Econlog’s Bryan Caplan really gets Martin Gilens’s new book AFFLUENCE & INFLUENCE

I was very pleased to see Bryan Caplan’s review this morning on Econlog. He really gets to the heart of Marty Gilens’s new book AFFLUENCE AND INFLUENCE: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.  From the review:

“In The Myth of the Rational Voter, I discuss several mechanisms that might explain why, given public  opinion, democracies’ policies are better than you’d expect.  But I was simply unaware of the facts presented in Martin Gilens‘ new Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.  Gilens compiles a massive data set of public opinion surveys and  subsequent policy outcomes, and reaches a shocking conclusion: Democracy has a strong tendency to simply supply the policies favored by the  rich.  When the poor, the middle class, and the rich disagree, American democracy largely ignores the poor and the middle class….”

As Caplan mentions later in the review, Gilens’s findings are going to be misinterpreted by the left and the right.  He also found in AFFLUENCE AND INFLUENCE, to many liberals dismay, “American democracy largely ignores the poor and the middle class” for the better!

“The Undecided Voter” a la Saturday Night Live

Our author Lynn Vavreck wrote eloquently for the New York Times last week about the movements of “the undecided voter.” Perhaps SNL writers read Campaign Stops too?

It turns out a lot of people do, and we’ve seen responses from all over the web:

  • Dylan Matthews at the Washington Post’s Wonk Blog sums it up saying, “So the “undecided” count has stayed pretty constant at 6 percent. It’s just a different group of people each week.”
  • PostBourgie writes, “this year’s presidential election might ultimately come down to the mercurial whims of a few thousand people who don’t really pay attention to or care all that much about this stuff.”
  • Larry Bartels writes at Washington Monthly, “To readers versed in election studies, these findings will seem very reminiscent of those from the first scholarly analysis of campaign effects: “conversion is, by far, the least frequent result and activation the second most frequent manifest effect of the campaign.” However, whereas Lazarsfeld and his colleagues in 1940 studied 600 prospective voters in Erie County, Ohio, Vavreck and her colleagues in 2012 have 44,000 nationwide. That’s real scientific progress.”
  • At The Week, they include the “6 percenters” among “a handful of key figures that have entered the political lexicon this year.”

 

 

bookjacket

Sample Free Chapters from The Gamble

John Sides & Lynn Vavreck

 

 

Lynn Vavreck on the movement of undecided voters, #TheGamble2012

Lynn Vareck, author of The Message Matters and co-author of our innovative forthcoming book The Gamble, writes at the New York Times’s Campaign Stops site about shifts among undecided voters. Who is moving from the undecided column to the either Romney or Obama, and why? To set the stage, she draws on data from December 2011:

In a December 2011 YouGov poll for the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project, 94 percent of those polled had already made up their minds about whom to support in a Mitt Romney-Barack Obama contest. Got that? Before the Republican primaries even began, before Romney was even the nominee, only 6 percent of voters were undecided.

For such a small portion of the total voting population, they receive an awful lot of attention. But has all this attention and the efforts of the campaigns helped to move them into the decided column? And if so, do they actually stay there or do they pendulum back and forth from decided to undecided? Here’s what Vavreck writes,

Let’s start with the easy part – on average, half of the 1,543 initially undecided voters report that they are still unsure in 2012. But the closer we get to the election, the fewer people remain undecided. The latest two surveys (one after each convention) show that the share of still uncommitted voters (from that initial group) had dwindled to 25 percent.

Where are these voters going as they make up their minds?  On average, over the course of 2012, 28 percent of December’s undecided voters moved to Romney, and 26 percent to Obama.

But, there is a lot more to this as Vavreck makes clear. More undecideds are swinging into the Obama column as we get closer to the election. But, this movement is a two-way street. Some voters who were previously decided for Obama or Romney are moving into the undecided column, writes Vavreck:

So far, this seems pretty straightforward: the share of undecided voters is going down as the election gets close, and in the last few weeks as these voters make up their minds, they have started to break slightly for Obama. But just to keep it interesting, at the same time that more people are finally making a decision, other people are moving away from their initial choice.

Between 3 and 4 percent of early deciders abandon their initial choice and have not made another when we re-interview them in 2012. That’s right: They have become undecided.

