John Sides on How the 2012 Election Was Good for Political Science

In late September, I was involved in an email exchange in which a historian stated that “Someone should do a piece cataloging down all the poli sci consensi being undone this season.”  Now I can write with some confidence that the findings of the political science canon were largely confirmed by the 2012 election. And those findings deserve some plaudits alongside the polls, the forecasters, and the “nerds” at the heart of the winning presidential campaign.

In our book, The Gamble, Lynn Vavreck and I are attempting to show how those lessons can inform our understanding of the 2012 election.  Here is a list of findings that I think hold up reasonably well, with citations to representative studies and findings from our book where possible.

1. In presidential primaries, party leaders work to coordinate on a candidate even before the first caucuses and primaries are held. The candidate backed by the most party leaders is likely to win the presidential primary (Martin Cohen et al., The Party Decides).

In 2012, like in 2008, consensus was harder to achieve than in some previous years.  Many Republican party leaders did not publicly endorse any candidate, as Lynn and I show in our chapter “Random, or Romney?”   At the same time, among those who did endorse, the vast majority endorsed Romney.  Here is our graph of endorsements by Republican governors and members of Congress before the Iowa caucus.

Some party leaders also worked to oppose certain candidates — most publicly, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.  Consider this headline for example: “Governors look to Santorum with dread.”  The behavior of party leaders was one reason why I was confident that Romney would win.

2. Views of presidential primary candidates can changed sharply in the wake of events judged to be dramatic or unexpected, and covered as such by the news media (Larry Bartels, Presidential Primaries).

Just because Romney was favored to win didn’t mean that he would always lead in the polls.  Lynn and I also track the sharply changing fortunes of the Republican candidates and show how a burst of favorable news coverage could give them a boost in the polls, but less favorable news coverage tended to have the opposite impact.  A good example is Herman Cain.  Here’s our graph from the “Random, or Romney?” chapter, drawing on data on media coverage and tone from General Sentiment.

3. In the general election, incumbent presidents running amidst even modest economic growth are  likely to be reelected.

I summarized this here.

4. The vast majority of people identify with one of the major political  parties and vote loyally for that party in presidential elections (Campbell et al., The American Voter). 

In a post-election YouGov poll, conducted Nov. 10-12,  89% of self-reported voters identified with or leaned toward the Democratic or Republican party.  Rates of party loyalty were extremely high — 93% of Democrats voted for Obama and 94% of Republicans voted for Romney.  The same was true in the exit poll, which does not ask whether independents lean toward a party. Polls since at least April had suggested that party loyalty would be strong, despite discussion of the “divided” Republican party, Obama’s “rebellion on the left,” etc.  Party identification has become more strongly associated with voting behavior since the 1970s, and this shows no sign of weakening.

5. Voters tend to have stable preferences about the two major-party presidential candidates (Lazarsfeld et al., The People’s Choice).

The cite above is to perhaps the earliest quantitative study of a presidential election. In this study of the 1940 election, Paul Lazarsfeld and co-authors found that the campaign “served the important purposes of preserving prior decisions instead of initiating new decisions.”  The power of party identification is likely one important reason for this stability.  For example, consider YouGov respondents who were interviewed first in December 2011 and then again the weekend before the Election Day — almost 11 months later.  Of those who said in December that they would vote for Obama in an Obama-Romney race, 95% still preferred Obama on the election’s eve.  Of those who preferred Romney in December, 94% did so again in November.

6. Campaign events can move the polls. 

Nothing about #3-5 means that presidential general election campaigns have no impact whatsoever — though it sometimes seems hard for commentators to grasp this nuance. During the 2012 campaign, campaign events had effects largely in line with previous research.  For example, there was predictable movement after the party conventions, mainly the Democratic National Convention.  I wrote about the research on convention bumps here.  Similarly, candidate debates during the general election can affect preferences, but tend not to propel the underdog to victory.  Romney’s gains after the first debate were real, but ultimately not enough.  Here was my post-mortem on the 2012 debates, in light of my earlier piece.

7. The outcome late in the election tends to reflect the polls.

I wrote about this here, drawing on Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien’s Timeline of Presidential Elections.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about 2012 is that the polls tended to under-estimate the frontrunner’s margin of victory (that is, Obama’s), whereas usually they over-estimate it.  This may be because the Obama campaign was particularly good at minimizing the “no-shows” — people who prefer the frontrunner but ultimately fail to show up and vote.

