Join John Sides and Lynn Vavreck for a free online discussion and Q&A on The Gamble [Change in Date!]

Event logoJoin and political scientists John Sides (GWU, The Monkey Cage blog) and Lynn Vavreck (UCLA) for a free online talk about The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election followed by an audience Q&A session.

Date: Friday, October 7, 2013 [Change in date!! this was originally scheduled for September 27, but is postponed to October 7]

Time: 3:00 PM EST

Place: Your computer — all that’s needed is a fast internet connection and access to an internet browser

Sides and Vavreck will reveal their Moneyball approach to campaign analysis and discuss the writing process for The Gamble, a book praised by Nate Silver as “the definitive account of what really happened and what really mattered in the campaign.” Sides and Vavreck specialize in bringing hard data to bear and casting doubt on a lot of commentary and conventional wisdom. As a result they inject a dose of much-needed reality into a discourse too often dominated by speculation and folklore.

You can learn more about Sides, Vavreck, and The Gamble at the book’s dedicated web site:

Check out the event page at Shindig: Let us know if you’ll be there by RSVP’ing below, though this is not really necessary — you can just show up if you want.

Interview with John Sides and Lynn Vavreck on the challenges of real-time political science and the publication of The Gamble


John Sides is associate professor of political science at George Washington University and the coauthor of Campaigns and Elections (Norton). He cofounded and contributes to The Monkey Cage, a politics blog. Lynn Vavreck is associate professor of political science and communications at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her books include The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns (Princeton). She cofounded and contributes to the Model Politics blog. Together they are the authors of The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election

In July 2013, they answered some questions about this ambitious writing project, their analysis of the outcomes and happenings of the 2012 Presidential Election, and what’s up next for each of them.

Q: Why did you write THE GAMBLE?

John Sides: During every election, there is an ongoing conversation among journalists, politicos, and others about what is happening, what it means, and, ultimately, why the winner won. Political scientists typically enter that conversation only much later, given how slowly we work. By that point the conventional wisdom is hardened and it is much harder for us to have any impact. Lynn and I wanted THE GAMBLE to be part of that conversation as it was actually happening.

Lynn Vavreck: Yes, too often the day to day reporting from the campaign trail is mistaken for assessments of what is pivotal in elections, when, in reality, it is just a reflection of what is going on on any given day in a particular place and time. We wanted to separate the “what are campaigns doing and saying today” reporting from a real analysis of what is likely to make a difference to voters on election day by demonstrating that much of what happens on the campaign trail will not be relevant to most voters.

This is not a new observation—political scientists have known this for more than 60 years; but saying it out loud during the campaign was new. THE GAMBLE ultimately gives political science a voice in the ongoing narrative about what mattered in 2012 and demonstrates that what we do as a field is valuable to understanding elections and partisan politics generally.

Q: What were some of the challenges you faced during the writing process?

LV: Science usually takes a lot of time—you test, retest, poke, and prod until you are sure of your findings. In this case, we were trying to do science in real time, which was really hard. We had an entire discipline of robust findings to draw upon, which gave us a pretty good sense of where we expected to find things that mattered as we looked at 2012 in real time, but still, the pressure to get the data, analyze it, understand it, try to break the results every way you can think of, and then write about the conclusions—on a weekly basis—was both stressful and exhausting. There were days, being on two separate coasts, that we literally worked every hour of the day because John would stay up working in DC until I got up in LA and then I would stay up until he woke up the next day. At times it seemed like an insane undertaking.

JMS: We were trying to do two things simultaneously. One was write a serialized account of the campaign, which allowed us to release e-chapters about the campaign and to finish the entire book in a timely fashion. The other was to follow the day’s events and use our data to write blog posts and op-eds. At times, saying something about what was happening at that moment made it hard to write chapters about what had happened six months beforehand.

Q: You mention the serialization of the book. Several of the book’s chapters were written as the election was unfolding and released as short e-books. When you were assembling the complete book, did you have to go back and revisit those chapters? Did subsequent events change what you wanted to say in those chapters?

JMS: I think we were pleased at how well the e-chapters held up after the election was over. I think one reason is that our analysis was guided by decades of political science research and the election ultimately ended up bearing out that research nicely.

LV: One of the challenges of writing a book like this, serially, is keeping the narrative consistent and whole when you don’t know how it is going to end. We had to do some very hard thinking early on about what we thought was going to happen and how we could show the key parts of that story with data and evidence; and then we had to hope that we were right, not only because we were out there writing about it in real time, but because the book would have been a little schizophrenic if the framework or arguments were changing week to week! We put in the hours in the beginning to develop a frame for the book that was flexible enough to encompass all the things we thought might happen, but specific enough to be interesting and distinctive.

Q: How did your models perform through the election? Were they accurate? Did you find any big surprises or disappointments?

