design of democracy (3)
barriers to entry

We have tried to regulate away the positive feedback gain and have failed simply because it is impossible to decouple elected office from the accumulation of power. If the accumulation of power cannot be decoupled from elective office (and I discussed why this was impossible to do in my last post), then this accumulated power becomes a high barrier to entry for would be challengers.

Our democratic ideals say our candidates should be competing for votes based on the ideas they propose (their electoral platform) and their leadership track record (or the level of trust the public places on them). The reality though is that today's media soaked culture rewards high media exposure with high name recall -giving the advantage to candidates who get in the news often (be it political or entertainment news).

Incumbents have the advantage of a high profile job that gives them natural exposure in the news media. This is wholly part of the positive feedback gain. This media exposure along with access to social and political networks presents a high barrier to entry that would be challengers must overcome if they are to be on competitive footing against incumbents.

How do we compute the relative cost of this barrier? What toll does it put on our electoral system?

Investments and pre-investments

Running for an elective position requires resources. The higher the post, the more the resources are needed to get elected to the position. If you are running for president, you are competing for 30M-35M votes, and depending on the size of the field (number of candidates) will need to garner somewhere in the region of 12M to 17M votes. To get elected to the Senate, you will need to garner at least 12M votes. To get elected to the House of Representatives requires anywhere from 25,000 to 200,000 votes (depending on the district) .

You can monetize these voter numbers to see the cost of a campaign (i.e. P1=voter, then you will need P12M minimum to campaign for the senate). This is, at least in theory, relatively easy to do during the actual campaign period. We know of course that campaigning to get elected begins way before the official campaign period and so incumbent politicians who want to get re-elected will devote resources in advance of elections. This is where the comparative advantage - given by the positive feedback gain -comes in.

When the incumbent gets a CDF outlay for her district (and plasters her name all over the project), when she appears in public to give speeches or cut an inaugural ribbon, when she donates to community events, when she appears in the news, or when she glad hands local leaders -she is "pre-investing" resources in getting re-elected. She is also building name recall.

Likewise, a new candidate "invests" in brand creation and name recall when they elevate their public profile (via TV shows, or movies, or appearances in local fiestas, or being cited in the news) so as to get name recall.

Unlike funds spent on a campaign, the pre-campaign "investment" in name recall is nearly impossible to monetize. We need to find a way to measure the relative effect of these investments to see their effect on electoral contests.

Cost of voter acquisition: c as a function of v and r

We can attribute a per unit cost (c) to acquiring a voter (i.e. -getting a vote) by expressing it as the ratio of total votes needed (v) vs. total resources expended (r), such that:


The cost of acquisition "c", expressed as a per unit cost, allows us to compute the relative advantage of investing more vs. less resources in an electoral campaign. You can view it as the relative marginal cost of acquiring another vote or the relative "friction" of the system against a candidate. (The lower the number, the lower the marginal cost or the lesser the friction.)

We can use this relative unit "c" to grasp how high the barrier to entry is. It also allows us to illustrate the system dynamic.

Figure 1 (click image for larger view) shows that in a electoral contest over 50 million votes, investing 12M more units gives a candidate a relative advantage of -46c vs. a candidate expending 1M units. In other words, the marginal acquisition cost of another voter is 4c units for a candidate spending 13M, while it is 50c units for a candidate spending only 1M units.

The system dynamic means that (at least in large populations) more "r" gives you a lower "c."

An incumbent, with 4 to 6 years of media exposure along with access to resources and social and political resources, has easily invested huge amounts of "r" giving him a lower "c". The longer an incumbent stays in office, the more "r" is naturally invested in making "c" lower.

The system dynamic drives new candidates to expend a similar magnitude of resources to achieve a competitive "c". It also means that only persons who already have a high "r" have any chance of being considered as candidates. (We know this instinctively and we recognize "dark horse bets" and celebrate the unlikely success of "cinderella" candidates.)

The logic of getting celebrities to run for public office makes total sense given this system dynamic. Because celebrities come with built-in media exposure (read: pre-investment" -not to mention a strong "brand" based on their media typecast), a popular celebrity would have already expended high volumes of "r" which gives the celebrity a lower "c."

