November 2010

Campaigns don’t matter, except when they might

As a grad student, one of the most frustrating things I encountered was repeated variations on the notion of minimal campaign effects across several political science classes. It wasn’t frustrating because I disagreed with the literature — I didn’t, and still don’t — but rather because it was narrowly focused on presidential and congressional elections at the aggregate level. “Look,” the collective political science discipline seemed to say, “our models do a great job of predicting control of the White House and the House of Representatives, regardless of what happens in the campaign or who the candidates are.” And they do! But they don’t do a great job, or any job at all, at predicting other potential campaign effects (e.g., the ideological extremity of the incoming House majority), or predicting the outcomes of other types of campaigns.

Over the past couple years I’ve run into variations on this “other campaigns” questions several times in my thinking. Does it matter whether candidates identify their party affiliation in general election ads, perhaps guiding the electorate toward the modeled outcome if they do? And do incumbents have an incentive to leave their party affiliation out of their messaging? What about in low-information state-level races? (By absolute coincidence, in a quick Google Scholar search for “campaigns don’t matter,” I found this relevant AAPOR paper co-authored by a sometime soccer teammate when he was in grad school.) Since the wide open primaries of 2008 I’ve been very curious about campaign effects on primary outcomes and the effects of primary campaigns on general elections — that is, whether a tough primary batters or prepares the winner.

Tuesday’s results raise another such question for me — do campaigns matter in ballot initiatives? Matt Yglesias looks at the Prop 19 (legalizing marijuana in California) post-mortem and has a couple of relevant observations. First, it appears that the hope that Prop 19 would pull young people to the polls the way 2004’s gay marriage bans pulled conservatives didn’t pan out. Young people don’t vote in midterms traditionally, and 2010 was no exception.* Second, even without those young people showing up, Prop 19 still got 46% support. Yglesias notes some other potential drags on support, which we might file under “fundamentals,” such as the idea that libertarian activists might have been more drawn to elections for high-profile offices, but there are also some we could think of as campaign effects. For instance, as he puts it, “Prop 19 was hampered by a severe lack of elite validators.” Neither of the state’s senators supported it, nor the Democratic nominee for governor, not the sometimes moderate sitting governor. At the very least, this cost supporters the ability to argue from authority and had some effect on the campaign’s persuasive approach. But more broadly, I’m curious how different persuasive approaches might work in a campaign like this. The last six years have featured many ballot initiatives to ban gay marriage, providing a multi-case baseline from which to start; unfortunately, they’ve all succeeded, rendering comparisons based on outcome a little nuance-y, but it’s a decent place to start.

* For the record, all of the write-ups that talk about the 18-24 or 18-29 age groups being “Obama’s vote” ought to acknowledge that this year’s 18- and 19-year-olds couldn’t vote in 2008.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 11:32, November 4 || No Comments »

Save Our Senate!

In the 96-year history of popularly elected senators, the Senate has been more likely to change hands than the House. This is logically a little odd, because the entire House is up for election every two years, as compared with just a third of the Senate. And yet, there it is. Perhaps the races being at the state-level make them generally closer, which makes them easier to flip? I don’t know. But this historical fact, combined with the fact that the Senate really was never in control of the Democratic leadership, even with 60 members in the caucus, has lead me to be a little surprised by the focus on the Senate by the netroots and other Democratic activists. Liberal blogs and e-mail lists have been full of fundraising and volunteer requests for Senate candidates in tight races this year — Feingold, Sestak, Giannoulias, Conway, Reid. By contrast, I’ve noticed relatively little national activist attention on particular House races, or region- or state-based bundles of races. Attention to gubernatorial races — that is, the races that will have enormous impact on state spending, the lack of which is likely to exacerbate the economic downturn — seems to have been largely about uncompetitive sideshows, particularly in New York, Colorado and California. The competitive race in Florida got some attention, but Illinois, Pennsylvania and Minnesota didn’t.

Now, whether or not the Senate or House were structurally more likely to flip is an open question. I think the answer is probably the House, given the make-up of this year’s open Senate seats (some were looking at 2010 as a potential Dem pick-up year in the Senate, way back when), but that’s easy to say in hindsight. The question of whether the Senate was worth focusing on is also an open one, considering that the likely 53-47 majority isn’t going to be able to do much in the face of continuing minority obstinance. But what I find interesting is that the Senate focus seems like it might have worked. Democrats underperformed both the model consensus (loss in the mid-40s) and the poll consensus (loss in the mid-50s) by losing 65 seats in the House. They lost some potentially winnable governorships and state legislatures, with Pat Quinn hanging on by a Chicago neighborhood in Illinois. And yet, they beat the Senate consensus by one seat, and nearly hung on in Illinois and Pennsylvania. In 2012, of course, the lion’s share of the attention will be focused on the presidential race, but in 2014 it’ll be worth looking at this as something of a firewall strategy and examining how it can be understood and built upon the next time the campaign gets decentralized.