Finally, let me cite two other findings that I suspect will hold up, but for which we do not yet have definitive evidence from the 2012 campaign.

8. Presidential television advertising can matter at the margins, but it typically does so only when one candidate can outspend the other significantly. However, the effects of ads appear to dissipate quickly, within a week.  I cited some of this literature here.  From my analyses of the ad data at Wonkblog — here was the last one before the election — it seems as though neither Obama nor Romney ever got enough of an edge in advertising volume for it to make a difference.  But more thorough analysis is needed.

9. A variety of get-out-the-vote tactics do in fact increase turnout — especially person-to-person contact (Green and Gerber, Get Out the Vote).  The social science research on GOTV was central to the Obama campaign. Hopefully there will be ways to measure the effect of the “ground game” on the outcome.

Of course, I’m happy to acknowledge that political science findings aren’t ironclad. But little about this season strikes me as undoing its central findings about presidential elections.

For much more on this topic, stay tuned for more from The Gamble.

Are Mitt Romney’s Wealth and Taxes Taxing His Campaign?

Back in January, Lynn Vavreck, Joshua Tucker, and I asked this question: what would happen if people knew more specific details about Mitt Romney’s income and tax rate?  We conducted a simple experiment the exposed people to information about these topics.  In this post, I will report on a new iteration of this experiment, which seems particularly timely in light of this Obama ad, for example.

In our first study, we found that Americans tended to think that Romney did not pay his “fair share” of taxes.  In a July 28-30 YouGov poll, the same was true, and perhaps even more so.  Compare perceptions of Romney and Obama in January vs. July:

During these six months, the percentage who had no opinion about what Obama and Romney paid has declined.  For both candidates, the percentage saying that they paid less than their fair share has increased (by about 5 points).  Romney’s disadvantage on this issue remains: a slight majority of Americans now believe that he does not pay his fair share.  And this is not something that only Democrats believe.  Almost half (48%) of “pure” independents believe this as well.

For comparison, here is how respondents felt about the taxes paid by Newt Gingrich, Bill Gates, “most people,” and “people like yourself.”  This shows, for example, that perceptions of Romney are less favorable than those of Gingrich and Gates.

After July respondents had answered these questions, a half-sample was assigned at random to see one of the following:

  • Information about how the average American’s income compares to Romney’s: “The Census Bureau has estimated that the average American household earned about $50,000 in 2010.  In August, Mitt Romney disclosed that in 2010 he and his wife had earned somewhere between $7 million and $40 million.”
  • Information about how federal tax rates for different income levels compare to Romney’s: “In this country, a person making under $20,000 each year pays about 2% of their income in federal taxes.  A person making $60,000 pays about 13% of their income in federal taxes.  A person making $250,000 pays about 20% of their income in federal taxes.  Last week, Mitt Romney suggested that he paid about 15% of his income in federal taxes.”
  • Information about average income and tax rates, with no mention of Romney: ““The Census Bureau has estimated that the average American household earned about $50,000 in 2010.  In this country, a person making under $20,000 each year pays about 2% of their income in federal taxes.  A person making $60,000 pays about 13% of their income in federal taxes.  A person making $250,000 pays about 20% of their income in federal taxes.”

This experiment was designed before Romney had released some details about his income and tax rate, but the information in the experiment corresponds closely to what he released, as we noted in the original post.  For the sake of strict continuity, I opted to keep the experiment the same rather than change it to reflect what Romney released.

Below I compare the key findings from the January experiment — quoting from the earlier post — with new analysis from the July experiment:

…respondents who saw information about either Romney’s wealth or tax rate were less likely to believe he “cares about people like me”—provided they already believed he wasn’t paying his fair share of taxes.

In other words, a group that didn’t like Romney very much to begin with liked him a little less after seeing this information.  In the July experiment, however, even this modest finding did not emerge.  Neither piece of information affected perceptions of Romney on this dimension.

