‘Super Special Questions’ Category Archive


Are counterintuitive policies politically possible?

Lately I’ve been wrestling with the idea that “common sense” will always win out when policy is rendered through appeals to public opinion. That is, whatever option seems most intuitively correct — even if theory or empirical data suggest it’s wrong — will gather the most public support and will have the best chance of being translated into policy. This function might wax and wane with populism in general, such that in the crisis moments when populism peaks, common sense has its greatest sway over policy outcomes.

Our current economic black hole and the associated “debate” over raising the debt ceiling — which is not so much a debate as two sides agreeing about what must be done with one side nonetheless demanding payment for doing so — provide a terrific test case. Since becoming aware of the existence of the federal debt on January 20, 2009, many Republicans have leaned heavily on the common sense notion that, once in debt, further spending just makes things worse. “On what planet do they try to reduce the deficit by spending even more?” Tim Pawlenty asked the crowd at CPAC. And of course, that feels right to many people — after all, spending must be what got us in debt in the first place.

But also of course, it’s totally wrong. People and organizations spend to get out of debt all the time — it’s called investing. As an example, when I left the workforce to go to grad school, I had household debt. Nevertheless, I took on more debt in the form of student loans to cover my first year. Now I have a higher-paying job, more opportunity for advancement and less debt. Likewise, firms that are in the red borrow so that they continue to spend money, hopefully in ways that will increase future revenue and take them into profit. This isn’t rocket science. It’s not even Keynesian economics, which suggests that the government should engage in counter-cyclical budgeting (that is, spending in bad times and saving in good times) in order to offset lost demand from the private sector, also encouraging deficit spending in the current economic climate.

And yet, 63% of Americans oppose raising the debt ceiling. Votes to raise the debt ceiling typically succeed, but they also are often undertaken in a partisan fashion, which may ultimately leave many Democratic members of Congress vulnerable to “Rep. So-and-So voted to raise the debt ceiling and enable Obama’s shopping spree!” attacks. Perhaps this all goes back to the catch-all explanation for poor policy and contradictory bits of public opinion: Too many people don’t know anything, but think they know enough to have formed fairly solid opinions. That’s a really unsatisfying conclusion for a variety of reasons, but it’s hard not to see at the core of politicians’ ability to exploit the public’s reflexive reliance on “common sense” as a policy foundation.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 13:50, May 3 || No Comments »


Incumbency effects in low-information elections

Whatever the final outcome of the Wisconsin state Supreme Court election, the basic tenor of it is clear — an even split. There have been a number of articles suggesting that this is a surprise, and that conservative incumbent David Prosser should have been expected to cruise to victory. But should we really expect the kind of incumbency effects we see in other races to manifest in judicial elections?

It’s important to understand, first, that while every election has its quirks, this one was really atypical. Generally speaking, state supreme court elections don’t take place six weeks into massive protests against the state’s sitting governor and amid legal wrangling over a controversial new law likely to be reviewed by said court. Turnout in this election was much higher than a typical spring election in Wisconsin, and considering that inability to adequately model it, I don’t know that any outcome should’ve come as a surprise. Prosser took 55% of the vote in the open primary (before the protests started), and opposition to Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union bill has been in the mid-50s, suggesting anything from 55-45 for Prosser to 55-45 for challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg would’ve been plausible. But polls aren’t elections, and in the primary a total of about 419,000 votes were cast (compared with almost 1,500,000 in the general), so even these boundaries are weak.

If there are incumbency effects at work here, what might they be? Political science typically focuses on legislators in the study of incumbency effects, and there isn’t much there that maps well to the judiciary. Justices don’t have the name-recognition of legislators for a number of reasons, including their much less frequent elections. Justices are also not protected by partisan systems that sometimes allow legislators to easily win general elections in “safe” districts, assuming they survive primary challenges, nor do they have the opportunity to win voters over through constituent service.

And yet, the history of Wisconsin’s supreme court elections includes just five losses by incumbents. The most recent occurred in 2008, when conservative Michael Gableman won a contentious election with strong backing from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a year after WMC successfully supported Annette Ziegler’s re-election bid. The previous loss by an incumbent was in 1967, which suggests there is some effect of judicial incumbency. Prosser’s first election, in 2001, suggests it may be the absence of a party system to recruit and support challengers. After being appointed in 1998, Prosser ran unopposed for a full term. In a halfway-politicized judicial system — elections, but no parties — we probably shouldn’t expect to see the kind of challengers and challenging campaigns that we see in other races.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 12:09, April 10 || No Comments »


What does bias look like?

