It should come as no surprise that political scientists are quite agitated, not to mention displeased, by the Senate vote to eliminate National Science Foundation funding for political science.
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I would be remiss if I didn't say something here, so I'll do one better and say two things about it.

First, the way I might be expected to frame this is by telling you how this decision will impact me. Honestly, however, the internal dynamics of academia ensure that it won't affect me at all. Our professional organization, the American Political Science Association, spent weeks exhorting its members to contact elected officials on behalf of our NSF funding. This is logical but problematic in that the NSF treats the vast majority of political scientists (and presumably people in other fields as well) with a mixture of contempt and indifference. If they get an application that comes from any university outside of the top 10 or so research universities in the country, I'm fairly certain it gets thrown directly in the trash unless they decide to take a few moments to laugh at it. This map shows where all of the NSF money in political science goes. This profession mirrors the rest of our society, in which the top 1% have 90% of the resources and the rest of us get the shaft. Several people have suggested that I should be more supportive because I might use data from, or assign books based on, NSF-funded research. This is true, but it is little more than a Trickle Down economics argument – the vast majority of us who have nothing should lobby the government to improve the lot of our social betters so eventually a few crumbs will fall to us. Or maybe we'll Make It Big someday and join the 1% at Stanford and Princeton! (Note: we won't.)

So this is what it feels like to be part of the Republican base.

Second, the older I get the more I believe that the real divide in this country (I won't speak for the whole world, although I have my suspicions) is not between liberals and conservatives, the old and young, black and white, or any of the most common tropes.
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The divide in modern America is between people who think facts and knowledge are based on evidence and those who think that whatever one believes is true. The media is liberal because I think it is. Climate change and evolution are myths because I don't believe them. Tax cuts grow the economy because I think they do. This is what attacks on the NSF, and academia more broadly, are about.
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It's an easy target because a substantial portion of this country doesn't believe that science is a thing. To them, the scientific method begins with a conclusion and research is the process of manufacturing some kind of evidence to support it. The ice caps aren't melting because I say they aren't, and some oil companies wrote a paper proving it.
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What do we need the NSF or fancy-pants colleges for?

Together, those two points don't fit well together. On one hand I'm not inclined to weep for the people at the top of the caste system in my field. On the other, it's clearly a ridiculous, politically-motivated decision that underscores the driving force behind so many of our current social problems: the inability and/or unwillingness of half of Americans to distinguish between fact and opinion.


Generally I prefer not to blog about my academic work, partly because I'm convinced that this site is going to get me fired someday but largely because what I do isn't very interesting to…humans, I think, unless they are political scientists. But in the process of collecting data for a new project, I came across some interesting stats on 2010.

One thing that I find amazing about the literature in political science is how little we know about non-voters. We have a decent-plus understanding of voters' preferences, ideological tendencies, and so on, and the same cannot be said about the substantial portion of the potential electorate that doesn't participate. Things like exit polls, for example, are integral to post-election analysis (both popular and academic) and they exclude non-voters by definition. There is some new interesting work on the voter/non-voter divide (Diana Mutz has a book coming out soon) but for decades we've been assuming, or arguing with varying degrees of success, that the preferences of the two groups are essentially the same. I have always found this patently stupid.

Lately I've been doing a lot of research into creative ways to show evidence of differential turnout – the idea that overall turnout doesn't change much from election to election but different groups of people are voting each time. For example, Obama Mania and the lameness of the McCain campaign made a lot of Republicans stay home in 2008, whereas in 2004 Republicans were highly energized while the Democrats had a hard time rallying turnout behind John Kerry. I've always considered this the most plausible explanation for changes in election outcomes over time. And in theory this narrative explains 2010 very well; Democratic voters got all fired up and turned out in droves in 2008. Then two years of Obama being a big ol' letdown to the left and a hideous monster to the right led us to 2010, when Democratic-leaning voters were apathetic and the GOP/Tea Party brimmed with enthusiasm. Makes sense, but does it match the data?

The Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) is a new, very large sample survey that has been a real boon to voting behavior research. In 2010 the sample was over 55,000 whereas the old stand-by (American National Election Study) has about 1200. Briefly setting aside the valid question about whether people report voter turnout honestly on surveys – hint: they don't – here is a breakdown of self-reported ideology among voters and non-voters in the 2010 CCES sample. Click any graph to embiggen:

It is hardly surprising that a much larger percentage of non-voters consider themselves "middle of the road", as apathy toward participation is often a by-product of apathy toward politics in general. But note how a considerably larger portion of voters consider themselves "conservative" or "very conservative" – more than double the share of non-voters in each category. Compare that to 2006 – when the ideology question had only five categories instead of seven, but you get the picture:

In the last midterm the ideological distribution of voters and non-voters is quite similar, with voters only slightly more conservative than non-voters. Even more interesting, here is the ideological placement of Barack Obama among voters and non-voters. In other words, survey participants are also asked to identify how they would describe the ideology of major political figures like the President, their reps in Congress, and so on:

Wow. I checked these number about five times because they are so lopsided.

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Of people who reported voting in 2010, more than half described Obama as "very liberal" whereas barely 25% of non-voters described him that way. The question is subjective, of course, but that's the point. The people who voted in 2010 appear to be disproportionately drawn from the ranks of people who think Barack "The Eisenhower Republican" Obama is the commie-libro-marxisocialist child of Fidel Castro and ACORN. Unfortunately the same question is not available from 2006 re: George W. Bush. They did ask a generic presidential approval rating question, though:

Again we see a roughly similar distribution – voters exceeded non-voters at the extreme points, i.e. they were more likely than non-voters to either really like or really dislike Bush. What we don't see is the heavily skewed distribution we see in the 2010 Obama Ideology question (although it bears re-emphasizing the differences in the two questions).

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This small slice of the CCES data from 2010 supports the hypothesis that voters and non-voters were ideologically dissimilar and had very different perceptions of the incumbent President and Congress.
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It suggests that finding a way to recreate the enthusiasm for participation that Democratic-minded people showed in 2008 – or even 2006, when voters and non-voters were essentially even – is a necessary component of Obama and his party avoiding disaster in 2012. Something tells me that slogans and slick marketing won't be enough this time.


I've been getting more than a little comedy mileage out of this story lately, primarily because on the morning of January 3 it was blaring from as the headline story. If you don't wish to click through, the headline reads: "Dollar General to hire 6,000" and the story boasts of the many new jobs being created by the discount retailer. For non-American readers, note that Dollar General is essentially the rock bottom of the retail industry in the U.S. The average DG shopper has more food stamps than teeth and can tell you quite a bit about how to tend to a meth lab.

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Leaving aside the question of whether surging demand at the store for poor people is really a good sign, of course it's a Good Thing that they are hiring. Nobody disputes that. I'm glad that new people will be hired, even if mostly for minimum wage service jobs. What slays me is CNN's palpable desperation to convince readers that the economy is getting better. As one regular reader noted when I brought up this story on the Facebooks, "Next up on CNN: 3 New Burger Kings Opening In DC Metro Area Thanks to Obama Tax Compromise." It's good news, but the enthusiasm is more than a little…comical, I think.

I understand what CNN and the White House are attempting to do in their mad effort to convince everyone that things are getting better with the 2012 presidential election getting disturbingly close. However, there are two very important reasons to believe that they are wasting their time.

1. There is a strong partisan bias to people's perception of political reality. That is some combination of silly and terrifying – after all, facts should be facts – yet years of research in political science provide ample evidence to support it. To wit: (from Bartels, L. 2002. "Beyond the Running Tally: Partisan Bias in Political Perceptions." Political Behavior 24(2): 117-150)

The above graph (click to embiggen) shows individuals' perceptions of whether unemployment increased or decreased during the Reagan years (1981-1988). The data plainly show that as we move across the ideological spectrum from strong Democrats to strong Republicans, respondents' perception of the unemployment question becomes more favorable. About 10% of Democrats stated that unemployment got "much better" while over 50% of Republicans stated the same. The question of whether unemployment went up or down, and by how much, is not a subjective one. There is a correct answer here.
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Yet a substantial portion of the responses appear to be motivated by partisanship (and presumably, by extension, attitudes toward Reagan). Elsewhere in his paper Bartels provides identical evidence from the Clinton years when respondents were asked to state if the budget deficit increased or decreased over a given time period. This is not an opinion question, yet lo and behold Democrats stated (correctly) that it decreased while Republicans claimed that it grew.
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In other words, even IF the economy shows improvement only the President's strongest supporters are likely to accept that as fact. Yes, there is some marginal benefit with independents and fence-sitters, but the economic news would need to be quite positive for an extended period of time for it to matter.

