The dynamics of division

By Lorenzo

A recent post by Stratfor intelligently discusses the dynamics of US presidential elections — why they tend to be so even, why low voter turnout does not seem a good indicator of voter alienation, that big [60%+] wins (Harding 1920, FDR 1936,  LBJ 1964, Nixon 1972) have not generally led to historically well-regarded presidencies.

But it misses out on why two-Party system tends to be so even in voter supporter–such that a 55-45 result is a “landslide”. It is a result of the dynamics of coalition building.

For, in any political system dominated by two Parties, even a unitary “Major Party” is, in reality, a coalition. Not only a coalition of various shades of political ideology among its activists (who may or may not form as overt factions) but a coalition of voters. The level and strength of support within the various elements of said coalition for a specific Major Party will vary and will be subject to different “triggers” of support or opposition. The weaker that support, the more “floating” considerations — such as apparent competence — will become dominant.

As long as enough of the electorate is open to persuasion, trying to build a majority coalition will be somewhat like herding cats. Just as you apparently have one in place, another will wander off. What appeals to one group may be a matter of indifference, or even hostility, to another. And your bids for support are subject to continual competition from your opponents.

Being in office is an advantage, in that one can “deliver”, but also something of a disadvantage, in that you are responsible for policy outcomes, so your chances of alienating people tend to accumulate over time. Hence a tendency for the electoral support of Governments to decline over time; for being in office to be a wasting political asset.

So, given a certain political competence and openness, there will be a constant tendency for support for each “side” of politics to converge on about 50% of the vote. This is related to the median voter theorem, but one should be wary of seeing the politics as being captured along a single dimension or axes.

Moreover, such convergence is what one wants. If politics is divided into a permanent majority and minority (as Ulster politics is, for example), the level of alienation among the permanently excluded is likely to be dangerously high. One wants as large a section of the electorate as practical feel that “their side” (someone they voted for) will be in office at least some of the time. That concerns of folk like them get a say.

Which is one of the advantages of the Australian system, in that the proportional representation Senate gives even supporters of Parties not up for gaining a House of Representative majority a vehicle for having some influence without causing political instability.

If one sees the Major Parties as competitors seeking to build a voter-majority across disparate social groups who nevertheless all feel that they are in the same political “game”, then the tendency of electoral politics in Two-Party systems to result in remarkably persistent even divisions of total votes is neither mysterious nor problematic.


  1. Posted November 6, 2012 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Median voter theory still works though if you consider it to be applied across multiple axes.

    That is, each voter falls in a different position on different issues. These form a coordinate in a hyperspace of all issues of interest to that voter.

    The centre is basically defined by the region in that hyperspace where you find the most voters.

    As for the formation of two-party systems, I think it’s a mix of the economies of scale that a party organisation gives leading to driving out smaller rivals in winner-takes-all systems (such as our lower house seats); and then overlaid is the Schelling model of polarising neighbourhoods which cause ideologues to clump into one party or the other.

    So the formative tensions for a party are the fact that people hate each other’s guts over policy differences, but that they are also need each other to come to power at all.

    A bit like a neutron star — a delicate balance between nuclear forces and gravity. (And full of dense, degenerate matter).

  2. Posted November 6, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Multidimensional mathematics is not a strong point of mine 🙂

    Yes, single-seat systems naturally generate large Parties which tend to converge on a Two Party model. I was more talking about why the two Parties end up so even.

  3. kvd
    Posted November 6, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Sort of aligned with your comments Lorenzo, are two recent SMH articles about the US system, compared to ours.

    And if my comment disappears into the trash bin, may I just say to the garbageman that the US – as a model for ‘democratic elections’ – is not.

  4. TerjeP
    Posted November 6, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    If we need a representative body to make collective decisions, and in some matters I think we do, then I’d prefer that we rely a lot less on voting and that we use sortition a lot more (we almost never use it now). Probably some form of qualified sortition rather than a pure form. With voting you end up with psychos, liars and sell outs deciding important things. With sortition you get normal people deciding.

  5. Posted November 6, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Donkey votes (voting 1, 2, 3 etc) are formal votes if fully enumerated and are counted, which is why drawing top of the ballot is a Big Deal.

    I would definitely add “none of the above” and have tougher enforcement of compulsory voting.