For more on Vavreck’s findings, please go read her fascinating, data-rich article at the New York Times Campaign Stops blog: http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/20/the-a-little-bit-less-undecided/

 

bookjacket

Sample Free Chapters from The Gamble

John Sides & Lynn Vavreck

 

 

PUP author E.J. Dionne Jr. is mentioned as a noteworthy intellectual of liberal Catholicism in a New York Times op-ed

In last weekend’s NY Times, Molly Worthen laments the caricatured, politically right-wing version of Catholicism portrayed in the U.S. Presidential campaign, and argues for increased attention to an all-too-often ignored and ill-understood social justice orientation of liberal Catholicism. The tradition of liberal Catholicism, which is incompatible with the Ayn Randian visions of Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, remains alive and well, and is discussed and defended with eloquence in a recent Princeton University Press book by EJ Dionne Jr. policy making:

If the Democratic Party is not listening to liberal Catholics, it is partly because they are not in a position to speak very loudly. They are dodging the sights of a Roman hierarchy more preoccupied with smoking out left-leaning nuns than nurturing critical thinking.

“Is liberal Catholicism dead?” Time wondered a few years back. The answer is no: in some regards, liberal Catholic intellectuals are flourishing. They are writing and teaching, running social justice initiatives at the church’s great universities, ensconced in professorships around the Ivy League. Yet a cozy academic subculture can be as isolating as it is empowering.

The handful of nationally known Catholic political thinkers who might be called progressive, or at least compassionate and cosmopolitan — like the journalist-scholars Garry Wills and E. J. Dionne Jr., blogmeister Andrew Sullivan, or the feminist nun and blogger Sister Joan Chittister — are far outnumbered by the ranks of prominent Catholic conservatives in the trenches of activism and policy making.

Read more over at the NY Times op-ed pages.

bookjacket

Souled Out:
Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right
E. J. Dionne Jr.

 

 

The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan’s take on Romney’s 47% comments

I ran across a mention of a PUP book (The Myth of the Rational Voter) on Hit & Run at Reason magazine. This led me to author Bryan Caplan’s blog where he discusses Mitt Romney’s 47% “gaffe”:

Many people believe that voters’ positions are determined by their objective self-interest. I call this the SIVH – the Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis. A massive body of evidence shows that the SIVH is just plain wrong. Self-interest has no more than sporadic marginal effects on political views.

Successful politicians usually seem well-aware of the weakness of the SIVH. To win support, they appeal to the public interest and ideology, not self-interest. What’s really strange about Romney’s recently revealed gaffe, then, is that he seems to take an extreme version of the SIVH for granted. “There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what.” Why? “47% of Americans pay no income tax.”


Wrong, wrong, wrong. The 47% won’t vote for Obama “no matter what.” Almost half of voters who earn less than the median income vote Republican in the typical election. A person doesn’t support the nanny state because he wants government to take care of him; a person supports the nanny state because he wants government to take care of us.

Whether you agree with him or not, Bryan’s book has become the go-to book for understanding voter motivation, or as the copy describes it, “misconceptions, irrational beliefs, and personal biases held by ordinary voters.” You can sample the introductory chapter of The Myth of the Rational Voter here: The Paradox of Democracy.

 

bookjacket

The Myth of the Rational Voter
Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (New Edition)
Bryan Caplan

ELECTION TUESDAY

FACT: “In 1964, Ronald Reagan was co-chair of Barry Goldwater’s campaign in California. He spoke out frequently in support of Goldwater’s brand of conservative Republicanism. But Reagan’s big moment in the campaign, the event that would put him on a trajectory for the White House, came by accident. Shortly before the November election, Goldwater canceled a major Los Angeles fund-raising speech. The organizers asked Reagan to fill in. Reagan, though tailoring his remarks to promote Goldwater, gave the same basic speech he had been honing for years. However, few Americans outside of GE plants or what Reagan self-mockingly called the ‘mashed potato’ lecture circuit had ever heard it. The crowd of bigwig Republican donors was starstruck by Reagan’s performance. Especially as compared to Goldwater (but really as compared to any contemporary political figure), Reagan was, as soon would be said everywhere, a great communicator. A group of wealthy men asked Reagan to repeat the speech on national television. They would buy the airtime.”