Filed: We R in Control || 10:59, November 3 || No Comments »

What is the value of political celebrity?

After getting home from voting this morning, I found myself gazing across my bookshelf for no particular reason, when my eyes stopped on Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason. In a 2007 blog post called “Why Gore Will Run” (which was to be followed by another called “Why Gore Won’t Run,” I should add), I discussed how Assault read like an alternate-universe campaign book. In the spring of ’07, Gore was the hidden heavyweight of the Democratic Party, and probably could have sapped a lot of the anti-Hillary left-wing energy that Barack Obama ultimately corralled. Instead, he has spent the past three and a half years largely out of the public eye, popping up occasionally to get divorced or be accused of sexual assault. His signature issue was taken off the table in 2009, after health care and the stimulus drained the party of its will, but you wouldn’t know it by looking Gore-ward for signs of consternation or calls to action.

With the Democratic base apparently disheartened and staying home — in record numbers, if the polling gap between likely and registered voters is to be believed — why hasn’t Gore been marshaled to campaign for his party-mates? To parachute into Milwaukee and Philadelphia and Las Vegas to make the case against apathy? To follow the Gingrichian path to both partisan and traditional media outlets? Only Bill Clinton, the relentless and preternatural campaigner, has been so dispatched for the Democrats, venturing into the Blue Dog territory where Obama is least welcome. But if progressive disinterest is the key stumbling block today, sending a centrist to persuade southern, conservative Dems to stick around isn’t going to get the job done.

There are many potential reasons Gore isn’t out there, of course, the foremost among them being that maybe he doesn’t want to be. He’s done running for office. He may be looking at the model of the Clinton Global Initiative as something he can replicate, and that’s a model that’s largely divorced from electoral politics. And he’s famously not a great campaigner, of course. But compare Gore to another base-pleaser: Sarah Palin. Whether she’s running for president or just looking to cash in, yes, she has her own motivations for inserting herself into the 2010 campaign as much as she has. And yes, plenty of Republicans don’t like her or think she’s qualified to be president (at least according to those anti-dentite bastards at Politico). But she — along with others like Gingrich and Glenn Beck — is using her private citizen celebrity to bring attention to an array of candidates who couldn’t attract it themselves, particularly during primaries. She hasn’t had a 100% success rate, of course, but she has succeeded. She’s not going to be president, she’s not going to be the GOP nominee, and she’s probably not going to even make a serious run, but she is going to get richer and she is going to help get some conservative extremists elected. In 2012 there will be a fairly prominent Democratic figure spending a lot of time on the campaign trail, but in 2014? Like this year and all others, broad fundamental factors (primarily economic) will foretell most of the results in the general elections, but primaries are another story. After the success of conservative primary candidates this year, now is the time for progressives to begin thinking about how to approach those primaries, and to think about the potential value of the transferred credibility and interest that political celebrities can bestow.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 14:15, November 2 || 1 Comment »


As I was finishing my PhD last year — with a dissertation and research history focused tightly on blogs and blogging — I decided that in my future as an academic I really should do some academic blogging. This is what media scholars do now, after all! And then the school year started, I got walloped by teaching and research and promptly set blogging aside. Luckily, one of my spring courses involved WordPress development, giving me an opportunity to get work going on this site as a tutorial I could use in class, and now it’s ready to go. Or at least passably ready, with a variety of design issues still to be worked out.

Meanwhile, my past as a music blogger is still out there, and will continue on and off when I have something to say about music or culture or politics that doesn’t fit here. And I suppose I’ll still be posting my usual complaints on Facebook and using Twitter for the stuff that’s too dumb for Facebook. What you’ll find here is primarily commentary about new media and political communication issues in the news, along with an open-ended, semi-monologue about my research. I’ll be using this site to discuss new articles that pique my interest, to sort through ideas relating to new research questions and think about politics and journalism in the new media environment. I expect this will occasionally be some quite witty stuff, but also of interest mostly to nerds. Welcome!

Filed: Metamedia || 12:47, November 2 || No Comments »