Who is an “average voter”?

I’m restraining myself from writing too much about the US election, but I’m definitely reading about (and obsessively tracking) the race.  In light of that, here’s a piece I really enjoyed from the NYTimes: “So What Do You Think Of Hillary Clinton Now?”

Effectively, it’s one of those pieces where a reporter (Emma Roller) goes out and interviews a bunch of people on the street, in this case to gauge their reception to Hillary Clinton’s nomination as Democratic candidate for US President.  Or as Ms. Roller put it:

What does Mrs. Clinton’s presidential nomination mean to average voters, die-hard Democrats and Bernie or Busters? We asked a few here in Philadelphia.

I suppose, as I read through, I can pick out a few of the “die-hard Democrats” and the “Bernie or Busters,” but who is supposed to be an “average voter?”  And what does that even mean?

In a straightforward statistical sense, we can identify who falls into the group of “modal voters,” at least once we have a set of votes.  Modal voters would include all of those who voted for the candidate who won the most votes.  If we can arrange candidates on a scale (say left-to-right), then we can also come up with a population of voters that we could draw from in order to select a “median voter.”  But in each case, if we wanted to find someone to exemplify the modal or median voter, we’d still have to randomly select from all of the possible people that would fill in that category.  To put it mildly, there is a lot of diversity there.  But finding someone to exemplify an “average voter?”  I have no idea how that might be accomplished.

Here I think Emma Roller actually means something different.  She’s looking for someone who isn’t selected into the streets of Philadelphia as either a Democratic delegate (like Ms. Ali, her first interviewee) or a Bernie-or-Bust protester (like  Ms. Ernst or Mr. Hainer), presumably making them more “average” in terms of their level of political participation.  Still, it’s tricky to pick these people out.  Do we count Ms. Driver and Ms. Sanabria (two of my favorite interviewees)?

Ms. Driver said she and Ms. Sanabria spontaneously decided to rent a car and drive to Philadelphia from Washington for Mrs. Clinton’s nomination after watching Michelle Obama’s speech on Monday night. Ms. Sanabria texted her.

“She was like, ‘I’m crying!’ and I was like, ‘No, I’m crying!’” Ms. Driver said. “We have to go. This is a historic moment. We can’t miss this.”

That sounds like a pretty unusual (and kind of awesomely spontaneous) level of political participation.  But even the people who seem more “normal” in their orientation to politics, like Mr. Schumann, are also really wacky (as she notes, at 59, “Mr. Schumann is the oldest person I’ve seen playing Pokémon Go” – making him my another of my favorite interviewees even though I really, really don’t play Pokémon Go).  As a matter of fact, most people are kind of wacky, as I’ve often witnessed in my own interviews with people.  It’s part of what makes the job of sociologist fun.  And the US, like Canada, is a diverse country, full of idiosyncratic wackiness.  So what use is it attempting to find an example of anyone average?

To return to a theme, one reason I like the kind of thing we see in Ms. Roller’s piece is that good stories attached to real people quickly remind us just how devoid of human messiness our statistical averages may be.  That’s not to say that the statistical stuff is wrong and we should all resort to “voice of the street” analyses.  Indeed, statistics is ultimately how we’ll figure out who is going to win this election.  But if you really want to get into how or why someone wins this election, the stories help remind us of the underlying diversity and complexity of peoples’ decision-making processes.

 

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One thought on “Who is an “average voter”?

  1. Average is a highly subjective term. Some data can find averages, but nuances are often missing. Check us out for some interesting analysis into sociology and related topics. #mittflorg.wordpress.com

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