The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism:
A Short History

by David Farber

The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism tells the gripping story of perhaps the most significant political force of our time through the lives and careers of six leading figures at the heart of the movement. David Farber traces the history of modern conservatism from its revolt against New Deal liberalism, to its breathtaking resurgence under Ronald Reagan, to its spectacular defeat with the election of Barack Obama.

Farber paints vivid portraits of Robert Taft, William F. Buckley Jr., Barry Goldwater, Phyllis Schlafly, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. He shows how these outspoken, charismatic, and frequently controversial conservative leaders were united by a shared insistence on the primacy of social order, national security, and economic liberty. Farber demonstrates how they built a versatile movement capable of gaining and holding power, from Taft’s opposition to the New Deal to Buckley’s founding of the National Review as the intellectual standard-bearer of modern conservatism; from Goldwater’s crusade against leftist politics and his failed 1964 bid for the presidency to Schlafly’s rejection of feminism in favor of traditional gender roles and family values; and from Reagan’s city upon a hill to conservatism’s downfall with Bush’s ambitious presidency.

The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism provides rare insight into how conservatives captured the American political imagination by claiming moral superiority, downplaying economic inequality, relishing bellicosity, and embracing nationalism. This concise and accessible history reveals how these conservative leaders discovered a winning formula that enabled them to forge a powerful and formidable political majority.

We invite you to read the Introduction here: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i9119.pdf

Be sure to check in every Tuesday for a new tidbit from our great selection of politically-minded books.

Jason Brennan on Why We’re Dumb at Politics

Jason Brennan‘s recent book The Ethics of Voting challenges the common assumption that everyone who can vote, should vote, arguing instead that uninformed voters are to blame for everything from bad laws, to wars and disastrous economic policies. In an ongoing series of popular posts for Election 101, (check here, and here, and here), Brennan takes the view that it’s no wonder things are in the state they’re in when the average voter heads to the polls armed with more personal biases than real information, and no ability to tell the difference. With so much at stake, why aren’t we all a bit smarter when it comes to politics? Are we indulging our irrational beliefs at the risk of our own futures? Where does the turf war end and real assessment begin, and why is it so hard for any of us to actually get to that point? Read his new post here:


Why We’re Dumb at Politics

Jason Brennan

 

Smart Doesn’t Pay

            You cross the street only when you think it’s clear. If you’re wrong, you die. So, you have every incentive to form beliefs about whether the street is clear in a rational way.

Now suppose you are about to vote. What happens if you make a mistake? Alas—not much.
Suppose Obama credibly promises me $10 million from the treasury if he is re-elected. If so, then from a selfish standpoint, having Obama win is worth $10 million more to me than having Romney win. However, that doesn’t yet show it’s worth my time to vote for Obama. My vote is just one of many. I have a better chance of winning Powerball than changing the outcome of the election.

People are fairly rational about checking for street traffic—and they’re not perfect about that—because irrationality is punished. They are irrational about politics because rationality does not pay and irrationality goes unpunished.           

When you go to a new restaurant, you probably spend some time looking over the menu. Maybe you ask the waiter which dishes are best. Maybe you deliberate about pasta or pizza. You put in the effort because you get what you choose.

Imagine a restaurant with a hundred million customers. Each customer places an order. However, customers don’t automatically get the meal they order. Instead, everyone gets the same meal—the most popular item on the menu. In this restaurant, if you order pizza, this has almost no chance of helping you get pizza. You are more likely to win Powerball than to place a tie-breaking order for pizza. In a restaurant like that, you might not even bother to look at the menu. You might not even bother place an order. Putting in effort to make a good choice seems pointless.

Now you know why so many citizens are ignorant and irrational about politics. Regardless of whether we care about others or just ourselves, most of us don’t invest in political knowledge because political knowledge doesn’t pay. We are ignorant because we lack the incentive to be well-informed. We are irrational because we lack the incentive to correct our biases.

Dumb Pays

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, ”Reasoning was not designed to pursue truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.” Robert Wright concurs that the human brain evolved to be “a machine for winning arguments,” that is, for seeking victory, not truth.

