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  • Writer's pictureOren Levin-Waldman

The 2024 Campaign for President Begins: Revisiting the Median Voter Theorem

As various candidates come forward declaring their intention to run for the Republican party nomination for president, and maybe even the Democratic party nomination, it might be useful to revisit the median voter theorem. There are a couple of permutations which ultimately wind up in the same place. The first one, put forth in a classic 1960 book on voting behavior called The American Voter by Agnus Campbell, Phillip Converse, Warren Miller, and Donald Stokes, holds that candidates running in the center are more likely to win elections than those running to their respective party extremes.

The second one, which is a bit more complicated, comes from public choice economics. In An Economic Theory of Democracy, author Anthony Downs talks about how candidates, political parties, voters and public officials all have interests, and that each seeks to maximize their respective self-interest. Because the poor typically don’t vote, candidates for office tend to appeal to the more affluent and once elected tend to pursue the interests of the more affluent. But when the poor become restless because they feel that they have been ignored, public officials will pursue policies that increase the money utility of the poor, which effectively purchases their quiescence. This, in turn, allows public officials to pursue policies that are desired by the more affluent, who are more likely to donate money to campaigns and to vote.

Over the years, there has been considerable literature applying this idea to societies that engage in “democratization.” Authoritarian societies, especially when they see the poor, i.e., the non-propertied classes, getting restless, are likely to liberalize and become more democratic in order to stave off the potential rebellion. The same literature notes, however, that when this occurs the old-line property owners are likely to resist these democratization efforts because they want to maintain their privileged positions.

A little more than 40 years ago, Allan Meltzer and Scott Richard published an article called “The Rational Theory of the Size of Government” in which they put forth the following version of the median voter theorem: The greater the distance between the median voter’s income and the average income of society, the more inequality there is. On the assumption that the only solution to inequality is redistribution, this version holds that the median voter during periods of increased inequality will vote for candidates promising greater redistribution. Similarly, during periods of less inequality, the median voter will vote for less redistribution.

The median voter, in other words, chooses the size of government based on how much redistribution is desired. Applied to the first version of the median voter theorem, the median voter — always in the middle of the political spectrum — either moves slightly to the right or slightly to the left depending on whether there is either a greater need or less of a need for the government to intervene in order to meet people’s needs.

What, then, does all of this mean for those who are running for office today? Or for that matter, how can they tailor their campaigns that best appeal to the median voter? Before we answer that question, we really have to ponder whether in the face of increasing inequality all roads necessarily lead to redistribution or more redistribution. Any number of studies suggest that members of Congress are more responsive to the affluent than the less affluent. In fact, they are totally nonresponsive to the poor. If that is so, why would we expect public officials to feel the need at all to purchase their quiescence?

At the same time, we may see some evidence of this in the behavior of many Democratic elites who support greater redistribution for the poor while pursuing a range of economic policies that benefit the wealthy, many of whom are their friends on Wall Street. In other words, they are purchasing their quiescence. And yet, Republican elites are also supportive of some redistributive policies for the same reasons.

To put it more succinctly, these elites could not care less about the poor, or even the middle class, which is where the median voter is. On the contrary, they are concerned with their own self-interests. Still, the median voter can provide some guidance.

Let’s assume that the median voter — the one we might refer to as a “moderate” — wants policies that will benefit the middle class. This means policies more favorable to economic development on main street instead of the growth policies that have only been beneficial to money managers on Wall Street and those employed in information technology requiring greater skills.

The candidate seeking to appeal to the median voter, then, might campaign on a platform of bringing capital and investment back to the U.S. This candidate would talk more about trying to attract better paying jobs in manufacturing. Moreover, this wouldn’t only be preferable to traditional redistribution, but it would also be a matter of national security. In the wake of the supply chain crisis following COVID, it is imperative that we bring our manufacturing base back to the U.S.

It is also imperative that policies supporting higher wages by supporting institutions that would grant workers, especially blue-collar workers, greater market power and effectively greater bargaining power be pursued. It isn’t that the median voter wants greater government with more redistribution, but a neutral umpire that will seek to ensure more opportunities for the middle class to flourish.

Even if we accept that most new jobs will be created in information technology, there needs to be more investment into human capital. Revamping K-12 education would be a good start. College loan forgiveness to those who went to expensive degrees only benefits the elites and does not solve the problem that the current educational system fails to adequately prepare workers. The first version of the median voter theorem still holds: those candidates running to their respective party extremes will not win.

This means that candidates need to focus on issues that matter and get away from the politics of diversion and identity politics. The focus needs to be on the middle class. And to focus on the middle class requires that candidates understand just how the economy has changed over the last several decades. And this can only occur when candidates take a deep dive into the data in an effort to identify these changes. This cannot be discovered through traditional public opinion polling. But a deep dive into data can better help candidates frame the issues in ways that will better resonate with the voters. Moreover, it will make the polls more informative because those conducting them will know better how to frame the questions.

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