by Carl V Phillips
There has a lot of discussion about tactics in the comments of my recent posts, including the common error that there is a tension between tactical thinking and scientific analysis (see the my last paragraph from the previous post). So this post is entirely about tactics — from a scientific perspective.
In the USA, presidential elections get people briefly interested in the politics that shapes their lives. In the UK, the Brexit vote has momentous implications. In both of these, there are memes floating around about how voters who are motivated to protect their right to vape could sway elections. But could they really?
The answer is almost certainly no. Before proceeding, I will pause to note that I am not suggesting that there is anything harmful about the “I vape, I vote!” rallying cry. It is cathartic to imagine winning the lottery. Unlike most slacktivism (such as signing meaningless petitions), my guess is that the net effects of “I vape, I vote!” are positive (except for perhaps some risks of being co-opted or alienating observers — see below). In terms of the tension between “motivating people toward further action that is useful” versus “causing people to pat themselves on the back for having done something and stop there”, I would guess that casting a vote or showing the “I vape, I vote” flag tends toward the former. But that is no reason to not be realistic about it.
A popular meme says that there are ten million vapers in the USA and that could sway the November election. This talk was more common a couple of months ago, when I first conceived this post (but was not at liberty to publish it), but it still pops up several times a week in my social media.
Let’s break that claim down a bit. If we narrow that to the number who care enough about vaping that it could possibly motivate them to get out to vote, much less motivate who they vote for, it would be rather optimistic to put the number at 4 or 5 million. Consider the most extreme scenario, wherein the eventual GOP presidential nominee openly states that he will stop FDA from banning e-cigarettes. Though there are no useful statistics I am aware of, it seems safe to assume that if the election is actually competitive (i.e., assuming Trump is not the nominee [Update, August 2018: Oops. I assumed the country was not going to hell. Was wrong.]) roughly half of the vaper-voters were already going vote for him, so they are powerless. (This rather important point seems to have been conveniently overlooked by those touting the “10 million votes!!!” claim.) Given the political proclivities of those who become enthusiastic enough to even consider voting based on this issue (anti-nanny and such), it is probably more than half. Of the remaining ~2 million (a charitable count) who could be persuaded to change their vote, many are going to care enough more about other major domestic issues (or will simply so despise the Republican nominee) that they would not be swayed despite the temptation. (It is sadly certain that both candidates will be warmongers, or else strong feelings about that would further prevent some vote changing.)
Moreover, the geographic distribution of vaping and of those 2 million is such that they are concentrated in safe blue states. This brings us down to a fraction of 1% of the swing-state electorate, even under the optimistic assumptions. Yes, states are occasionally won by a few thousand votes, but not very often. I think a very similar analysis applies to the Brexit vote, but I will leave that to others who are more familiar with the UK electorate. I will stick to U.S. political science, which I know far better.
But a show of overt support for vaping is really only a realistic scenario for a few congressional races, such as where an incumbent has supported HR 2058. In that case we may be dealing with percentages as large as those I just played with (assuming voting vapers learn the rather obscure fact that their Representative cosponsored a particular bill). Since we are talking about House incumbents, those races are unlikely to be competitive. For any competitive race, it is unlikely a candidate will volunteer any overt support for vaping.
Unlike with the Brexit vote where opposition to the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive dovetails well with other pro-Brexit positions, a candidate for president or any other office would be stepping into a minefield with a pro-vaping promise. Perhaps it could be done via dog-whistle, without making any overt statement, but that seems unlikely to reach many voters. Any overt statement — short of a major policy address about the issue (which is clearly not going to happen, and even that might not stop the spin anyway) — will be easily spun by the opposition into “he wants to roll back the gains we have made against youth tobacco use!” There is a very good chance that this would lose more votes than it would win, making it extremely unlikely to happen. Thus, swaying votes really comes down to would-be Democratic voters voting for a Republican who has made no promises, based merely on the hope that this could help protect vaping (a realistic appraisal of the proclivities of the two parties, but a low-probability outcome). How many such voters would really be willing to lose the Affordable Care Act and accept budget-busting tax breaks for the rich based on the mere chance that the new POTUS would bother to expend any political capital to intervene at the Center for Tobacco Products? [Update: I got this bit spot-on, though, didn’t I?] The number willing to change their votes based on that prospect is going to be a small fraction of the already limited number who would respond to an overt promise to intervene.
