In the lead up to the U.S. presidential election 2020, Joe Biden has been well ahead of his opponent Donald Trump in almost all the national polls. Although national polls give a fair idea of the extent of candidates’ popularity across the country, they may still not be the right way to predict the election results. The US uses an electoral college system which means having the greatest number of total votes does not always correspond to an election win, as evident from the 2016 election in which Hillary Clinton lost despite securing ~3 million more votes than the winning candidate. Although it will take a few days to count all the votes and formally declare a winner in this race, the early results have shown quite a close contest with Trump leading in key states so far. This is making republicans question the authenticity of the predictive polls as well as the prevalent discourse on mainstream U.S. media. On the other hand, some of the Biden supporters (or Trump opponents) seem to be talking about the ‘rationality’ of Trump voters, in a rather offensive tone on social media platforms.

The issue of the extent of ‘rationality’ of voters is a much-debated topic in political science. ‘Rationality’ generally refers to decision making based on logic and reasoning. Individuals frequently come across multiple junctures in their everyday lives where they have to make a decision in order to pick one option over the other based on their own interpretation of the events. As per individuals’ own reasoning that would be a rational choice in its own right. However, in order to classify voters’ behaviour as rational or irrational, we need to define an across the board criteria. One such criterion is proposed by American Economist Anthony Downs. That a voter’s behaviour will be termed rational if his/her purpose while making a decision, is aligned with the end goal of a particular process. In this case, that process is a political activity with an end goal of choosing a democratic government.

The decisions we take depend upon a number of variable factors, including our prior knowledge and experience, the new information we receive and the way we individually process it. Individuals’ internalised experiences and socialised norms guide their behaviour, thinking patterns and character, generally called the habitus. It means two rational voters from similar backgrounds can arrive at different conclusions based on their varying degree of knowledge, exposure, needs and information, provided their objective is aligned with the end goal of the political process.

In 2011, an experimental study was carried out in the slums of urban India to test the rationality of voters in the most confined setting practically possible by minimising potential external decision-influencing distractions. This study suggests that relevant information provided to even relatively less-educated voters not only increased their turn out on the polling day, decreasing the trend of vote-selling, which was prevalent in that society, but also voters did a fairly good job in processing significantly complex information, enhancing electoral accountability. Based on the information received and their perception about the performance of the incumbent, voters used their votes either to retain a comparatively competent incumbent or tried to replace him/her with a better-qualified challenger.

On the other hand, Bryan Caplan, another American economist, presents a scathing critique of the concept of voter rationality. According to him, in a large electorate, the probability of an individual vote influencing an electoral outcome is too low for the voter to stay politically informed. In such a scenario, it makes sense for the voter to stay ignorant—categorised as the “rationally ignorant” voters ignoring the impact of their individual decision. When such voters indulge more in a political process, the resultant impact is huge. In a society where the majority of voters are rationally ignorant, the democratic system would still have worked—as per the theory of aggregation—as long as such voters do not make “systematic” errors. But generally, that is not the case. The systematic errors, among rationally ignorant voters, stem from people’s “preferences over beliefs” especially religious ideologies.

Sean Richey, professor of political science, tested the theory of aggregation on US presidential elections from 1972 to 2004. The results of this study seem to support the claims of Caplan that there are systematic errors in voting and the miracle of aggregation can only work if random errors of equal balance and size are normally distributed. The study of these nine U.S. presidential elections shows that, although some errors were indeed random and did cancel each other, in seven out of nine elections the majority of errors were systematic and skewed more towards republican candidates, entirely changing the outcome of three out of these nine elections.

While Caplan outrightly terms the behaviour of rationally ignorant voters as emotionally and ideologically biased as there is no incentive for them to think critically, Downs, on the other hand, adds another layer before categorising voters as irrational by distinguishing “rational errors” from “irrational acts”. Based on his/her inclination to create a balance between costs and returns, a mistaken rational voter would eventually stop making repeated mistakes once he/she discovers it and finds out the higher returns of eliminating those mistakes. The value of an individual vote, according to Downs, cannot only be determined by its probability to influence the outcome of an election but also the resultant democratic process which gives the voter a “long-run participation” value.

Some policies presented by Trump and Biden were almost poles apart. For example, their respective stance on COVID-19, which probably remained one of the hottest issues during the campaign, concerning every individual. Trump tried to downplay the threat of coronavirus and advocated for keeping the businesses. Biden, on the other hand, gave more weightage to this public health issue over economic activity. How the voters processed this information and other policy directions depends entirely on their personal needs, preferences and goals. And the candidate chosen based on this logic denotes his/her own rationality.