Can We Tell Why an Election is Won or Lost? It’s a Complicated Answer.

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Source: Brown University. “Amid national uncertainty, Brown students, scholars grapple with election analysis.”

Media outlets want to sell stories. Candidates want to turn out voters and win elections. Political party officials want to tout their party’s platform and candidates. Activists want to see their interests and choices for elections succeed. So it comes as no surprise when they all want to boil down upcoming elections, or elections that have already happened, to simple matters as to why they will be (or were) won. Whether or not they truly believe what comes out of their own mouths, they have a vested interest in not only believing why an election result is the way it is, but to get other people to believe it too.

But are elections really a simple matter of taking the “correct” stance on issues according to what voters believe? Or is it just having enough money to spend? Or is it just sufficiently targeting the voters that are on your side or might be willing to support you?

If we’re talking about relatively competitive elections: No.

If anyone tries to tell you that a competitive election is solely or mostly about any one thing, or even a few simple things, it is often poor analysis or wishful thinking on their part. Some elections are foregone conclusions, to be sure. They were never going to be competitive in any way, shape, or form. But when the stakes are higher, the attention is greater, and the competition is more fierce, the reasons for an election result become more convoluted. It requires a much deeper dive into the data to make an accurate statement about why an election happened the way it did.

To be fair, political analysts have to craft their reports to the public, especially through media such as TV, in a way that brings ratings. Viewers and listeners often have short attention spans or won’t understand some of the minutiae of politics, and media programs have tight schedules. So going too deep into the weeds of the data would lose some of those media consumers, and risk cutting into advertising time and the time limits of the program itself. That said, there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Today we’ll cover three subject areas of analysis and how much of the story of an election they can tell us. But more importantly for this article, we’ll talk about what the shortcomings are for relying too much on any of these areas when analyzing the reasons for an election’s results.

  • Themes and issue of campaigns
  • Campaign spending
  • How voters evaluate the party in power

In short, when it comes to big elections, saying an election solely came down to a single factor or even a few is often erroneous.

Themes and Issues of Campaigns

Candidates and political parties love to speak in grandiose terms on how “the American people are tired of” whatever political group or views they don’t support, and that’s why voters will support their side instead. The media loves to speculate on what key issues will supposedly decide an election. Activists love to say that the issue stances they advocate or oppose are what will make or break a campaign.

Obviously, candidates’ stances on issues are important. But while it may be ideal for some voters and political commentators that candidates’ political views are the sole (or at least predominant) factor in who wins, that’s not how many elections work in reality. Different segments of voters not only can have different political perspectives but place differing levels of concern on each issue. What happened at the Capitol on January 6th, 2021, and its aftermath will matter greatly to many voters regardless of their party affiliation, while other voters will give it less importance or even totally forget about it when they cast their ballots. Inflation directly impacts many voters and it is a serious concern for them, while other voters feel little to no impact from it or feel that there are more pressing issues.

Campaigns, if they want to have a serious shot at winning a competitive race, create campaign plans that include anticipation of what the biggest election issues are. But these aren’t perfect predictions, which is why campaigns need tools that can gauge public opinion directly. Two of the major types of tools at campaigns’ disposal are focus groups and polling, but each come with advantages and disadvantages.

  • Focus groups are great for getting a truly in-depth look at what matters to voters that might vote for your campaign, going well beyond surface-level observations (if they are done well). However, they have to be small groups so you can get sufficient responses from each participant, and their size means they are, statistically speaking, highly unrepresentative of the greater voting population. What focus group participants tell you is detailed, but it might not be how a lot of other voters feel.
  • Polling is great for getting a representative look at the population of voters that can and might vote for your campaign (if it is done well). However, quality polling is expensive and many people are reluctant to participate in polls. Polls give you breadth, but they can only give you so much depth of detail and getting more of that detail means asking more questions in the poll — and therefore costs more money, time, and effort.

As the votes are being counted up and in the immediate aftermath following the results, analysts often use exit polls. Exit polls survey voters right after they cast their ballot to estimate what ultimately drove voters to participate in the election and why they voted the way they did. These often give great insight into why an election played out the way it did, but it is still subject to many of the same disadvantages that polling before the election has, just with the added benefit of hindsight.

Cash Rules Everything Around Us — Or Does It?

