Are Voters Just Rooting for Clothes?

Matthew Yglesias recently noted that the very rich are unhappy with President Obama because he would like to increase the taxes on the very rich.  Although this might be true, the number of people unhappy with Obama exceeds the number of people who comprise the very rich.  So why are many of the non-rich unhappy with Obama?  And why are so many other people quite happy with our current president? 

Perhaps the answer is similar to a story frequently told about sports fans.

Back in the early 1990s, a friend of mine declared his hatred of Charles Barkley.  At the time, Sir Charles was an All-Star for the Philadelphia 76ers.  Sometime after this declaration, though, Barkley was traded to the Phoenix Suns.  As a fan of the Suns, my friend changed his tune.  With Sir Charles in Phoenix, my friend was now a fan of Barkley.

More recently, LeBron James was an extremely popular athlete in Cleveland.  But when he changed his uniform to something from Miami, his popularity in Ohio plummeted.  

These stories are not uncommon among sports fans.  In fact, Jerry Seinfeld once observed that fans who behave like this are essentially “rooting for clothes.”

Although many fans – and I am one of these – are essentially “rooting for clothes,” the emotions sports generate are quite real.  When one of my teams wins, I am quite happy (at least for awhile).  And when my teams lose, I am unhappy (for more than just “awhile”).  Sports may just be entertainment, but the power to alter our perspective on life – if only for a short time — is quite amazing.

Such power reminds me of how people react to politics.

A few days ago Brendan Nyhan – a professor of political science at Dartmouth — was interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition (discussing a paper Brendan wrote with Jason Reifler).  This interview noted the following: 

When pollsters ask Republicans and Democrats whether the president can do anything about high gas prices, the answers reflect the usual partisan divisions in the country. About two-thirds of Republicans say the president can do something about high gas prices, and about two-thirds of Democrats say he can’t.

But six years ago, with a Republican president in the White House, the numbers were reversed: Three-fourths of Democrats said President Bush could do something about high gas prices, while the majority of Republicans said gas prices were clearly outside the president’s control.

The flipped perceptions on gas prices isn’t an aberration, said Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan. On a range of issues, partisans seem partial to their political loyalties over the facts. When those loyalties demand changing their views of the facts, he said, partisans seem willing to throw even consistency overboard.

The NPR story doesn’t provide “a range of issues”.  But it isn’t hard to come up with such a list.  For example, consider these two issues:

  • The national debt seems to always trouble the party that isn’t in the White House.  When Bush was President (pick your Bush), Democrats were very troubled by the rising national debt.  Republicans, though, were relatively quiet.  Now that Obama is President, Republicans are extremely worried about the national debt.  However, Democrats don’t seem as alarmed.
  • What about health care?  Mitt Romney implemented a plan from the Heritage Foundation while governor of Massachusetts.  Barack Obama backed a very similar plan.  Somehow, though, many Republicans are very troubled by Obama’s health care plan (even Mitt Romney!).  But many of these same Republicans (even Mitt Romney!) were not troubled by Romney’s health care plan. 

One might think that in sports fans are rooting for players.  But in reality, many fans are just rooting for clothes.  Likewise, we might think that voters are interested in issues.  But the above examples suggest that many voters are just rooting for parties.  The actual issues each party says they care about don’t seem to be very important.  What is important is that the party the voter follows actually wins the elections.

And when this doesn’t happen, as it did for Republicans in 2008, voters become very angry.  A Gallup poll seems to capture this point. 

Voters have been asked over time: “Do you think the federal government poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens, or not?” 

Over time, 46 percent of people generally say they believe the federal government poses such a threat.  But who voted yes –as the following graph indicates – changed quite dramatically over time.

As Jeffrey Jones noted:

The results suggest that Americans’ perceptions of the government as a threat may be less dependent on broader, philosophical views of government power, and instead have more to do with who is wielding that power. Throughout the Bush administration, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to perceive the government as a threat. Now that a Democratic president is in office, the reverse is true. 

One should note that while Democrats and Republicans changed their answer depending on whether their team was “winning”, independents (like me) didn’t change their view very much.  

All of this suggests two research questions (and these questions may have already been addressed by someone – in fact, some related research is referred to in a recent New Yorker article by Ezra Klein). 

First, it appears that issues may not matter as much as pundits think.  So at least (and I am not sure how this can be done) I think we need to see how much voters are rooting for issues and how much voters are rooting for parties.  If the latter effect dominates, maybe we need to have sportscasters discuss our elections (and maybe many voters would be happier waving pennants instead of protest signs).

