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Did Trump win because his name came first in key states? Maybe, but I’m doubtful.

The above headline (without the “Maybe, but I’m doubtful”) is from a BBC News article, which continues:

One of the world’s leading political scientists believes Donald Trump most likely won the US presidential election for a very simple reason, writes Hannah Sander – his name came first on the ballot in some critical swing states.

Jon Krosnick has spent 30 years studying how voters choose one candidate rather than another, and says that “at least two” US presidents won their elections because their names were listed first on the ballot, in states where the margin of victory was narrow. . . .

“There is a human tendency to lean towards the first name listed on the ballot,” says Krosnick, a politics professor at Stanford University. “And that has caused increases on average of about three percentage points for candidates, across lots of races and states and years.” . . .

When an election is very close the effect can be decisive, Krosnick says – and in some US states, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, the 2016 election was very close.

As is noted in the BBC article, Trump seems to have been listed first on the ballot in Michigan and Wisconsin.

What about the other close states? In Minnesota, it looks like Trump was first on the ballot, and he did almost come from behind to win that state.

Florida and Pennsylvania appear to list the candidate of the governor’s party first, which would put Trump first in Florida and Clinton first in Pennsylvania. New Hampshire I can’t quite tell, their rules are confusing. Nevada uses alphabetical order so I think this means Clinton went first. In Maine, I’m not sure but it looks like Clinton might have been listed first.

So, suppose ballot order gave Trump the win in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida. That’s 16 + 10 + 29 = 55 electoral votes. On the other side, maybe ballot order helped Clinton in Maine (at-large) and New Hampshire, that’s 2 + 4 = 6 electoral votes, for a net gain of 49 for Trump. Take away 49 of Trump’s electoral votes and he no longer has the victory (assuming all electoral voters voted as pledged; I guess that will be our next constitutional crisis, come 2020). We tend to think of all these little things as averaging out, but they don’t have to. The number of swing states is small.

So, yeah, maybe Krosnick is right on this one. It all comes down to Florida, I guess.

Could ballot order have been enough to cause a 1.2% swing? Maybe so, maybe not. The research is mixed. Analyzing data from California elections where a rotation of candidate orders was used across assembly districts, Jon Krosnick, Joanne Miller, and Michael Tichy (2004) found large effects including in the 2000 presidential race. But in a different analysis of California elections, Daniel Ho and Kosuke Imai (2008) write that “in general elections, ballot order significantly impacts only minor party candidates, with no detectable effects on major party candidates.” Ho and Imai also point out that the analysis of Krosnick, Miller, and Tichy is purely observational. That said, we can learn a lot from observational data. Krosnick et al. analyzed data from the 80 assembly districts but it doesn’t look like they controlled for previous election results in those districts, which would be the obvious thing to do in such an analysis. Amy King and Andrew Leigh (2009) analyze Australian elections and find that “being placed first on the ballot increases a candidate’s vote share by about 1 percentage point.” Marc Meredith and Yuval Salant (2013) find effects of 4-5 percentage points, but this is for city council and school board elections so not so relevant for the presidential race. A Google Scholar search found lots and lots of papers on ballot-order effects but mostly on local elections or primary elections, where we’d expect such effects to be larger. This 1990 paper by R. Darcy and Ian McAllister cites research back to the early 1900s!

So, putting all the evidence together: what do I think? As I said above, it all comes down to Florida. In 2000, Florida was extremely close—best estimates has Gore winning by only about 30,000 votes (according to Mebane, the votes were lost “primarily due to defective election administration in the state”), and had ballot order been randomized he could well have won by even more, enough for the state to have counted in his favor in the electoral college.

In 2016, maybe, maybe not. Based on the literature I’ve seen, a 1% swing seems to be on the border of what might be a plausible ballot-order effect for the general election for president, maybe a bit on the high end given our current level of political polarization. So I think Krosnick is overstating the case, but it is just possible that the ballot order effects were large enough that, had the ballots been randomized, Clinton could’ve won Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, and thus the electoral college.

14 Comments

  1. Sean Mackinnon says:

    Huh, interesting. I’m running a study study on response-order effects now (different context, psychology, looking at responding on alcoholic drinks consumed), and since delving into the literature seems like this “primacy effect” (i.e., a slight preference for options that come first in a list) comes up in questionnaires of various constructs, not just elections.

