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Racism and the Democratic Iowa Caucuses

Filed under: Economics,Politics — Tags: , , , , — Paddy Wallbouncer @ 5:38 pm 2008 January 5

In an early story we explained the system of caucusing in Iowa. Of particular interest is the system the Democratic Party uses for the selection process. There is no secret ballot, and a show of hands or standing in a particular area is the way the Democratic votes are tallied. Republican tallies in the Iowa caucuses are still done by secret ballot.

Detractors of this “stand-your-ground” voting system have noted that social and peer pressure can have a prejudicial effect on the outcome of the vote. Stephen Levitt, author of the excellent book Freakonomics [Revised and Expanded]: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything wrote a working paper available at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

In it, Mr. Levitt used statistics from the TV show weakest link to conclude some interesting facts about how race and prejudice can alter the outcome of a vote. In particular He found what seemed to be an outward discrimination towards Hispanic and aged players in the game. He noted that other race groups or gender did not seem to have the same level of prejudice, and were voted off the game no more than the average white male. It is the motivation for this lack of racism that would make any public voting system suspect.

Here’s an excerpt of his conclusions:

Using the unique institutional set-up of Weakest Link, this paper tests for the presence and type of discrimination. Perhaps surprisingly, no evidence of discrimination towards Blacks or women is found, whereas there is substantively large magnitudes of observed discrimination towards Hispanics and the elderly. The data are consistent with statistical discrimination toward Hispanics and taste-based discrimination toward the old. There is also evidence that women tend to vote more frequently for men and vice-versa. It is important to emphasize, however, that characteristics such as race, gender, and age do not appear to be the primary determinants of voting behavior.

Given the highly stylized nature of the interactions on this television show, one must use extraordinary caution in trying to draw general conclusions from these results. Indeed, one could imagine that the absence of observed discrimination towards Blacks in this artificial context might arise precisely because of the presence of real-world discrimination towards Blacks which has sensitized Americans to the importance of not appearing outwardly racist, regardless of inward beliefs. At some conscious or unconscious level, contestants may shy away from targeting Blacks on a nationally televised program. In contrast, players may be less concerned about appearing to target Hispanics and the elderly. Ideally, one would like to isolate real-world settings in which the strategic incentives flip as they do on Weakest Link to provide a more readily generalizable test of competing theories of discrimination.

Can the same kind of discrimination have been exhibited in the Democratic Iowa Caucuses? Time will tell.

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