  6. paul walter
    Posted November 7, 2012 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    A really good facsimile of a bloke’s urinal, that photo.

  7. Posted November 7, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    I think Australia’s electoral system (and I’ve travelled very widely) is the best I’ve seen.
    I’m troubled by compulsory voting though. I think when everyone has to turn out, the best advertising campaign can decide the election in a way it is less likely to do in a non-compulsory system.
    For example, and although I’m thankful Mark Latham was never our Prime Minister, I think the primary reason was the 2004 campaign advertising. The Liberal’s ‘interest rates’ campaign was powerful with the classes that aren’t particularly politically interested. It was demonstrably the case that interest rates had been lower under Liberal Governments, they will never be able to use this line again, but it worked a treat.
    Likewise in the 2007 election, the advertising campaign against ‘workchoices’ captured the politically disengaged through (misplaced, I believe) fears about the horrors the Industrial Relations system would visit upon them. That election was always going to be a Kevin Rudd victory as the electorate had tired of the Howard Government, but the extent of the victory was attributable to the Labour/Unions anti-workchoices advertising campaign. The power of that victory meant the next election was out of reach of the Liberals because they couldn’t obtain the needed swings, so in my view that advertising campaign won the Labour party the 2010 election.
    That is my concern, that the ambivalent voter (who under a non-compulsory system probably wouldn’t vote) is captured by an advertising agency, rather than a well-considered judgement of the political stances of the contestants.

  8. derrida derider
    Posted November 7, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    ” … big wins (Harding 1920, FDR 1936, LBJ 1964, Nixon 1972) have not generally led to historically well-regarded presidencies”

    Err – FDR is not historically well-regarded? And Reagan won big in 1980 – I don’t regard him well but he is Saint Ronald in much of the US.

  9. Posted November 7, 2012 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Reagan did not break the 60% of the vote barrier, which the other four cases did. And FDR is the only one of the four 60% winners who is historically well-regarded. I would also point out that his Administration, after its big win, then created the severe 1937-8 recession; not a plus.

    [email protected] Compulsory voting encourages attention to issues which matter to ordinary folk, not issues which matter to the more ideological. That is an advantage. Political advertising is going to happen regardless.

  10. Posted November 7, 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    compulsery voting forces the lazy to attend they still don’t have to vote formally but at least they know an election is on and this is part of our system of government. Alas many don’t understand the system. I support the Albert Langer vote where voters are not forced to give preferences below their second one.Howard sadly clipped this in the bud. Why should any voter be forced to let their vote flow where they do not lend suport?

  11. Posted November 7, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    On the dynamics of division, the US has voted for a moderate Republican President. The Mormon lost.

    The official Republican Party does rather need to break out of its white male ghetto.

  12. kvd
    Posted November 7, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo, that is the first time you’ve referenced two links, both of which are both superficial and inane. And then to top it off, you yourself add “The Mormon lost”.

    Perhaps maybe wait until the blood at least congeals?

  13. Posted November 7, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] I was not very emotionally invested in the result, so I was feeling mischievous. Others may have more intense reactions, of course.

    The tone of the second link is irritating, but his point about white males are not enough is sound. And Obama is not remotely a raging liberal Democrat in foreign policy.

  14. Posted November 7, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    The problem with optional preferential voting is that, in practice, it devolves into a plurality vote / first-past-the-post system (as it did in Queensland).

    FPTP is a crappy voting method. There’s no one “ideal” voting method that can satisfy all the desirable criteria, but some methods are demonstrably better than others. FPTP is pretty much near the bottom of the totem pole.

  15. Mel
    Posted November 7, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    Climate change denial moron, Jo Nova:

    “Something very strange is going on with money. Normally bets are a decent indicator, but in the US right now as people roll out to vote, polls are largely at 50:50, but betting odds of 2-9.

    With so much enthusiasm on the not-Obama side of the debate, those betting numbers don’t add up, indeed the mismatch is so large, it appears to be a rare chance of arbitrage. Could it be the strange end-point of media group-think and confirmation-bias?”

    Still, nowhere near as entertaining as Steve Kates at brethren denialist site, Cataplexy.

  16. D L White
    Posted November 7, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    I would favor the compulsory voting system because at the very least the voter is forced to take some interest in who governs the country. There is a need for Australians to take a long hard look at the archaic and limited nature of our constitution and following this to force the means of improved participation in the democratic quality of the country.

