Election Superstitions and Fallacies

"It is somewhat late to consider whether the superstitions and traditions of a hundred or more years are to stand, in the result in November."

It may be asked, if this be sound political reasoning, why the frantic campaigning and stump-speaking of the September and October preceding the election? If the race has been decided, why does one party not rest on its oars and the other give up and row back to the stake-boat? There is need that some old hand on the stump, who is also a good observer, should present to the country an analytical and philosophical study of the purpose and the result of campaign oratory. To the superficial outside observer, what should be, and ostensibly is, its main purpose,—the conversion of political opponents,—is seldom accomplished, even to a limited extent. How could one expect it to be? Unless the speaker is a man of great power and reputation, the audiences he attracts consist almost exclusively of voters who are already enlisted in his party and do not need to be convinced or converted. On the other hand, if he is a person of national prominence or noted for his eloquence, he has some, perhaps many, political opponents among his hearers. But they do not go to his meetings with open minds, but out of curiosity; and the views, principles, and intentions which they take to the meeting they carry away unchanged.

The most successful stumping tours in our political history, so far as the number addressed was concerned, and the most spectacular, were those of Mr. Blaine in 1884, and those of Mr. Bryan in his three campaigns. But the election returns at the close of the canvasses cannot be tortured, with the utmost mathematical ingenuity, into proving that by their eloquence an appreciable inroad was made in the ranks of their opponents. Moreover, if personal observation goes for anything, one might appeal to the common experience of every man with the question: Did you ever meet or know of a voter who was converted from one party to another by a stump speech?

Undoubtedly 'spell-binding' has its uses. If not, campaign committees would have found it out long ago and abandoned the practice, instead of organizing political meetings in every hamlet and providing as speakers a few stars and a multitude of third-rate men. The manufactured enthusiasm of those who attend the meetings probably has an influence in dissuading doubting and hesitating voters from deserting their party. It also certainly has the effect of bringing indifferent citizens to the polls on election day. It may be that experienced campaigners have been able to discover some other benefit, direct or indirect, of the system; but those just mentioned are the only ones that are obvious to the political student who is not in the inner circle of management.

The party that is at any time in the minority, and out of power, hopes for and predicts a 'landslide.' Now there is one test, heretofore infallible, to be applied to political opinion at any given time. A landslide, or a fairly stable condition of the political sentiment of the country, can be foretold with even more confidence than an inspection of the barometer gives us in respect of the weather. A political upheaval—to put it in paradoxical form—does not originate from below, but from above. It would be difficult to cite an important overturn in national politics which was not foreshadowed by an open revolt of party leaders, and led and managed by them. Small variations in close districts and states do take place without the preliminary symptom just mentioned; but we are speaking now of changes that may be described as revolutionary. The fact might be illustrated by numerous examples. Indeed, as is implied by the form of the statement above, every overturn furnishes an example. But it will be sufficient to mention a few of them.

The revolt against Jacksonism which resulted in the election of Harrison, in 1840, was forecast by the secession of such Democratic leaders as Tyler, and Hugh White, and Berrien, and Mangum. Cass was defeated, in 1848, by the defection of Van Buren and many other leaders. The election of Lincoln was preceded by a wholesale desertion to the new Republican party of a large group of senators and other prominent men. The movement which resulted in the defeat of Blaine was originated and engineered by life-long Republicans. The campaign of 1896 occurred but yesterday. It was characterized by two 'landslides,' one in the West led by Teller and other senators; the other in the East, where a host of leading Democrats set the example of revolt from the free-silver movement. Prior to the election of 1908 the Democrats predicted a landslide here, there, and everywhere. But there were no prominent men of the other party who were moved by principle to desert to the other side, none who scented a revolution which promised profit to those who should take part in it; and there was no landslide anywhere.

All these desultory and disconnected remarks refer to the period before the election. One or two important matters that arise out of the situation when the votes have been cast, remain to be considered.

On many occasions, after a presidential election had been held and the returns were in, curious or alarmist statisticians have put forth calculations showing that the change of a small number of votes in one state, or two or three states, would have given victory to the defeated candidates. If 2554 men in New York who voted for Polk, in 1844, had voted for Clay, Clay would have been elected. Or the same result might have been reached if 3167 Pennsylvania Democrats had shifted to Clay, and if there had been no Plaquemines Fraud. The case of Blaine, in 1884, is hardly in point, because, although a shift in New York of 575 votes—as they were counted—would have elected him, there is a strong probability at least that he did actually have a plurality of the votes honestly cast in that state. But in 1888, although Cleveland had a popular plurality of almost 100,000 he had only 168 electoral votes, whereas Harrison had 233. The vote of New York was: for Harrison, 650,338; for Cleveland, 635,965. Plurality for Harrison, 14,373. So, and this illustrates the method under consideration, if 7187 of the Harrison votes had been cast for Cleveland he would have had the thirty-six electoral votes of New York, which would have made his total 204, and left only 197 for Harrison.

That is all true; but there is included in all such calculations an assumption that such a change can take place in one state without being reflected by a corresponding change elsewhere. That is contrary to the principle that similar persons, acted upon by the same influences, act in the same way. In the case just cited it is proposed to consider the consequence of a bolt from the party candidates by more than one in a hundred of the Republican voters. In that case we should anticipate and should find a bolt of about one per cent of all the Republican voters in the country, and the net change in that case would have been not seven thousand, but many times that number, and Cleveland's plurality would have been more than doubled. The loser of a hand at whist sometimes tells what he would have done if he had only had another trump. But that change in his own hand would have altered all the hands.

Inasmuch as it would have required a transfer to Bryan of more than seventy-seven thousand Republican votes, carefully distributed in eight states, to reverse the result of the last election, we did not hear the old story that the minority party came near to success. But the statisticians have indulged themselves in a consideration—one can hardly call the comments of most of them a study—which it may be worth while to examine, although any subject which, like this, involves an arithmetical analysis of figures, is necessarily dry.

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