Availability Heuristics


Critics of media bias are well acquainted with film critic Pauline Kael's famously amusing exclamation that she couldn't believe Richard Nixon had won the presidency, since she didn't know a single person who'd voted for him. This time around, though, it seems as though things are reversed. While the contest for the Electoral College seems to be a dead heat, one poll shows 49 percent of voters prediction a Bush win, and only 34 percent calling it for Kerry… presumably meaning a fair amount of folks voting for Kerry (which, in stereotype and at least partly in fact, means lots of urbanites like Kael) expect him to lose.

Now, the increasing number of landslide counties would explain why voters in Red and Blue America alike would, like Kael, be in the position of overwhelmingly knowing other folks who're voting as they do, and media fragmentation (though I'm not sure this includes interactive fora like poltical websites where links to opposing arguments are common) seems likely to bolster that perception. So you'd think folks on both sides who aren't obsessively reloading those polling sites, making use of an availability heuristic, would be inclined to predict a win for their guy. Or, at least, people living in a given region would predict a victory for whomever's more popular there if they're in the minority. But that doesn't explain the apparent pessimism among Kerry voters.

My best guess is that it's a result of the election being less Bush vs. Kerry than it is Bush vs. non-Bush. That is to say, the people voting for Kerry are more focused on what they don't like about Bush than what they like about their own candidate. And that may translate into more focus on the hated opponent's level of support, especially when the case against the incumbent consists in large part of allegations that he's managed to con large numbers of one's fellow citizens. But, like I said, that's basically speculation. Other thoeries?

Addendum: A commenter says the Kael quote's apocryphal. Since the citations I've seen have always been indirect (i.e. not from sources who claim to have heard it from her mouth) I can't say whether that's the case. Another possibility, I suppose, is that she did say it, but meant it as a wry jab at her own social milieu. Anyone know for sure where it originally came from?

NEXT: Whatever Became of Charlie Chad?

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  1. Other theories? How about, Bush’s brother stole the third biggest state for him last time, and can be expected to do so again?

    How about, Karl Rove has proven to be incredibly adept at getting Americans to believe false and stupid things?

    How about, when you hear a big lie repeated enough (people who disagree with George Bush aren’t real Americans, but a tiny cultural fringe), you tend to believe it?

  2. Hmm, those actually sound like somewhat more strongly put versions of my theory…

  3. Let’s get something straight. Pauline Kael did NOT say that. It’s an urban myth spread by Bernard Goldberg. The idea tha Pauline Kael was a provincial liberal runs contrary to the evidence in her writing, in which “liberal” was most often used in a fairly pejorative way.

  4. Don’t fell bad, Julian. I just learnt that the Richard Nixon “secret plan to end the war” quote was bogus a couple weeks ago.

  5. “How about, when you hear a big lie repeated enough….”

    Yeah joe, keep repeating this one:

    “Bush’s brother stole the third biggest state…”

    Even so, some days

  6. I know that I heard the Kael line in the 1980s, but the earliest citation I can find in the Lexis/Nexis “All News” database is a Molly Ivins column from July 20, 1992: “As Pauline Kael once wrote, disbelieving the outcome of the Nixon-McGovern election of 1972, ‘Nixon can’t have won; no one I know voted for him.'” It should be noted that Ivins said Kael “wrote” that line rather than “said” it. Amazon.com lists 36 books authored by Kael; might it be in one of those?

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