Motivated reasoning occurs when the brain tries to arrive at beliefs a person finds pleasing. According to the theory of motivated reasoning, we have preferences over beliefs. We enjoy some beliefs. We tend to believe what we prefer to be true. Motivated reasoning occurs when the brain tries to arrive at beliefs that maximize good feelings and minimize bad feelings. Our beliefs are determined by emotions, not evidence. For example, I might prefer to think I am smart, I might prefer to think Democrats are good and Republicans are selfish, or I might prefer to think God created the earth 6,000 years ago.

Psychologist Drew Westen performed a famous experiment in which he scanned committed Democrats’ and Republicans’ brains as they engaged in motivated reasoning. One scary finding: As the partisans denied and evaded evidence right in front of their faces, pleasure centers in their brains lit up. Our brains reward us for intellectual vice.

In politics, dumb is fun. It’s fun to think my coalition is made up of all the good guys. It’s fun to feel superior to the other side—to imagine they are all ignorant and corrupt. It’s fun to allow our political beliefs to form an essential part of our identities. It’s fun to treat the Democrat-Republican rivalry like the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry.

We can afford to indulge pleasurable but grossly irrational political beliefs. And, so, most of us do.

The News Once Again Indicates I Was Right All Along

When we first begin thinking about politics, we don’t start as agnostics. That is, we don’t start with the attitude, “Oh, I don’t know anything, so I will withhold judgment until I first study a whole bunch.”

Few of us form our original political beliefs after first weighing the evidence. Instead, when we first start thinking about politics, we come to the table with groundless political beliefs. We begin with bents to believe some things and disbelieve others. For no good reason, each of us starts off left or right, libertarian or authoritarian, market-friendly or anti-market, and so on.

Our political beliefs are at least moderately hereditable. You genes dispose us to vote one way rather than another. Early childhood experiences also push you one way rather than another. By sheer accident, you might come to associate the Democrats with compassion or the Republicans with responsibility. For you, for the rest of your life, the word “Democrat” will automatically conjure up positive emotions. For the rest of your life, you’ll have a bent—based on no evidence at all—to vote one way rather than another.

When people first start thinking about politics, they come to the table with (often strongly held) pre-existing beliefs. That’s already a worry. Yet if we were really good at assessing evidence and changing our beliefs in light of evidence, then our non-rational bents would not be so bad. Sure, we’d start with groundless, baseless beliefs, but we’d end up with well-grounded beliefs. Young people would start as hacks, but end up as sages.

Alas, we are bad at assessing evidence. Most of us stay hacks.

In politics—but not only in politics—we exhibit strong confirmation bias. This means we tend to pay strong attention to and accept evidence in favor of beliefs we already hold, and tend to ignore, reject, or be bored by evidence against beliefs we hold. We tend to be impressed by evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. We tend to ignore or be suspicious of evidence that this confirms our pre-existing beliefs. We are bored by evidence that tends to confirm views we reject. We cannot even be bothered to evaluate it. We give every benefit of the doubt to arguments and to people who support our views. We are quick to dismiss arguments and people who reject our views.

Confirmation bias means we don’t act like good scientists when thinking about politics. Instead, it means we act like highly corrupt scientists. We don’t care about the truth. We care about defending our turf.

Confirmation bias explains how we consume news. Thanks to the Internet, information is cheaper and easier to get than ever before. Why isn’t everyone much better informed and much less biased, then? Here’s the problem: People seek out news sources that identify and promote their own points of view. Libertarians read libertarian blogs. Left-liberals read left-liberal newspapers, such as the New York Times. Republicans flock to Fox News. People who consume news want to be informed—they want to be informed that they were right all along.

Jason Brennan is assistant professor of ethics at Georgetown University. He is the coauthor of A Brief History of Liberty.

Noam Chomsky cites Marty Gilens’s eye-opening new book AFFLUENCE AND INFLUENCE

Noam Chomsky recently featured Martin Gilens’s new book AFFLUENCE AND INFLUENCE: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America in his column on AlterNet.org.

