Monthly Archives: February 2012

“Do Campaigns Matter?”

I just finished this book by Thomas Holbrook (a fellow Iowa Ph.D.). I’m considering adopting it for my Parties, Campaigns, and Elections class in the fall. 

This book starts by summarizing previous political science research that examines the extent to which campaigns “matter” in determining the ultimate outcome of presidential elections, especially in comparison with other more fundamental factors like international and economic conditions. The author then analyzes how public opinion changes in response to specific campaign events (debates, conventions, etc.) The final conclusion is that prevailing national conditions set the “parameters” within which campaign events exert smaller, but significant effects. So basically, the answer given by this book is yes, campaigns matter, but not as much as we often think they do. Economic and international factors matter more. However, the smaller effects of campaign events can be decisive in close elections.

Chapter 5 specifically looks at the effects of the presidential debates of 1984, 1988, and 1992 and finds that they exert an important effect, but less than that of nominating conventions. Also of interest to the Centre College community: the three vice-presidential debates barely moved the needle at all in terms of affecting the ultimate outcome of those three electoral contests. Hopefully the 2012 VP debate will defy this pattern!

“The Age of Big Data”

To my Government majors and prospective majors: this is why people interested in politics need to also be good with numbers and data.

A report last year by the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the consulting firm, projected that the United States needs 140,000 to 190,000 more workers with “deep analytical” expertise and 1.5 million more data-literate managers, whether retrained or hired.

The impact of data abundance extends well beyond business. Justin Grimmer, for example, is one of the new breed of political scientists. A 28-year-old assistant professor at Stanford, he combined math with political science in his undergraduate and graduate studies, seeing “an opportunity because the discipline is becoming increasingly data-intensive.” His research involves the computer-automated analysis of blog postings, Congressional speeches and press releases, and news articles, looking for insights into how political ideas spread.

Obama budget is harsh on NASA

A quick follow-up to my earlier post in which I wondered why Democrats are less enthusiastic about space exploration than Republicans: Obama’s recent budget proposal included some draconian cuts to NASA’s budget. More here:

There’s no easy way to say this: these cuts are devastating. The President’s request for just Mars exploration is $361 million, a crippling $226M drop in funding over the FY12 estimate, a 38.5% cut.

Read that again: a 38.5% cut. This will effectively halt the new exploration of Mars. It means pulling out of planning the ExoMars mission with the European Space Agency — effectively cancelling the mission, which will not make the Europeans happy — and also halting planning on a 2016 mission.

For the cost of less than a single day on the War on Terror, we could have a robust and far-reaching program to explore Mars, look for signs of life on another planet, increase our overall science knowledge, and inspire a future generation of kids.

Kentucky’s new congressional districts

For anyone who didn’t see last week, Kentucky’s new congressional map was signed into law. Boyle County will now be part of the 2nd district with central/western Kentucky and Bowling Green, represented by Republican Brett Guthrie instead of Democrat Ben Chandler. More details of each congressional district are available here:

The advantages and disadvantages of “hearing the other side”

I recently finished reading Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy by political scientist Diana Mutz. This book describes the results from a series of studies investigating the effects of talking to people who disagree with you about politics (she calls it “cross-cutting” discussion). The author frames the book as a look at two different theories of how people act in a democracy. “Deliberate democracy” proponents argue that citizens should regularly deliberate and discuss politics, especially with those they disagree with, as being a healthy thing for democracy. “Participatory democracy” proponents argue that citizens should be actively engaged in electoral politics (campaigning, volunteering, etc.) to make a healthy democracy. In theory, these two views are not mutually exclusive and both would contribute to a healthy democracy. Mutz’s findings, however, suggest that in real life, the one often comes at the expense of the other.

Chapter 2 examines who engages in “cross-cutting” political discussion and where they do it. The author shows that most people encounter cross-cutting discussion at work and through distant family members and acquaintances, but not very often through churches, neighborhoods or other voluntary associations (contra the benefits of Putnam’s social capital thesis). She also shows that those with a lower socioeconomic status are more likely to engage in cross-cutting discussion than those who are well-off and relatively affluent. Finally, Mutz also looks at global data and shows that Americans have one of the lowest rates in the world of talking politics with people we politically disagree with.

Chapter 3 describes the benefits of “hearing the other side.” The more you engage in cross-cutting discourse, the more likely you are to recognize legitimate rationales for opposing viewpoints. This also leads to increase tolerance for groups you happen to disagree with.

Chapter 4 goes into the “dark side” of cross-cutting discourse. The more people talk with people they disagree with, the less likely they are to vote, the less they participate in civic groups and activities, and the longer it takes to decide which candidates to support. Further analysis reveals that this is because while people value political participation, they also value community and consensus. While people may desire to freely express their political views, they also want to make friends, get along, and not offend their family, co-workers, neighbors, fellow parishioners, etc. When forced to choose between a happy social relationship and political expression, most people choose to maintain a good social relationship. This leads to de-valuing political participation and disengaging from the political community.

Mutz summarizes: “The meek and mild abstain from participation so as not to offend anyone, while ideologically extreme political bullies rule the Earth.” But then, we as Americans also manage to maintain social harmony (a good thing) by “relegating [our] desires … to speak [our] own minds, to secondary status” (a bad thing).

Blame the American public, not the president, for the polarization

Even though this article comes from a left-leaning periodical, the argument is not new and has ample independent empirical support.

Although presidents always try to pursue policies that satisfy their supporters—and, in most cases, anger the opposition—it’s important to remember that presidents themselves aren’t responsible for the increase in polarization. That Republicans and Democrats have a stark contrast in opinions on the performance of President Obama has less to do with Obama, and everything to do with the public itself, which has grown more ideological and more partisan over the last 30 years. To wit, co-partisans are more likely to live near each other—think cities and suburbs—and their representatives tend to reflect that fact.

The authors also cite research showing that Republicans shifted rightward since the 1970s at a rate three times that of the Democratic shift leftward.

“Personality and Politics: Obama For and Against Himself”

I just finished this book written by political psychologist Stephen Wayne. It’s a quick read. The author provides an overview of Obama’s key personality traits and then attempts to explain the key decisions of the Obama presidency in light of those traits.

In a nutshell, Wayne describes the following personality characteristics:

  • Extreme self-discipline and self-restraint, combined with a very competitive spirit
  • Extreme ambition and confidence, bordering on vanity and arrogance
  • A driving need for consensus and finding common ground
  • Pragmatic. “He keeps his eye on the doable, not necessarily the optimal.” “He gets frustrated with ideologues [on both ends on the political spectrum] with whom he finds it difficult to reason.”
  • Risk-averse, cautious, and deliberate
  • “Rigor, logic, and rationality drive guide his thought process.” So much so that he has explicitly stated that decisions should be made based on logic and evidence, not emotions.

The last few chapters examine how these personality traits affected the debates over the economic stimulus plan of 2009, the health care reform debate, and the decision-making process on the war in Afghanistan.

To me, the amusing thing was seeing how this portrait differs from the way Obama is perceived by both the far right as well as the far left. He doesn’t feel “at home” in either of the extremes. 

As I’ve blogged about before (here, here, and here), most voters in presidential elections ultimately make decisions based on partisanship, not on which candidate has the set of preferable personality characteristics. So candidate personality, to me, is not overly useful in explaining who wins presidential elections (although it is helpful when it comes to primary elections). However, personality explains a lot about how a president will govern and make decisions once in office.

Also, as I’ve blogged about before (see here), these characteristics of Obama’s personality are not all that different from those displayed by the current GOP front-runner, Mitt Romney. This should make for an interesting match-up.