2. This issue is particularly ill-suited to persuasion. Aside from the role of partisanship, individuals are likely to form perceptions about the economy from their own circumstances and those of their social network. If you are unemployed (and/or you know 10 people who can't find decent work, have been foreclosed, etc.) the media or some candidate are going to have a hell of a time convincing you that the economy has improved. This is an issue on which personal experience and anecdotal evidence are particularly powerful.

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In my own experience, I have had a very difficult time convincing myself that the job market in my field has improved (in fact, hiring is up slightly this year). Why? Because I'm still looking for work and my social network is filled with a dozen other people unsuccessfully searching for full-time work. The result is a fairly natural reaction: we accept that the numbers might be improving but reject the idea that the economy is getting better until our own circumstances, and those of our friends/family/colleagues, start to get better.

I tip my hat to the White House and the media for making the effort, but it simply isn't possible to talk people into believing that the economy is improving. Getting that idea to take root among the voting public will require, you know, actual economic improvement…and even then half of America won't believe it. We have ample evidence, in the timeless words of The American Voter, of "the role of enduring partisan commitments in shaping attitudes toward political objects."


Like many people of my ideological persuasion I have been quite critical of the Citizens United decision that allows essentially unlimited electioneering – namely spending on advertising – by non-campaign or -candidate groups. It has unarguably turned campaign finance, which was approaching Thunderdome before Citizens, into something at or perhaps even beyond Thunderdome. No one to the left of Mitch McConnell thinks this is a good development and we'll no doubt be seeing a $10 billion plus presidential election in 2012.

That said, I have been increasingly interested (in the context of my day job) in the question of what all of this money buys in elections. And the more I reflect upon and study the issue, the more convinced I become that the money would be just as productively used by throwing it on a raging bonfire.

I will not subject you to an extended review of the political science literature on the role of money in elections. Suffice it to say for these purposes that money is a necessary component of winning elections. Yet research also argues quite persuasively that money can't buy an election. So basically candidates need some non-zero amount of money but there is a threshold beyond which additional money accomplishes little to nothing.

Money buys useful things in elections. Any candidate for a statewide office (Senate, Governor, etc.) or legislative seat needs a certain amount of money to have a realistic shot at winning. That amount varies by the size and importance of the race, but the basic necessities vary little among offices: competent professional staff (campaign manager, volunteer coordinator, etc.), administrative and logistical costs, advertising, dealing with the media, and so on. These are the basics for any remotely Serious Congressional campaign or whatever. Beyond the nuts and bolts of office space, yard signs, staffers, mailers & phone banks, and the other basic costs of maintaining a campaign organization, the vast majority of additional money is spent on advertising. For non-campaign groups – the kind of independent organizations affected by Citizens United – the only relevant costs are advertising and some mobilization (GOTV) stuff.

Accordingly, asking whether money matters is essentially asking if advertising matters. Much like money, advertising has a threshold beyond which its marginal effects are indistinguishable from zero. There are different schools of thought on this issue, but my personal bias favors the argument that the threshold is very, very low. Advertising is good for name recognition and not much else. As you sit through the barrage of TV commercials for this year's candidates, ask yourself who is actually persuaded by any of this crap. Individuals' own preferences and partisan predispositions are an effective screen; in other words, any message from the opposite party is heavily discounted if not ignored altogether. If you're a Republican, you're going to tell yourself that anything in the Democrats' commercials is untrue and untrustworthy anyway.

But true independent/undecided voters could be persuaded, you say. Even if we accept the shaky premise that they will be persuaded by something as clearly lacking in credibility as a TV commercial, what does seeing the commercial 500 times accomplish that seeing it 10 times would not? I can accept that some voters – some – might legitimately be influenced by advertising no matter how ridiculous the commercials appear to the rest of us. But it is not at all clear that the ads are effective enough (or sufficiently effective with a sufficiently large portion of the electorate) to make any real difference.