David Runciman on Crisis Elections

Political theorist at Cambridge and British journalist David Runciman has offered us some of the most thought-provoking takes on the problems that plague modern politics. Author of The Politics of Good Intentions as well as Political Hypocrisy, his  forthcoming book, The Confidence Trap, a history of democracy and crisis, is due out in Fall of next year. Here he discusses the idea of crisis elections: Certainly we faced one in 1932, 1980, and 2008, but are we facing one now? Peggy Noonan thinks so. What has been the historical impact on elected governments during times of crisis, and what makes election 2012 different?  Read Runciman’s post here:

 


Crisis Elections

David Runciman

 

Major economic crises make it very difficult for elected governments to hold on to office.  During the first four years of the Great Depression, every democracy around the world, from Australia to Austria, from Brazil to Bulgaria, changed government at least once.  Many of them gave up on democracy altogether and reverted to some form of military rule.  It was a sobering fact, much noted at the time, that when the world’s states gathered in London in June 1933 for the World Economic Conference, only two countries were still being run by the same people who had been in charge when Wall Street crashed in October 1929.  They were Mussolini’s Italy and Stalin’s Russia (and Stalin didn’t even bother to send a delegation to London).  It added to the impression that crises suit dictatorships, not democracies.

The global economic crisis of the mid-1970s also proved a very tough time for democratic leaders.  They found themselves being forced from office just about everywhere, either though defeat at the ballot box or driven out by scandals.  Almost the only one to hold on was Indira Gandhi in India, and she only managed it by using emergency powers to suspend Indian democracy altogether in 1975.  When she relented twenty-one months later and finally allowed elections, the voters kicked her out too.

This crisis has been different.  Plenty of elected leaders who were in charge when Lehman’s went under nearly four years ago are still there now.  Manmohan Singh in India, Angela Merkel in Germany, Stephen Harper in Canada and Recep Erdogan in Turkey have all been in office for well over the duration.  This reflects the widely varying impact of the crisis on different parts of the democratic world.  These four countries have all had relatively benign crises and their economies have proved fairly robust.  The same is true of Australia, which has changed leader from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard, but only because of an internal party coup; the same party is still in power.  In fact, of the members of the G20, ten have had the same government since 2008, and only two of these are straightforwardly undemocratic (China and Saudi Arabia).

The result is that no clear pattern for democracy has emerged in this crisis.  In some places, including Southern Europe, democracy has looked very fragile and in Italy and Greece there have been temporary suspensions; elsewhere, democracy has looked strong.  The patterns of earlier crises were much clearer.  The Great Depression was very bad for democracy and nearly destroyed it.  The 1970s, in retrospect, were good for democracy.  Countries that were able to change governments found an outlet for popular discontent.  Authoritarian regimes that lacked a comparable outlet either fell apart (as in Greece and Portugal) or were forced to suppress the symptoms of the crisis (as in Eastern Europe) with disastrous long-term consequences.  The democratic tendency to switch horses in tough times was a weakness in the 1930s.  During the 1970s it was a strength.

The lack of a clear pattern this time round makes it hard to know where to place the US election of 2012.  Is it even a ‘crisis’ election?  The election of 2008, which took place two months after the Lehman’s debacle, definitively was.  That was what helped Obama win.  He inherited the crisis.  In four years he has neither fixed it nor has he allowed it to spin out of control.  He has surfed along with it.  He doesn’t ‘own’ it, for better or for worse.  That means there is still scope for competing narratives to take hold before November.  Is it time for a change or time to stay the course?  Either line might stick, depending on how well the candidates can deliver it.

But there is also still scope for the crisis to take another turn.  This crisis differs from previous ones in being more inconclusive.  It simply drags on, unresolved, unfathomable, and littered with false dawns.  Though Europe has stabilized for now, it is not hard to imagine another lurch later this year, triggered by a Greek default or a political meltdown in Italy or a bank run in Spain, which takes the crisis to another level, and sweeps away another raft of elected governments, including in Germany and perhaps further afield.

Will the next wave hit before November?  Who knows, but at the moment it seems unlikely.  Obama has always struck me as a lucky politician.  In crisis politics, as in comedy, the key to success is timing.

 

David Runciman teaches political theory at the University of Cambridge and is a fellow of Trinity Hall. He is the author of The Politics of Good Intentions and Political Hypocrisy, and writes regularly about politics for the London Review of Books.

