Saturday, October 2, 2010

Understanding the O’Donnell Voter

Establishment politicians think voters made a big mistake when they nominated Christine O’Donnell in the Delaware primary for Senate. Were the voters irrational or are the political pros just not seeing the whole picture?

Maybe it would help the political experts if they considered the situation from the perspective of a basic tool of probability theory — “expected value.” Expected value can be an immensely useful concept, especially in the context of decision-making. It is the payoff of some outcome times the probability of it happening. For example, the expected value of winning $5 if a coin flip results in a “heads” is $2.50. Any good poker player is at least intuitively skillful in calculating expected value.

Now apply that concept to analyzing the thinking of voters in the O’Donnell vs. Castle primary contest. The “experts” (Karl Rove, most notably) told voters that even though they might prefer O’Donnell, she would not be able to win in the November general election. According to the pundits, it simply is not possible for a conservative to win in a liberal-leaning state like Delaware. They think nominating O’Donnell reduces the probability of Republicans gaining majority control of the Senate.

Now assume that voters put some credence in the predictions of the analysts and believed that the probability of O’Donnell winning the general election was lower than Castle’s chances would have been. Those are the relative probabilities, but what are the relative values of the two possible outcomes?

Voters may have perceived relatively little difference in results between Castle or a Democrat winning in November. An event with a high probability still has a low expected value if the payoff is low. The voters could well have been acting logically and rationally by going with the long-shot. They were taking a calculated risk.

Voters simply did not place much subjective value on helping someone get elected just because he calls himself a Republican. The voters wanted to aim higher. They are extremely concerned and worried about the direction career politicians are taking the country. Their objective goes well beyond just maximizing the number of politicians with an “R” behind their names.

Castle’s biggest asset, supposedly, was experience. Unfortunately for him experience is not perceived as a plus in the minds of today’s voters. Because of the disgust about what politicians have done with their power, experience and incumbency have virtually become negative qualifiers. Chris Coons, O’Donnell’s opponent in the general election, is also touting his greater experience as a campaign theme. That might or might not work for him.

Voters may also have been skeptical about the predictions of the experts. There have been numerous electoral surprises since the beginning of the year, starting with the Scott Brown victory in liberal Massachusetts. The “experts” have been wrong as many times as they have been right. It’s plain for all to see that their predictive model is deeply flawed. When there is this amount of uncertainty, you might as well go with your gut.

One factor that will make a profound difference in the general election across the country is the “intensity gap.” Some polls are showing an unprecedented 25 percent advantage for Republicans.

That large a difference in enthusiasm could have such an impact on turnout that all the close races across the country could end up in the Republican column. An O’Donnell candidacy provides the opportunity for the Delaware voters to be included in the nationwide tide against incumbents and politics as usual. Candidates such as Mike Castle are not the kind who could ever generate much voter excitement.

O’Donnell has received an inordinate amount of attention from the main-stream media, most of it unfavorable. “Saturday Night Live” and late-night comedians are having a field day with her. Judging from recent history, however, it’s not clear whether such attention and ridicule will help or hurt her. She is certainly not going to suffer from lack of name recognition.

No one can say at this point if Christine O’Donnell will win in the general election. According to the polls, the odds are still against her. The Democrat party, however, is reportedly spending a significant amount of money on the Coons campaign. If O’Donnell has no chance of winning, what are they worried about? Why waste their money?

All things considered, it is not at all clear that Delaware’s primary voters didn’t know what they were doing. One thing is clear — they unquestionably converted a contest that would have been a yawner into something worth watching.


Understanding the O’Donnell Voter October 1, 2010

Ron Ross Ph.D. is a former economics professor and author of The Unbeatable Market. Ron resides in Arcata, California and is a founder of Premier Financial Group, a wealth management firm located in Eureka, California. He is a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma and can be reached at

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