Win, Lose, Or Will It Draw?

By Barry Frye

Several decades ago, a famous child psychiatrist suggested we teach our children skills to manage the warmth of winning and the hurt of losing, thereby, positioning them for future opportunities. He theorized that the polarizing impact of winning and losing should be tempered with a more balanced, nurturing perspective creating a stronger sense of self worth.

Such a powerful lesson, however, should not be focused exclusively on our children.  In a culture driven by a neurotic fixation on labeling winners and losers, this lesson provides a more enlightened appreciation of the nature of competition for all of us.  Whether considering a business proposal, an athletic struggle, or an application for an open position, our paths are littered with excessive celebration for winners and the broken, remains of our losers.

We heap our adulation on winners by placing their likeness on magazine covers, newspapers, talk shows, and cereal boxes.  While we cover our victorious gladiators with praise and confetti, losers creep silently away to provide us a degree of comfortable distance and avoiding the clinging taint of losing.  In our political campaigns, losers are not only stamped, packed and labeled as also-rans but expected to concede defeat as a signal that the struggle has ended.  The humiliation of defeat is complete with the public cry of “uncle”.

With such an onerous toll waiting the losers and the prospects of enormous rewards for our winners, what separates losing from winning on such a stage?  Are the survivors of our primaries and elections successful due to their hard work and abilities or are other factors operating?

Each year with the regularity of a metronome, we hear how democracy has once again been short circuited by an aristocracy of wealth and privilege. However, it has become easy to dismiss unsatisfactory election results as a miscarriage caused by money simply because we have become too lazy to analyze the facts.

It is apparent that winners – regardless of party – nearly always out raise and outspend their defeated opponents. In fact, the disparity between winners and losers is actually increasing despite attempts at campaign reform. From that one point, however, we rush recklessly to make the leap that more money equates to increased ability to sway voters. What has not been proven is that spending more influences broad numbers of voters sufficiently to affect an outcome in more than a few exceptional cases. Surveys such as the ones conducted by Medill News Service and numerous scholarly works by academics indicate that neither voters nor nonvoters seemed overly motivated by either of the major party candidates or their positions on any of the hot issues. Responses reveal attitudes towards a specific candidate or his positions on hot topics were not prime motivators for exercising their right to vote. Furthermore, many nonvoters appeared to be highly engaged with news, as well as with multi-media and campaign advertisements concerning the election.  These surveys show that nonvoters are equally informed as their voting counterparts. Nebulous results such as these leads one to question just what spending is actually producing in terms of tangible results if not influencing voter behavior.

The answer might lie in studies by such organizations as the Hoover Institute. Although a lack of consensus exists between journalists and scholars on money’s ability to influence actual votes after elections and influence voter behavior before, they do agree on one thing. No one argues that significant contributions provide access to winners. The ability to gain face time with political officeholders when critical legislation and policy is under consideration justifies the investment in the eyes of shrewd businessmen and corporate executives.

As one party leader stated after the Election of 2004, money doesn’t buy love in politics either. Perhaps what it does buy, however, is access.

With no overwhelming concurrence of opinion on money’s ability to influence votes, we should turn our analysis to other issues. Did we learn anything meaningful in kindergarten in this arena of our life? How about those school elections when the winners seemed to always be the pretty girl or the handsome boy, never the bright little geeky guy with all the original ideas. Perhaps we should consider that winners and losers in elections are determined by their sex appeal.

Even if we soften the harshness of such an idea by using phrases like voter cognitive shortcuts, the words hide a simple truth – we all admire beautiful people. Realistically, in low information elections, attractiveness cues likely do grow in importance.  Who would argue our society has become a media centric one driven by visual symbols and attractive packaging?  There just isn’t time for reading past the cover in our fast paced world with so many choices.

To buy such a theory, however, would imply all elected officials are handsome, attractive people.  A viewing of any directory of public office holders with photos would reveal that such reliance on the “attractiveness” factor as the deal breaker is flawed and highly disputable.