 

 

Do-It-Yourself Election Fact-Checking Kit, courtesy of Princeton University Press

To fact-check or not became something of a conversation point at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions this week. Here at PUP, we suggest readers take matters into their own hands and learn, as John Alexander Smith put it, “to detect when a man is talking rot.”

Look for this ad in the New York Review of Books.

ELECTION TUESDAY

FACT: “A feature of the ‘great compromise’ between the North and the slave-holding South was the provision for electing two senators from each state. That arrangement has given those chosen to represent small, sparsely populated states—then Rhode Island and Delaware, now Vermont and Wyoming—equal power with the most populous. In 1790 Virginia had ten times the population of Rhode Island; California now has more than seventy times the population
of Wyoming.”

Reading Obama:
Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition

by James T. Kloppenberg
With a new preface by the author

Derided by the Right as dangerous and by the Left as spineless, Barack Obama puzzles observers. In Reading Obama, James T. Kloppenberg reveals the sources of Obama’s ideas and explains why his principled aversion to absolutes does not fit contemporary partisan categories. Obama’s commitments to deliberation and experimentation derive from sustained engagement with American democratic thought. In a new preface, Kloppenberg explains why Obama has stuck with his commitment to compromise in the first three years of his presidency, despite the criticism it has provoked.

Reading Obama traces the origins of his ideas and establishes him as the most penetrating political thinker elected to the presidency in the past century. Kloppenberg demonstrates the influences that have shaped Obama’s distinctive worldview, including Nietzsche and Niebuhr, Ellison and Rawls, and recent theorists engaged in debates about feminism, critical race theory, and cultural norms. Examining Obama’s views on the Constitution, slavery and the Civil War, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement, Kloppenberg shows Obama’s sophisticated understanding of American history. Obama’s interest in compromise, reasoned public debate, and the patient nurturing of civility is a sign of strength, not weakness, Kloppenberg argues. He locates its roots in Madison, Lincoln, and especially in the philosophical pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, which nourished generations of American progressives, black and white, female and male, through much of the twentieth century, albeit with mixed results.

Reading Obama reveals the sources of Obama’s commitment to democratic deliberation: the books he has read, the visionaries who have inspired him, the social movements and personal struggles that have shaped his thinking. Kloppenberg shows that Obama’s positions on social justice, religion, race, family, and America’s role in the world do not stem from a desire to please everyone but from deeply rooted—although currently unfashionable—convictions about how a democracy must deal with difference and conflict.

“James Kloppenberg, one of America’s foremost intellectual historians, persuasively argues that [there is] a broader shift in American philosophy away from appeal to general principles, valid at all times and in all places, toward a reliance on local, historically particular values and ideals. Kloppenberg’s own endeavor, in surveying the work in political and legal theory that seems to have shaped President Obama’s thinking, is to argue for the coherence, the Americanness, and the plausibility of Obama’s approach to politics and to the Constitution.”—Kwame Anthony Appiah, New York Review of Books

We invite you to read the Introduction here: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i9277.pdf

Be sure to check in every Tuesday for a new tidbit from our great selection of politically-minded books.

The Conventions and the Media–Who’s Watching and Does it Matter?

A precipitous drop since the 1950s in how much we trust our media outlets has major implications for the political sphere. The more we distrust the mainstream press’s information about policy outcomes, the more voters turn toward alternative partisan media outlets. And in the absence of a neutral, trustworthy news source, public beliefs and voting behavior are now increasingly shaped by partisan predispositions. Jonathan Ladd, author of Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters takes a look at the effects of conventions on public opinion. Are they opportunities to disseminate information, or simply preach to the choir? Who is really tuning in? Will there be bumps in polls? Read his post here.


Do the Conventions Matter?

Jonathan Ladd

 

Last week (in spite of a  disruption from Hurricane Isaac), Republicans  held their presidential nominating convention in Tampa Bay, FL. It will be followed one week later by the Democratic nominating convention in Denver, CO. Historically, conventions have produced “bumps” in the trial heat polls. On his blog, Tom Holbrook of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, produces a chart showing the bounces generated by major party conventions since 1964.

 

Some of these are quite large, including a 14.1 percentage point bounce for Nixon in 1968, a 13.6 point bounce for Clinton in 1992, and a 12.9 point bounce for Goldwater in 1964. Holbrook uses a regression model to predict that this year Romney will receive a 3.6 point bounce and Obama a 1.1 point bounce.

