Monday, November 21, 2011

A is for Aardvarking

Aardvarking is a little-known practice in electoral politics in which, the story goes, campaign consultants recruit candidates whose names start with “A” (or another letter early in the alphabet) to run in low-profile races in which neither candidate is likely to garner media attention or possess high name recognition. Purportedly in elections that voters are paying only minimal attention to, they will tend to support whichever candidate has a name (first or last) that falls noticeably earlier in the alphabet than his or her opponent’s.

Whether aardvarking is an actual phenomenon or a political junkie’s urban legend is very much up for debate, but it is attested to by Republican consultant Roger Stone. He writes that “in the late 1970’s a Republican consultant and I examined a series of races on Long Island when [sic] two candidates who were complete unknowns and who had no campaign resources to raise their profile. In 90% of the races the candidate who's [sic] name began with A won.” Stone offered the “aardvark effect” as an explanation for unemployed private citizen Alvin Greene’s upset victory in South Carolina’s Democratic primary for U.S. Senate last year. Greene’s opponent, the state party’s favored choice and a comparatively seasoned candidate, was named Vic Rawl. If Stone’s eye-popping 90% statistic is true, it could be explained by the alleged phenomenon that voters choose whichever candidate is listed first when they are indifferent as to an election’s outcome.

Some states and localities list candidates in alphabetical order by name and, in those that list candidates’ names randomly, the candidate with the alphabetically earliest name would presumably have even odds with his or her opponents of appearing first. Thus the overall probability, assuming a state had some locales using alphabetical order and some using random order, would favor “Adam Alberts” beating “Ricky Jones.” But all of this might be completely invented. In the case of Alvin Greene, South Carolina State Rep. Bakari Sellers echoed the idea that Greene won due to ballot order. But State Sen. Robert Ford, a fixture in South Carolina politics and the African-American community, controversially speculated that Greene won because black voters recognized his surname as African-American and voted in ethnic solidarity.

Whatever the reason, supposed election flukes do occur, and the lower-profile the election the more likely one will happen. While almost no one would say they vote for President based on the order of candidate names, many people openly admit to voting arbitrarily in local races. Especially when nothing more than a candidate’s name has been widely publicized. In Stone’s words, “Why does Adam Alberts beat Ricky Jones 90% of the time? Who knows?”

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