…being told Romney’s income increased the percentage who said that “cares about the wealthy” describes Romney “very well”…

The same is true in July.  In general, Americans now perceive Romney as more concerned about the wealthy than they did in July.  In July, 50% said that “cares about the wealthy” described him very well. Now, 60% say that.  In both experiments, specific information about his income increased that percentage.  Compared to someone who saw no information about Romney, someone who learned that he had made millions of dollars in 2010 was 12 points more likely to say “very well” in the January survey and 10 points more likely to do so in the July survey.

We previously found that believing Romney cares about the wealthy is correlated with believing he doesn’t care about “people like me.”  In this experiment, this correlation is significantly larger when told either about Romney’s income or tax rate than when told neither piece of information.

In the July experiment, we found that information about Romney’s income (although not his tax rate) had this same effect.

What is the upshot here?  First, on dimensions related to wealth and empathy, Romney is perceived less favorably than Obama.  That’s been the upshot of several of my posts with Lynn (e.g., here) and we will be updating that analysis soon.  Other public polls, such as those of the Washington Post and Gallup, confirm this.

Second, specific information about Romney’s wealth and income may worsen perceptions of him on these dimensions, but it is not a game-changer.  As we noted in our earlier post:

The information about Romney’s income or tax rate did not affect how respondents evaluated Romney on other dimensions, such as his willingness to stick by his positions, his honesty, or his trustworthiness.  It didn’t make respondents more likely to describe him as personally wealthy (most already do so anyway).  And it didn’t change whether they believed he cares about the poor or middle class.  When the information does move opinions, the shifts aren’t large.  Many respondents may already have heard about Romney’s income or tax rate or simply don’t consider those facts germane.  The Obama team may find that a campaign that implicitly or explicitly characterizes Romney as a plutocrat isn’t a slam dunk.

That’s still true now, and it’s worth keeping in mind when ads like the one linked above debut.  At the same time, our experiments are just words on the screen during a survey interview, and may not have the impact of a political ad, with its richer palette of image and sound.

Third, even if Romney faces disadvantages on dimensions related to wealth and empathy, it’s not certain whether those dimensions will be the most important ones in November.  Empathy is not the one true key to victory.  More important may be perceptions of which candidate will best improve the economy — something on which Romney has the advantage.

The Blame Game

The economy seems to be weakening, and Republicans are eager to blame Obama.  This is by-the-books political messaging: the party opposing the incumbent president should talk about the economy when its weak.  But the success of the attack, as Steve Kornacki notes, may depend on whether Obama really gets the blame for the weak economy.

To this point, more Americans have blamed George W. Bush, during whose tenure the recession and financial crisis began, than Barack Obama. This was true in a series of Gallup polls between July 2009 and September 2011.  For example, in September 2011 69% said Bush deserved “a great deal” or “a moderate amount” of blame.  Just over half (53%) said that of Obama. In a more recent poll, conducted by the Washington Post in January 2011, respondents were given the option of choosing whether Obama or Bush was “most responsible for the country’s economic problems.”  Many more chose Bush (54%) than Obama (29%).

New data from an April 14-17 YouGov poll confirms that Obama is still winning the blame game.

As the graph shows, 56% gave Bush a great deal or a lot of the blame, while only 41% gave Obama that much blame.  This 15-point gap is nearly identical to what Gallup found in September, albeit with a differently worded question and response categories.  Looked at a different way, 47% of voters blamed Bush more than Obama, 21% blamed them equally, and 32% blamed Obama more than Bush.

Naturally, Democrats and Republicans do not see eye-to-eye on the question of blame:

The vast majority of Democrats (80%) blame Bush, while large numbers of Republicans (83%) blame Obama.  The partisan bias isn’t quite symmetric, as there are more Republicans who blame Bush (24%) than Democrats who blame Obama (12%).  Pure independents, those with no leaning toward either party, tend to blame Bush more than Obama.

This tendency to blame the previous incumbent more than the current one is nothing new.  The same was true when Bush himself was president.  Early in Bush’s first term, from March through November 2001, the country also experienced a recession.  Because the recession came so early in Bush’s term, and because the economic slowdown had begun late in Clinton’s second term, there was debate about who to blame.

