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:

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):



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:

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.