Median voter theorem
Voters tend to shun extremists and third-parties in elections. Thus, candidates typically move their campaign platforms toward the middle during campaigns so as to gain votes. Political scientists call this the median voter theorem.
Under this theory, candidates have a higher probability of wining when they embrace median voters. The rightist or leftist parties move to the center ― median voters tend to vote for a party giving a sense of stability.
This is the reason why many candidates and parties copy each other’s platforms and campaign rhetoric for the median voters. Kim Dae-jung adopted this strategy during his successful presidential campaign in 1997.
Political elections and private business are not different. Salesmen’s products and candidates’ platforms have no striking differences.
Like Samsung and Apple trying to win over each other’s customers by making minor changes to better their smartphones and tablet PCs, politicians often deviate only slightly from their opponent’s platform in order to gain votes.
The upcoming National Assembly elections will be a test case whether the theorem will prove itself.
The governing Saenuri Party has already adopted this strategy. It has adopted red as its official color in its symbolic outreach program for undecided centrist voters.
The party’s leader, Park Geun-hye, is keeping her distance from President Lee Myung-bak’s hawkish North Korea policy. Park also champions additional welfare programs as she tries to move her party to the left without leaving conservatives feeling betrayed and alienated. At least she seems to give the impression that the party has moved to the left without moving policies one iota. Park appears to be a strong believer in the theorem for an election victory.
However, the opposition Democratic United Party discounts the theorem as the left-of-center party moves further to the left. The DUP agreed to field a unified opposition candidate with the leftist United Progressive Party. In a policy alliance, they agreed to scrap the National Security Law, to nullify the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, and to scrap the building of a Navy base on Jeju. They also pledged to shorten compulsory military service and allow conscientious objectors to serve military duty outside the barracks. They also plan to guarantee political participation of government officials and teachers.
The opposition alliance also seeks to curb the chaebol, and levy additional charges on the super-rich. In a nutshell, the opposition is confident of its victory although it snubs the median voter theorem.
Three election outcomes are possible now. The first is the governing party’s surprise victory in the parliamentary election on April 11. This will also be a triumph for political scientists believing in the theorem ― the opposition’s possible defeat may be attributable to its total disregard of this.
The second will be a defeat of the governing party by a narrow margin or less-than-expected one. This would also be a victory for the advocates of the theorem.
The third would be an opposition’s landslide victory ― this would mean that the theorem is not working, at least in Korea.
In this scenario, many post-election interpretations are possible. An opposition victory would signal the majority of Koreans has become more progressive than before, meaning voters want more changes than politicians want, out of deep disillusionment with the Lee Myung-bak administration.
The divided conservatives may weaken the median voter theorem. Park Se-il and anti-Park Geun-hye figures have founded the Korea Vision Party, which seeks to merge with former conservative presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang’s Liberty Forward Party. The divided conservatives would help liberal and progressive candidates.
Voters pay little attention to candidates’ positions and vote on material conditions. If the theory holds true, undecided voters will stand behind the opposition as they believe they are worse off economically than four years ago, although they agree they are better now than a decade ago.
This would reflect the anger of the people toward President Lee’s so-called 747 economic pledges ― namely 7 percent annual growth, a $40,000 per capita income and becoming a G-7 economic power. The opposition claims that Lee’s economic policy fattened only the chaebol and the rich. He failed to engineer a trickle-down effect, namely the growth pie has not spread to the poor and the less privileged. His policy was, in fact, a trickle-up economy.
Runaway income inequality, the high jobless rate, the thinning of the middle class and the depressed property market could unite swing voters behind the opposition.
Few would discount the tsunami-like influence of unified opposition candidates.
A Joongang Ilbo poll Tuesday showed that the governing Saenuri Party is ahead of the opposition Democratic United Party by 40.7 percent to 32.8 percent. This indicates that the median voter theorem is effective, at least at the moment.
Just two months ago, the opposition DUP was ahead of the Saenuri Party.
If the trend continues till the voting date, the Saenuri Party will perform well. One caveat is that the popularity of a party and its candidates does not always move in sync. In this mobile phone age, polls have a wide discrepancy as they do not cover such subscribers.
It is anybody’s guess over the election outcome on April 11. Voters will decide whether the median voter theorem is effective or not.
Lee Chang-sup is the chief editorial writer of The Korea Times. Contact him at email@example.com.