The Michigan Republican Party today voted to award both at-large delegates to Mitt Romney. No wonder David Frum writes of “arranged marriages.” (More)

Yes, Mitt Romney won Michigan, barely. His 3-point edge was narrow enough to split the state’s seven congressional districts evenly, leaving Romney and challenger Rick Santorum tied with 14 delegates each. Two at-large delegates were supposed to be split as well, but Republican Party leaders in Michigan voted today to award both to Romney, giving him a 16-14 edge.

Such decisions may be why The Daily Beast‘s David Frum described the 2012 Republican primary by quoting a friend’s quip from October:

On the old FrumForum site, my very conservative friend John Vecchione joked about the impending Romney nomination: “I feel like the bride in an arranged marriage I cannot escape.” After Tuesday’s votes, escape will become that much harder. The resistance remains. But it becomes more futile.

Arranged marriages have a long tradition, and are still common in much of the world. The theory is that an experienced matchmaker and/or older family members can assess suitable mates better than passion-charged teens or twenty-somethings. In cultures where marriage builds extended families rather than creating standalone nuclear families, arranged marriage often considers not only the couple’s suitability but also how well their parents and siblings will get along and what each family can contribute.

Frum’s analysis, though perhaps offered in jest, may not be far from the mark. Back in the late 1990s, Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger demonstrated that the overconfidence effect extends beyond self-assessment. Dunning and Kruger found that people who score poorly on a given skill overrate not only their own skillfulness, but also overrate their ability to recognize that skill in others. In an interview for Life’s Little Mysteries, Dunning said that effect applies in politics as well:

We’re just as undiscerning about the skills of others as about ourselves. “To the extent that you are incompetent, you are a worse judge of incompetence in other people,” Dunning said. In one study, the researchers asked students to grade quizzes that tested for grammar skill. “We found that students who had done worse on the test itself gave more inaccurate grades to other students.” Essentially, they didn’t recognize the correct answer even when they saw it.

The reason for this disconnect is simple: “If you have gaps in your knowledge in a given area, then you’re not in a position to assess your own gaps or the gaps of others,” Dunning said. Strangely though, in these experiments, people tend to readily and accurately agree on who the worst performers are, while failing to recognize the best performers.

German sociologist Mato Nagel recently programmed a computer to simulate elections based on the Dunning-Kruger effect. Nagel assumed that voters’ leadership skills were distributed on a normal curve, and that voters could not recognize better leadership skills than their own. In the simulated elections, the winning candidates were only slightly better than average. Democracy, Nagel concluded, succeeds only in screening out candidates that even people of ordinary skill recognize as poor leaders.

The Dunning-Kruger effect and Nagel’s research suggests at least two possible responses. The first is to have “arranged marriages,” where ostensibly wiser folk choose our leaders for us. That seems to be the approach Republican leaders are attempting this year.

The second response is to recognize that election campaigns based on complex, fact-based policy arguments are a fool’s errand. Voters can make good choices, but not if the issues are framed in terms that only policy wonks can understand. Instead, we must frame issues in terms that most voters will understand: basic civic values like fairness, respect, inclusion, and compassion.

Our archetypal median voter Fred is not a policy wonk, but he’s not stupid. We forget that at our peril … and his.