But even if you have the “correct” issue stances, that’s not all there is to winning. Even some of the most uninformed voters know that politics can get (sometimes ridiculously) expensive. You need money for virtually every campaign function — reaching out to voters, setting up campaign offices, campaign events, paying operatives, etc. The cost only goes up when it is a high-profile and competitive race. Big-time campaigns are won with big-time money.

But if it were simply about who could raise the most money, then the winners of elections would be foregone conclusions. In the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton raced far more money than Donald Trump did, giving her far more spending power, but Trump ultimately won the election. So it’s not only a matter of how much money you have. It’s also a matter of where and when you spend that money.

  • Where you spend refers to what types of media you use to reach out to voters and the geographical reach of said media. Each of them have their own advantages and disadvantages. For example, TV tends to have a wide reach, but it also can get expensive quickly, especially when you get into the largest media markets like New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami. Depending on the election, some TV channels also have too wide a reach and some voters who see the ads may not even live inside the district that a candidate is running for. If you are running for city council of a mid-sized city, you probably don’t want to use a regular broadcast TV channel that reaches way beyond city limits.
  • When you spend the money, of course, refers to the time in the campaign cycle that you reach out to voters. A candidate needs to stay on top of voters’ minds, but there are only so many resources at a candidate’s disposal. Outreach also tends to be more effective the closer it is to an election, which is why the last month or so prior to an election seems to be nonstop political advertising. Yet candidates still have to contact some voters well beforehand. How a candidate divides this spending can make a big difference in whether they win.

How Retrospective are Voters?

Some voters certainly make their choices based in part on how they evaluate the performance of the party in power. Yet while you may be able to gauge how voters in a single election covering a smaller geographical area (such as for state legislature or very small states) view the party in power, it becomes more difficult to say for certain when you are talking about multiple elections or an election covering a large geographical area. There are a lot more people to account for and their circumstances can differ considerably.

I’m mostly referring to analysis following the overall results of presidential and midterm elections, particularly for Congress. Let’s say that Democrats take some heavy losses in this year’s upcoming midterms and Republicans retake a majority in the U.S. House (which the historical record of previous midterms indicates is likely). Will that be driven by widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of President Joe Biden and the Democratic majority in Congress?

Sure, it likely will be a big factor. But how can you tell how much that factored into voters’ choices? Congress has all 435 U.S. House seats and one-third of the U.S. Senate up for election every two years, but they aren’t all going to be decided by this dissatisfaction, and how much that dissatisfaction matters will differ by each congressional district and state. So to say that voters are just “rejecting” the power in party is, while true to a certain degree, also simplistic. Voters in some congressional districts are doing it, but not in other districts.

Also, are many of these voters voting against the party in power just because they think the party has performed poorly? Or is it solely or mostly driven by said voters’ partisan loyalties? The party affiliation of voters is still the most reliable predictor of who voters will pick in an election. The voters could just perceive the party in power as performing poorly because the voters belong to the party out of power. Some of the candidates of the party out of power may have just had better campaign strategies than the party in power.

It’s easy to ascribe broad characteristics to a large, collective group of people, but breaking that collective down into smaller groups might tell a different story.

The Full Picture

There are other pieces to the puzzle that couldn’t be fully covered in one post on this site, such as structural conditions like the voting history of a given voting district. How did previous elections for a seat get decided? What were previous candidates’ campaign strategies? How much money was spent in that district’s previous elections? How many Republicans, Democrats, and other voters lives in the district? And so on.

But all of this and more is why, if you really want to get the most accurate picture of why a competitive election happened the way it did, it requires delving more into the details than a lot of political analysis on TV, radio, etc. does already. Of course, that doesn’t mean simply rejecting any analysis in the media, or thinking that it is all terrible and tailored for ratings. What it does mean, however, is that you should be wary of oversimplification of why an election’s results occurred a certain way. If the political analysis sounds too straightforward, there is a good chance that it isn’t accurately covering the full story.



Self-Published Author; Sayfie Review & Ballotpedia (my views do not express those of my employers); M.A. in Political Science (UF Political Campaigning program)

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Paul Rader

Self-Published Author; Sayfie Review & Ballotpedia (my views do not express those of my employers); M.A. in Political Science (UF Political Campaigning program)