Next: Attempts to level the playing field by regulating "r"


koikaze said...

Good Morning, Urbano

I got out my trusty spreadsheet and entered your numbers. It wasn't that I thought you wrong but that "touching" numbers makes them more real for me. Your point is clear and well made. Name recognition is vital for election. It may even exceed the ideology a candidate espouses.

re: "... it is impossible to decouple elected office from the accumulation of power.

I believe your assertion is accurate, but only in campaign-based election systems. Should we not consider whether the concept of "campaigning" is a contravention of the democratic ideals you mention?

There are major flaws in campaign-based politics. In addition to your excellent points about the rewards of high media exposure and the natural advantages incumbents enjoy:

* It implies a fait accompli ("I am your candidate.")

* It creates a "lesser of evils" situation (in the most recent election, the voters in New Jersey had to choose between a war-monger and a man of questionable ethics to represent them in the U. S. Senate.)

* It is based on one-way communication. Campaigners talk to their audience but the audience has no opportunity to examine the campaigner. Since one can not "please all the people all the time", campaigners use dissimulation, obfuscation and mock sincerity to attract as many votes as they can. The result is, as David Geffen is reputed to have said recently, "Everybody in politics lies ..."

Is that not a sad commentary on politics? Does it not exemplify the corruption that is central to our political failures? Is it not directly attributable to the nature of campaigning? Can we imagine no better way to select those we must rely on to represent our interests?


Urbano dela Cruz said...


glad you're still with me.

Yes. clearly this analysis applies to campaign-based electoral systems, particularly to media-rich societies.

Is campaigning a "contravention of the democratic ideals" - i'm not sure. I know that vote-based selection systems (whether it be your 7th grade classroom, the local rotary club, the oscars, american-idol, or the UN) requires some form of campaigning.

and even if no formal campaign period (or campaign rules) are specified, as long as the elections require direct vote - the incumbents in office retain the advantage of visibility vs. any pretenders.

koikaze said...

Hi, Urbano

To put last things first, you have shown that , "as long as the elections require direct vote - the incumbents in office retain the advantage of visibility vs. any pretenders."

I agree.

Further, in its purest sense, I think it's a good thing because it's a double-edged sword. If an incumbents' actions in office have not been good, the failures are (presumably) visible and pretenders can take advantage of them. If an incumbents' actions in office have been good, it is appropriate that pretenders should have to explain why they are more worthy than the incumbent.

re: "I know that vote-based selection systems (whether it be your 7th grade classroom, the local rotary club, the oscars, american-idol, or the UN) requires some form of campaigning."

Quite so. Persuasion is a fundamental part of human intercourse. Even you and I are, to some extent, campaigning for our ideas. From that perspective, campaigning can not be a "contravention of the democratic ideals" for it is an integral part of human existence, and you are correct to point that out.

I'm not sure how to distinguish between campaigning as the art of persuasion and campaigning as the art of mass marketing, but I believe them to be different.

Persuasion tends to be a step-wise process that occurs through an exchange of views. If I am to persuade you of an idea, I have a responsibility to understand in what way you think it incorrect, and explain it to your satisfaction. If I fail to do so, it may be that the idea was unsound or it may be that I lacked the ability to describe it properly.

Mass marketing tends to operate in the realm of behavioral psychology. It is the process of identifying emotional hot spots and devising the means of igniting them. If, instead of persuading you to accept an idea, I resort to some form of emotional manipulation to "persuade" you, I have not substantiated the idea, I have simply taken advantage of an aspect of your personality. Such a process is tainted.


p.s. At the risk of being unduly verbose, I'd like to mention that the process of persuasion is bi-directional. It is possible, even likely, that the proponent of an idea will learn from the respondent. When the respondent questions some aspect of the idea, the proponent must consider the question and may have to accommodate a perspective that hadn't been previously considered. The process of mass marketing, on the other hand, is unidirectional and no-one learns anything. flg.

Quick Links

Notable posts on the metro