In addition, it would also be interesting to see if sports and politics are treated the same by the human brain.  Are these different activities mentally?  My sense is that sports and politics really are the same.  And again, that suggests the pundits often focus on the wrong issues in discussing why people are angry or happy about election results.  Pundits often seem to think it is the actual issues that are driving people’s reactions.  But in the end, it might be that the parties – or, following the sports analogy, “the clothes” — that drive people’s reactions. 

Let me close with one more observation.  If people are just rooting for parties, then efforts to “reach across the aisle” may be quite difficult.  Again, think about sports.  When LeBron left Cleveland, fans of the Cavaliers suddenly hated LeBron.  He was still the same player, but his clothes had changed.  The same story seems true in politics. 

Regardless of the policies he pursues, many Republicans are not going to be happy with Obama because he plays for “team Democrat.”  And the same may be true if Mitt Romney becomes President in November.  As long as he persists in playing for “team Republican,” Democrats will not be happy with Romney. 

If this is true, then “reaching across the aisle” may be pointless.  Fans of the opposite party are not against the President because he doesn’t agree with them on the issue.  They are against the President because he plays for the “wrong” team.  And unless he is willing to change teams (i.e. change clothes), he can try to “reach across the aisle” all day and he will never make the other team’s fans happy.   

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  1. Jason says:

    Likely true. There’s always been that argument of identification voting vs. rational/issues-based voting, with the thought that those with a higher/broader education will move more towards the latter. Yet, all that really seems to be happening is that more educated voters are only rationalizing and “spinning” the evidence to accommodate their identity.

    Of course there are exceptions, as singular confounding variables can have strong influences on behavior change, but it really seems the only voters that are readily “won” by rational arguments are those that come from a background of little political identity, i.e. a household where their parents just didn’t harbor strong opinions on political arguments.

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    • tmeier says:

      I don’t think it’s much to do with parents, more self-image. The people I know who strongly identify with a party seem to do so in reaction to the image they have of the party they don’t like. “I’m a realist, unlike those feather-brained liberal Democrats”, or “I care about others, unlike those cold-hearted conservative Republicans.” But when you look at what they actually think are the best solution to individual issues, you frequently find they think across party lines without realizing it.

      It’s like brand loyalty, a way of expressing your image of self, “I use Republican Soap Powder because I want my family to be as clean as possible”. “I use Democratic Soap Powder because I care about the environment.” When it’s basically the same soap.

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    • Travis says:

      This is an interesting point. But I would also like to add that “rational argument” voters can’t really be swayed in the current political scene, because realistically neither party is acting in a rational manner, or putting forth rational arguments.

      Sadly, both parties just appeal to different emotions with little rational substance to their arguments, so the rational voter only has the general “direction” of the party to base their rational vote on, which almost entirely eliminates an individual candidates’ policies from the voting equation entirely…

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  2. DanSanto says:

    I am so extremely not shocked to see research confirm this. As an independent, I’ve gotten into arguments with friends who have come down on opposite sides of an issue depending on which party was in charge.

    The change that was most dramatic (just in my own experiences) was a strongly active Democrat who was vehemently (almost rabidly) against the Department of Homeland Security while Bush was president, citing the supremacy of privacy over a desire to feel secure. Now he is strongly for it citing security concerns as the absolute necessity of giving the DHS, FBI, and CIA very broad powers in phone/internet tapping.

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    • Mike B says:

      Hopefully as an independent you’ll still get out and vote based on the issues because all of these effects don’t matter as long as some decisive segment of the electorate doesn’t treat politics like a sports league.

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    • nobody.really says:

      I find a lot of merit in this argument; I sense tribalism explains a lot of behavior regarding sports, race, political party, religious affiliation, nationalism, etc. That said, I would not dismiss the idea that party is a relevant consideration when comparing two politicians – even politicians that, with respect to some finite group of issues, agree with each other.

      First, different people fear different things and trust different executives. So it’s entirely rational for people to alter their perceptions of the threat posed by executive overreach based on who occupies the executive office.

      Second, many things a politician does – especially in the executive branch – are matters that do not get discussed during a campaign. Democratic executives tend to make family planning funds available to agencies in other nations regardless of whether those agencies are affiliated with agencies that provide abortions; Republican executives tend not to. Yet this rarely becomes a talking point during a debate or on campaign literature. Thus, the choice of party will influence public policy even if the candidates never identify a policy difference during the campaign.

      Finally, when choosing a member of the legislature, party is almost ALL that matters. Unless you’re choosing whether or not to vote for Boehner, your congressman is a powerless tool of his party. So a Democratic congressman that says, “I’m pro-life, but of course I voted to make Pelosi Speaker of the House” was a congressman that facilitated abortion. And a congressman that says, “I’m pro-environment, but of course I supported Boehner for Speaker” was a congressman that voted to relax environmental regulations. The fact that your congressman subsequently voted against his party – when he knew his vote would be irrelevant – should not distract you from the practical realities.

