Sunday, January 22, 2012

Wave Elections and Our Attention Spans

Mitt Romney is surging.

No, sorry. I now have it on good authority that Ron Paul is surging.

OK, a couple minutes later, I can now confirm that Newt Gingrich is surging.

What has been up with this election cycle? We've all noticed the sudden surges in the polls of the not-Romney candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. The political winds have shifted from hurricane-force behind one candidate to just as strong behind another—first every month or two, but now literally every week. To recap: First, back in the spring, it was Donald Trump leading the polls. Then Michele Bachmann stormed to the top over the summer. Then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain. Then it was Gingrich's turn as the calendar turned to December. Then suddenly everyone noticed Paul.

That was when it really got interesting. In one week, it seemed like the entire Iowa GOP flocked en masse behind Rick Santorum. So decisively did he rally that support that he appeared on top of the world—until one week later, when Romney's powerful New Hampshire victory speech made him seem inevitable. Everyone, including this blogger, thought he was on his way to a win in South Carolina and the title of "presumptive nominee."

That was just one week ago. Yesterday, Newt Gingrich won South Carolina by 12 percentage points. According to Nate Silver, it's "one of the most shocking reversals of momentum ever in a presidential primary"—and it's hard to disagree.

The conventional wisdom is that this primary season has been so volatile because Republicans aren't ready to settle down with Mitt Romney, unctuous and sober, as their nominee. I'm sure that's part of it. But the election results in 2012 so far have actually been part of a broader pattern.

In 2006, 2008, and 2010, the United States experienced three consecutive "wave" elections—contests in which a new party swept magnificently and convincingly into power. In 2006, Democrats pulled the trick by adding 31 representatives and six senators; in 2008, they built on those impressive totals, gaining eight Senate seats, 21 House seats, and, of course, one White House. However, in 2010, the Tea Party struck back for the right; the GOP's gains of 63 in the House and six in the Senate crippled the Democratic gains of the previous two cycles.

These were remarkable elections considering the safety that congressional incumbents in particular have enjoyed throughout American history. In each of the five cycles before 2006, no party flipped more than nine House seats. Indeed, throughout the 20th century, changes in the partisan control of the House and Senate were relatively rare. (Even when power did change hands, it was due to extremely incremental changes, such as a party switch or tight election in a closely-divided Congress—nothing like the emphatic swings from +30 to -30 of recent years.) Lately, though, we've been on a seesaw ride, with the American public seemingly incapable of choosing which party it wants in power. Until recently, wave elections were safely a once-in-a-generation occurrence—yet here in the 2000s, we may just be getting started. With incumbents' record-low popularity, 2012 is considered a good candidate for a fourth wave election in a row.

This cannot be explained with the frequent narrative that today's America is extremely polarized. If that were so, everyone would stubbornly vote for the same party or candidate every election and the results would be the same year in and year out. Instead, I suspect it may be simpler—Americans just don't have the patience we used to have.

There is evidence to suggest that human attention spans are getting shorter. The average sound bite, for instance, lasted 43 seconds in 1968 but is now under eight seconds—seemingly tailor-made for today's rapid-fire Twitterverse and blogosphere. Other modern technologies may be hurting us, too; the preponderance of devices (raise your hand if you watched Saturday's primary with a laptop, smartphone, AND iPad) makes it far easier to multitask, which perhaps unsurprisingly has been linked to increased susceptibility to distraction. The problem appears heightened among our youth, who (stereotypically at least) rely most heavily on the internet and smartphones; one study found their attention span to average only 10 minutes. Finally, television—such as the recent phenomenon of 24-hour cable news—is thought to sap our attention spans as well. (It's been speculated that the press is especially to blame for the umpteen frontrunners we've seen in this presidential primary—the media seem to leap on and off bandwagons with remarkable alacrity.)

The actual effects of modern technology are still debatable, of course—and I'm certainly no Luddite, as I believe that Apple, Google, Twitter, and the rest of the internet have improved our richness of existence, not to mention of tracking politics. But it seems like a plausible explanation for a society that appears to have lost all patience with its politicians. Where America was once willing to sit and listen to a 43-second sound bite, it may also have been content to give a political party multiple years, and multiple chances, to solve the issues of the day.

Today, though, because every spare second is filled with tweets and punditry, the two years between elections feel like a lifetime. It's easier for voters to say "They've had enough time!" when in fact crises like a hostile world or a deflated economy require gradual, long-term solutions that can be jeopardized if the party line of the US government changes every two years. Just as we now get cranky if a website takes more than five seconds to load, we unrealistically expect instant gratification—and instant results—out of our leaders.

This is just a theory, based (admittedly) on mostly anecdotal evidence. But at the very least, the world is moving faster today than it ever has before (chew on this: five years ago, there was no such thing as a smartphone)—and so are our politics. Time will tell if this is a phase or our new reality.

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