JMS: Lynn and I had an early sense—informed in part by our trips to the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary—that Romney was the clear favorite to get the Republican nomination, and we said as much in blog posts in January. That proved correct. Then, together with Seth Hill, Lynn and I developed a simple forecasting model for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, which we published in June. That model turned out to be very accurate as well, forecasting Obama’s share of the vote within a percentage point. In short, our message was that even in a slowly growing economy, the incumbent was favored to win—and that proved true.

Two things that did surprise me were, first, that Gingrich and Santorum managed to surge again after Romney’s victory in New Hampshire. I probably expected Romney to wrap up the nomination a little faster. A second thing was the first debate in October. I was surprised that Obama’s performance was judged so harshly by many in the media—even liberal commentators. This may have helped the polls shift so sharply in Romney’s favor.

Q: The media called the first debate a “game changer.” In fact, the media wrote about a lot of “game changers” throughout the election. Were there any actual “game changers”? What was the most over-hyped part of the Presidential Election?

JMS: There were two moments that did appear to move the polls appreciably: the Democratic National Convention and the first debate. I’d say those two moments were important, although “game changer” always strikes me as hyperbole. Perhaps the most overhyped moment was the release of the “47% video.” At most, this cost Romney a couple points—almost entirely among Republicans who quickly rallied to Romney again after the first debate. For an event that commentators were quick to call “devastating” to Romney’s campaign, the effects of the video seemed to wear off awfully quickly.

Q: You have a section of the book that talks about a misguided portrayal of the undecided voter. Can you describe your findings?

LV: Since the race was so stable for so long, the media picked up on the fact that about 3-5% of likely voters were undecided. It was actually a bit more than that in our data, but the focus of course turned to questions like, “Who ARE these people? Do they live under a rock?” and things suggesting they were dumb or in some way ill-equipped to be good citizens. We had more data on undecided voters than anyone and a lot of what we could say about them based on the data countered the caricatures that were being presented in the media.

Yes, undecided voters are less interested in politics, of course they are; and truthfully, about half of them end up staying home on Election Day. But, they are not so disengaged from politics that they don’t identify with a party—a lot of them do! Mainly, they seem to be people who are otherwise busy, somewhat interested in politics, but not yet ready to pay attention to how they will vote on Election Day. They were less enamored with their party’s nominees, to be sure, but they also just knew less about the nominees in general and had fewer opinions at all about policies. Not dumb. Just not as interested as political junkies, I would say. Politics is not a hobby for them the way it is for a lot of people who are glued to cable news and the Huffington Post. It also ended up not being true, as so many “analysts” insisted, that undecided voters always break for the challenger.

Q: Another running theme of the election coverage was the Obama camp’s flawless campaign. Is this substantiated by the data?

LV: Flawless? Probably not. But innovative? Absolutely. Innovative in terms of the way they fed all the information the campaign was gathering across efforts into one database every day. They leveraged information better than any presidential campaign in history, of that I am quite sure. On data infrastructure they were pioneers.

JMS: Too often what happens after the election is that the winner’s campaign gets too much credit and the loser’s campaign too much blame. Our data shows that the Obama campaign was able to gain a small advantage when it beat Romney on the airwaves and by having a more sophisticated operation on the ground. But it was unlikely this advantage was the determining factor in this race. Obama won by a margin larger than what his campaign alone could be expected to have produced.

LV: Counter to what a lot of people have written about the Romney campaign, John and I actually conclude in THE GAMBLE that he did just about as well as he could have done There were no major strategic errors, he just was disadvantaged by the structural conditions from the start and couldn’t overcome that disadvantage. To put this in perspective, only 4 presidential candidates in the last 60 years have been able to do this.

Q: So, let’s talk campaign strategies—ads, field offices, message. What does your analysis reveal about effectiveness of the core parts of the presidential campaigns?

LV: Political ads are always interesting in real time, and they provide so much material for journalists and analysts to talk about; but in terms of their impact, it is quite fleeting. Most of the effects of political ads decay within a day for presidential races and 3-4 days for down-ballot races. Some of the effect persists and accumulates over time, but not much. There is very little doubt in our minds that the ads Obama aired during the last week of the campaign had a much larger effect on his vote share than those ads he ran in the summer about Bain Capital.

JMS: We did find temporary, but noticeable shifts when one candidate was able to air more advertisements than the other. The problem, however, was that it was hard for either Obama or Romney to do so very often, or for very long. We also found that the number of field offices in a county was associated with increased vote share, though more for Obama than Romney. But, again, the apparent effects of field offices were not large enough to constitute the winning margin in the battleground states.

