Will every election be a tight one?

The well-known median voter theorem suggests that the two major party candidates should adopt arbitrarily close positions. The left- and right-wing parties each move just short of the center to pick up swing voters. It also suggests that elections should be extremely close. The former prediction is clearly falsified (there are real differences between Bush and Kerry), but the latter was not the last time around. Endogenous voter participation, of course, can account for both results. Elections will be very competitive but without policy convergence. If a candidate moves too close to the center, his base decides to stay at home.

Of course few past elections have been very very close, Goldwater and McGovern being two cases in point. Parties may have strategic reasons to run suicide candidates, or primaries may not reflect a rational decision-making process. Candidates also may misjudge which strategy maximizes the number of expected electoral college votes.

But will candidates and parties make these mistakes in the future? Don’t parties care about electability more than ever before? Doesn’t information technology (not to mention betting markets) give us an unparalleled measure of voter opinion? Shouldn’t we take the postulate of hyper-competitive political markets seriously?

The pessimist might suggest we are entering a future where most Presidential elections are arbitrarily close. In other words, the courts would choose the President every time, to the detriment of democratic legitimacy. Over time we might assign this task to an elected governmental body more decisive than the Electoral College, such as the Senate.

Alternatively, voters might have reasons to rebel against a tendency for very close elections. Some voters simply want someone to win (lose) by a clear margin. Other voters like to say they supported the victor. Perhaps Bush is campaigning in some Kerry states (e.g., New Jersey) simply to appear as a likely winner and thus capture these votes.

An article in the Hindu Times suggested that all the American undecideds will break one way or the other before the election, giving us a landslide for one candidate. If that is the case, some portion of the vote is inherently winner-take-all. Political choices will remain “lumpy” in certain regards and our future will remain (quasi-) democratic. This likely means that each candidate will be playing a gambling strategy across alternative non-median policy positions. Political competition can look as perfect as can be on the supply side, but the demand side can force politicians to take strategic chances. The median voter will still go home at night fed up. Not to mention the non-median voter, such as yours truly.


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