I can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anybody who voted for him. — mistakenly attributed to Pauline Kael, 1972
It evidently irritates many liberals to point out that their party gets heavy support from superaffluent “people of fashion” and does not run very well among “the common people.” — Michael Barone, 2005
Both these quotes correspond to political misunderstandings which I thiink can be attributed to a well-known cognitive bias.
First-order and second-order availability biases
Psychologists have studied the “availability bias”–the phenomenon that people tend to overweight their own experiences when making decisions or judging rates or probabilities. I was thinking about this, in regard to political commentators who are trying to understand who’s voting for whom in presidential elections.
In this case, we could speak of first-order and second-order availability biases. A national survey of journalists found that about twice as many are Democrats as Republicans. Presumably their friends and acquaintances are also more likely to support the Democrats, and a first-order availability bias would lead a journalist to overestimate the Democrats’ support in the population–as in the above quote that had been attributed to Pauline Kael.
However, political journalists are well aware of the latest polls and election forecasts and are unlikely to make such an elementary mistake. However, they can well make the second-order error of assuming that the correlations they see of income and voting are representative of the population. Weaver et al. (2003) found that 90% of journalists are college graduates and have moderately high incomes–so it is natural for them to think that they and their friends represent Democrats as a whole. Michael Barone, for example, although no liberal himself, probably knows many affluent liberal Democrats and then, from a second-order availability bias, imputes an incorrect correlation of income and Democratic voting to the general population. (Just to be clear on this point: richer voters tend to support the Republicans. Barone, should know better but was, I believe, faked out by a second-order availability bias. These cognitive biases can fake out the best of us–they come from inside our head and avoid our usual barriers of skepticism.)
When considering income and voting, the second-order availability bias is exacerbated by geographic patterns
Another form of availability bias is that the centers of national journalistic activity are relatively rich states including New York, California, Maryland, and Virginia. Once again, the journalists–and, for that matter, academics–avoid the first-order availability bias: unlike “Pauline Kael” (in the mistakenly-attributed quote), they are not surprised that the country as a whole votes differently from the residents of big cities. But they make the second-order error of too quickly generalizing from the correlations in their states. It turns out (as we show in our forthcoming paper) that richer counties tend to support the Democrats within the “media center” states but not, in general, elsewhere. And richer voters support the Republicans just about everywhere, but this pattern is much weaker–and thus easier to miss–within these states.
Much has been written in the national press about the perils of ignoring “red America” but these second-order availability biases have done just that, in a more subtle way.