If not money or looks, what else pre-determine the likelihood of success for a candidate attempting to woo today’s voters?  Perhaps we should alter our perspective from the candidate’s attributes to a deeper analysis of the election mechanism itself. How much does the process itself affect the outcome?

In the United States, elections are conducted as plurality votes in which only the top choice of each voter is considered.  For more than two hundred years, we have remained faithful to our antiquated approach, yet barely consider the possibility of electing a leader whom the vast majority of voters have no confidence and may even despise.

Plurality voting in its simplest form allows each voter to cast a single vote for his or her preferred candidate. The candidate with the most votes – the plurality - wins. The winner’s total does not reflect the majority of eligible voters, nor does it necessarily reflect the majority of votes cast.  In fact, it is possible when more than two candidates are receiving votes, he or she may receive a plurality while clearly not being the preferred choice of voters exercising their rights. Two historical examples underscore the impact of our plurality voting system on the outcome.

In the Election of 1860, a four-candidate ticket produced a winner that might never have become president had an instant runoff or a point system been used.  In either alternative method, voters’ preferences for all candidates would have been considered.  Stephen Douglas was broadly more popular and acceptable to voters than Abraham Lincoln. Nevertheless, with 30% of the total votes cast going to neither man, Lincoln was able to win the election and enjoy the skewed results of a plurality system.

In the Election of 2000, George W. Bush won the state of Florida—and, eventually, the presidency—by just a few hundred votes over Al Gore. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader won 95,000 votes in Florida, and opinion polls indicate most Nader voters preferred Gore as their second choice.

The potential for different outcomes by using an instant runoff process make wonderful dinner conversation but unfortunately little more. Successfully adopted in a number of states and local elections including Maine, New Mexico, Vermont and Washington, an instant runoff voting scheme allows voters to rank candidates as their first, second, and third choice. If a candidate fails to capture a clear majority on the first count, instant runoffs are conducted, eliminating the lowest candidate until a clear majority has favored a single candidate.

In the Election of 2000, Nader would have been dropped from the ticket in Florida, and Gore would likely have won easily. Different process, probably different outcome.

Ironically, the American public has demonstrated the power of alternative voting schemes already and its willingness to participate in them outside the political arena. Those in charge of the political mechanics of this country should sit up and take note.

Wildly successful media events which base their appeal equally on entertainment and participation of audiences have revealed remarkable numbers. Using a modified instant runoff approach rather than a strict plurality one, we are given weekly civics lesson on the power of voting as we see volatile shifts in popularity each time a new vote is cast.  Identifying a bottom three before one is booted off to oblivion grants visibility into who is at risk of losing. Voter motivation is continuously prodded and pulled as favorites appear perilously close to being eliminated. The message to voters to overcome their own apathy is direct and effective.

The only flaw in this scenario has been the ability to accommodate the tremendous demand to vote and be counted.  Before we become too giddy with the prospect of wider participation and the likelihood of garnering clear majority support rather than a watered down plurality one, we must overcome its single blemish.

From a purely technical perspective, we seem incapable of effectively processing such widespread participation.  It is ironic that a nation priding itself on participation of the masses cannot find a technology to accommodate the rush to be heard.

To underscore the inadequacy of our technology, consider the results of one of the most successful of these entertainment shows based on viewer participation.  Wildly successful at focusing nationwide interest, projections of lost votes range between 50 and 100 million votes at critical junctures simply due to the inability to accommodate the demand. Could we do any better with our election results?  An even better question:  do we really want to?

 Although the excitement that could be generated from process changes for our elections could be electric, we must consider what we truly want. Do we really want a larger turnout of the masses?  Do we feel comfortable handing the power of electing our political leaders equally to the uneducated, politically illiterate masses?  Is receiving a majority mandate a requirement for establishing a true national agenda?

Answering such questions can only make you ponder how far we have truly come from the same concerns of our Founding Fathers more than two hundred years ago, and how it is possible that, in terms of the voting process, we have not evolved significantly in the past two hundred and thirty years.


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