LV: From my perspective, what worked for Obama was sticking to his message about the economy—that he never wavered, never tried to disown the economy—that was his key strategic choice that led to victory. I know people think he should have lost because of the economy, but they are wrong. The economy was growing, albeit slowly, but it was growing. And incumbent party presidents in growing economies, even slowly growing ones, typically win—and more so when they talk about the economy in their campaigns. Obama did this—good strategic choice.

Q: It seems like there is a lot of unsubstantiated information in political and, in particular, election rhetoric. Where can voters find out what is really happening and what really matters?

LV: The problem is that reporters are not supposed to do this kind of digesting—they are meant to report. Opinion columnists are meant to share their thoughts, which is also different. This brings us to analysts. Analysts are the answer to your question, but the problem is that the major TV networks have turned to getting retired partisan consultants as “analysts” instead of people who are trained in quantitative analysis—and that means that what passes for analysis is stumping for their side. I think these types of guests have a role to play on 24 hour TV news—they are interesting and have done things few people have done; but to identify them as experts on elections writ large is a grave mistake.

JMS: The good news for voters is that there is an increasing amount of data-driven reporting and commentary during elections. I think about not only what Lynn and I were writing at The Monkey Cage, Model Politics, and elsewhere, but about the work of Nate Silver at 538, Mark Blumenthal and Simon Jackman at the Huffington Post, and Drew Linzer at Votamatic. If you followed what we were all writing, I think it gave you a very solid sense of which events were important and where the race ultimately stood along the way, including on the eve of the election.

Q: How have more traditional journalists responded to your work?

JMS: We have been quite pleased by the number of people who followed and responded to our work—even if they didn’t always agree. We had ongoing conversations with reporters during the campaign itself—people like Ryan Lizza, Sasha Issenberg, Dan Balz, and others—and were able both to learn from them and to convey our understanding to them.

LV: As a whole, the entire journalistic community was amazing. From day one they welcomed us in to their bunker—sharing drinks with us in Des Moines, Iowa, sitting down with us to talk at length about past campaigns and the lessons they bring to understanding 2012, and even unexpectedly giving us prime outlets for our work. Our ideas and our work ended up on cable news outlets, in major national newspapers, and in news magazines. We were overwhelmed by the response from the journalistic community and the seriousness with which they took our work. It vastly exceeded our expectations.

Q: One of the big stories following the election was the accuracy of data-crunchers like Nate Silver, Drew Linzer and Simon Jackman and the “rise of political data science.” Do you think this will change the way elections are covered or will we return to status quo for the next election?

JMS: I think they showed us that you can use data in ways that actually make the story of an election more interesting, not less interesting. You don’t have to be a reporter with great inside gossip to attract readers. Geeks can do it too. My hope is that when 2014 or 2016 rolls around, at least a few of the people who were so wrong about 2012 will be chastened, and in general there will be far less tolerance for hyperbole about game-changers or predictions that aren’t borne out by hard data.

LV: The data revolution is upon us—that battle is won. There is a huge appetite for numbers, not just in politics, but also in other places, like sports, dating and music preferences. The next step in political data analytics is something that we are actually both working on advancing right now. I think the future probably holds less pure forecasting or aggregating of polls like Nate Silver, Simon Jackman, and Drew Linzer did in 2012 and more analysis of the actual information in polls—but in a big data sort of way.

Q: This was an ambitious project. Do you think we’ll see more political scientists follow suit?

JMS: There were features of this project that would be hard to emulate. We were very fortunate to have access to incredible data—polling data from YouGov, media data from General Sentiment, advertising data via the Washington Post. It would be hard to put that together again. At the same time, writing this book has made me feel that there is real room for innovation in aspects of scholarly publishing. Thanks to the cooperation and leadership of Princeton University Press, I think THE GAMBLE shows that there is value in non-traditional forms of publishing, like the serialized e-chapters we produced. Ultimately, I think THE GAMBLE shows that scholars, and a scholarly press, can produce a book that is both rigorous and timely.

Q: The 2012 election is behind us. Will you attempt to do this type of research during the 2016 elections? Without an incumbent president, it seems like that might provide a terrific opportunity to crunch numbers and create new models.

JMS: I’m not sure that I’m ready to do this again in 2016, even though it is shaping up to be a fascinating election. I think Lynn and I will always be interested in elections and will continue to research and write about them, in addition to our work on other topics. But we’re both committed to the idea motivating THE GAMBLE—which was to bring academic ideas to a broader audience—and we will certainly continue to do that going forward.

LV: The project was so exhausting it is hard to imagine saying I would do it again; however, we accomplished so much and were taken so seriously by the people writing about the campaign and reporting on it in real time, that it would feel like an opportunity lost not to continue to have that role filled. So yes, I suspect you will see more from us in popular outlets over the next couple of years. As for 2016, who knows. I would love to think we could do it again, but that would depend on more than just our willingness to make sacrifices—all those generous data providers would have to line up again with us or someone would have to fund the data collection, and that is a pretty big ask. THE GAMBLE’s analysis relies on over a million dollars’ worth of survey data—I’m not sure we’re ever going to be able to do that again.

