists have pointed out that the key thing is that all signs point to Mr Romney winning the primary without having to run a Primary campaign (i.e. tack to the hard right).

    Generally speaking, Romney has been running a general election campaign since the beginning of this race (his associated Super-Pac is running the primary messaging). So — unforced errors aside — he hasn’t gone on record as saying anything too far out of the so-called mainstream (at least when compared to his GOP rivals).

    A lot of conservatives will grump about him. Some, like our own Eric have pledge not to vote for him… though considering that Eric lives in NY, the electoral college system means that his vote doesn’t count anyway so it’s not a real loss for Mitt. But most, especially in battle ground states will probably turn out for him (unless the damage from Right Wing Media is too great/Romney doesn’t pick a conservative enough VP).

    That leaves this election largely up to the “independents.” And while Mitt’s said some rather stupid things, I’m not sure that Dem’s can afford not to take him seriously or believe that just because he didn’t break the 25% means he’ll be a weak candidate.

  9. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    While I see your point, I think your argument falls apart here:

    By this I mean that voters aren’t stupid:

  10. @Just nutha ig’rant cracker: I figured someone would pick on that line (indeed, I almost included a snarky parenthetical or footnote on that count).

  11. An Interested Party says:

    That leaves this election largely up to the “independents.” And while Mitt’s said some rather stupid things, I’m not sure that Dem’s can afford not to take him seriously or believe that just because he didn’t break the 25% means he’ll be a weak candidate.

    Indeed…but if he continues to say stupid things during the general election campaign and/or decides to pull a McCain and pick someone like Sarah Palin as his running mate, his chances with independents should be diminished…