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      • DocMara says:

        This is partially true, but ignores the political shifts that have been happening as a result of identity politics (for instance, there is currently no party that promotes abortion–one party is smashing up against it, and the other tepidly tries to slow down the erosion of reproductive rights). There has been a slow rightward march as a result of campaign financing by big business. As a result, we have no true left, and the right has to increasingly get personal to keep their base excited. Meanwhile, we don’t really discuss any of the structural issues that really determine the fate of this country. Just keep your voters mad and voting.

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      • Nate says:

        “This is partially true, but ignores the political shifts that have been happening as a result of identity politics (for instance, there is currently no party that promotes abortion–one party is smashing up against it, and the other tepidly tries to slow down the erosion of reproductive rights). ”

        Why would anyone promote abortion? I’ve never heard even the most adamant pro-choice activists promote abortion as someting we should have more of.

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  3. frankenduf says:

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    • NameBrandon Magoon says:

      Took the words right out of my mouth. The notion that the most diverse nation on earth is actually represented by Two parties that both advocate the same policy is beyond absurd. There’s a reason no one on Earth uses our electoral system and the countries that did use something similar are reforming to a multi party system.

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  5. Alex Blaze says:

    This is like a bizarro-world interpretation of the same facts that lots of people have noticed.

    I wouldn’t say that issues don’t matter, but that some issues do matter and on the other ones people just fall in line. There’s also the effects of propaganda – I’m sure if you asked the average Republican they would not agree that the ACA and Romneycare were essentially the same thing. It’s not because they’re not the same thing, but because they’ve been told repeatedly that they’re completely different. Most Americans couldn’t even choose the name of the VP on a multiple choice test, so assuming that voters are perfectly informed is going to lead to wildly incorrect conclusions.

    Also, about sportscasters as pundits – look at Keith Olbermann and Rush Limbaugh. Bill O’Reilly came from the tabloid news world, which can have a team mentality. This has an effect on the way people understand politics, especially if they’re more drawn to one party in the beginning and then become hardened over time.

    All this is to say that “Issues don’t matter as much as they should” isn’t exogenous; it’s a direct result of our political environment.

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  6. James says:

    “One might think that in sports fans are rooting for players.”

    Huh? Though I’m not a sports fan (I try never to get too close to a fan of similar mass lest we undergo mutual annihilation :-)), my impression is that fans root for teams, so if your Charles Barkley (who I presume is an excellent player?) played for the Yankees, then Yankees fans would root for him; if he switched to some other team, they would not. Indeed, a long-term fan would, over the course of his life, see many complete changes in a team’s roster while still remaining a team fan.

    As for the application to politics, the idea is interesting, but what about the independent/nonpartisan voters? There’s no real equivalent in sports, I think, as we non-fans can pretty much ignore the whole shebang without any significant adverse effect. Yet if we ignore politics, it will affect us regardless.

    I think we see this in the graph: partisan opinions swing depending on whether “their team” is winning, independent opinion stays pretty constant.

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    • Nate says:

      “my impression is that fans root for teams, so if your Charles Barkley (who I presume is an excellent player?) played for the Yankees, then Yankees fans would root for him”

      Actually they would say “what is Charles Barkley doing on the field, somebody take him back to a basketball court where he belongs!” ;-)

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      • James says:

        Hey, I DID say I wasn’t a sports fan, didn’t I? I had no idea what Mr. Barkley does, and the Yankees was the only team name I could remember off the top of my head.

        Doesn’t really change my point, though. Don’t most sports fans root for their team, not individual players? So if a really good player plays for their team, they will root for him; if he’s hired away by another team, they will root against him.

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    • Nate says:

      Absolutely, your point is right on, I was just having some fun. :-)

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      • James says:

        Apropos of which, we might remember that Republican icon Ronald Reagan started his political career as a Democrat and labor union official :-)

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  7. DavidH says:

    “Maybe we need to have sportscasters discuss our elections”? Don’t we have that already? There is almost no reporting on issues. It’s mainly polls and gaffes. Issues are discussed only insofar as they relate to polls and gaffes.

    Why would anyone care what a pre-election poll shows, other than the candidates themselves, who might be able to make half-time adjustments based on them? Their only value to the rest of us is that they allow us “to check the score” during the game. Important to the sports fans of politics, not to the rest of us. And the gaffe reporting has all the substance of ESPN’s “Not Top Ten.”

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  8. David S says:

    It’s the clothes.

    It is fun to watch Democrats cheer Obama on, even though he has behaved like a moderate Republican as much as anything.

    Equally fun are the Republicans who loathe him despite him being, essentially, one of them.

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    • Dave says:

      Just by saying something doesn’t make it true. You’re not Obama.

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