Q: So, what’s next for both of you? What are you currently working on?

JMS: Lynn and I have a paper under review about the effects of field offices in 2012, and another in the early stages questioning the conventional wisdom that voters in primary elections are much more ideologically extreme than voters as a whole. I’m contemplating a second book project on a completely different topic: the federal budget—how the public reasons about budgets and deficits, how budgets get made in Congress, and what could make the budgeting process better.

LV: I have spent the weeks since THE GAMBLE shipped finishing up a round of papers on a basic science project I started in 2011 that is funded by the National Science Foundation. The work examines the possibilities of moving federally funded survey work away from in-person, in the home interviews and to a computer-assisted interview mode. There is an innovative sampling framework that I tested and an experiment done in Las Vegas, Nevada on how the mode of interview affects the answers people give. Hopefully, the work will help the federal government save tens of millions of dollars on survey research.

Other than that, I’m thinking generally about how to advance the analysis of political data in the public space. John and I have a few irons in the fire and hopefully one or two of them will pan out. Stay tuned for our next adventure.

The Gamble by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck–third free e-chapter “All In” is now available

As you may recall, we are serializing chapters from a forthcoming political science book, The Gamble by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck. The plan is to release several chapters ahead of the print publication in early fall (in fact, we released two in August — The Hand You’re Dealt [PDF], and Random, or Romney? [PDF]). The third chapter, All In [PDF], is now available for free on our web site and through all major e-book retailers.

**click on any of the PDFs above to download and save the chapters to your computers or devices.

The reason for this unique publishing program is to get a foothold in the first draft of history. Too often, serious political science scholarship — the stuff of huge data sets, charts, graphs, analysis — is published years after the journalists and pundits have already set the tone for how we remember and think about historical moments. In the year following a presidential election, we can expect a slew of books recounting campaign triumphs and missteps, documenting every tour stop and what the candidates wore, said, and did, but what we don’t normally get is rigorous assessment of how the campaigns really worked. Was President Obama’s campaign really as good as everyone thinks? Did the 47% video really make a difference? How about all those political ads — did they sway the election results?

This is what political scientists like Sides and Vavreck can bring to the discussion and why it is so important for us to get their book to readers in a better-than-timely fashion. Drawing on unprecedented data sets tracking voters before and during the presidential campaigns, the authors can provide what was really happening behind the headlines.

Now we’ll cut to John Sides’ description of this chapter:

This new chapter, “All In,” picks up the story on the eve of the Iowa caucus and takes it through Romney’s de facto nomination in April. The chapter is thus the story of Romney’s success. Of course, at this point, the Republican primary seems like ancient history. But I think there is value in realizing why it was that the party coalesced around Romney.”

One of my favorite graphs in this chapter looks at the size of various groups within the GOP —as measured in YouGov polls—and the percentage of those groups that supported Romney or Santorum.

What this graph shows is that contrary to some characterizations of the Republican Party—such as Frank Rich’s “The Molotov Party”—those who identified with the Tea Party, or said they were “very conservative,” or said that abortion should always be illegal, or said they were “born again” were minorities among even Republican likely voters. More moderate groups—such as those who did not identify as born again, or believed abortion should be legal always or sometimes—were much larger.

Moreover, it was among these larger groups that Romney was the favored candidate. Santorum’s appeal was much more niche. That is one reason why Romney became the nominee: this “Massachusetts moderate” appealed to a wider swath of the party than his competition.


Intrigued? Read more by downloading this free PDF of “All In”.

Close Elections are Won or Lost at the Door

An election wrap-up by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, author of Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns

In the final weeks of the election, both campaigns and their allies have been hard at work in every competitive state, knocking on doors and calling voters at home. The “ground wars”, the parts of the campaigns that are waged door knock by door knock and phone call by phone call rather than by television advertisement, direct mail pieces, or online communications, only really emerge from the shadows just before Election Day, though they have in reality been meticulously planned long in advance, waged for months on end, and are based technical and organizational infrastructures built over the years by both major national parties and certain outside groups.

Journalists and scholars sometime talk and write about canvassing and the like as if this constituted some sort of old-fashioned “grassroots politics”, a left-over from a romantic past, but in reality volunteers knocking on doors are working side-by-side with paid part-time workers and full-time campaign staffers, and are guided by sophisticated data analysis done by specialized consultants working at their computers far away from the sound and fury on the streets of Youngstown, Ohio or the quiet determination of those trying to get out the vote in the suburbs of Arlington County, Virginia.