 

What are the important considerations that we should keep in mind when thinking about the importance (or lack thereof) of the conventions for the presidential race?

 

In general, political scientists find that the biggest effect of major campaign events is to activate partisan predispositions. The campaign as a whole has this result, but the effect may be even more dominant for conventions and debates that require one to self-select to be a viewer. This activation effect is driven by that fact that those most interested in politics are also the most likely to have strong existing views (see here and here). A very large portion of those who tune in are political junkies/activists who made up their minds long ago or those who are at least partisan enough that watching these events reminds them what they like about their party and dislike about the other one.

 

Of course, this does not preclude large post-convention bounces. But the biggest bounces tend occur when a candidate has a divisive nomination fight or for some other reason has failed to previously consolidate his own coalition behind him. This partisan reinforcement (or activation) can produce a surge in the polls without converting many swing voters. Voters who are truly up for grabs have the least interest in, and knowledge about, politics. They are simply unlikely to pay attention to conventions.

 

This was all true when the parties were less polarized and there were far fewer media choices. Yet it is possible that polarization and the proliferation of media options have made conventions even more primarily about rallying the base. Ben Lauderdale pointed out on twitter yesterday that convention bumps appear to be getting smaller over time. This makes sense if the bumps seen in past decades largely resulted from the partisan activation of candidates’ own coalitions. In today’s polarized environment, almost everyone exposed to convention messages comes in with their partisanship already activated.

 

How will people watch the conventions? To get a sense, I assembled available data from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, as compiled in their annual “State of the Media” reports. All figures below are from that source.

 

Total Households (in millions) Watching Conventions on Cable or Network TV

Source: “State of the Media, 2009”

 

The first thing to mention is that it is hard to predict how many total people will tune in to the conventions this year. While the networks have shrunk the amount of prime-time coverage over the years, many people still do watch the network coverage and it is relatively easy to switch over to complete coverage on cable. The total number of households watching the conventions actually shows little clear trend over time. There was a decline after 1992, but that was reversed with a big increase in viewership four years ago. It will be interesting to see if we return to the post-1992 norm or see viewership more like 2008.

 

Percentage of Households with TVs Turned to the 3 Network Evening New Programs Based on Nielson Data

Source: “State of the Media, 2012”

 

The three major broadcast networks audience has been steadily shrinking for decades. The most popular source for television news in the U.S. remains local news broadcasts, but these contain very little national political information. For this, you need to use network or cable news or some other source. On a normal evening, even the diminished network news audience is much larger than the cable prime time audience, but that is not necessarily the case for special events like party conventions, where people are more likely to seek out cable news channels.

 

Political Convention Viewership in 2008

Source: “State of the Media, 2009”

 

In 2008, the number of people watching the conventions on cable was not that much less than the number watching on the networks. This was especially true for the Republican Convention, likely driven Republicans’ affection for Fox News and distrust of the networks. People were just about equally likely to watch the Republican Convention on cable as on a network.

 

We can see a bit more about what this means by looking at the breakdown across cable channels. The Project for Excellence in Journalism doesn’t appear to have this data available for 2008, but I could find it for the 2004 conventions.

 

Democratic Convention Viewership on Cable News (in thousands)

 

Source: “State of the Media, 2005”

 

Republican Convention Viewership on Cable News (thousands)

Source: “State of the Media, 2005”

 

While cable viewers of the Democratic Convention were roughly evenly divided between the three major cable new networks, a majority of cable viewing of the Republican Convention was done through Fox News. The biggest difference between 2004 and 2012 will likely be MSNBC being used by a higher percentage of Democratic Convention viewers and a smaller percentage of Republican Convention viewers.

 

Does this tell us anything more about the effects of the conventions on public opinion? To the extent that Republicans are likely to watch their party’s convention on Fox, the network’s style will likely enhance the partisan activation effect. And to the extent that Democrats watch their convention on MSNBC, it will likely have a similar effect. To reiterate, this is the main effect that conventions have always had, only now more so.

Jonathan M. Ladd is assistant professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University. He received his PhD in politics from Princeton University.