    Whether or not it was the thing that made Trump win, who knows, but response-order effects do seem to exist with a small effect size. Seems reasonable that it’s at least one contributing factor among many, even if it’s not the tipping point.

    Here’s an old-ish review paper in psych:
    http://business.illinois.edu/shavitt/BA_531/Krosnick%20%26%20Alwin.pdf

    • Andrew says:

      Sean:

      Yes, I agree. Response-order effects are real. All other thing being equal, I’d prefer to be listed first on the ballot. The question is whether this effect is as large as 1% for the vote for president in the general election.

      • Paul Alper says:

        Andrew said:

        “Yes, I agree. Response-order effects are real.”

        If so, is that not totally depressing for a supposedly informed democracy?

        • Andrew says:

          Paul:

          Elections are imperfect. Something like 1% of votes get lost for various irrelevant reasons (we heard a lot about this in Florida in 2000). That’s why it’s good to have people working on ballot design, randomizing ballot order, etc, the same way as we want roads to be designed to minimize traffic accidents. And then with elections there are worries about cheating and unfair advantages. Sunlight is a disinfectant etc.

        • Jack says:

          I think this is irrelevant to democracy, what difference does it make if a candidate wins with 1% difference. If the difference is that small, it really doesn’t matter who wins as far as democracy is concerned. (just compare this error with the number of people who doesn’t even show up)

        • Dzhaughn says:

          And now you stand at the cusp of wisdom.

          Never trust anything as important as government to a majority vote. Instead, balance power among competing institutions with conflicting remits and rules. Stability is the primary virtue of government. (Totalitarianism being the most unstable form of all, from the perspective of the governed.)

          See The Federalist Papers. The Founders never supposed voters or those they elected to be informed, intelligent, or public minded.

          • anon says:

            I don’t see a lot of wisdom in downplaying the importance of majority rule. It’s monumentally important in all modern democracies, its key component.

            > Totalitarianism being the most unstable form of all, from the perspective of the governed

            A great mechanism for eliciting the perspective of the governed is… majority vote. That’s how disagreements are also resolved in the supreme court, or congress.

  2. Jonathan says:

    The link to the Stanford paper is hilarious: it’s sideways and backwards on their site! I’m not going to question their work based on that but holy cow.

    My problem in skimming over the papers is that some of them focused on cases and that rings a skepticism bell. Why not have a list of all Presidential elections and ballot orders? There must be cases where an incumbent’s position flipped in the next election. But you could at least look at every case. My real point is this seems to me a case where a sensible and manageable research project could generate a database of election results for a bunch of offices and ballot order and that would answer many questions and would satisfy data issues in ways that limited case sets can’t.

  3. I was looking at my dad’s take-home ballot in Michigan. It looked like this:

    Donald Trump [ ] | Hillary Clinton [ ]
    

    It’s a classic design gaffe of putting the checkbox for Trump too close to Hillary’s name.

    Stacking should be better right? Check out this even more ridiculous blunder from 2000 pointed out by Jennifer Tidwell.

    Of course, these principles are well known. I see people making these blunders all the time with nothing to be gained by making users click the wrong button. So maybe I should apply Hanlon’s razor.

  4. Charles says:

    The Australian effect might be higher than in other countries since Australia has compulsory voting.

  5. Llewelyn Richards-Ward says:

    The power of pose[ition]. ;)

  6. Mark says:

    In the 2013 Australian election, the Liberal Democratic Party were lucky enough to be listed first out of 45* on the Senate ballot in New South Wales, and polled a frankly astonishing 9.5% of votes, up from 0.19% in 2007.

    The effect was magnified in this case because of the similarity of their party name to that of one of the two major parties in Australia – the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party got 47% of the vote in NSW for the House of Representatives, but just 34% in the Senate. Compare this to Victoria — where the LibDems messed up and didn’t even get a column to themselves on the ballot — the Liberals got 43% in the House and 40% in the Senate.

    * The Senate ballot paper is huge (http://www.abc.net.au/reslib/201309/r1169645_14842966.JPG), probably not helping matters.

  7. J Severs says:

    NY State believes in a position effect. The order of the parties on the ballot is revised (as needed) every 4 years in the order of the results for the governor’s race.

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