Why you should care
Because your neighbor’s vote could simply reflect which side of the bed they woke up on.
For a dozen days in the summer of 1916, the United States cowered beneath a terror so great that it briefly overshadowed a crippling heat wave, a polio epidemic and the bloody dregs of World War I. Along the New Jersey coast, a spate of five shark attacks left four dead. Mass hysteria set in, and a few months later, Garden State beach dwellers made their frustration clear — by blaming Woodrow Wilson. Support for the sitting president dropped by 10 percentage points in those communities.
“When collective misfortune strikes a society, someone must be blamed,” Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry M. Bartels said in a press release, talking about these findings, and others, in his book Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. The conclusion of the dour, and controversial, tome:
Elections are mostly random events, with voters swayed on factors like bad weather, sluggish economic growth and, yes, even shark attacks.
The assertion flies in the face of conventional political theories. Historically, theorists have seen democracy as a meritocracy, where leaders are rewarded for good stewardship and ideas and punished for mishandling the public will. But Bartels and coauthor Christopher Achen, of Princeton University, argue that elections are more influenced by seemingly arbitrary factors, ones that candidates don’t control. Simply put: Voters are no good at assessing political responsibility.
Some defenders believe democracy harnesses the people’s will, with voters electing candidates who reflect their policy preferences. But that sentiment easily gets washed away by things as disparate as a severe flood or long-standing drought, according to Bartels, who did not respond to a request for comment. In Baden-Württemberg, a German state, ballot casters elected the Green Party in a huge upset over the Christian Democratic Union Party barely two weeks after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan stoked concerns over nuclear energy. In 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney seemed to be building momentum before Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast. Folks rallied around the incumbent, Barack Obama, who won by five million votes. And researchers have often found that a rainy Election Day can chill turnout, and thus shift elections.
This year, many pundits are saying it will take an act of God for Donald Trump to become president in November — and yet, he’s often defied the skeptics and is theoretically one devastating terror attack (or an unexpected indictment for his opponent) from turning the tables. “A random if awful event like a terrorist attack could swing a presidential election,” says Brown University sociologist Michael Kennedy. But then again, democracy, in his view, is never about the results of a single election, but about preserving the public’s rights and discourse. “Democracy is not about randomness,” he adds. “Or if it is about randomness, then it is already lost.”