We know who won, but nobody but the campaigns themselves really knows how well they’ve done on the ground this time around. The Obama campaign and its allies have certainly repeatedly insisted they have an edge, and have a result to show for it. They also had the time, the experience, and the resources to make sure that they won the ground war, just as the Bush re-election team in 2004 took advantage of their head-start to outmaneuver the Democrats in several swing states. But the Romney campaign has also been talking a good (ground) game, and there is no reason to doubt that they have at the very least been considerably better prepared to fight for every last vote than the McCain campaign was in 2008. Ultimately, it may have been the Republican Party and the candidate Mitt Romney who lost the election more than it was the Romney campaign and its outside allies.

What do we know about the two ground war campaigns at this point?

In terms of reach, a Pew Research Center survey released just before the election showed that neither side had a clear advantage. In the swing states, a massive 66% of all voters report they have been contacted in person by supporters of one or both candidates. (The figure is 44% at the national level, higher than the final figure in both 2004 and 2008, and this is before the final get-out-the-vote push.) According to this data, the two campaigns have reached about the same number of people, and the overall figure will almost certainly be a record high when the dust has settled.

In terms of resources, it seems clear that the Obama campaign and its allies have invested more in field organizing that the Romney campaign and its allies. The Atlantic reports that the President has had more than 800 field offices across the country, more than twice as many as the Republicans have (the RNC runs most of Romney’s field campaign for him, in part for complicated campaign finance reasons). Labor unions and other progressive interest groups have thrown additional millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers into the fray, as have various conservative groups. (With some parts of Obama’s 2008 electoral base having lost some of their enthusiasm for him over the past four years and some traditionally Democratic constituencies generally turning out at lower rates than many Republican constituencies, it has also been even more important for him to turn out the vote.)

In terms of targeting, making sure that the door knocks and phone calls reach the right people, that the resources invested are effectively used, Republicans were for years clearly ahead of the Democratic party in terms of importing techniques from commercial marketing and building the databases and tools necessary to adopt them for political purposes. But from 2008 onwards with the consolidation of a variety of Democratic/progressive data services in first the company VAN (later VAN-NGP) and collaboration across the party and within the coalition of interest groups backing it, the President and his allies has build what by all accounts is a clear advantage in terms of targeting technology and expertise.

What is clear even before anyone has had time to pore over the election result or coax more honest accounts of what happened out of the people involved is that the two campaigns and their allies have both prioritized field as an absolutely essential part of their overall strategy, that they have invested tens (and probably even hundreds) of millions of dollars in it, dedicated thousands of staffers to it, mobilized countless volunteers to help with it, and utilized both new and old technologies to guide the work—and that they have done it in different ways, encountering different challenges along the way, and with different effects. Social scientists have much further work to do to really understand how the process works and what it means, for electoral outcomes, and for democratic processes.

All we know for sure is that it matters—all the support in the world is not worth a thing if people do not come out to vote. Obama was the clear favorite going in to Election Day, ahead in the polls in most swing states—but such leads have eroded before in the face of an effective and determined last-minute campaign effort (George W. Bush was ahead of Al Gore by about two points in 2000 but lost ground to the massive field effort of labor unions and others supporting the Democratic nominee, resulting in the famously close result). Making sure supporters actually come out requires sophisticated planning and careful organization, hard work from thousands of field staffers, and millions of hours spent canvassing and phone banking by volunteers and people working for modest pay. If the political winds are blowing strongly in one direction or another, all this work can be in vain. But in competitive races—for President, but for every other office too—every little counts, and close elections can be won or lost at the door.


Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford and assistant professor at Roskilde University in Denmark.

More on the (Overblown?) Trouble With Campaign Advertising from John McGinnis

From our Elections and Technology blogger John O. McGinnis, author of Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Governance Through Technology, a further response to the many objections that people have to our our current campaign finance system. In last week’s post he discussed the various informational benefits to widespread campaign advertising. But does permissive advertising empower special interests? What about the potential for a lack of disclosure of expenditures? Read his follow-up here:

In my last post, I argued that spending substantial money for campaign advertisements is necessary to inform inattentive voters and that these advertisements can improve as the information about the results of policies improves through  the new technology described in my forthcoming book.

Opponents of freewheeling campaign advertisements by politicians and their supporters have raised three thoughtful concerns about the expenditures needed to support such a flood of communications.  First, many have worried about the lack of disclosure of such contributions and expenditures.  They are right to do so.  All campaign contributions and expenditures should be posted immediately and transparently on the internet so that the public can see who is supporting whom.   With new mechanisms of aggregating information, opponents can highlight the connections between contributions to a candidate by special interests and the special interest programs that he supports. Intriguingly, as I discuss in my book, there is some suggestion that special interest spending on campaigns is less effective than other spending. Better disclosure should make it still less influential.

