Monthly Archives: June 2011

Local ethnic context and the immigration debate

My Ph.D. dissertation advisor, Rene Rocha at the University of Iowa, recently contributed a post to the “Latino Decisions” blog. The post includes a more detailed summary of a study that I contributed to, which I briefly wrote about back in February. The study examines the effect of local ethnic context on immigration policy attitudes of people in Texas. I’ll re-post my summary from February:

The bottom-line finding is that living around lots of other Latino-Americans tends to lead other Latinos to adopt more immigrant-friendly policy preferences, where it leads whites to adopt more punitive, “hard-line” policy preferences. How you feel about immigration politics depends in part upon where you happen to live.

Dr. Rocha’s more detailed write-up is available here:

http://latinodecisions.wordpress.com/2011/06/27/is-there-an-ethnic-dimension-to-the-immigration-debate/

On the sample size and margin of error…

It’s finally out! One of the very first polls of likely Republican Iowa caucus-goers about their 2012 presidential preferences. Romney’s in the lead! Bachmann is surprisingly close behind! What happened to Pawlenty!? We’re about to be inundated with polls like this, so here is one important thing to keep in mind:

First, check out the sample size and margin of error. Larger sample size = smaller margin of error = more accuracy. A good poll will have at least 1,000 respondents in the sample which is equivalent to about a 3% margin of error.

When a poll says that there’s a “3% margin of error”, it means that there’s a 95% chance that the actual value in the wider population for whatever statistic they’re giving you is within 3% above or below that figure. For example, something like “Obama’s approval rating is 48%, margin of error 3%” means that there’s a 95% chance that his real approval rating among the entire population of interest (usually the entire United States unless they specify otherwise) is somewhere between 45%-51%.

That’s why I chuckle a little when headlines that say something like “Romney leads in new Iowa poll”. According to the Des Moines Register article, Romney had support of 23% of likely GOP caucus-goers, followed by Bachmann at 22% and Cain at 10%, with a 4.9% margin of error. This means that Romney’s actual support could be anywhere from 18.1% to 27.9%, Bachmann anywhere from 17.1% to 26.9%, and Cain anywhere from 5.1% to 14.9%. In other words, it’s possible (although unlikely), that Romney and Cain are only about 3% apart!

Bottom line: at this stage, polls are helpful for spotting trends and patterns, but little more can be made of them with any degree of confidence until the caucus time draws nearer and larger poll samples are taken. Most news reporters are pretty good at explaining this, but many politicians and pundits are not.

Authoritarianism and Jon Huntsman’s prospects in the 2012 primary

“Authoritarianism” is a personality characteristic that political psychologists use (among many others) to explain political attitudes and voting behavior. To clarify, when political psychologists say that someone is “authoritarian”, they do NOT mean that he or she is a fan of authoritarian dictators, fascists, or Nazis. Rather, it means that the person has a high need for order. Authoritarians are motivated to seek “clarity in the face of confusion” (i.e. they don’t like nuance or ambiguity) and they tend to “rely on established authorities to provide that order” (Hetherington and Weiler 2009, pg. 34). In other words, authoritarians see the world in terms of “black and white” rather than “shades of gray”, and they feel comfortable submitting to authorities who provide a black and white understanding of the world, be they political, social, or religious leaders.

In current American politics, authoritarians tend to be conservative and Republican, although authoritarianism is not the same as political conservatism (it’s related to social conservatism, but not necessarily economic conservatism). There are also many authoritarian liberals and authoritarian Democrats, although they are not as common as authoritarian conservatives and Republicans (Hetherington and Weiler 2009, ch. 5). A black and white worldview simply lends itself better to Republican positions on foreign policy, civil rights, etc. 

Here is a break-down of levels of authoritarianism in 2008 Republican primary voters vs. Democratic primary voters (data from the 2008 ANES):

LEVELS OF AUTHORITARIANISM AMONG 2008 REPUBLICAN PRIMARY VOTERS:

LEVELS OF AUTHORITARIANISM AMONG 2008 DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY VOTERS:

Again, we see that authoritarianism is common among both Republican and Democratic primary voters, but is more heavily skewed toward the high end among the Republican base.

To me, all this spells trouble for newly-announced candidate Jon Huntsman. Of all the declared GOP candidates, Huntsman is perhaps the most “nuanced” in his personal background and policy positions. He’s the former governor of one of the most Republican states in the country who accepted a job working for a Democratic president as ambassador to a country with a non-Western culture. He’s a political conservative who is pro-immigration and pro-civil unions. He’s a former missionary for the LDS church, but says “I get satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies.” All of these nuances scream “shades of gray” rather than “black and white”. This may well end up being his greatest difficulty to overcome as he seeks to win support of the Republican primary constituency in 2012.

The length of a U.S. Senator’s term in office…

When my wife was an undergraduate at BYU she worked as a secretary for the university’s Political Science Department. Little did she know at the time that a few years later she would get married to a graduate from a rival school (Utah State) who had ambitions to become a political science professor himself one day. Today marks six years since we got married. Congratulations, Katie! You’ve successfully survived being married to me for the length of a U.S. Senator’s term in office. :-)

Anti-Semitism a factor in the Kentucky gubernatorial race? (Probably not.)

