THE BLOG
10/22/2012 09:47 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

Behavioral Votonomics

Based on purely anecdotal evidence, I conclude that not only do people completely ignore the "issues" when they vote, but furthermore, many actually vote against their material self-interest much of the time. I hereby dub this hypothesis the Theory of Behavioral Votonomics, as it derives from the Theory of Behavioral Economics. The Behavioral Economics Theory won several Nobel Prizes. Think mine has a shot?

My best friend Cindy lives on food stamps and Medicaid. Without the social security disability payments she received when her husband died eight years ago, she would not have been able to feed and house herself and her two young children. Cindy has been unable to work because of chronic illness. If she does not get approved for disability payments from Uncle Sam, she will be homeless and destitute. You would think Cindy would be an easy vote for President Obama, standard bearer of the Democratic Party, proud sponsor and supporter of all of these entitlement programs. The Republicans haven't put a roof over her head. They fight tooth and nail against any expansion of spending, particularly in her home state of Arizona. But if you assumed Cindy would be voting for President Obama, you'd be dead wrong. Cindy is voting for Mitt Romney. Why? Because they agree on abortion.

Voting is like shopping. For years, economists assumed that we spend money rationally, allocating our dollars based on self-evident self-interest. Would we buy ourselves a big, expensive flat-screen TV if we couldn't pay the rent? Theoretically, no. But we do. Housing projects are full of them. Hence the birth of the Nobel Prize-winning theory of Behavioral Economics, which discovered that when real people spend their money, they spend it on impulse, emotion and immediate self-gratification. Occasionally long-term self-interest is in there, too, but not always. Is there any difference in how we vote? I say no. I call this Behavioral Votonomics.

Cousin Barbara is avowedly pro-choice. Were it not for the sizable pension she receives from the New York City teacher's union, she would not be able to stay in the house she has lived in for 40 years. She also has a severe chemical sensitivity, making it impossible for her to travel to most hotels, due to the use of harsh cleaning products. Based on her own rational self-interest, economically, socially and environmentally, Cousin Barbara's vote should be a no-brainer, an easy lay-up for Obama. Not true. Cousin Barbara is also voting for Mitt Romney. Why? Because she likes him better. She doesn't trust President Obama as a person.

In Behavioral Votonomics, people vote based on a candidate's appearance, personal life, tone of voice and general likability. Also whether they like their spouse. The issues serve as a convenient topic of conversation, but they are not really important. Far more important are hair color, singing ability, teeth and the acceptability of the all-encompassing "body language." Sound familiar? Look at every poll after every debate. People don't talk about how much they agree with a candidate, they talk about how much they like a candidate. They talk about how much they trust a candidate as a person, not whether or not they have told the whole truth, or how relevant their past is to how they will vote in the future. While this may have always been true to some extent, in today's world of ever-present cameras the effect is exacerbated.

My father never took a dime from the government in his life, until he finally accepted Medicare and Social Security. He worked his way through law school at night without a handout or subsidy. Dad's entire life was spent creating businesses, all kinds of enterprises, some of whom employed hundreds of people. Some years were good, others were simply awful. The only thing that kept him and my mother going was their faith that good times would return if they only worked hard enough. Sound like a Republican philosophy to you? It does to me. But my father is voting for Obama. Why? Because he thinks Mitt Romney stands only for the rich. He has seen that greed, way up close, and he thinks it isn't good for America. He also disapproves of Mitt Romney's investments overseas -- he thinks they are unpatriotic.

In Behavioral Votonomics, traditional ways of projecting votes do not work. You can't count on the women's vote just because you are strong on women's issues. Rather, you need to persuade women of your kindness and empathy. You can't count on the black vote if you have one of the strongest records in the country on civil rights, as Hillary Clinton did. Barack Obama was black, that trumped any voting history. Sometimes the result will be coincident with predictable voting blocs -- other times, not so much. Behavioral Votonomics is a theory of the real world, where Herman Cain is as likely to run for office as Barack Obama, where voter turnout depends not so much upon passion as it does upon the weather. Behavioral Votonomics explains the unreliability of polls. Politicians cling to them for guidance, but polls can only be as accurate as we let them be, and we voters are a notoriously fickle bunch.

However, there is one big difference between behavioral economics and votonomics. If you personally make the right choices about spending and saving, you will end up with a better standard of living in the long run, even if your former neighbor is still stuck in the projects with that big-screen TV. But if you vote on the issues, while nobody else does, you get stuck with the wrong guy. Often we all do.

So here is my plea to the last moderator of the last debate, as we skid into these last few weeks before Election Day. We are not going to change our reasons for selecting a candidate, so let's stop pretending. Forget about asking questions on the issues, and go straight to the important stuff. Ask them when was the last time they were caught in a lie -- did they fess up or keep going? Ask them how they handled the first time they knew their kid did drugs, or at least smoked a cigarette. Ask them how they felt when they lost an election, and what they will do if they lose this one. However the politicians answer, at least we voters won't fall asleep out of boredom. We'll be paying attention to their characters for a change, as well as the pattern on their ties. And that can't hurt.