But one still might be worried that a permissive advertising regime will empower special interests, because they will be the most capable of supporting politicians.  Of course, special interests cannot be defined as any interest with which one disagrees.  Special interests are best understood as groups that can use special mechanisms provided by the government to aggregate money for their narrow goals.  Labor unions and for-profit corporations are examples. The corporate and union form permits these organizations to use people’s funds without their express agreement for political purposes.

Nevertheless, the concern expressed by President Obama and others about for-profit corporation spending is overblown. Corporations are forbidden from giving to candidates directly and despite the recent Supreme Court decision permitting independent expenditures by corporations, for-profit companies do not spend much money for independent expenditures on and behalf of candidates. Presumably, they do not want to alienate possible customers and employees.

The vast majority of corporate spending on campaigns is by non-profits. Non-profit corporations- so-call SuperPACs– generally represent like-minded individuals banding together to expressly pursue some social vision though political speech.  They are not presumptively special interests any more than are politicians themselves.  Like advertisements by politicians, advertisements directed by groups of citizens can provide valuable information about candidates and the policies they support. They have the additional advantage that they sometimes inject information into the campaign that neither candidate would provide.

One way of weakening the influence of special interests is to empower individuals to give more than they are now permitted to do so under our campaign finance laws. If individuals could give more, special interest spending would become a smaller percentage of campaign spending. The current $2, 500 ceiling for contributions to candidates in federal elections could be increased by four or even eightfold without any serious danger of corruption so long as contributions are disclosed.

But one might be concerned that the citizens who contribute to candidates and SuperPACs are richer on average than other citizens, thus skewing politics toward the wealthy. This is the most serious concern about permitting private money to finance politics. But we must compare its consequences with the alternatives.  The wealthy have a wide variety of views. In the last election people with incomes over $250,00  a year favored Obama, not McCain, although the former promised to  raise their taxes. This diversity of views flows from the nature of a market economy. New businesses are always arising and with them people who have different backgrounds, material interests and social visions.  Silicon Valley has a fundamentally different culture from Detroit.

Moreover, if one constrains donations by the wealthy to rent the media to propagate their views, insiders who own or who have otherwise more access to the media will then gain disproportionate influence.  Journalists, entertainers, and academics lean much more strongly to one side of the political spectrum than do the wealthy.  And since their work is less variegated than that in the business sector, we are also likely to get less varied perspectives as a result.  In Britain with limitations on campaign expenditures, politicians spend a lot of time currying favor with press barons, like Rupert Murdoch.

The best way to address concern about inequality is to give a tax credit to people of more modest incomes to encourage their contributions to parties or candidates. That program is likely to expand the amount of information in the campaign season rather than contract it, as would restrictions on independent expenditures or more severe limitations on contributions or expenditures. Such tax credits would be a cost to society, but as we gain more and more probative information about policy through putting politics in the domain of computation, it is rational to spend more money to help that information reach voters.  Because the decisions government makes affects us all,  money to help voters make wiser decisions is money well spent.

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.

Are Campaign Ads Worth the Money?

Candidates spend daunting amounts of money getting out their message, with tens of millions invested in campaign advertisements alone. This year, even the Olympics were peppered with political ads, amid questions of whether all this advertising is ethical or even effective. While it’s standard to hear criticism of the money spent on extravagant promotions, John McGinnis, author of Accelerating Democracy, has some thoughts on the important informational benefits to our current campaign finance system. Read his post here:


Are Campaign Ads Worth the Money?

John McGinnis


It’s the campaign season and with it come the perennial complaints that there is too much money spent on politics, particularly on campaign advertisements. I am skeptical about this claim. Just as democracy is said to be the worst system except all the others, so a structure where candidates and groups can spend large sums to make their positions and that of their opponents known is the worse system of campaigning except for all the others.  In particular, it represents the only system we have for getting information about which candidates support which policies to the many voters who do not focus on politics except at election time and even then are hard to reach.

My book argues that democracy should take advantage of the computational revolution to improve information about policy results. Thus, a system of governance that promotes empirical testing of policies, prediction markets, and dispersed media on the internet, like blogs, can all help us better understand the likely consequences of policy and improve political choices. But to make the most difference, this information must get to voters at the election time.  But many voters are inattentive, particularly in a world that offers far more interesting distractions than politics. It is fact that very little money is spent on political advertising compared to advertising for material goods or for entertainment. Political advertisements must be numerous enough to break through a cacophony of nonpolitical information and that volume requires substantial funds to sustain.

Campaigns  and their advertising outreach are still the best way of reaching voters who mostly disregard politics.  Politicians and their supporters have incentives to inform them about the relevant policies and their consequences. To be sure, they will do so in a biased manner, but their opponents have incentives to correct them and they frequently do, running advertisements that show newspaper articles that debunk false claims. Sadly, the alternative to campaign advertisements is not a policy seminar but a beer commercial.