When we talk about “bias” or “slant” in reporting (and though those are not really great terms, I use them because I think there’s a decent shared understanding of them), we usually talk about it in political terms. It seems to manifest primarily in ideological terms — liberal bias, conservative bias — and the response of most traditional news organizations to such charges has been to make “balance” an explicit goal in their reporting. Sometimes they achieve this goal, sometimes they don’t, sometimes the reporting is good, sometimes it isn’t, but part of the outcome of the charges and the response is that the idea of bias is salient and understandable for the typical political news consumer.

So, OK, even if the audience might not be very good at understanding or perceiving real bias or slant (particularly outside of the hostile media effect), forces have conspired to make them think about it within the confines of political news. But what about other types of news? When people read or see stories about non-political (or at least non-party political) topics, do they think about or perceive slant in the same way? An important sub-question is whether the audience even perceives multiple “sides” to a story in which traditional political divisions are not and the reporter doesn’t present multiple sides. For example, if a local affiliate runs a story that is largely a recut video news release about some dangerous new germ that requires you to stock up on Purell, does the audience see that as a slanted piece? With a week until the AEJMC deadline, I probably should be thinking about more pressing things, like research I actually have in progress, but this has been nagging me for a few days now.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 10:02, March 25 || 2 Comments »


Beyond selective exposure

Whenever possible, I get my news from local pizza joints' Facebook accounts. Still waiting for somebody to break the pizza donation story, Wisconsin State Journal!

In the wake of massively increased ideological media availability (particularly cable news analysis shows and blogs), many political communication scholars have become concerns about the effects of selective exposure — that is, what happens when we choose to only or predominantly use media sources we believe will present agreeable viewpoints or information. This general area of interest has produced a variety of findings, from the obvious (Republicans love Fox News) to the less obvious but intriguing (people who only read blogs they agree with are much more likely to engage in political participation than those who read ideologically diverse blogs). But one thing it hasn’t done much of is challenge the notion of what exposure is, or what types of sources we’re being “exposed” to.

A confluence of two things has brought this to mind. First, along with my colleague Narayanan Iyer and several grad students, I’m prepping a study that looks at the agenda-setting potential of Facebook among college students. In a more general sense, we’re interested of how much influence the inadvertent exposure to news information might have on a low-information audience. In this case, we talking about a very different kind of exposure than one gets from institutional media sources (and I’m thinking of blogs as institutional here), as well as a case where the “selection” has nothing to do with the news content that might appear in your Facebook news feed. Rather, selections are made based on some combination of social connection and social distance. Our “friends” are our family members, classmates and co-workers, but they’re also people we’ve met fleetingly or maybe even have never met in person. There is some evidence of ideological clustering within the Facebook network (see this article by Gaines and Mondak), but there’s no reason to suspect this is any different than the clustering that occurs in offline social networks.

The second thing that happened was that, as a former member of a Wisconsin public employee union, my news feed exploded with updates from my friends are still in the state and involved in the ongoing protests. Some of what’s been posted has been links to news stories, background information, analysis, etc., but most of it has been first- or secondhand accounts from protesters themselves. I’m finding this an unusual experience, because as a voracious news consumer, it’s pretty rare that my Facebook friends post anything I don’t already know about. Now that they’ve become part of the news, Facebook has become my primary source of information about the protests and developments surrounding them. A lot of what they’re posting is not ideologically tinged in the typical sense — that is, it’s not just a bunch of anti-Scott Walker screeds — but rather it’s broadly framed in ways that are sympathetic to the protesters’ concerns. It’s also informative in a way that traditional news coverage has not been, and clearly appeals to me in part because of the minute social distance between myself and my friends. These are people who, apart from being friends, are demographically similar to me, work in the same sector and share a similar disposition toward political engagement. I’m wondering now if the effects of this type of news consumption — both agenda and opinion effects — might not be much stronger than those of reading more distant ideologically agreeable sources, even for a heavy news consumer like me.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 15:15, February 20 || No Comments »


Truth follow-up

A few things relevant to my previous post on ontological consensus popped up this morning:

Filed: Super Special Questions || 11:08, January 14 || No Comments »


Rhetoric, truth and ontology in political debate

This may be a little disjointed, as I’ve been trying to think through a number of issues relating to the Giffords shooting and my research on partisan information flow. I’m cautiously optimistic that the broad discussion about violent rhetoric is headed in the right direction, even if it is accompanied by a considerable amount of whining about “blame.” But I still feel like we’re missing part of the point.

