Do Americans Care about Politics?

December 10, 2010, 1:44 PM GMT+0

The recent tax compromise between the President and Congressional Republicans is dominating headlines – the extension of the Bush era tax cuts could mean a difference of several thousand dollars to the typical family. Do voters care? For most American, not enough to pay to change things. Let us explain: In a recent YouGov survey, we gave respondents a hypothetical scenario. “Suppose that you alone could determine whether a Democrat or a Republican represents your Congressional district by paying a specific dollar amount? How much would you be willing to pay to ensure that a Congressman from your preferred party will win the office?” We expected that most Americans would place a high value on the party of their Congressmen. Shockingly, 55% of respondents said “ZERO” -- they would not pay even $1 to place their preferred party in power.

Of course, to some, events like the compromise between Obama and Republicans might show there really is no difference between the parties, in which case paying zero makes a lot of sense – but most people would probably agree that, had there been more Democrats in Congress, especially the Senate – the compromise would look very different. The makeup of Congress has very real consequences. In 2011, Congress will spend more than 3 trillion dollars and make decisions regarding education, unemployment benefits, immigration, taxation, redistribution, homosexuals in the military, and the war on terror. Moreover, Democrats and Republicans will have predictably different stances on each of these issues. Surely, the party affiliation of one’s Congressman could easily be worth thousands of dollars to a concerned citizen or even a selfish taxpayer keeping an eye on her pocketbook. Nonetheless, most American’s don’t seem to care one dollars’ worth about political outcomes.

This indifference may have severe implications. While 64% of wealthy, educated, church-going Americans would pay for their preferred Congressman, only 36% of low-income, uneducated, non-churchgoers would do the same. The latter group is least represented in Congress. And this indifference can feed on itself: the lack of concern for lower income individuals in Congress might make these Americans indifferent about politics, and their apathy gives Congress little incentive to do anything differently (Larry Bartels (2009) and Martin Gilens (2005) offer thorough discussions of the consequences of this problem).

However, despite this indifference, people still vote. Even people who wouldn’t pay a dollar to determine their Congressman vote regularly. But, if they don’t care enough about who wins to pay even a nominal cost, why do these people pay even the small personal costs associated with voting? In a previous blog post, we argued that most American’s don’t vote with the intention of changing an election result. Rather, they vote because they enjoy expressing themselves, for example, wearing “I voted” stickers, the personal satisfaction that comes from “dong their duty”, and they hope to avoid criticism from their peers. From our recent survey, we now have additional evidence to support this argument.

We wanted to get a sense of how well voters understand that a single vote will almost never change an election, so we asked them to compare the likelihood that their vote was to change a Presidential election to the likelihood of other unlikely events. Most Americans have a pretty good idea that their single vote won’t matter: sixty percent of Americans know that the chances that one vote will determine the winner of a Presidential election are less than the chances of being struck by lightning this year (1 in 280,000) and less than the chances of drawing a royal flush in a single poker hand (1 in 650,000). So, this leaves us with some curious behavior by most Americans that choose to vote: most Americans know that there is zero chance that her vote will make a difference and puts zero value on who is Congress: but they vote anyway!

Perhaps reflecting this curious behavior, most Americans enjoy the act of voting itself. We asked respondents to compare the act of voting to other activities such as filing taxes, going to the dentist, going to the post office, grocery shopping, watching television, and having coffee with friends. Voting ranks just above grocery shopping and just below watching television in terms of enjoyment. Not surprisingly, people who enjoy voting are much more likely to vote than those that do not.

In addition to the enjoyment of voting, many Americans feel social pressure to vote. 69% of Americans say that at least one friend asked them whether or not they voted following the recent midterm election. Those experiencing this social pressure were 26% more likely to vote.

Putting all of the pieces together, we have little evidence that Americans care about politics. They often say that they are interested in politics but they won’t put their money where the mouth is – even hypothetical money. They often vote, but it appears that they do so not because they care about the outcome. Rather, they vote because they enjoy the act of voting and their friends will be asking them whether they voted. Additionally, the economic inequality between those who do and do not care about politics should give pause to all of us. When 55% of us don’t put a single dollars’ value on the outcome of major elections, we might question the representativeness of our representative democracy.

Note: One reason we may see this difference between low and high income individuals in their response about to our question about paying to decide the election winner is, of course, the wealthy have more disposable income. Of course, this is reflected in the realities of influence: the wealthy give more to campaigns in terms of both time and money and, consequently, probably have more influence on Members of Congress. We are designing survey questions to control for the available disposable income and, thereby, isolate the value that a person places on their elected member. Also though, income is not all that is driving the answers to that question: there is a very big difference between church-goers and non-churchgoers across all levels of income, with church-goers much more willing to spend to change the election.