Voting paradox

by Russ Roberts on January 3, 2008

in Politics

If you live in New Hampshire, why should the failure of your favorite candidate for President to meet expectations in Iowa change your vote? The pundits says, for example, that if Hillary comes in third in Iowa, she is in for a long, cold winter (HT: Drudge). Bill Clinton is already trying to lower expectations (HT: Drudge) for his wife. I know this is how the game is played, but why? Why should you change your vote if your favorite candidate looks to be falling behind? Why should the preferences of Iowans change your preferences?

The standard answer is that if you vote for a candidate who now appears to have a dramatically lower chance of winning, you might be wasting your vote.

But your vote isn’t likely to matter anyway, in the sense of breaking a tie. Why is it wasting your vote to vote for a candidate who has a diminished or minimal chance of winning? You get no credit for voting for the winner. It’s not a bet. Doesn’t the morality of democracy demand that you vote for the candidate closest to your views regardless of the probability of victory?

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{ 24 comments }

Josh H January 3, 2008 at 4:59 pm

Eliezer Yudkowsky writes about this over at Overcoming Bias: "In the ancestral environment, there was no such thing as voter confidentiality. If you backed a power faction in your hunter-gatherer band, everyone knew which side you'd picked. The penalty for choosing the losing side could easily be death."

Not sure if stuff happening 50,000 years ago would ingrain in our genes though.

Al January 3, 2008 at 5:02 pm

Hmm, I think someone once said: 'When people see a weak horse and a strong horse, they tend to favor the strong horse.'

Or something to that effect.

Python January 3, 2008 at 5:22 pm

People who really want to vote for Edwards or Obama, but feel like their vote would be wasted, may have stayed at home. But now, it looks like their vote might matter, and out they come.

mith January 3, 2008 at 5:46 pm

"Why should the preferences of Iowans change your preferences?"

Perhaps these voters place a higher priority on feeling like they are part of the collective than the priority they place on voting for the candidate they prefer.

tw January 3, 2008 at 5:52 pm

Because if the vote in Iowa has no relevance in the other states, then it means very little…and the media has to justify all the time and attention they're giving to the election. I believe the latest statistic is that this year's election is getting the same coverage as the previous four Presidential elections combined.

Bret January 3, 2008 at 7:06 pm

Well, let's start with the full voting paradox, shall we?

Assume all voters are rational. Also, assume I'm rational.

Initially I calculate that the upper bound of my breaking a tie with my vote is (2^n)/n! which is essentially zero for any but the very smallest n so I conclude that there's no point in voting.

However, since everyone else is rational, they'll also reach the same conclusion so no-one will vote.

Therefore, my vote will be the deciding vote!

Except that everyone else will realize that as well so they'll all vote – therefore no point in me voting. But they'll realize that too and won't vote so I should vote … shouldn't vote … should vote …..

Anyway, in the case of rational voters, an indeterminate number will vote, so your vote might count.

Wacky Hermit January 3, 2008 at 8:04 pm

Bret: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect. ;)

G January 3, 2008 at 8:51 pm

Our voting system is greatly flawed, since we use a "one man, one vote" rule instead of ranking ordinal preferences (which would make far too much sense for the US government). I've always wondered if online pledges, if used widely enough, could fix voting. Voters could go online and rank their candidates, then receive an email of who the candidate they should vote for would be. This would work, as long as enough people used the system.

Sadly this wouldn't fix the brokenness of democracy, but it might help.

TGGP January 3, 2008 at 9:05 pm

What "morality of democracy"?

nordsieck January 3, 2008 at 9:35 pm

I want to expand on what Al said,

I think that since votes have so little marginal value (except in extra-ordinary cases), the emotional value people get from being aligned with a winner (much like the high people get from betting well, or being a fan of a winning sports team) far exceeds any value they would get from the official political process.

If this is true, it has interesting implications for the political process.

libfree January 3, 2008 at 10:20 pm

Informational Cascade?

publius January 4, 2008 at 12:07 am

If you have made up your mind this probably won't change it. But I bet a lot of people haven't made up there minds. There might even be people that don't haven't collected a lot of information on the candidates but to this point. New information might even be revealed by the results and the victory or concession speeches.

kurt January 4, 2008 at 3:08 am

People want to vote for a winner because it is a good 'sell' at the office coffee machine.

Keith January 4, 2008 at 7:30 am

I think it has to do with power and faction, especially in the primaries. You want your favorite candidate to win, but you also want your party to win. You want to pick the winner so you can be part of the winning team, and maybe get some of the spoils from the winner. Its what democracy is all about. Using the power of the majority to get/take what you want, with the least amount of effort.

cpurick January 4, 2008 at 8:27 am

I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate that this is much more of a factor for Democrats than it is for Republicans.

Jon January 4, 2008 at 9:20 am

I'm gonna disagree with Cpurick.

Here's why.

Huckabee is making an inordinate amount of noise and it's making some other Red Voters sit up and take notice and suddenly, Romney may not be the Golden Boy and Paul may be one hell of a spoiler for the entire Republican campaign if he decides to run Indie.

This is more like a competative marketing play to get your name out there.

I want to see what happens in New Hampshire. Dear God in Heaven how I would love to see Paul win that one by a landslide.

Tom January 4, 2008 at 9:21 am

It's a paradox. People are voting their fears, not their hopes.

It goes like this: Among the top few, I see the loathsome Mr. X. I must do whatever I can to defeat Mr. X. So I choose to vote FOR whatever candidate seems to have the best chance of defeating him. It's quite rational (given the one vote system in the U.S) to change your vote based on the preferences of others.

All this is an argument for Instant Runoff Voting, of course.

DT January 4, 2008 at 9:32 am

I believe it has everything to do with people associating with winners. How else can you explain the popularity of Colt and Patriot jerseys over the Holidays? I have not seen anyone running around with Dolphin gear. It is easy to vote for a winner. Too bad Iowa and New Hampshite get too much influence in party nominations.

Darren January 4, 2008 at 11:09 am

Russ, I love your sense of humor!

"the morality of democracy"

That's awesome! Hahahahahahaha!

Sam Grove January 4, 2008 at 12:54 pm

but you also want your party to win.

How does that explain the Huckabee win?

Troy Camplin, Ph.D. January 4, 2008 at 2:57 pm

People like to support a winner. They want to be on the winning side. This kind of thing can override other factors. Besides, most people aren't actually all that principled in the first place. Not so principled as to support candidates who actually believe in their platforms over those who will say whatever people want to hear. Sadly. that's not pessimism — that's reality.

Jon January 4, 2008 at 3:26 pm

Posted by: Sam Grove | Jan 4, 2008 12:54:23 PM
How does that explain the Huckabee win?

Romney is Mormon in a largely christian state and Huckabee fed them a line they swallowed … McCain is a joke, Paul is a spoiler, Guiliani never even campaigned …

Not sure if that explains it …

I guess people think that Huckabee can beat Hillary/Obama/Edwards?

Shakespeare's Fool January 4, 2008 at 7:04 pm

Russell,
When you say, "Doesn't the morality of democracy demand that you vote for the candidate closest to your views regardless of the probability of victory?" you appear to be making the assumption that we can tell what a candidate will do if elected. Perhaps you can. I cannot.
John

Sam Grove January 4, 2008 at 7:52 pm

Guiliani never even campaigned

Giuliani spent 56 days in Iowa and made almost as many appearances (35) as John McCain (38).

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