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Popular elections aren't the same

If you’d called an American news agency late last Wednesday afternoon
the answer would have been that the outcome of the House vote was still
undecided. If you’d called at nearly midnight the answer would have been
an excited “too close to call.” An hour later all lines were jammed. And
only a minute of so after that the House finished its vote count and,
once the Senate had joined the crowd, American trade discrimination
against communist China was over. It wasn’t even that close: 40 votes.

For over a century the spokesmen for the still infant American
republic had demanded what was called a “protective tariff,” without
which American industry, still taking its baby steps, would be wiped out
by the far more efficient Europeans. It sounds odd today, but American
manufacturers of the day simply couldn’t meet foreign competition, and
American companies could no longer gain a better position by getting
low-cost foreign workers to immigrate to the U.S. The age of mass
immigration had not begun.

A good deal of study in recent years has gone into estimating in
advance the outcome of political elections. And now, at least in the
United States, a veritable fortune is being spent in efforts — via
television, radio, or printed publications — to influence the public’s
perceptions of a coming election: of the electorate as well as the
issues. The way the electoral campaign is conducted nowadays also comes
in for extensive analysis. By now everyone must realize that modern
media, money, and a general excitement have changed popular elections in
America almost beyond recognition. Women (who didn’t vote in federal
elections until 1920), blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and various immigrant
ethnic groupings — to all of which the candidate must cater — have
changed American electoral behavior radically. It is now expected,
furthermore, that journalistic assessments of elections will be
conducted scientifically:

This is the scholarly formula that expresses the extent to which
voters’ thinking is affected by the publicity surrounding a political
campaign. In 1996 Lewis-Beck, some four months before that presidential
election, made a more accurate prediction of the results than the
national exit poll taken on Election Day as voters left their polling
places, the latter overstating the Clinton vote by more than three
percentage points. Most forecasters share the belief the elections
reflect underlying elements in the economy and public opinion.

All academic forecasters agree that whatever satisfaction they may
give voters, third-party candidates have no appreciable effect on
election results–a view that appears borne out by history. But two
ingredients admitted to the weigh-in by all specialists are the general
health of the economy and the individual voters’ habitual political
preferences. As of today, incidentally, according to these political
science specialists (the incumbent party benefiting from the longest
sounded by Celinda Lake, who has written, “We should realize that the
average family in America spends five minutes a week on politics.”
period of economic expansion in modern history), all signs are that
President Clinton will bless us with his beloved “legacy” and, despite
the impeachment scandal, the memory of his extraordinarily high approval

A classic question that has been put to the American public regularly
in recent years is: “Would you say that you are better off or worse off
financially than you were a year ago?” The public’s answer is positive
by a 21 percent margin, the highest on record for an election
year–until now. In March of this year, the margin was no longer 21
percent but 35 percent.

Is it “time for a change?” runs the familiar question. It has
traditionally received a “yes,” but we are facing a candidate intimately
associated with the current administration. This brings positive and
negative answers much closer together — separated now by only one
percentage point. The “time for a change” argument is also much invoked
these days against the electoral process itself, particularly when
recent campaigns have declined into vulgarity, or even stadium brawls.

The democratic process, even when it’s vulgar, still has its
defenders. It “invigorates partisans,” say some. Others insist that
despite the low level of the debate, it will convey new information on
the candidates, exposing both their arguments and their personalities to
the public. The candidates’ skill in debate, although rarely rising to
the level of Lincoln and Douglas, also seems to have regained a degree
of its former importance.

As for the degree to which the debates reflect the well thought-out
opinions of the electorate, students should consider how much the vote
represents the much talked about “decline in moral values.” A sobering
note is by Celinda Lake, who has written, “We should realize that the
average family in America spends five minutes a week on politics.”