Alaskans and the presidential primaries

The new economy

Posted: Friday, March 24, 2000

Like so many Alaskans, I've been following the presidential primaries over the past few months. I'm not at all surprised at the outcome: Bush and Gore were the frontrunners at the outset and I never thought that the challenges from McCain or Bradley had much of a chance. My guess is that Alaska will vote for Bush in the fall - he's clearly the more conservative candidate - but Gore should have supporters in Alaska as well.

For example, while there is probably a better chance that oil drilling will be allowed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge if Bush is elected, Gore is more likely to advocate tearing down dams in the Pacific Northwest to protect the salmon. These are important issues to Alaskans and, as my students will discover in the fall, being educated requires that we understand both sides of an issue, not just the one we tend to favor. Still, I sometimes wonder whether it might not be better to just ignore the whole presidential race. Let's face it: It simply doesn't matter how Alaska votes in the presidential election.

Not only are our three electoral votes insignificant, but the election is almost always decided by the time most of us get off work and go to the polls. We don't like to admit this, but it's true. There are other reasons to wonder whether it is worth the bother to vote. When you vote for any candidate, you are actually voting for a bundle of attributes, some of which you like and some of which you don't. For example, you may like Bush's position on gun control but not his stand on dams in the Pacific Northwest; you may like Gore's position on women's rights, but not his views on taxes. To vote intelligently, you must decide how to weigh the various positions the candidates hold.

Inevitably, this involves making some compromises. It also takes considerable time and effort to learn the candidates' positions because there are so many issues involved. And as economists say, ``time is money.'' How many of us devote the energy necessary to vote intelligently - especially when we know that there is almost no chance that our votes will matter?

Finally, there are strong reasons to believe that candidates will disguise their views as the election approaches. Specifically, political candidates attempt to make their views appear moderate so that they look like centrists. For example, suppose that Bush is perceived as being a right-wing conservative while Gore is considered a left-wing liberal. Conservatives would vote for Bush, liberals would vote for Gore, but the moderates would be up for grabs. If Gore can position himself as a moderate with only some liberal leanings, he should attract the votes of liberals plus a large portion of the moderates. Recognizing this, Bush will try to position himself as a moderate conservative so he does not lose moderates to Gore. As a result, the candidates' positions on key issues become so muddled that it is hard to tell where anyone really stands.

This has happened so frequently that many people contend that there is no difference between the Democrats and Republicans. So why should you vote? Economists have a rather crass answer: If your vote has no influence on the outcome, if it takes time to learn about the issues, and if you end up voting for some positions you don't like, then the only explanation is that the act of voting makes you feel good. When you leave the voting booth with that button saying, ``I voted, did you?'' all those high school civics lessons sink in and you feel like you've done the right thing.

It's hard to quibble with that logic, but there is one important caveat for Alaska: Our votes may not matter in national elections, but they certainly do matter in local elections. Alaska's population is so small that a few votes either way can influence election outcomes - and it very well may be that we are more affected by the school board and the city assembly than Congress anyway. But voting in local elections is not cost free; it too involves study and research to find out where the candidates stand. This is an ongoing process. It's not too early to begin.

Bill Brown teaches economics at the University of Alaska Southeast. He can be reached at william.brown@uas.

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