Money matters. If nothing else it is a sign of legitimacy that scares away potential challengers and ensures that a candidate can do the bare minimum required to mount a campaign that could be considered serious. But it becomes difficult to get worked up about obscene levels of spending in our elections so much of it is spent on advertising, the marginal effects of which are extremely small beyond creating name recognition. In short, I am not convinced that George Soros or Tea Party USA spending half a billion dollars on commercials really has any impact on elections. Most of us don't pay any attention to them. For those who do, does seeing the same ad a few hundred additional times really matter?

The issue of campaign spending in a post-Citizens United world isn't really one of "buying" elections but of spending unfathomably large sums of money on the very slim odds that the very small group of voters who are persuaded by seeing a commercial a thousand times will be the deciding factor in a given race. I struggle to think of a less useful way to spend so much money.


"Just as Americans in general do not have the habits of deference, so the conservative in America does not have them either. Ultimately he does not defer even to the country’s institutions. If one of these institutions, such as the Supreme Court, makes decisions he detests, he will defame that institution.
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He is as ready as is the common man to bypass the institutions he ought to defend."

Recently in my public opinion course we've talked about the substantial research detailing the precipitous decline in levels of trust in the government in the United States. Data from the Pew Center and the National Election Studies illustrate this point quite clearly:

When I see this data many potential explanations come to mind – researchers usually identify the end of post-War prosperity around 1970, the Vietnam War, and Watergate as primary culprits – but I always think of the quote at the beginning of the post. It is from British conservative Henry Fairlie. He wrote it in 1980 at the Republican National Convention in Detroit as he watched the dumbing-down of the American right culminate with the nomination of a B-movie actor turned Goldwater acolyte turned soft-seller of neoconservatism.

I've made the following point many times previously, but the American right used to have an image problem. They still do, of course, but it is a very different one today. Prior to Reagan, the stereotype of American conservatism was a handful of wealthy white men in tuxedos sitting around a country club drinking expensive cognac. It was snooty. It was elitist. It had unshakable faith in the fundamental goodness of our nation and its institutions. Fairlie was prescient in noting how rapidly this would change with the ascension of the Hero of the Common Man – "common", in reference to voters, inevitably meaning "stupid." The party of East Coast industrialists became the party of yokels, rubes, creationists, xenophobes, and assorted other knuckle-headed bottom dwellers in this vast country. They still have an image problem, but now it is that the word "conservative" conjures images of Glenn Beck and some Teabagger screaming idiocies through clenched teeth while holding a misspelled sign.

It certainly can't be the fault of the right alone that trust has fallen so dramatically over the last three decades, but Fairlie identified the reasons why they shoulder a good deal of the blame.
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I'm not British enough to use a word like "deference" to describe their problem.
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It is more accurate to say that they lack any respect at all for our institutions and have gone far out of their way to convince Americans that if the government is not doing exactly what you want at all times, then the system has failed and it becomes a legitimate target for torrents of seething rage.

If the government spends money on something that does not directly benefit you, then taxes are evil. If your candidate loses an election, elections are ACORN-choreographed frauds.
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If Congress passes a law you do not like, then Congress is an illegitimate institution and your Governor should start talking about secession. If someone interprets the Constitution differently than you do, then the Constitution is being shredded by traitors and socialists. If a person who does not look like you becomes president, then he must be a foreign usurper. And of course one's faith in all of these same institutions is restored and manifests itself with great enthusiasm as soon as things are back to the way you want them.

Our country is worse off, in short, because of the right's "southern strategy" of appealing to the lowest, basest instincts of the masses, vilifying the very institutions they hope to control. It is not a coincidence that we hear the word "secession" every time they are out of power, because any institution that displeases them is slandered as illegitimate. I do not expect that we can recover the level of "Gee Ain't America Great!" sentiment that existed in the 1950s, but it would be nice if American conservatism would stop working quite so diligently to convince the public that it is not only acceptable but also one's duty to profane our system of government every time it acts contrary to the wishes of the average rural Texan.


