Comparative Politics

Detailed Campaigns

Sep 4 '12

One of the complaints about the Republican Convention that will surely be repeated when the Democrats gather in Charlotte is that newly uttered proposals sound great but lack sufficient detail to be evaluated seriously. Who is going to do precisely what to Medicare? How much of what government services are going to be cut?

It may be useful to look at a comparative example to ponder how more information could change the nature of campaigns. In the Netherlands each party provides excruciatingly detailed party platforms. No-one expects that voters will weed through all of this. The information needs to be translated into something more directly useful to voters. There has been a proliferation of on-line programs (and apps) similar to Project VoteSmart that help voters make choices based on  answers to a set of policy propositions.There are at least four popular general ones (here is one in English) and there are also more targeted programs for the elderly, kids, cannabis lovers, stupid people, and one where you can apply the Lee Sigelman theory of politics by choosing exclusively based on looks.  Some of these programs  predate the American counterparts and are extremely popular.

Perhaps even more influential is an institution called the Central Planning Agency, which runs each party’s submissions through a model and offers projections. Many of the publicly televised debates in the Netherlands centered on claims like this: “if my party wins, unemployment will be two percent lower than yours.” “Well that’s true in 2014 but not in 2017. In any case, under our program the budget deficit will be 1,5% lower than yours.”

On the one hand, all this information is great and potentially makes the campaign more substantive than it otherwise would be. Yet, it also enhances the role of models or modelers. There is a good amount of data to play with. Models are needed to translate these data into conclusions that can be consumed by the public. Research into the various vote choosing software shows that the same voters are often advised to vote for different parties. The problem is more serious for the Central Planning Agency, which is seen as authoritative in the Netherlands. Even though the institution warns that uncertainty should be taken into account and that the model’s history at accurately forecasting the impact of policies isn’t terribly great, in many of the political debates the Agency’s projections are taken as gospel.

I am not saying that it is bad to have so much detail going into campaigns. But it does magnify the role of modelers that translate detail into palatable information. I suspect it may work out a bit differently in the U.S. Somehow methinks Americans aren’t going to go en masse for a Central Planning Agency. The Congressional Budget Office does some of this work but probably couldn’t play this role in an election. Partisan institutions could each run their own models, rigged to favor their party’s platform (and thus negating added information that comes with detail). Thoughts?