Buckle Up On Election Day (And 5 More Lessons Political Scientists Have Learned)


It only takes one cool statistical tidbit to turn an associate professor of political science into a cable news election analyst. Here are some of the more interesting things political scientists have recently learned while crunching the numbers.

1. Traffic Deaths Increase on Election Day

You might wants to buckle up before heading to the polls on Tuesday. University of Toronto's Donald Redelmeier examined traffic accidents and deaths on Election Day over the past 28 years—from Carter in 1976 to George W. Bush in 2004. They compared the number of accidents on election Tuesdays to the Tuesday before and after Election Day. On average, 24 people die in car crashes on Election Day and 800 people suffered disabling injuries. This 18 percent increase in fatalities and injuries is higher than other days known for accidents, such as Super Bowl Sunday and New Year's Eve.

The increase in crashes could be attributed to drivers distracted by the emotions of elections and trying to squeeze voting into a busy schedule. Election Day accidents occur more often during the day than night, leading Redelmeier to believe drunk driving isn't to blame. "In light of these findings, the U.S. president owes a larger debt to the American people than is generally recognized," says Redelmeier.

2. Some Kids Think It's Illegal for Minorities or Women to be President

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Many adults feel uncomfortable talking about racism and sexism so they don't say anything to their children—causing children to draw their own conclusions. Despite their ideas about the presidency, most children agree that anyone who wants to be president should be allowed.

3. Voters Want Candidates to Take it Slow

It's generally a dating disaster when a potential love interest starts planning your wedding on the first date. When it comes to wooing voters, timing is just as important. Voters want to hear broad and abstract ideas from candidates at the beginning of the election cycle. According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, voters preferred Barack Obama's lofty language to Hillary Clinton or John Edwards' specific plans during the primaries. When people feel like they do not have to make a decision immediately, they prefer to hear language that makes them feel good. As the elections get closer, voters want candidates to express concrete solutions instead of idealistic language. The authors found abstract vocabulary has more sway over uninformed and novice voters.

4. Peer Pressure Works

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Good ol' peer pressure doesn't just cause teens to smoke pot and drink—it also encourages people to vote. Prior to the Michigan primary, researchers sent four different mailings to 80,000 houses. The first postcard simply reminded people voting is a civic duty. The second postcard claimed researchers would study public voting records. The third postcard listed that household's voting participation. And the fourth postcard showed the neighborhood and household turnout.

People were more likely to vote if they thought other people would see their voting records—turnout increased to 34.5 percent from 29.7 percent. Additionally, people who received cards that showed if their neighbors voted were more inclined to vote; this group saw an 8.1 percent increase in turnout, to 37.8 percent. Mailings with peer pressure are far more cost effective at mobilizing voters than other methods: a postcard costs $1.93 to $3.24 per vote, while door-to-door canvassing costs $20 per vote and phone calls cost $35 per vote.

5. Narcissists Don't Make Great Leaders

Narcissus gazed at his image in the pool, falling in love with himself. Even though there was water in front of him, he refused to drink because it shattered his image, making him distraught. Then he died of thirst. If Narcissus had left the water, he probably wouldn't have made great decisions as a leader. A recent study from Ohio State University at Newark finds that narcissists emerge as leaders of groups, but much like their namesake, narcissists make poor choices and do no better as leaders than non-narcissists. It's not surprising narcissists become leaders—their inflated sense of self-worth makes them feel as if they are the only ones who can guide others.

6. Voting is in Your Genes

For years, social scientists believed voters came from families who voted and were interested in political issues. It's logical that children who see their parents vote would be more likely to do so. However, it appears that genetic variations might also contribute to why people vote. James H. Fowler and Christopher T. Dawes of the University of California, San Diego and Laura A. Baker of the University of Southern California are the first research group to link genes to voting. People with a variation of the MAO-A gene—which made it higher functioning—were more likely to have voted in the 2000 election. (MAO-A impacts levels of serotonin, an important neurotransmitter, which controls sexual desire, anger, appetite, metabolism, aggression, mood, and body temperature. A variation of MAO-A causes depression, anxiety, substance abuse, ADD, and antisocial personality disorder.)

The researchers discovered that 5HTT, which also controls mood, plays a role in voter turnout as well. People with a variation of 5HTT attend church and participate in community and political activities more often.