The speed with which most academic research is obsoleted, especially in the social and behavioral sciences, is something of a punchline. It is deserved to some extent, but there are a number of "classics" in any field which stand the test of time. In political science, McCubbins and Schwartz produced their seminal work on Congressional oversight in 1984 and it hasn't been improved upon in the intervening years (although Aderbach's Keeping the Watchful Eye from 1990 expands upon it). If this paragraph has thus far caused your eyes to glaze, I promise this is more interesting than it sounds.

Congress is constantly delegating authority to various Federal agencies – the EPA, Securities and Exchange Commission, FDA, etc. – and one of the fundamental questions of politics is how (or if) Congress can control them after handing over the keys. Staffed largely by unelected (and un-fire-able) civil servants, the agencies are something of a leviathan and Congress can very quickly lose control of policy. Traditionally it was thought that oversight required Congress to hover over the agencies and crack the whip when they deviate from their mission. Yet there is no evidence that this happened, so it was widely assumed that Congressional oversight was limited at best.

McCubbins and Schwartz relied on a very old concept – classic Madisonian pluralism – to solve the puzzle. Their analogy, not to mention the title of the paper, is "Fire alarms vs. police patrols." The police engage in costly hands-on oversight. They cruise around looking for crimes being committed and, provided the offender is black or Latino, they chase after them yelling, "Stop, evildoer!" This is time- and labor-intensive. It costs a lot of money. But preventing crime is judged to be worth the cost. The fire department operates much differently. They don't cruise around looking for fires. They are organized to respond quickly, but only when someone says "Hey, there's a fire!" In this scenario, you and I are effectively the regulators.

This idea was intended to describe how Congress monitors regulatory agencies, but it has come to accurately describe the behavior of regulators themselves. This is partly by design – Reagan-era ideas about "getting government off our backs" – and partly of financial necessity. The public and interest groups become the regulators, sounding the "fire alarm" when necessary. It's not always a great system. The Food & Drug Administration (or the FAA, or OSHA, or whatever) has nowhere near enough people to do police patrols, actively seeking out safety violations. So they respond to fire alarms, i.e. a few dozen people get e.coli, someone loses an arm in a kick press, or a plane goes down. Both the regulatory agencies and the Congress that ostensibly monitors them are designed to react, not to prevent. Neither the political will nor the resources to engage in preventative regulation exist.

OK. Now the point.

Mike draws our attention to an old Baseline Scenario piece on the House GOP version of financial reform, which is relevant because what is about to come out of the Senate is really, really similar:

…creates an Office of Consumer Protection within the [Financial Institutions Regulator]. The Office of Consumer protection is responsible for all consumer protection rulemaking under the Consumer Credit Protection Act, and will coordinate with the other divisions of the FIR in enforcing consumer protection. Establishes a consumer complaint hotline for the timely referral and remedy of consumer complaints, regardless of charter type or regulatory structure. Requires the Office of Consumer Protection to use extensive consumer testing prior to the promulgation of new consumer protections. Requires a comprehensive review of consumer protection rules and regulations on a regular basis with reports to be issued to Congress based on inaction or action with regards to consumer protection standards.

So the GOP idea of regulation is a hotline, a phone in the basement at Treasury. We wait until something devastating happens and then we spring into action…by calling this number and saying "Hey, something devastating happened!" well after the opportunity to do anything meaningful has passed. N.B. the cute language about "testing" regulations and doing a periodic review so Congress has a regular opportunity to cut whatever the banks are complaining about.

It is entirely understandable that Congress oversees regulatory agencies in this manner. Their time is finite and the demands for their attention are many. For the agencies themselves, however, this is demonstrably the worst possible way to regulate. It gives us little more than good autopsies; the role of Federal agencies is to show up after the fact and explain the disaster they failed to prevent. So what we are getting in terms of financial reform (and I defer the nuts/bolts to Mike) is a regulatory body that will be empowered to do little except write a nice, detailed 9/11 Commission Report for the next crash. If we can't regulate derivatives I guess that's the next best thing, right?


