Thursday, October 31, 2013

Polls, Debates, and the Franchise Vote

Charles Barkley and news outlets have something in common

Earlier this year I had lunch with an old high school friend. I had just wrapped up my campaign for Congress and he had been a political party chair in a Virginia county to the south some years back. As we discussed vote counts and percentages, he used the term "franchise vote". I hadn't heard that phrase before but its meaning is straightforward: every candidate will get some votes just because some voters will always vote for one party or political franchise. While gerrymandering is a brash tactic to carve up the electorate into partisan morsels, there are other more subtle mechanisms that reinforce the major political party brands.

Political surveys or polls are used in many elections to gauge which way the public is leaning, but survey design and question selection influence the results. It's certainly understandable that polls conducted by the candidates themselves would be skewed toward a favorable result. But this happens with independent unbiased research as well. Take this year's race for governor in Virginia as an example. The State Board of Elections qualified three candidates for the November 5 election. However as late as August 21, Quinnipiac University – a fair and reputable pollster – was listing just two major party candidates and a category called "SMONE ELSE(VOL)".

The major party candidates had agreed to a series of debates, the last of which took place on October 24. One of the rules to which the candidates agreed was that any candidate participating in any debate must poll with at least 10 percent of likely voters. For the two major party candidates getting a 10 percent share in any poll is easy from franchise voters alone. Survey design influenced candidate visibility and – in part – debate participation by not including one of the qualified candidates in the poll.

Elections and economic markets are similar: voters/buyers use their ballots/dollars to elect/select the services of a candidate/good. One of the tenets of a free market is that buyers have complete information about the range of goods and services available and about the attributes of each good and service. Free markets don't fail but can be distorted by anti-competitive behavior and policies that stifle competition and free entry. Buyers and sellers need concise, timely information to make good decisions and markets need antitrust enforcement. Elections are no different.

Which brings me to basketball player Charles Barkley. In a famous 1993 TV ad Barkley stated, "I am not a role model ... Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids." And he's right. But the actions and words of public figures and news outlets do influence public opinion, and this is why inclusiveness matters in elections. Why would I vote for "SMONE ELSE(VOL)" if the first time I see a candidate's name is in the voting booth?

Look – I know it's voters' responsibility to know candidates and the issues. I could go to the candidate list from State Board of Elections, then go to the candidates' websites and research their positions. But that's going to yield only the information the candidates want us to have; it's not a free market for information. And this is why the Bill of Rights forbids Congress from enacting laws that restrict the press. Sometimes, however, the press limits itself and the information it provides to the detriment of voter choice.

Time is money and money buys time – that is time on the radio, time on TV, space in print media. I guess you could buy an interview with a quasi-media type, but real journalists don't work that way. Real journalists have to balance public trust and public interest with limited time and competing interests. News outlets see money raised by political candidates as viability: you can't win unless you can afford media buys and journalists can't afford to spend valuable time with unviable candidates.

In Fairfax County about 40 percent of voters consider themselves independents. I think that shows displeasure with the two major parties and a yearning for something different. Candidates can't expect a long look by news outlets unless they are viable. But is it too much to ask to be identified by name rather than "someone else"?