Monthly Archives: October 2011

Centre College to host 2012 VP debate

This just in! Centre College will host the 2012 Vice-Presidential debate on October 11, 2012 between Joe Biden and the yet-to-be-named GOP vice-presidential candidate. Read here for more details:,cntnt01,detail,0&cntnt01articleid=35&cntnt01origid=15&cntnt01detailtemplate=newspage&cntnt01returnid=80

The (in)effectiveness of political mobilization

This topic came up in my Public Opinion and Voting Behavior class this week, and I thought it might be of interest to a more general audience.

“Politial mobilization” refers to efforts to “mobilize” non-voters to get out to the polls to vote. These campaign efforts are commonly called GOTV (Get Out The Vote). How effective are these efforts? Not very. This is a brief summary of political science research on the issue:

  • Most people either vote or they don’t. It’s very difficult to successfully mobilize habitual non-voters, and those that are habitual voters don’t need much of a reminder.
  • Those that do vote are disproportionally older, wealthier, smarter, and whiter than those that don’t vote.
  • Face-to-face and door-to-door canvassing are the most effective political mobilization tools, but it’s very “expensive” in terms of time and money when considering how effective it is. Campaigns have to put in hundreds of hours of face-to-face mobilization to increase turnout by just a few percentage points. One study figured that 1 new voter is added for every 1 hour of campaign mobilization efforts.
  • Telephone get-out-the-vote efforts are generally NOT effective to any measurable degree.

Sources: here and here.

“Fighting”, for better or worse, is effective

David Brooks is smart and he makes a lot of good points. I respectfully disagree, however, with his editorial in today’s New York Times:

In short, he argues that Obama is mistaken in his strategic decision to “go partisan” for his 2012 re-election campaign. Brooks argues that becoming a “fighter” when you are the incumbent is a poor strategy because at this point in the American electoral cycle, most Independents are saying that they agree more with Republican policies – i.e. those currently out of power. Compromise and bipartisanship are the ways to win over the Independents and moderates, Brooks argues, and that should be Obama’s priority.

I disagree with Brooks because he’s basing his argument on a set of very common misperceptions about American politics. Political scientists have convincingly demonstrated that “Independents” are really not very independent. Most “lean” toward one party or another and those that do vote are just as partisan as the partisans. The pure Independents are less than 10% of the population and their vote is not usually the deciding factor in American elections. (See here, here, and here for a more detailed review of this phenomenon.)

Given that the vote of most Independents is really not up for grabs and that about 90% of partisans do not cross party lines when it comes time to vote, the key to winning American presidential elections is usually to mobilize those who are already likely inclined to vote for you. And that’s exactly what President Obama is trying to do.

That being said, I wish that Brooks was right and I certainly would prefer campaigns that focus on high-minded debate and compromise. As is often the case, however, reality does not conform to my ideals.

Too much democracy in Kentucky?

The Lexington Herald Leader editorial board published the following yesterday:

This year, the paper will recommend in the governor, attorney general and  auditor races. The paper traditionally has not endorsed for agriculture  commissioner, secretary of state or treasurer — positions the board feels should  be appointed.

My sentiments exactly. Generally speaking, democracy is a good thing. But should the people really be voting on things like the agricultural commissioner or treasurer, whose main job is to write the state checks? To what extent does the average Kentuckian have a clue what those jobs actually do? Even if they did, to what extent do average Kentuckians possess the skills to meaningfully evaluate which candidate would  better perform those check-writing tasks? Further, why in the world are these partisan offices? Is there really a “Democratic” or “Republican” way to write checks??? In sum, I agree with the newspaper that these should be appointed, rather than elected, offices.

But that’s just me.

Rand Paul’s surprising non-extremism

Interested Kentuckians might enjoy this write-up of Senator Paul’s recent activities:

The basic gist of the article is that Rand Paul is going to great lengths to learn to be an effective senator and is generally not coming off as “Tea Party crazy” as his opponents often make him out be.

An excerpt:

GOP aides say Paul has prioritized learning the levers and traditions of the Senate, and he has channeled his efforts to affect policy in a manner deemed “constructive” and results-oriented by most Republicans.

Even Democratic whip Dick Durbin had kind words:

“I’ve watched him carefully since he came,” the Illinois Democrat said. “We’ve come to him sometimes with his amendments, and I think he’s been reasonable. I don’t have a negative view of what he’s done. I think he’s exercising his authority as a Senator.”

“Both rural and urban issues”

A quick comment on the newly-released official Utah congressional redistricting map that cuts Salt Lake County between three separate districts. The Salt Lake Tribune reports on the perceived movites of the Republican-dominanted legislature:

Democrats say that “pizza slice” plan is an attempt by Republicans to dilute their votes in Salt Lake County and increase odds that the GOP can win all congressional districts. Republicans say instead that it will ensure that all members of Congress represent both rural and urban issues.

The Republican justification that all of Utah’s congressional delegation should represent both rural and urban areas is somewhat disingenuous. It’s the exact same argument that they made ten years ago when they split Salt Lake County up for the current map. They’re simply trying to gerrymander Utah’s lone Democrat, Jim Matheson, out of his House seat.