Bruce Miroff makes one of my favorite arguments about the presidency in political science literature in "The Presidential Spectacle" (only available in print, unfortunately). In that piece he described the fundamental dilemma of the modern presidency as its dual nature; the institution requires substance but the public demands style. He uses the great analogy of boxing and pro wrestling. Doing one's job as president is like boxing, a contest of strength, strategy, and will. Passing legislation or making military decisions, for example, are actions with uncertain outcomes. Whether they succeed or fail depends on how good he is. Winning public support, on the other hand, is pro wrestling – it's all about style, gestures, and ridiculously simple morality plays with a clearly identifiable villain and a predetermined outcome. Who wins or loses does not depend on skill. It's about mugging for the camera and making the right gestures.

The invasion of Grenada is the classic example of such "presidential spectacle." We are the Good Guys; the godless Commie Menace is the Bad Guy. Cue the footage of American military might kicking ass and getting home in time for supper. Good guys win, bad guys lose…an outcome that is not only identical to every WWF storyline but one that was never in doubt. The first Gulf War, the War on Drugs, the invasion of Panama, and so on would all be good examples as well. Presidents need this type of song-and-dance routine to reinforce what Americans believe about themselves, just as the wrestling crowd is expected to see itself in the (white, mulleted, profane, "All-American" hillbilly) Good Guy and revel in his trouncing of the (black, Mexican, Muslim, or effeminate) Bad Guy.

It was interesting to see how the right would react to Obama caving in on Afghanistan and agreeing to send 30,000 troops (instead of the 40,000 they asked for – ooh, take that!). You knew they needed to find something to bitch about even though the right got what it wanted…open-ended and escalating commitment. For a while it appeared that the best they could do was whining about "dithering" and taking too long to make the decision. That is a lame complaint, albeit not without merit. The appearance of indecisiveness is always punished in opinion polls.

Fortunately Krauthammer came along and said what I knew they were all thinking; it was a simple matter of waiting for someone to say it.

We know that the kind of spectacles I described earlier are popular – an American president striding around in a flight suit and declaring to one and all that America just kicked the Bad Guy's ass. We also have quite a problem with blurring the line between entertainment and war.

There is an unreasonably large number of Americans who love war. They get off on it. They watch The Military Channel eight hours per day and believe the appropriate response to everything is nuke those motherfuckers (or at least carpet-bomb them). It is entertainment for them, and it bolsters their lousy self-image and latent self-loathing to picture America as some sort of Charles Bronson / Rambo figure strutting around beating nations who don't Do As We Say with his enormous penis.

That's really what Krauthammer is getting at, what he felt was the fundamental problem with Obama's speech: the President was so dispassionate. Where was the sophomoric bravado, the manly chest-pounding, the cockiness, that America Fuck Yeah swagger that all the doughy, impotent Bush voters need in order to get off? Why didn't Obama look excited about war? Why didn't he don a flight suit and declare "We're comin' to kick your ass"? Why didn't he jump on the podium, stare straight into the camera, and challenge Hacksaw Jim Duggan and the Iron Sheik to a cage match at this year's Summer Slam?

It's sad enough that they derive so much pleasure from watching gun camera footage and endless cable TV shows about tanks and bombers blowing shit up (not to mention the endless gun pornography).

But to watch the President substantially escalate our commitment to a quagmire – to basically throw 30,000 more people into the meat grinder for no apparent purpose – and then whine about how he didn't look excited enough about it is…well, it's sick. I lack a better or less controversial word for it. Whether they need the image of America-as-Rambo to compensate for their own shortcomings or they simply get a big woody every time they think of war, this portion of the electorate wants Stone Cold Steve Austin as President.

Rather than demanding to see more war swagger from Obama they should demand to see a psychiatrist.


Two days in a row on political science-related topics. I promise I won't make a habit of it.

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People in the social and "hard" sciences like to snipe at one another – they do "real" science with microscopes and Bunsen burners, while we retort that we study things people actually give a shit about rather than tyrosine-specific kinase proteins. One undisputed advantage the chemists and biologists have is the ability to conduct really well controlled experiments. An experiment isn't the only way to study something, of course, but it's pretty cool. Political scientists try to do experiments and some people get a lot of mileage out of it, but you can't really simulate an election or real world decision-making. But we get to do natural experiments. Which is like having someone else do half of the work for us.