In my book I discuss the evidence that political advertisements make people better informed about candidates’ positions on policy.  Better information about policy consequences will not have much effect on voters if it cannot be connected to candidates’ positions on policies.  Political advertisements also directly address policy consequences, such as the state of the economy and its relation to policy. To be sure, they do so in a very rudimentary way, but these messages can be improved as the knowledge about likely the consequences of policies improve.    If empiricism and prediction markets can better evaluate policy results, political advertisements will focus on them more.  A President will be eager to tout that a market’s prediction that his election will lead to more economic growth than his opponent. A mayor will want to make it known that his school program has improved educational outcomes, according to the best empirical studies.   But campaign spending will still be necessary to convey this information by cutting through the clutter of nonpolitical information.

In my next post, I will address three possible downsides of permitting ample private money to pay for political advertisements—lack of disclosure, spending by special interests, and the excessive influence of the wealthy.


John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.


The Gamble authors liveblog the Presidential Debate at the NY Times

Authors John Sides and Lynn Vavreck were invited by the New York Times Campaign Stops blog to live-blog the Townhall Presidential Debate last night, alongside Stanley Fish, Gary Gutting, and Kevin Noble Maillard.

Sides contributes a post tracking voters’ perceptions of the candidates’ empathy: While Romney has made many strides in his likability, Sides shows that he continues to lag behind Obama in the key trait of empathy. Here’s a graph of his findings:

And Vavreck continues her examination of the undecided voter group in a post that argues that party affiliation is more important than we think when it comes to undecided voters.

She writes:
“As you can see, party identification is more closely related to vote choice for people who can make up their mind a year out from an election, but even among undecided voters coming to a decision, party is a strong driver. For each party, 65 percent of the self-identified partisans choose their party’s candidate, compared to a stunning 93 or 94 percent among those who decide well in advance.

Interestingly, independents who were initially undecided are breaking more heavily for Obama compared to the independents who were able to make an early choice (they’re evenly split). In general, each party group makes up about a third of the set of undecided voters (although independents are closer to 40 percent).”

These two posts demonstrate the value of data and scholarly analysis of that data in understanding what’s happening beneath the surface of the presidential campaign. Having access to this type of data during the election instead of months later (the machinery of academia moves slower than the news cycle), is invaluable and this is precisely why we’ve made two chapters from The Gamble: available months before publication.



The Gamble: The Hand You’re Dealt
John Sides & Lynn Vavreck



The Gamble: Random, or Romney?
John Sides & Lynn Vavreck


These ebooks are are available for free via the Princeton University Press web site and other retailers. Click through to see if they are available via your favorite retailer.


Quintus Tullius Cicero, campaign strategist and younger brother of the celebrated Roman orator, to blog live on Facebook during tonight’s presidential debate

Quintus Tullius Cicero, author of the bestselling campaign manual HOW TO WIN AN ELECTION: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians, will be blogging Live on Facebook during tonight’s presidential debate.

Here is a snippet from Quintus Cicero’s blogging session during last week’s running mate debate:
In Rome we had a very simple solution to the problem of public funding for health services for our citizens. There was none. If you had enough money, you got medical care. If you didn’t, you prayed to the gods you wouldn’t die.

Will the Ground Wars Help?

This weekend, the GOP plans a massive volunteer effort to make 2 million voter contacts, in the hopes of capitalizing on Romney’s strong performance in the first debate. But how important is personal campaign contact in this day and age? Is knocking on doors and making phone calls a quaint throwback to simpler times, or a powerful opportunity to sway the undecided voter? Rasmus Kleis Nielsen‘s new book Ground Wars is a look at how personalized political communication continues to impact electoral outcomes and with it, American democracy. Now as the presidential campaigns switch into high gear, he takes to Election 101 to look at how the ground wars are being waged, and to what effect, especially in the highly contested swing states.


Every Little Bit Counts…Especially for Romney

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen


The Presidential election is nearing the home stretch, and both campaigns know every little bit counts as most likely voters are finally paying attention. Barack Obama is ahead in the polls in every swing state, and the Romney campaign will have to pull off a major upset to win in November.

In the final weeks, the bulk of media attention will focus on the debates, the daily battle to control the news agenda, and the ads released by the two campaigns, but under the cover of this “air war”, both sides are also preparing the final offensive in the “ground war” waged to capture every last persuadable swing voter and make sure every single sympathizer turns out to vote.

On the ground, the Obama and Romney campaigns are pursuing the same goal, but by different means. Both want to make that extra phone call and door knock to reach the undecided and go that extra mile to make sure the so-called “lazy partisans” get off the couch and cast their vote. But the ways in which they do it differ in important ways.