    Where many people find disillusionment is that our chosen representatives fail in this fundamental and tend to serve the interests of the campaign financiers.

    This situation is quite obviously so in American politics, 2 billion dollars must buy a lot of favors.

    The American paradigm of the political military industrial complex has become a self sustaining culture of pragmatic parasites.

    American politics is about selling a myth to a naive population; the jaded and long lost dream of world supremacy. Where they do remain without peer is in their nuclear capability, within any chosen day they could destroy every city on the planet plus some.

    Without doubt the government of America is now dysfunctional and bankrupt, this combined with the fact of their aggressive and recent military and economic history must point to them being the greatest risk to world peace since WW2.

    They have comprehensively failed their own people not to mention the millions around the planet who once admired all things American. The American people cling to the popular dream not realising that they are sipping from the poisoned chalice while the administration hides under the sheepskin cloak and pursues its agenda of imperialism and global dominance.

    Neither party, democrat or republican has changed this agenda since the advent of communism. Only the name of the enemy has changed, “terrorism”.

    Be thankful that Australia only hangs on to America’s apron strings and that we do have the insurance of compulsory voting.

  17. Posted November 7, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    Compulsory voting is no guarantee of quality and does nothing to address general disinterest in politics.

    It does however cause parties to target the median voter, thoroughly dampening the influence of crazies highly motivated voters of every hue.

    That is what makes it useful.

  18. fxh
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:44 am | Permalink

    jacques – you are turning into the dangerous compulsory voting etc commie I alway knew you were.

    I shall be reporting you to the IPA

  19. Mel
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Morbidly obese climate change denialist and right wing super-sage, Dean Chambers, complains about voodoo models, statistics and predictions.

    Heh, I have to take whatever schadenfreude is on offer …

  20. derrida derider
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    It is actually individually irrational for most people to vote, as voting takes costly effort and their chances of being the deciding vote in an election are infiinitesimal. But of course democracy won’t work if we can’t gauge peoples’ preferences.

    So you impose a small penalty on non-voters designed to be only a little larger than the cost of voting, just enough to make it individually rational to vote. You only need to – and should – make it marginally more hassle not to vote than to vote. That way genuine conscientious objectors, anarchists don’t have their rights violated in any serious way.

    It should be easy enough to build a little model here – though I guarantee the paper is already sitting in some Pol Sci journal somewhere.

  21. Posted November 9, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    derrida — my answer would be adding a None of the Above box.

    It’s a compromise, in that it weakens the optional vote’s guarantee that any candidate will ultimately have obtained a majority of approval over other candidates from amongst all voters.

    NOTA introduces the (all-too-real) possibility that None of the Above will “win” an election. Then what? The two options are 1. keep whichever candidate won from amongst non-NOTA votes, or 2. rerun the election until a genuine majority is formed.

  22. kvd
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    [email protected] can’t turn up where I read it yesterday, but at least one of the US States has a NOTA option. It attracted 2.5% of the vote as I recall. Then there’s the reduction to the ridiculous you point out in what options are available if NOTA wins…

  23. Mel
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Meanwhile :

    “Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington state have approved same-sex marriage in local referendums on social issues.

    It is the first time gay marriage has been backed by popular vote despite 35 such polls elsewhere in the US.

    Gay marriage is permitted in six states, but those laws were passed by legislators or by courts.

    In other referendums, voters in Colorado and Washington voted to legalise recreational use of marijuana.”

    Both these results these are just as interesting as Obama winning the election, I reckon. It is difficult to imagine anything now stopping the momentum on gay marriage in the West.

    However, I’m not prepared to make any predictions on drug law reform about which I’m now (tentatively) in favour thanks to SL’s powers of persuasion.

  24. kvd
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    [email protected], my earlier comment was swallowed; a good thing because I’ve now found a NOTA result for Nevada on Tuesday. Note the very low % for President, and 4.5% for the Senate.

    Also, your reduction to the ridiculous demonstrates just why a NOTA option is not really workable, or even desirable imo.

  25. kvd
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Just a further problem with NOTA flowing from Jacques’ comment. If the only options are as Jacques suggests, then instead of a NOTA maybe there should be (for instance in the Nevada Senate race) two options: 1) Elect no representative; 2) hold fresh election with current candidates disqualified from standing.

    Could go on for years…

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