If State A adopts voting machines but States B and C stick with paper ballots it sets us up to test hypotheses about the effects of different voting technologies on turnout, wait times, or whatever. Or, to use one prominent example, Nebraska has a unicameral, non-partisan state legislature while every other state has a bicameral legislature with parties. So in comparing the different systems in action we have an opportunity to study a lot of different aspects of the role of parties in the legislative process. Since we can't recreate politics in a lab or control everything we would like in our research, we have to be a little more creative and take advantage of opportunities where they exist.

Now that the President has predictably bowed to pressure and sent another 30,000 people to get shot at in Afghanistan to accomplish…whatever our goal is over there…it is going to be really interesting to watch the poll numbers about the war over the next year. Right now and for the past several years there has been a fairly lopsided partisan distribution in opinions about Afghanistan, with Republicans urging us to "listen to the generals" and send more troops, Democrats opposing it, and independent flipping a coin as usual:


Something tells me that if we revisit these numbers in December 2010 we'll find that a lot of Republicans are suddenly very dissatisfied with the direction of the war and stridently opposed to committing more resources to it. Are the Democratic numbers going to change as well? I'm a little more skeptical on that one. If anything I think the President is going to find himself increasingly unable to hold his party together, as Bill Clinton did, the more aggressively he reinvents his agenda as Republican Lite, as Bill Clinton did.

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The specifics of the situation are lost on everyone answering these poll questions, of course – nobody has any idea what's going on over there or what we're supposed to be doing (note this hilarious expression of what Americans believe our goal is). That's pathetic, of course, but why let facts or knowledge thereof get in the way of a knee-jerk partisan response?
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One of my formative political experiences, and one which almost single-handedly convinced me to pursue political behavior as an academic career, occurred in 1998 in a class I hated. More accurately it was in the class of a professor I hated, the resident expert on constitutional law and chasing 19 year old tail at the University of Wisconsin.

Madison is a remarkably liberal place, so it was no surprise that very liberal and openly lesbian Congressional candidate (now Representative) Tammy Baldwin was extremely popular on campus. Aside from her ideological compatibility with the average Madison resident her campaign was well-organized, hosting "Tammy Baldwin dance parties" that drew huge numbers of students with no particular interest in politics. So it was a safe bet that any classroom at UW in the Fall of 1998 was about 85-90% Baldwin supporters.
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Professor X began class one day – a large Con Law lecture of about 180 mostly future law school students – and asked for a show of hands on the question, "Which one of the two candidates for Congress is more likely to vote to lower taxes?" A solid 90% of the hands went up for Baldwin, with only the remaining 10% choosing her Republican opponent (the forgettable Jo Musser, who I remember for some reason over a decade later). Now, Tammy Baldwin was and is many things. But by no stretch of the imagination was she an anti-tax hawk. In fact she explicitly stated that she was not opposed to increasing taxes if necessary to pay for expanded Federal programs. Musser was the typical cut-taxes-at-all-costs Republican who made lowering taxes the cornerstone of her campaign message. So this was not a subjective question. There was a wrong answer, and 90% of the class chose it.
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This was the exact moment at which I realized that the mental calculus of the average voter goes something like:

Me like Baldwin.
Me like tax cuts.
Baldwin is for tax cuts.

People who study political behavior understand, from as far back as The American Voter in 1960, that party identification is the key to this kind of "reasoning." Partisanship is a screen through which all incoming information is filtered. Republicans will tell you that everything they like is a Republican idea and everything they hate is what Democrats stand for. After decades of contorting research in an effort to give American voters a little more credit for intelligence, the field has come full circle and once again embraced the idea of partisanship as a "fundamental part of an individual's identity" (Partisan Hearts and Minds) like religion or ethnicity. The overwhelming majority of us acquire a partisan identity in adolescence or early adulthood and interpret the rest of the world through it thereafter.
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Why is this relevant? Well, as Krugman pointed out, this is relevant to understanding the folly of pursuing "deficit reduction" as a political strategy by the White House, to which I would add the strategy of appeasing conservative Democrats or any Republicans on health care. Republican voters, most of whom hate Obama, will believe that he made the deficit bigger and that his health care plan is a disaster – even if the deficit is demonstrably smaller. Democrats will say the opposite. Really. How do we know? Because this is exactly what happened to Bill Clinton, as Achen and Bartels demonstrate.