The argument would have more credibility if we had a proportional representation system in the United States. In PR systems, representatives are elected to represent the entire country instead of a smaller geographical district. As a result, PR representatives tend to look out for the diverse interests of the national as a whole as opposed to a smaller constituency. In the U.S., however, we elect representatives to look out for the interests of our smaller local communities. In such a case, it makes sense (to me, at least) to group similar communities together in congressional districts. It makes it easier for the representative to focus on specializing on the needs of his/her community, and it makes it so that the interests of more members of the community will be represented in the national legislature.

As it stands, this is going to result in lower-quality representation for the unfortunate Democrats in central Utah.

Review of “Our Patchwork Nation”

Today I read Our Patchwork Nation: The Suprising Truth about the “Real” America by journalist Dante Chinni and political scientist James Gimpel. The objective of the book is to lay out an alternative to the traditional red/blue geographic divide in the United States. The authors argue instead that American counties can be more accurately divided into twelve different community types like “Monied Burbs”, “Tractor Country”, “Boom Towns”, “Evangelical Epicenters”, etc.

The first half of the book describes each of the 12 community types in terms of their economic, political, demographic, and cultural characteristics. The second half of the book describes some interesting political, economic, and cultural patterns that emerge across the various community types.

To me, the most useful part of this book is the argument for the way that community types should be grouped. I agree with the authors that the red/blue dichotomy can be overly simplistic at times. The 12-type rubric that they provide is an interesting and novel way to think about some systematic differences in American community types.

I will admit, though, that I found very little surprising or even very “ground-breaking” in this book. The second half describes some interesting systematic differences between various community types but reveals little that would contradict what one’s intuitive guess might predict. (For example, “tractor country” communities have the highest rate of gun shops per capita while “campus and career” communities have the highest rate of bookstores per capita. No big surprise there.)

I was especially disappointed that the book offered little by way of analysis of how these different community types might be useful in predicting interesting political and social outcomes beyond what we already know about the world. In other words, there’s nothing in the book demonstrating that knowing these community types gives us any “added value” for explaining political outcomes independent of standard individual-level sociopolitical factors.  

That being said, the patterns discussed in the book are useful to in that they provide further evidence of the diversity of the American culture and our increasing cultural/political self-segregation.

The authors have created a website which has some nifty tools, which data/map geeks might find especially fun to play with:

The economy and the 2012 presidential election

This is a calculation of the result of all presidential elections since 1952 based on two factors: 1) economic growth and 2) military fatalities. It’s creator, political scientist Douglas Hibbs, calls this the Bread and Peace model of presidential elections. As you can see, these two factors do a pretty darn good job of explaining the outcome of presidential elections since the end of WW2.

Based on this model, if the election were held a few months ago, Obama would have lost in a landslide. It’s not surprising: the economy is still not doing great.

Hibbs posts his predictions for 2012 here: In essence, he predicts that Obama will likely lose the 2012 election unless the average per capita annual income growth rate between now and the election is at least +2%.

The way that political scientists see the outcome of presidential elections is pretty simple: campaigns, candidates, advertising, fundraising, and debates all matter, but not nearly as much as the condition of the economy when the election occurs. The economy sets the “boundaries” of the outcome within which the campaign, candidates, debates, etc. can all make marginal to moderate differences. But the economy determines the “upper” and “lower” limits of the ultimate outcome. In other words, even the best incumbent candidate will likely lose with a poor economy.

According to this model, the best thing (but not the only thing) that Obama can do to ensure re-election is to do everything possible to boost individual income growth rates for American citizens between now and election day. Strategically, the jobs bill he is currently pushing is a modest step in the right direction. Given that the personal income growth rate in August was -0.1%, though, it suggests that Obama has his work cut out for him over the next 13 months…

“Bizarro-Prime Minister”

I’m grading midterm exams for my Introduction to Politics class today. One of the questions in the exam asks for a definition of “shadow cabinet”. This is the leadership of the opposition party in the British House of Commons. Every member of the opposition leadership is assigned to be the opposing “counter-part” to each member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet.

One of my students defined “shadow cabinet” as consisting of the “head of the losing party who becomes a sort of ‘bizarro-Prime Minister’.” I assume that’s a reference to the “Bizarro World” in the D.C. comics universe, as popularized in a very funny episode of Seinfeld.

I am DEFINITELY going to use Bizarro World in the future when I teach about politics in the United Kingdom.

(The student got full credit on that question, by the way.)

Republicans vs. Obama on the economy

From CNN today:

More American voters believe GOP presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Rick Perry would do a better job handling the economy than President Barack Obama, says a national poll released Thursday. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 49% of registered voters believe Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, would handle the economy better than the president. Thirty-nine percent of respondents said Obama would do a better job.

This makes me chuckle only because it was a scant three years ago that “more American voters” believed that Obama would do better than McCain or Bush on the economy.

Now, I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with either of these views. It just shows the ideological inconsistency of thinking among the American public. When the economy is doing poorly, they blame whoever’s in charge, regardless of whether it’s a Republican or Democrat. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In some ways, it’s comforting that the public is sometimes more concerned about outcomes and performance than ideological preference.