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Salience and Political Evolution
Why Parties Obsess Over Topics They Already Win With
How does someone who supports universal healthcare but is staunchly pro-life vote? Voters are complicated. Very few fit the bill of supporting exactly the set of issues on one party’s platform. An underrated factor in elections that has recently been gaining attention is salience: the popularity and primacy of different issues within the public. Take this chart of 2016 voters, plotted based on their opinions on ‘social’ and ‘economic’ issues.
Salience is a strong factor in mediating these differences and mapping a complicated human being onto the vote that he or she eventually casts. The issues that seem most urgent, impactful, and in contrast between two candidates or parties are influenced by a combination of underlying public opinion, media coverage, and campaign strategy. These relative weights between issues can go on to determine elections. As Ezra Klein noted when interviewing Democratic data scientist David Shor:
[Shor] often brandishes a table showing that among voters who supported universal health care but opposed amnesty for unauthorized immigrants, 60 percent voted for Obama in 2012 but 41 percent voted for Clinton in 2016. That difference, he noted, was more than enough to cost her the election.
There are plenty of people who do excellent work on the impact of salience in elections, such as the aforementioned Shor and fivethirtyeight.com, run by Nate Silver. As someone who cares only mildly about elections, I’ll leave you in their hands on this topic. What interests me much more is the effect that these salience dynamics have on broader sentiment. In my view, the question of who holds power federally pales in comparison to the effects which the ideologies of the Democratic and Republican parties have on the conduct of companies, non-profits, media, and local governments. An interesting pattern in American history maps salience onto the development of party ideologies quite nicely. Consider this quote from Klein’s piece on Shor:
David Simas, the director of opinion research on Obama’s 2012 campaign, recalled a focus group of non-college, undecided white women on immigration. It was a 90-minute discussion, and the Obama campaign made all its best arguments. Then they went around the table. Just hearing about the issue pushed the women toward Mitt Romney. The same process then played out in reverse with shipping jobs overseas. Even when all of Romney’s best arguments were made, the issue itself pushed the women toward Obama. The lesson the Obama team took from that was simple: Don’t talk about immigration.
Salience is crucial in determining what candidates and media figures can talk about at all. Of course, individuals make choices and can focus on unpopular topics if they so choose, but on average, campaigns and partisan media are driven by popularity and ratings. This leads to an interesting skew in which parties develop talking points, research, strategies, and nuance around certain issues. The mentality is beautifully illustrated by Douglas Murray in conversation with Eric Weinstein:
There’s an additional problem in that, isn’t there, Eric, which is that … There is a set of problem [sic], which people don’t counter, or they don’t contend with, rather, because the only people who’ve been thinking about it are people with the wrong answers.
On a range of things, I think that an explanation of where our politics and culture has been going bad, is through taking our eye off things because the people who claimed to know about it were people we knew to have the wrong answers. You know, I say this, and I’m guilty of this myself, you know, I’m more on the right than you are. But the right didn’t contend with inequality because the only people talking and thinking about inequality were people who had bad answers, which was, “Therefore capitalism is a problem.” And so, we just wanted to keep away from it.
For another example, take the issue of race. It has been an overwhelming observation in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama eras that the Democratic party is both perceived to be more favorable on the issue of race, and that as expected, polling favors Democrats when the salience of race is raised (such as by mentioning it explicitly, or simply based on underlying media coverage). If my theory holds, then the range of ideological diversity on the issue of race in the Democratic party is downstream of this difference is salience. There are relatively colorblind moderates, reformists like Jim Clyburn or Eric Adams, triangulators like Joe Biden, progressive corporatists like Kamala Harris, and progressive socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Their policy implications are often conflicting on issues such as crime, policing, redistribution, government action, civil rights law, and education. On the other hand, almost all Republicans offer similar policy prescriptions of colorblindness, school choice, and opportunity zones.
My explanation is simple: Democrats have had the time and space to talk about race more freely. While Republicans struggle to test the waters, since talking about the issue at all often makes life more difficult for Republican candidates, Democrats can throw just about any talking point and reap a benefit. This naturally leads to more variety, as Democrats discover what messages work well among different racial groups and classes; among donors, activists, and voters; among Democrats, independents, and Republicans, etc. This effect is somewhat compounding. As one party becomes better at campaigning, fundraising, and legislating on an issue through exploration, the advantage it gains with salience grows. This may eventually slow down due to radicalization and unforced errors (as we see with race in 2021), but on average it is a self-reinforcing cycle.
This leads to a predictable divergence not only on political beliefs, but on which issues are covered at all. It is an emergent process by which parties separate into two separate realities. This process is exacerbated by social media, which monitors correlations between individuals and the posts they interact most with, recommending more similar posts in the future. Self-selection and audience capture, in which pundits and journalists increasingly cater to a specific audience, cannot be underrated either. Mass media and especially the internet made specific, opinionated news coverage not only economically viable, but preferable. One only needs to look at the explicit partisanship of Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, or an even wider partisan array of online print publications to verify this observation. It would be one thing for these outlets to offer tinted coverage of the same national events. However, due to this salience dynamic and the self-perpetuating echo chambers it creates, this leads to news outlets often avoiding coverage of politically unfavorable events completely.
One meta-trend of mine that this supports is that a better understanding of data and reality simply leads to more dysfunctional politics. Modern communication and data science enabling frequent surveying, demographic/issue breakdowns, and complex modeling can be argued to originate somewhere between the late 90s and late 2000s. This has corresponded to the increasing belief (both applied and theoretical) that obstructionism and salience manipulation are often much more electorally successful than a solid policy agenda. Expect more writing on this idea in the future. As democracy is increasingly understood empirically, it may be inevitable that it turns out to be yet darker.