By Ronald Seyb, Associate Professor of Government and Joseph C. Palamountain, Jr. Chair in Government “Midterm elections” is the worst brand since Harley Davidson cologne. Recent surveys show that almost 50% of Americans are unaware that midterm elections will be held in less than a week. Even those Americans who are aware of the midterm brand are not bothering to do much product research. The Pew Research Center reports that only 15% of Americans are following the midterms “very closely,” a sharp drop from 2010 when 25% of Americans followed those midterm elections, which, for perspective, is just slightly higher than the number of Americans who believe that they can become a princess.
Such aggregate numbers can be, of course, misleading. What makes midterm elections midterm elections is that they fall in the middle of a president’s term, with the consequence that there is no national election capable of galvanizing the entire electorate. But voters in competitive states or districts this year are getting more attention from candidates and their surrogates than Lorde gets from aggrieved Kansas City Royals fans.
Senate elections in a number of states have taken on increased importance this year because a shift of six seats from the Democrats to the Republicans would make Mitch McConnell, Jon Stewart’s favorite live action turtle, the Senate majority leader. There are also, according to The Cook Political Report, 65 competitive House races that are capable of getting voters in those swing districts thinking about something other than whether it is appropriate for their 6 year old to dress up as a brain-splattered Daryl Dixon for Halloween. Ask voters in any of these states or districts if they are following the midterms, and they are likely to suggest that your question is akin to asking them if they are “following” that stump grinder squealing outside of their bedroom window. The Wesleyan Media Project reports that voters in six states—North Carolina, Iowa, Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana, and Kentucky—have seen more than 10,000 ads in the past two weeks. Less well known is that many voters in North Carolina volunteered as tribute during this span in order to escape from a dystopian political landscape that had been overrun by 20,389 ads that cost their sponsors $13.7 million.
Many political scientists claim that this conspicuous and exorbitant investment by campaigns and outside groups in political advertising is sound and fury signifying…well, maybe not nothing, but not as much as many media trackers would like to think. The new paradigm—a tired phrase that signals just how transitory this phenomenon promises to be—in campaigning is so-called “microtargeting” strategies that allow campaigns to tailor their appeals to voters based on not merely their political views or interests, but also on their consumer preferences and their social affiliations. While campaigns continue their past practice of slicing the electorate into demographic groups, they are also trying to identify what one Republican consultant has called “social precincts” such as homeschooling parents or community garden activists or middle-aged rugby players on the cusp of divorce (which is a category that includes all middle-aged rugby players). The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, for example, has invested $60 million in “The Bannock Street Project,” which is using data analytics to inform its efforts to employ techniques lifted from social psychology and behavioral economics to “nudge” to the polls, in particular, African Americans, unmarried women, and young people, all groups who both lean Democratic and have historically turned out at considerably higher rates in presidential elections than in midterm elections.
The perspective propelling Bannock Street’s effort is what Cass Sunstein calls in his book Nudge “libertarian paternalism,” which encourages so-called “choice architects” to take advantage of familiar decision-making biases such as the planning fallacy (i.e., people’s tendency to underestimate the amount of time it will take them to complete a task) and norm compliance (i.e., people’s propensity to adjust their behavior to match what they think their peers will do) to “influence people’s behavior in order to make their lives longer, healthier, and better.”
Perhaps it is too much to expect that campaigns can be more than efforts to prod one’s unwilling partisans to the polls, particularly in this polarized era when voters have sorted themselves into partisan camps whose walls are as unbreachable as those of Troy. This election cycle certainly suggests that, as Sasha Issenberg, the author of The Victory Lab, notes, campaigns have concluded that “the smartest way to win the next vote is by mobilizing a nonvoter instead of trying to win over a voter.” But, as Jeremy Waldron recently observed in The New York Review of Books, efforts to nudge nonvoters to the polls “take advantage of [their] deficiencies in the way one indulges a child.”
Those currently indulging voters are, of course, not interested in buttressing human dignity or even constructing a more participatory democracy. They are interested in winning. And if Willie Stark, Robert Penn Warren’s avatar for Huey Long in All the King’s Men, was right that “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption,” then perhaps we can only expect elections that are as good as human nature. But the framers of our Constitution—who were not exactly Panglossian about humans’ ability to resist the urgings of their passions and interests—showed us that the proper institutional setting and political culture can breed a politics capable of transcending our base natures. To forget this lesson, that politics can inspire transcendence as readily as it prompts machinations to determine who gets what, when, and how, is to concede that we are merely sheep to be herded by the data analytic dogs rather than voters capable of making informed and autonomous choices.