Go to Top

Framing Our Biases In The Primaries

This week’s Republican primaries certainly taught us one thing: Virginians love Ron Paul, and they’re pretty fond of Mitt Romney, too.

Paul captured roughly 40 percent of the Virginia primary vote, by far his best non-caucus showing of the entire campaign. Romney won the remaining 60 percent. That’s good, but it was not even Romney’s best performance of the night on Super Tuesday.

By the way, Romney and Paul were the only GOP contenders on the Virginia ballot. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich failed to file the necessary paperwork, so voters could not choose them.

Did that affect the results? Of course it did. How? That’s harder to say. Answering that question forces us to consider the framing effect, a human tendency to answer questions differently depending on how the options are presented to us, even when the options are identical.

Strictly speaking, the framing effect was not at work in Virginia, since the choices presented to voters there were not identical to the choices presented in other places. But we will see it indirectly, over and over, as the presidential campaign plays out. Each candidate will try to portray his opponents as too risky a choice, because one of the framing effect’s chief impacts is to lead us to choose what we perceive as the safe option to avoid risk of loss (we hate losing), though we swing for the fences when we think we have little to lose (we buy lottery tickets).

We all suffer from the framing effect. It is part of a larger phenomenon that psychologists call cognitive bias. Cognitive bias also includes confirmation bias, which is the tendency to hear what we want to hear, and hindsight bias, which is the tendency to view past events as more predictable than they really were. As I watched Tuesday night’s election coverage, it struck me that I was seeing layer upon layer of biases, overlapping.

First there were the voters themselves, who had to select from among the ballot choices offered to them, and then answered exit poll questions about their own personal characteristics (Tea Party sympathizers, evangelicals, college educated, etc.) and their reasons for voting the way they did. Those voters reflect a group conformity bias: If I think of myself as a devout Christian, and I think Rick Santorum is a devout Christian, and my fellow devout Christians support Rick Santorum, why would I not support Rick Santorum?

Then there were journalists and commentators, who carried their own set of agendas, experiences and mental shortcuts (called “heuristics” by psychologists) into the discussion. Thanks to confirmation bias, they tended to read their own expectations into the results, which were in fact largely predictable.

And finally there are my own biases, since I am as human and subject to these distortions as anyone else, even if I try to identify and overcome them. These overlapping sets of prejudices and predispositions were bound to affect the lessons I drew from Tuesday’s results.

So let’s go back to Virginia. Ron Paul might have earned his strong showing because four in 10 Republican voters actually preferred him as their party’s nominee, but that is so inconsistent with results everywhere else that, in the absence of some reasonable explanation, it is highly unlikely.

Paul might have done as well as he did simply by virtue of not being Romney. The long intra-party campaign has seen a rotating cast of top challengers to the former Massachusetts governor. Clearly, a large slice of the party’s primary voters and caucus-goers would prefer that Romney not be the GOP nominee. The choice that was actually presented to Virginia Republicans on Tuesday was “Whom do you prefer, Romney or Paul?” Some voters may have interpreted this as “Whom do you prefer, Romney or not Romney?” Paul thus would have drawn support from two groups: those voters who actually liked him better than Romney, and those voters who had not really considered whether they preferred Paul over Romney, but preferred anyone to Romney by default.

This leaves the question of why Romney, too, drew so much support in Virginia, and what this might mean later in the year.

Pre-primary polling and early results in some smaller states, such as Iowa and South Carolina, indicated that Romney’s support among Republicans seemed to be capped at around 25 to 30 percent. Lately, in large and diverse states such as Florida, Michigan and Ohio, it has been closer to 40 percent. If this is the share of Republicans who really like Romney, why did 60 percent of Virginians vote for him this week?

Romney partisans might argue that Virginians truly did prefer their candidate by margins similar to Massachusetts (72 percent), where he lives and used to be governor, and Idaho (62 percent), where Romney’s Mormon faith and Utah family roots are distinct pluses. But you have to be a real fan to buy into this reasoning. Virginia is not much like Massachusetts or Idaho. In GOP politics, it probably falls someplace between Ohio, where Romney squeaked out a narrow win on Tuesday, and Tennessee, which Santorum took with a solid 37 percent to Romney’s 28 percent. Had Santorum been on the Virginia ballot, I think he would have won there.

However, I also believe Romney will continue to systematically gather the delegates he needs to become the GOP nominee in November. Santorum will not be an option for Virginia Republicans then, either. The choice will be Romney or President Obama. If Romney picked up 60 percent of the Virginia Republican vote against Ron Paul, what share will he get against Obama? Your guess is as good as mine, but it’s going to be higher - a lot higher.

This, of course, does not mean Romney will win Virginia’s 13 electoral votes, which could be pivotal in a close national election. In November, all Virginians, not just Republicans, will be voting. Democrats will overwhelmingly support the president. Independents could go either way. And the most important variables will be organization and enthusiasm, which translate into turnout on Election Day.

This is where I found some of Tuesday evening’s commentary to be off-base. (I was watching CNN.) Romney’s primary victories in Virginia and Ohio tell us nothing about how he will do in those places in November. We don’t know how many self-identified evangelical or Tea Party Republicans, who might have voted for Santorum or Gingrich in Virginia, opted to stay home. We can be pretty sure that not many of those people will vote for Obama, but we have no idea whether, with control of the White House at stake, they would turn out for Romney in the autumn. Nor does the GOP primary tell us anything about the non-Republican electorate. How will independents vote? Critically, can the Obama campaign motivate Democratic voters who supported him in 2008, many of them then first-time voters, to come back to the voting booths in November?

The way we answer a question often depends on how the question was asked. If we keep this in mind, we can avoid putting too much emphasis on misleading or irrelevant answers.

, , , , , , , , ,