In a voting system like we have in the US (“plurality voting”), we may apply something called the median voter theorem. The median voter theorem says that in a face-off between two candidates, the candidate closer to the median voter wins. Here we’re assuming a one-dimensional preference scale (e.g. left to right) and that voters choose the candidate who is closest to them on the scale. The winning strategy for each candidate is to move closer to the median until they are nearly indistinguishable, and each has about 50% of the vote.
As a result, you can see many politicians shifting their views over time, carefully tracking the median view. In the US, voters seem to be uncomfortable with this optimal strategy, and thus they demand that politicians put on a show of having believed in their current views all along. And then when politicians visibly contradict their previous views it’s used as a gotcha. This is incredibly tedious.
Of course, it does not really seem like the major candidates follow the median. Trump and Clinton, are, after all, very far apart! In fact, I’m puzzled why US presidential elections don’t hew more closely to the median voter theorem. I imagine this is a subject of study for political scientists, but I only have baseless speculation to offer. And of course I’m ultimately trying to say something about the current election cycle.
The obvious way to poke at the median voter theorem is to poke at its assumptions. First, maybe people’s political views don’t fall along a single dimension. Second, perhaps voters do not choose the candidate closest to themselves (i.e. there’s a charisma factor). Finally, maybe it’s not really a face-off between two candidates. Aha!
Yes, in the US, we have this primary/general system, which biases candidates towards the median of their respective parties, rather than the median of the US as a whole. Furthermore, during the general election, there are often third party candidates, for whom people cast “protest” votes. Even if there are no third parties, people may cast protest votes by abstaining or staying home.
If both candidates went straight towards the median, voters would find them indistinguishable. They wouldn’t get excited enough to vote for them. Thus, candidates want to move away from the median to drum up more voters. Now, if those voters are simply staying home, we might expect that they won’t vote no matter what, so why bother appealing to them? But say that people vote for the Libertarian party, that would be a clear incentive for the mainstream candidates to move closer to the Libertarian platform.
What I’m saying is that protest votes makes some sense from a game theory perspective. Although, I’m not sure the impact is actually positive. It hurts your side’s chances while increasing the payoff should your side win. When there are significant numbers of protest voters on both sides, it leads to a more polarized political system. Is that a good or a bad thing?
Now, my comment on the current election. I voted for Bernie in the primaries, because I am further left than Bernie. I live in California, so by the time I voted it was already clear that Bernie would lose (contrary to what I heard from Bernie supporters, Hillary’s victory in California had been consistently predicted in the polls for months). So all my vote really did was send a message to Hillary that some of her support lies in Bernie’s direction.
However, Hillary’s correct response is not to move towards the politics of Bernie, but to move towards the politics of Bernie’s supporters. And so it becomes significant that Bernie’s supporters appear not to be nearly as liberal as Bernie is. A New York Times article argues based on polls that Hillary would actually need to move right to appeal to Bernie supporters. It’s not that Bernie supporters are to the right of Hillary, but rather that the ones who oppose Hillary are to the right of Hillary. They’re not protest voters, they’re moderates! I guess they were only voting for Bernie because of the charisma factor.
I can’t say how disappointed and disgusted I am. Next time I vote for a losing candidate, I’ll pay attention to whether I agree with the political views of the candidate’s supporters rather than just the candidate themself.