The Swing Voters Curse: The reason the Lib Dem vote didn’t live up to the polls at the General Election?

Voting Intention UK GE 2010
The final poll before the general election had the Lib Dems on 27% but the final results were disappointing. Re-polling after the election has found that those who said they would vote Lib Dem continue to say they voted Lib Dem. So either all the polling companies got it wrong or something else was going on. This experiment gives us a new way of looking at the 2010 general election for the Lib Dems.

The conundrum of why so many people vote in safe seats has left some to postulate that many people vote because they think that their vote may count; they see themselves more as a ‘swing voter’. However, many people go to the voting booths and still choose not to vote and so this left researchers looking at why.

Researchers at the Center for Experimental Social Science at New York University looked into this by testing what is known as the ‘swing voters curse’. The swing voters curse theory was taken from an economic model of human behaviour: The swing voter knows that their vote could decide an outcome. But they also know that information is “asymmetric” in elections, meaning that other participants might have slightly better or slightly worse information about the candidate. The swing voter doesn’t want to pay the post-election cost of picking an ill-suited candidate based on incorrect information. So the swing voter is “cursed,” stuck trying to get the best result without paying too much in the end. The voter can’t lower how much his vote counts and so the swing voter simply chooses not to vote, and instead delegates it to those he thinks might be better informed.

Using volunteers in a computer-based election their results showed that voters with no inside information about the ‘candidates’ chose to abstain 91 percent of the time, essentially delegating their vote. If you lack information, you are less likely to vote.

However, one unexpected conclusion that the Curse creators derived from their theory is that the hypothetical swing voter, who would normally refrain because he lacks information, will vote when he knows partisans are present. Partisans are those who will always vote for one particular candidate, regardless of what information is available.

In subsequent rounds of the computer-based elections, the group was told that one ‘candidate’ had a slightly higher chance of ‘winning’ and that a certain number of partisans would vote for a ‘candidate’ no matter what. This time, those volunteers lacking inside information chose to vote against the partisans as well as the ‘candidate’ that was most likely to ‘win’ – up to 58 percent of the time. Essentially, the involvement of partisans increased the likelihood that uninformed voters would participate in the election.

You vote because you know there are people that will vote against the correct thing no matter what, so you seek to balance them out … the voter will do this even if his information about the best choice would normally lead him the other way

If we re-examine the 2010 general election we can indeed see that there was an increase in the number of people who voted as would be predicted by this  experiment – a closer predicted result means more people believe they are swing voters and therefore more likely to vote. They were given more information through the TV debates and so this may have contributes to the increase too.

Party                              2005 Total      2005 %         2010 Total         2010 %       Vote change
Conservative              8,784,915        32.4               10,703,754      36.1              +1,918,839
Labour                          9,552,436        35.2               8,609,527          29.0             -942,909
Liberal Democrat     5,985,454        22.1               6,836,824           23.0            +851,370
Total                              27,148,510      61.3               29,691,780       65.1             +2,543,270

However, as people thought there were more people voting for the Lib Dems, many may have voted against them with this belief in mind. In swing seats this mattered as the party lost 13 seats (and gained 8). Some of the extra people who voted in the election cancelled out what would have been gains as they voted against the belief that the Lib Dems may win in that seat. Clearly this is a preliminary study and is not refined and so will not translate directly to all elections, but maybe in tight elections this effect has more prominence?

The lessons from this experiment are that in tight elections the more information a voter has about a candidate and party, the more likely they are to vote. But also the more they think other people will vote for a party, the more likely there will be people wanting to vote against them.

Maybe the 27% ‘believed’ support the Lib Dems received in the election is what people would have voted if the ‘swing voters curse’ did not exist.

(see here)

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4 Responses to The Swing Voters Curse: The reason the Lib Dem vote didn’t live up to the polls at the General Election?

  1. ChrisB says:

    This is contrary to what we saw in the marginals we worked (and lost) on election day – the only reason we lost those seats was lack of local party structure (members). The opposition had at least 4 times the workers getting out the vote on the day, it was amazing that we came as close as we did.

    LD support is largely soft, and needs a lot of firming up to get the polling result (because it’s younger and usually has a weaker mental “imprint” regarding politics – they don’t see it as relevant as, for example, baby boomers do, who have seen the correlation between their personal wellbeing and politics demonstrated). I had to push a lot of “our” folk into the polling station, whereas the old school Tory vote/army was “up and at ‘em” hours before.

    On election day, I think a little under 27% of the population did support Lib Dem, but they didn’t register that support and (disproportionately) few were members; that has much more bearing than minority arguments. I’d like to think swing-voters are superrational, but I think it takes an incredible stretch of the imagination to superpose that idea with the election result and interpret it as a possible truth; only someone that hasn’t met our electorate face to face could conceive of such an idea (the thought of the guys down the road being aware of and strategising against the political motivations and knowledge of others is, frankly, surreal). I think what’s been demonstrated here is that Americans don’t understand our political system and motivations – how can she explain how 60% turned out to vote in our town council election where there were 11 seats and 11 candidates?! Clearly nobody cared at all about how pivotal their vote was there (or a 12th candidate).

    • Thanks for the comments Chris. More members and volunteers is definately what we need. Just out of interest 60% turnout is good for a local election, where was that?

  2. ChrisB says:

    Ironically, it was one of the highest turnouts we’ve had for a council election in 20 years. I’m in the deep south, where democracy is optional – the mayor offered me a place on the town council.

  3. Pingback: Top of the Blogs: The Lib Dem Golden Dozen #215

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