First, we are seriously eliding the differences between violent, angry and uncivil rhetoric. Sharron Angle’s line about “Second Amendment remedies” is a clear example of violent rhetoric; Ben Quayle saying he would “knock the hell” out of Congress is not; Alan Grayson calling his opponent “Taliban Dan” is not. But in the Washington-dominated conversation about this tragedy, this interpretation (as epitomized by MSNBC’s First Read) is on full display. Much of this concern could’ve been aired during any recent campaign without much editing — the Washington press corps and the political elites they interact with have been extremely concerned with “tone” for quite some time. Tone-based criticism has been a primary weapon against the influence of outsider-activists such as bloggers for years. That they would respond to this shooting by reprising one of their favorite tunes has me wondering just why they’re so concerned with tone and rhetoric, often to the exclusion of policy outcomes. Do political elites fixate on tone because they are both socially close to both sides of the Washington power balance and largely insulated from the outcomes of policy decisions? Could this lead them to view all political debate through this largely socially-driven lens? Ezra Klein took himself to task yesterday for suggesting during that health care debate that Joe Lieberman “was willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands to settle an old electoral score.” This was a fairly personal attack on Lieberman, and probably an unnecessary one, but the core of the criticism was correct — the ACA will save hundreds of thousands of lives. That is, it’s not just a rhetorical device, it’s a policy with real outcomes. But for both passionate supporters and opponents of the policy among political elites, the rhetorical lens is just as important.

Once they abandon their concern for policy outcomes, their ability to moderate policy debates — which ultimately lie at the core of all this rhetoric — becomes extremely suspect. If you’re more concerned with rhetoric than outcomes, should you bother evaluating the outcomes, or the logic used to predict them? We can see this playing out in any number of recent debates. Look at the death panel claim, for instance. This was a claim that received significant criticism from the Left, and even some from the Right, usually in the form of, “Palin’s claim is a bit too strong, but still….” It was used to rile up opponents of health care reform and provided a quick and easy lineage of talking points for the GOP. It was, to be sure, a heated claim — the government was coming to kill our babies and old people — and that was seen by many as a problem. But really the problem with the claim wasn’t that it was heated, but that it was false. Imagine, for a moment, that it was 100% true. Babies with Downs syndrome would have to stand before these cartoonishly named “death panels” to anxiously await a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Wouldn’t you want to know? Wouldn’t you want somebody to scream from the rooftops, “Hey, this bill is going to allow the government to kill whomever it wants,” and do whatever they could to stop it? I would want to know that!

But it wasn’t true. Despite that, it was largely taken at face value. See also the “Ground Zero mosque,” the various fake bailouts, “Climategate” — you can even go back to Swift Boat ads of 2004, and probably well before that. Unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of the modern Washington press corps seems to be that all sincerely held beliefs are taken on their own terms, and never directly challenged. Over the years, this has allowed us to generate not just duelling ideologies, or duelling information infrastructures, but duelling notions of reality itself. Adam Serwer notes that, “If people really believed 90 percent of what the conservative media were telling them, violence would almost be justified.” What the conservative media tell them is that, among other things, President Obama is literally setting up both a communist and an Islamic overthrow of the U.S. government. Again, the rhetoric itself needn’t be violent; it’s a heated, angry fantasy, which clearly positions a real person with real power as the ultimate villain. Serwer determines that really they don’t believe it, because we haven’t seen a violent uprising, though Digby has a list that suggests otherwise. On top of that list of actual occurrences, we can look to poll results — last August, Pew found that 34% of conservative Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim.

You don’t have to be perfectly sane to start with, or a card-carrying Tea Party member to potentially be influenced by this detachment from reality. It may be enough to be in a position to let this worldview wash over you to the exclusion of truthful information. And once you’ve been so washed, there’s no reason to expect you’re going to take up arms against anyone. But this detachment does more than create an angry environment — it makes political debate impossible. If we’re going to debate the cost/benefits trade-offs of a health care reform proposal, or a stimulus bill, or a tax cut bill, etc., we have to at least have some consensus about outcomes. We don’t have to, and probably never will, agree on which trade-off is best in either the short or long terms. But if your method of debating is to toss out CBO scores you don’t like and just rely on the Laffer curve and scare tactics for everything, we will never get anywhere.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 14:11, January 11 || No Comments »


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 »


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 »