Friday, June 24, 2016

Coin Flip Falls in Favor of Leave

Woke this morning to discover the result of the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum -- a.k.a., “Brexit.” A majority (albeit a slight one) of Brits voted “Leave” and now the United Kingdom will no longer be part of the European Union, leaving the other 27 EU countries behind. Adding further to the uncertainty, Prime Minister David Cameron (who supported “Remain”) has said he will be stepping down, letting his successor handle the consequences.

I’m not even going to try to offer any sort of comment about the result. Like many over here in the U.S., I only became aware of the vote relatively recently. I had heard about it a couple of months ago, but only began reading about it a couple of weeks back. And while I can’t help but react to the reactions today, many of which are quite earnest and passionate, I wouldn’t dare pretend to pull together and advance some hastily-discovered evaluation of the result (or to venture to speculate about what may come next).

There are a couple of items related to Brexit that stand out as remarkable (from this great distance). One is how quickly the referendum appeared, even if it were the result of many years of debate over the issue of the U.K.’s membership in the European Union. Reading around, it seems to have first surfaced in a concrete way about a year ago (mentioned in the Queen’s Speech in May 2015), then the voting date was announced in February.

The other aspect of the vote that stands out is how close it was (about 51.9% to 48.1%), a result highlighting the fact that only a simple majority was needed to decide something so momentous. Given such a close margin, whichever way the vote might have gone, it was destined to create a huge internal divide.

I’d compare it to a close vote in a U.S. presidential election, although the result there isn’t necessarily the same. If you look at the popular vote (and not the Electoral College) for elections dating back to 1960, you find that many times the percentage difference between the top two presidential candidates in those races has been smaller than the 3.8% difference in the Brexit vote: 1960 (0.17%), 1968 (0.7%), 1976 (2.06%), 2000 (0.51%), and 2004 (2.46%). (Actually in 2000 that difference is in favor of the loser, Al Gore, who had the small edge over George W. Bush in the popular vote, but lost in the Electoral College.) In the most recent election in 2012, Barack Obama got just a little more of the popular vote (3.86%), percentage-wise, than did “Leave” in the Brexit vote.

However, as I say, those results don’t really provide a good analogue at all. The closeness of those elections certainly meant the winners didn’t have a “mandate” going forward. But those presidents still had power, as did the opposing parties that retained plenty of representation (often majorities) in the legislative branch.

In fact, Brexit almost feels more like a “coin flip” in poker -- an even money proposition, in which the winner takes all.

Image: “Brexit,” Christopher Michel. CC BY 2.0.

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