(An advantage of delaying this post is that I can reference a new survey that shows that even among what was presumably a convenience sample of vapers who were enthusiastic enough to reply, there is no signal that could be interpreted as this issue swaying many votes. The reported results are pretty hard to make any sense of, so I trust the above back-of-the-envelope far more, but it seems to point in the same direction.)
All this does not mean that vapers cannot sway elections. It just means that it is extremely unlikely they can do so merely by voting, and vanishingly unlikely they could affect an election where everyone cares about the outcome (for many reasons) and are already highly motivated to vote. When an issue advocacy effort begins and ends with the election in a year divisible by four, it seldom brings about any change. This substantially explains why the presidency remains competitive, with the advantage skewing Democratic, while Republicans have become so dominant down-ticket. The current success of the Republican party, particularly its “Tea Party”-type factions, owes much to organization at the furthest points down-ticket, focusing on state and local elections, clear down to focusing on school boards, county commissions, etc. before moving on to state houses.
Those elections are often won by only a handful of votes from among the tiny portion of the electorate that can be persuaded to show up to vote when no one is running for the White House or governor. This is even more true for contested primaries. Someone who normally does not vote in such elections, but might be persuaded to show up to vote single-issue, is worth more than someone who already feels strongly partisan (or otherwise inspired) enough to vote (thus the title of this post).
Of course, you are probably already thinking that these elections are closer because the districts are smaller. Thus we are probably only talking about a handful of politically activated vapers locally, and only a few hundred others vapers who could be persuaded to vape-vote. That is where organization comes in.
In most of those elections, the candidate is lucky if she can get a total of a couple of person-years worth of campaign volunteer time. Active volunteers can turn out hundreds of extra votes. If a candidate who actively championed vapers’ rights (perhaps a vaper who has never been in politics before but is a credible candidate — hint, hint!) could count on a support from constituents who vape (who would help get out their friends to vote), a handful of local active volunteers from her district and nearby (who could do the legwork that generates hundreds or thousands of votes), and phone banking and other support that can be done remotely from hundreds of others, it could (a) sway an election and (b) create an elected official who is all about advocating vapers’ rights.
One seat in the Maryland, New Jersey, or Iowa legislature (yes, friends, I am looking at you) is unlikely to change any legislative vote outcomes. But it would be a great bully pulpit to speak from, generating national attention, and perhaps even be a path to more influential office. Perhaps most important, if it worked once it would encourage other pro-vaping office holders or candidates, and strike some fear into those actively supporting the other side.
Of course organization requires, well, organization. Industry has the resources to pull this off, but that would probably not work out so well for obvious reasons. It would require a much more organized grassroots effort than has ever existed. Since I am out of the grassroots organizing business, that falls to someone else (again: hint, hint). I am not predicting this will ever happen, of course, let alone saying it would necessarily work. But it could.
That brings us back to the feel-good “I vape, I vote” rhetoric, which has only a tiny chance of swaying any election and far less chance of electing someone who might just happen to make a major effort for vapers’ rights. I notice that serious vaping advocates seem to understand this, and so give the “I vape, I vote” thing a little play for the feel-good aspect, but have not pretended it is really important. An “I vape, I vote” sticker or sign is a good way to show the flag. (But, another little hint: When you are showing the flag, you need to act with the height of decorum. Consider your reaction when a car with a “Go vegan” sticker cuts you off in traffic or Black Lives Matter activists disrupt a speech. Many of the “undecideds” on this issue are far more ready to scoff at vapers than to be impressed by their commitment.)
So who has tried to make “I vape, I vote” a big deal? As far as I can tell, that would be a single right-wing advocacy group, Americans for Tax Reform. And that makes a lot of sense. On the off-chance that vaper voting does sway any election, it will almost certainly be in their preferred direction. While that outcome will probably make zero difference for vaping, it serves ATR’s much broader agenda.
I am not saying there is anything wrong with entering into alliances, even ones with hugely asymmetric benefits. Two-party politics necessitates alliances at the issue level. Such an alliance could even provide the organizational structure for the local election effort that I described above (though almost certainly not without a strong affirmative push for such support by those on the low end of that asymmetric alliance). But vaper advocates who are serious about this should avoid getting persuaded that vape-voting in the 2016 election makes any difference for their cause. Winning-the-lottery dreams are fun, but if this talk about elections is really about affecting change, attention should shift to asking what can be done in the 2017 elections.