A recent article in the Lexington Herald-Leader examines the extent to which religion will play a factor in the upcoming gubernatorial election. Governor Beshear’s running mate, former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, is Jewish. Both Governor Beshear and his Republican challenger David Williams claim that religion, especially anti-Semitism, will not be an issue in the campaign.

There’s some political science research to support this general conclusion. A study published in 2004 analyzed the results of a public opinion survey of Florida voters during the 2000 election. (The 2000 Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Joseph Lieberman, was Jewish.) The researchers used something called a “list experiment”, which is a way to get people to admit biased or prejudicial opinions without them actually having to directly say it. The results of the study showed that only a small portion of Florida voters possessed latent anti-Semitic views and consequently it was not a major factor in the 2000 presidential campaign in Florida.

Granted, Florida and Kentucky are two very different states on a number of characteristics, but my hunch (based on this and several other studies of prejudice and racism) is that the number of people who would vote against Governor Beshear solely because his running mate happens to be Jewish is not large enough to significantly alter the outcome of the election.

Why President Obama is now personally tweeting

Gloria Goodale of the Christian Science Monitor posted an article yesterday that examines why President Obama took personal control of his Twitter account this week:

http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Elections/Vox-News/2011/0620/Obama-and-Twitter-Why-he-took-control-of-his-own-account

In her article, Goodale quotes an obscure political science professor from a small liberal arts college in Danville, Kentucky.

In addition to the various explanations that Goodale describes, I think that this event is significant because it shows that President Obama is making a concerted effort to mobilize his core supporters (including most of those who subscribe to his Twitter feed) in the run-up to the 2012 election. In reality, only about 10% of the population are genuine independent “swing-voters” and so mobilizing the base is going to be an important factor for whichever candidate wins the White House next year.

Retrospective voting and the 2008 election

Political scientists draw a distinction between retrospective and prospective voting. Retrospective voting occurs when an electorate decides whether or not to re-elect an incumbent based on how things have improved (or not) over the incumbent’s previous term. This is nearly always based on the state of the economy. Prospective voting usually occurs when there are two non-incumbents in the race. When there is no incumbent, decisions are affected by candidate platforms and characteristics to a larger degree than when there is an incumbent in the race.

Because there was no incumbent in the 2008 election, we might predict that the outcome may have been more affected by prospective than retrospective voting. An article released today in Political Research Quarterly argues, however, that there were two stages to the 2008 campaign:

The findings show that there were two distinct phases of the fall campaign, that retrospective voting was nonexistent prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers but was strong following the collapse. In effect, the collapse of Lehman Brothers turned the election into a referendum election.

In other words, this article suggests that the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 converted McCain into a virtual incumbent in the eyes of the electorate. McCain was associated with President Bush and the resulting retrospective voting decisions, which strongly contributed to his eventual defeat.

Levels of education in Kentucky’s state legislature

76.8% of Kentucky’s state legislature has at least a bachelor’s degree. That’s slightly higher than the national figure of 74.7%. And it’s significantly higher than the 20% of Kentucky residents who have at least a bachelor’s degree.

To me, the interesting question is whether or not it’s a “good” thing that our state legislature is, on average, disproportionately much more educated than the population that they’ve been elected to represent.

Incidentally, 4 of Kentucky’s 138 state legislators (nearly 3%) are graduates of Centre College.

http://chronicle.com/article/Degrees-of-Leadership-/127823

http://chronicle.com/article/How-Educated-Is-Your/127845/

Classical worldviews still animate contemporary discourse

The fact is, there is no dispositive empirical proof about which method is best — the centralized technocratic one or the decentralized market-based one. Politicians wave studies, but they’re really just reflecting their overall worldviews. Democrats have much greater faith in centralized expertise. Republicans (at least the most honest among them) believe that the world is too complicated, knowledge is too imperfect. They have much greater faith in the decentralized discovery process of the market. … This basic debate will define the identities of the two parties for decades.

This comes from a recent editorial by David Brooks at the New York Times where he discusses some of the fundamental worldview differences between the two major American political parties and how it helps explain differing positions on Medicare and health care reform proposals.

I agree with Brooks that “this basic debate will define the identities of the two parties for decades”. I would add, however, that this is nothing new or surprising. The faith that Democrats place in centralized expertise goes all the way back to the French Revolution and the classical liberal Enlightenment mindset that reason and science could eventually explain just about everything, including the social world and human behavior. The Republican skepticism toward that same centralized expertise can easily be traced all the way back to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke, a classical conservative, makes the same argument as modern conservatives about how we ought not to be so arrogant as to presume that we can fully understand something as complicated and complex as the social and political universe, or that we can perfectly predict the consequences of every decision that we make.

The same worldviews and debates that animated reactions to the French Revolution in the 18th century still dominate much of contemporary American political discourse.

Alabama’s new immigration law

http://www.timesdaily.com/article/20110610/NEWS/110609784/-1/

With the governor’s signature, Alabama’s illegal immigration law quickly became known as the most restrictive law in the nation, requiring schools to find out if students are in the country lawfully and making it a crime to knowingly give an illegal immigrant a ride. The law makes it a crime for illegal immigrants to be in Alabama.

Wow. I’d be in jail several times over for all the times I’ve given rides to kind people that I knew were in the country without proper documentation. I wonder how many hours it will be until it gets knocked down by the courts…