Voters don't actually know anything. This is widely understood and constitutes one of the few points on which political science research is nearly unanimous. If Obama, like Clinton, destroys the deficit, Republicans and "independent" voters will not realize it. Hell, even some Democrats won't realize it.
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What people DO realize is when their own circumstances improve or worsen. Anything nebulous or intangible like deficit reduction will be lost on them, but they understand unemployment or failing banks. So in political terms, if the President thinks he can jump start the economy by racking up an enormous deficit he should do so. No one will know if it increases or decreases – voters will simply fill in that information according to their partisan identification. But many of them will know if unemployment falls, interest rates for auto and home loans fall, or their 401(k) recovers. If a health care bill provides coverage to people who could not previously afford it, it will be a net benefit.

Do things that improve people's lives and you will find yourself politically rewarded. Achieve abstract goals in an effort to appease people who hate you and you will find the victory quite hollow.


Like any President taking office with impossibly high expectations and in the middle of a serious crisis, Obama's approval ratings have declined steadily since Inauguration Day. It is easy to look at the aggregate numbers and start jumping to conclusions but the partisan breakdown is far more interesting:

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Essentially there has been no change among Democrats. The trend is nearly flat. Republicans have behaved predictably. Frankly it's amazing that Obama had a 35% approval rating among that group nine months ago, and it was inevitable that the moment he did anything one might expect from a generic Democratic president that modicum of support would disappear. Independents show the same trend as Republicans. The magnitude is different, obviously, but the pattern of immediate and gradual decline of support (and increase in disapproval) is identical. Why?

Political science may not have revealed everything about the mind of the American voter, but we do know that "independent" doesn't mean what the media thinks it means. It is important to understand the loaded meaning of the term, the prevalence of social desirability effects (the tendency of survey respondents to give the answer they feel is expected of them or is most socially acceptable rather than an honest answer), and the scant attention most Americans pay to all things political. In this context, "independent" means any of the following:

  • 1. A person whose ideological preferences legitimately lie between the two major parties. These are True Independents, and this is what pundits and political figures have in mind when they use the term. But there is no evidence that they form a majority of the Independent group.
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  • 2. "I don't know." When someone asks you a question to which you don't have an answer "Independent" is a convenient out. Few adults are keen to admit that they pay absolutely no attention to politics.
  • 3. Republicans who are tired of Obama-lovers giving them crap about being Republicans. The same effect would have been in play in 2003-2004, when voters to the left of Goldwater might have chosen Independent as a way out of conversations they didn't want to have with their yellow ribbon-clad friends and co-workers.
  • 4. People who have a strong ideological preference but think that being Independent makes them look cool. Seriously. There is a psychological benefit people can derive from declaring that they are Independents, i.e. free thinkers who are open-minded and unwilling to submit to a party label or to follow crowds. If you don't think independence and individualism are loaded and comoddified terms, watch Nike and soft drink commercials for an hour and get back to me.
  • 5. Something I like to call "Dr. No Syndrome" – people who oppose everything, including the major parties. No matter what Obama does, these folks won't like it. Government is bad, the parties are bad, the media is bad…
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    When we understand what Independent really means, graphs like the ones shown above make more sense. Democrats stand by their man. Republicans surrender whatever hope they had of Obama being a Republican.

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    And Independents are an amalgam of the angry, the ignorant, the dishonest, and the legitimately moderate. The last group receives the most attention and their motivations are imputed to all voters who call themselves Independent. The media's willingness to assume that all Independents are thoughtful moderates is but more evidence of how favorably the concept is looked upon in our society. Phenomena like the tendency of Independents to be strangely hostile to Democratic presidents or the seemingly random fluctuations of opinion within the group are an artifact of its status as a catch-all category for voters with very different motivations, levels of information, and ideological preferences.