Barack Obama’s field operation is building on the staff, technology, and volunteer infrastructure of his highly successful 2008 campaign. President Obama does not seem to inspire the volunteer enthusiasm that Senator Obama did, but his campaign is more experienced, more generously staffed, and has had four years to further fine-tune their organizing and targeting technologies and test their tactics (in the battle around health care as well as in select races in the 2010 mid-terms). Efforts by local Democrats and especially organized labor will complement the Obama campaign in important ways, but the backbone of the President’s field operation is controlled by the Chicago headquarter and has been developed over the last four years at a deliberate pace.

Mitt Romney’s field operation, in contrast, is not even technically his. The Republican ground game is instead organized primarily through the Republican National Committee, which has invested millions in offices in swing states, hundreds of staffers on the ground, and updated technologies for targeting voters and organizing outreach. In addition, Romney will rely on help from outside allies including American Crossroads, the National Rifle Association, and the Christian Coalition, all of whom are engaged in well-financed voter outreach programs to make sure various Republican constituencies are turned out for Romney. Like the Republican National Committee, these outside groups have been able to plan their field operations well before it was known who the Republican nominee would be, but they have not had the advantage afforded their Democratic counterparts, who knew exactly who their candidate was.

These two campaigns wage very different ground wars—one campaign is relatively centralized, organized around the party’s presidential candidate and his campaign organization, whereas the other is more decentralized, organized partly around the national party organization but also a number of important outside allies, with less involvement of the candidate’s formal campaign organization.

Interestingly, we have seen a similar confrontation before, between two very different field operations—in 2004. Back then, it was also the incumbent, the Republican George W. Bush, who fielded a relatively centralized ground operation fueled mostly by volunteers, whereas the challenger, the Democratic John Kerry, relied on a wider coalition build in large part outside his formal campaign or even the auspices of the Democratic Party and partly reliant on paid canvassers. In retrospect, the relatively centralized apparatus spearheaded in 2004 by Bush’s two key political operatives  Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman is widely seen as having been more effective than the more sprawling coalition that Michael Whouley at the Democratic National Committee and Steve Rosenthal at the temporary outside campaign organization (pre-super PAC) “America Coming Together” strove to coordinate.

That difference is worth keeping in mind when the numbers start rolling in from campaigns keen to talk up their own ground game. As Election Day draws near, you will hear more and more talk about how many staffers each side has working in the field, how many offices they have in the swing states, how amazing their new technologies for targeting are, and how many millions of contacts they have made.

Experimental research documenting the impact of door knocks and phone calls proves that all this matters, and the monumental investment made in the ground war reflects that campaign operatives are increasingly focused on using personalized political communication as an integral part of their communications arsenal.

But ultimately, the political ground war is, like most other conflicts, not only about quantity—it is also about quality, about which campaign is better organized to get the most out of every dollar, every staffer, every volunteer hour invested in the ground war. That’s why we need to pay attention to every little detail, including how the two campaigns are organized and how they collaborate with their outside allies. Everything suggests that the Romney field operation is better than the McCain ground game in 2008, and benefits from more outside support. The question is whether it is good enough, faced with what appears to be a generously funded, battle-tested and supremely well-prepared Obama campaign.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford and assistant professor at Roskilde University in Denmark.


More Guesstimating Election 2012

Lawrence Weinstein’s new book, Guesstimation 2.0: Solving Today’s Problems on the Back of a Napkin, shows how to estimate everything from how closely you can orbit a neutron star without being pulled apart by gravity, to the fuel used to transport your food from the farm to the store, to the total length of all toilet paper used in the United States — handy tips for anyone prepping for a job interview in technology or finance, or trying to astound their kids. Today he offers the next in his series of election-themed problems. Read on to see how to estimate an answer to  How many telephone robo-calls will be made during the campaign season? 


Question: How many telephone robo-calls will be made during the campaign season?


Answer: We could try to estimate this by considering each state individually, looking at the competitiveness of its elections in both the primary and the general election and considering the number of candidates running in each election. Voters in very competitive states would receive dozens of robo-calls and voters in other states would receive very few.  We could further break this down by estimating the proportion of households with land lines and with cell phones.  However, this is much too much work.


Instead let’s estimate that each household receives more than one and less than 100 robo-calls.  Taking the geometric mean, this gives 10 robo-calls per household.  The population of the US is about people giving about 108 households.  At 10 calls per household, this gives

N=(10^8 households) (10 calls/household)

=10^9 calls

of one billion robo-calls.  That seems like a lot.


At a mere ten seconds wasted per call, that is 1010 wasted seconds or 300 wasted years of our time!


Copyright 2012, Lawrence Weinstein.


Lawrence Weinstein is University Professor of Physics at Old Dominion University. He is the coauthor of Guesstimation: Solving the World’s Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin (Princeton).

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.

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.