Two different polls — by the Washington Post in February 2002 and by Princeton Survey Research Associates in May 2003 — showed that, in fact, Clinton was blamed more than Bush.  In the Post poll, 78% of pure independents thought that the economy was “not so good” or “poor.”  Among this subset of independents with a negative view of the economy, 69% believed Clinton deserved “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of blame, but only 48% believed this of Bush.  Similarly, among the minority who thought the economy was doing well, more credited Bush than Clinton.  In the PSRA poll, 30% of independents thought Clinton deserved “most” or “a lot” of blame while 22% thought Bush did.  Even though Bush, like Obama now, was well into his first term, these voters still saw the prior president as more responsible for the country’s economic problems.

The ultimate question for Obama is: could some voters’ willingness to blame Bush more than Obama actually help him win reelection?  Here is one way to answer this question.  Take the difference between how much blame voters assign to Obama and Bush.  This serves as a measure of Obama’s blame advantage or disadvantage relative to Bush (where, as noted above, Obama has a net advantage).  Using that measure — as well as other relevant factors, including party identification, ideology, sex, race, and income — predict how much people approve of the job Obama is doing as president and whether they would vote for him and not Romney.

Then “erase” any blame advantage for either Bush or Obama, which assumes a world in each every person blamed Bush and Obama equally. What would happen in this world?  First, Obama’s job approval would decline by about 11 points.  Second, his poll standing relative to Romney’s would decline by 3 points.  Both of these declines are statistically significant and substantively important.

To be sure, this exercise is purely hypothetical. Life isn’t a laboratory, and we can’t replay Obama’s first 3 years and have voters blame him less or more than they do in reality.  Nevertheless, Obama’s lead in the blame game appears to be helping him in the horserace.

Campaign Brouhahas Fail to Captivate, guest post from John Sides

The debate over the Obama administration’s policy on contraception coverage.  Sandra Fluke’s testimony before Congress.  Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on her.  Obama’s phone call to Fluke.  The Republican candidates’ views of all of the above.  These things have driven a lot of political commentary.

Amidst the frenzy, it’s always worth stopping to see how many Americans are tuning in.  It is easy to overestimate how much Americans care about every little political tempest that roils Washington DC, the campaign trail, cable news, or the editorial pages.  A March 3-6 YouGov poll shows that large pluralities, even majorities, of Americans aren’t closely following the contraception contretemps.

This poll first asked about Rick Santorum’s position on birth control: “Which one of the following statements is closest to Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s position on birth control?”  Respondents were given these possibilities:

  • I’m fine with it within a marriage but not outside of the husband-wife relationship because it encourages premarital sex.
  • It’s not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.
  • Contraception. It’s working just fine. Just leave it alone.
  • Have not heard yet about Santorum’s position on birth control.


The second answer is a direct quote from Santorum, but only 34% of respondents identified this as his position.  Ten percent chose the first option.  About 13% chose the third, which was actually a statement by Mitt Romney.  The largest group, 43%, simply said that they had not heard.

The poll also asked respondents this item about the Fluke-Limbaugh controversy:

“Last week, conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh described a female Georgetown University law student who testified to Congress about women’s access to contraception at the Catholic university as ‘a slut’ and a prostitute. In the controversy that followed, which of these people called the student to express his disappointment in the personal attack?”

The figure below shows that just about half identified the caller, correctly, as Obama.  The remaining half either misidentified the caller or, most commonly, had not heard.

A similar finding emerges when we move outside the contraception debate to another miniature dust-up: Santorum’s comments about Obama’s views of college education.  The YouGov survey asked: “Which of the following people said, ‘President Obama has said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.’”  Respondent could choose between Sarah Palin, Stephen Colbert, and Santorum.

A large fraction, 42%, identified Santorum as the speaker.  Four percent chose Palin and 7 percent chose Colbert.  But the largest group, 47%, once again had not heard.

To point out that many Americans do not know the answers to such questions is in no way to impugn their intelligence or citizenship.  People are busy and have many interests.  They do not always have the time, inclination, or need to follow politics very closely.  These survey results actually do more to question the assumptions of commentators, who are often anxious to inflate every argument during the campaign to a “game changer”—even if many Americans aren’t really watching the game.

editor’s note — this is the first of what will hopefully be a series of guest posts by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck that assess ongoing polls through the Presidential Election. This article is cross-posted at Model Politics.