The 'Choice-vs.-Referendum' False Dichotomy

I just wanted to address the worst of political punditry's inane and facile election-season statements right here at the beginning of the race: the false dichotomy that "this election will either be aor a."
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As we enter the general election season, the political punditry will (once again) trot out many shallow and trite phrases and concepts to be consumed as easily digestible mental pap for their audiences. It is, after all, the silly season. I don't even exclude myself; I'll probably oversimplify a few things between now and Election Day, if the past is any prologue. But I just wanted to address the worst of these inane and facile statements right here at the beginning of the race: the false dichotomy that "this election will either be a choice or a referendum." Mostly because I'm already sick of hearing such tripe, and it is only April.

In case you've just returned from an expedition to Mars and haven't heard this formulaic nonsense before, allow me to explain what it is supposed to mean. A "referendum" election means that the voters, en masse, will decide that it doesn't matter who the Republican candidate is; they will be voting solely on how they feel Barack Obama has done in his first term. A "choice" election means that voters, again as a monolithic group, will contemplate the two major-party nominees and decide which of them would be the better president. Using this "logic," the Republicans hope it'll be a referendum, and the White House hopes it will be a choice.

The fact that this is a distinction without a difference has escaped pretty much anyone who ever uses this construct. It is the very definition of a false dichotomy: a division into two mutually exclusive groups when no such division actually exists.

Now, it is basic human nature to invent such divisions. I've always maintained that there are two types of people in this world: those who divide the people in this world into two groups, and those who do not. (OK, sorry, I apologize for that, but I just couldn't resist.)

Kidding aside, political commentators in America are always searching for the answer to the basic journalistic question "why?" when considering the electorate. Why did one candidate win over another? Why did large numbers of people swing one way this year when they swung the other way a few years ago? Why did you, Sir or Madam, vote for Candidate X rather than Candidate Y?

The answer to the overarching question "why?" is, however, much too complex for such simplistic analysis. It should be pointed out that this doesn't stop anyone from trying, though. Pundits will speak with confidence, sometimes on the night of the election itself, about why people voted the way they did. They will sanctimoniously declare that one slice of the American public was the demographic group that "made all the difference" this year. This is where we got such phrases as "soccer moms," "NASCAR dads," and even "Reagan Democrats." One group is identified as the swingiest of swing voters that year, and everyone starts repeating the mantra over and over again until we're all convinced that it has something to do with the actual reality inside the heads of tens of millions of voters.

This is, once again, nonsense. It stems partly from the science of polling. After all, the more intelligent of the pundits pore over the data from exit polling, where pollsters ask voters fresh from the ballot box questions about whom they voted for and why. Combining their answers and comparing them to data from previous years is supposed to tell us all something or another about the mood of the electorate.

The only problem with this is that the questions are almost always multiple choice. A pollster might ask you if you voted for Candidate X over Candiate Y because of "A) the candidate's policies; B) whether I could have a beer with him or not; C) the candidate's likeability as a person; D) whether I was really voting against the other guy; or E) whether he understands people like me."

That's all fine and good, but what if your main reason for voting for the guy is not anywhere to be found in this list? Or what if two or three of those answers apply? In this case, voters choose an answer almost at random, because none of them accurately reflects their true feelings about how they made their voting choice.

At least with exit polling, you usually get a range of options. With the choice-vs.-referendum dichotomy, voting is stripped to only these two bare options. These options are not anywhere near as mutually exclusive as they're touted, either. Most voters are going to do both of these, to some extent. A voter will take into account what President Obama has managed to achieve and what he has not, as well as what Mitt Romney might be expected to achieve, should he win.

To put it another way, the vast majority of voters will use a blend of referendum-vs.-choice metrics to make their decisions. Voters are human, after all, and not robotic. Nuance exists, which makes it impossible to reduce decisions to one trite phrase. This is not to say that there won't also be plenty of hardcore partisans pulling the lever inside the voting booth, as well, both "anybody-but-Obama" people and "anybody-but-a-Republican" people. To put a more positive spin on this, it's likely that there will also be people who love Obama and all he stands for, just as there will be equally fervent people in Romney's corner. But even in a big election, such hardcore partisans aren't usually the ones who decide things, because their votes can be absolutely counted on by either campaign (the only real question is how many of them turn out on Election Day).

The deciders of elections are always those in the middle. In presidential elections it comes down to those voters in the middle in the states that are themselves in the middle. This election will likely be decided by the way a dozen (or fewer) states go, which makes the temptation immense (for people paid to analyze such voters in the media) to boil everything down to an easy-to-grasp soundbite that sums up the entire mood of the country.

But such oversimplification is like cotton candy. It's tasty and sweet, but it is also insubstantial and can make you sick to your stomach if it is all you eat (especially before boarding the roller coaster of a presidential election contest). The punditry will never admit this, though, because if a voter answers honestly, such an answer is immediately discounted and discarded by self-respecting exit pollsters. After all, if a voter answered the question "did you vote on Obama's record alone, or did you choose between Obama and Romney?" with what would be an entirely reasonable response -- "That's a pretty stupid thing to ask" -- then there simply would not be a checkbox to fill in to reflect this eminently rational reply.

Keep this in mind every time you hear some pundit on television spout the choice-vs.-referendum balderdash, which you will. In fact, I was originally going to close by suggesting a drinking game for the entire election ("He said 'choice-vs.-referendum'! Everybody do a shot!"), but upon reflection I feel I must refrain from such an irresponsible idea, so as to not cause an epidemic of alcohol poisoning across the land.

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