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.

Political Science Blog the Monkey Cage to Join the Washington Post

Sides_TheGamble3 After more than five years of independence, yesterday the prominent political science blog the Monkey Cage told its readers that it will become part of the Washington Post.

The Monkey Cage has grown in popularity through its unique blend of journalism and academic research, spurred by a group of political scientists’ attempt to “indulge [their] non-academic interests” and cultivate a blog with a “‘personality’ that extends beyond political science,” according to their mission statement.

“[T]he Post offers a tremendous opportunity both to increase and broaden our audience and to improve our content,” said John Sides, cofounder of the Monkey Cage, in a blog post. “We think that it will be a great place to continue the blog’s mission of publicizing political science research and providing informed commentary on politics and current events.”

Sides is coauthor of forthcoming The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election with Lynn Vavreck. Using an unusual “moneyball” approach, they look beyond the anecdote, folklore, and conventional wisdom that often pass for election analysis. Instead, they draw on extensive quantitative data about the economy, public opinion, news coverage, and political advertising to separate what was truly important from what was irrelevant. Combining this data with the best social science research and colorful on-the-ground reporting, they provide the most accurate and precise account of the election yet written—and the only book of its kind.

Garnering posts from various contributors, the blog is maintained by four political scientists in addition to Sides, including Andrew Gelman, author of Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.

Stay tuned to the Monkey Cage for more groundbreaking political commentary and Princeton University Press for The Gamble, out next month.

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”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I summarized this here.

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

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

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

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

6. Campaign events can move the polls. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brink Lindsey discusses his new eBook HUMAN CAPITALISM with Glenn Loury on Bloggingheads

Exclusive excerpt from The Democracy Index demonstrates how lack of election data impacts policies to combat voter fraud

Download an exclusive excerpt from this book,

A New-style Reformer Encounters
an Old Problem

Now that the candidates are selected and the campaigns are well underway, it seems as though politicos are turning an eye to the actual process of voting, and more specifically to ways to combat voter fraud. Pennsylvania is the latest state to require photo identification at the polls, a move that some view as disenfranchising voters in a key state with lots of electoral votes in the mix. In this exclusive excerpt from The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing and How to Fix It, Heather Gerken describes an earlier battle over voter ID laws (the Carter-Baker Commission) to illustrate what happens when you don’t have good data on which to base public policy.

Chuck Myers, Group Publishers of the Social Sciences, provides some additional context:

According to the polls we are facing a very close presidential election in which a few votes in a couple of swing states could determine who our next president will be. And yet our system of voting and counting our votes is a patchwork of local jurisdictions employing various technologies often of dubious quality that manages to lose or miscount thousands of votes in each election.

In addition, allegedly because of fear of possible voter fraud, many states are actually making it harder for citizens to cast their ballots, depriving more voters of their franchise. When an election is a lopsided contest, a few thousand votes one way or the other might not make any difference; however as we saw in Florida in 2000, in a close election miscounted votes–or voters who don’t even have a chance to vote because of their failure to meet purely technical requirements like having an official photo ID– have a real impact.

In The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing and How to Fix It, Heather Gerken explores the problems created by our mismanaged electoral system and offers a solution to the problem, a solution driven by creating competition among jurisdictions for creating systems of voting that make it easier to vote and more certain that the votes will be accurately counted. She calls for an investment in collecting extensive data on the scope of the problem as well as the issue of voter fraud and then sets up a democracy index that will rank jurisdictions according to how well they perform in allowing Americans to perform a basic rite of citizenship.


Click here to download the PDF, A TALE OF TWO REFORMERS: A New-style Reformer Encounters an Old Problem.


From A TALE OF TWO REFORMERS: A New-style Reformer Encounters an Old Problem:

Spencer Overton’s problem is that he is fighting for change in a world without data. Indeed, he found himself in the middle of one of the biggest election reform battles we’ve seen in recent years—one that made it all the way to the Supreme Court—and lost in large part because he didn’t have the data he needed to make his case.

The fight was over voter identification—the requirement that voters show a government-issued photo ID when they cast a ballot at the polls. Voter ID has been a significant source of contention in election circles. Conservative commentators insist that an ID requirement deters fraud. Liberal commentators counter that the requirement is a disguised effort to suppress (largely Democratic) votes.* The rhetoric on both sides of the issue has been quite heated, with one side talking about stolen elections and the other side equating ID requirements with vote suppression.

Overton became embroiled in the issue when it was taken up by the Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former Democratic president Jimmy Carter and former Republican secretary of state James Baker. Though most of the members of the bipartisan commission had strong political ties, it included a handful of academics, including Overton.

The Carter-Baker Commission eventually staked out a position on voter ID that looked an awful lot like a political deal. It roughly tracked the compromise that would emerge if a prominent Democrat and a prominent Republican sat down to work out something both sides could live with. The commission blessed the ID requirement (something Republicans usually want) while demanding that the state take affirmative steps to distribute IDs (something that Democrats would want if forced to accept an ID requirement).

Deal or no deal, the main problem with the commission’s position was that it was utterly unsupported by empirical evidence. A pure political compromise can be produced without coming to grips with the empirics; a sound decision cannot. Although the commission did an excellent job of amassing data on how our election system is run in many areas, this was not one where it managed to find much. As the commission itself stated, there is “no extensive evidence of fraud in the United States.” To the extent there is any evidence of fraud, it is almost entirely due to absentee voting scams or ballot-box stuffing, not the type of fraudulent in-person voting that photo ID is supposed to deter. The only other justification that the commission offered for its decision was that a photo ID requirement would enhance public trust in the system. That claim, too, was unsupported by empirical evidence (and may have been misplaced).

Overton did his best to persuade the other members of the commission not to endorse an ID requirement. Most advocates contesting voter ID have simply invoked civil-rights rhetoric. Overton called upon that tradition, but he mainly focused on the kind of cold-blooded cost-benefit arguments that conservatives stereotypically use. Working with the Brennan Center, he tried to amass data on the effects, good and bad, of photo ID. When he failed to change the majority’s mind, he published a forcefully worded dissent. I saw Overton a day after the fight went public. I’ve never seen anyone more exhausted.

The reason Overton faced such an uphill slog is that the data were haphazard and inconsistent. As he discovered, “No systematic, empirical study of the magnitude of voter fraud has been conducted at either the national level or in any state to date.” Nor were there any good studies on an ID requirement’s effect on voter behavior.

*That’s because many people from traditionally Democratic constituencies—poor people, racial
minorities—lack a driver’s license and would find it cumbersome to get an ID.

Check out the new animated cover for The Gamble by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck

As noted in an earlier post, we are trying something completely new by publishing e-chapters from The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election well ahead of book publication, so why not try something new with the jacket as well? Here you have the perfect image for a book about the close presidential election, the teetering White House alternately dipping to the red and blue.

To delve into the debates over animated book jackets, try these links:

Has Kindle Killed the Book Cover?, The Atlantic:

Is the Book Cover Dead?, Technology Review:

Gorgeous re-imagined Picador jackets:

Designers on Book Covers of the Future:

Another animated jacket for a YA novel,

I couldn’t find too many other animated book jackets — do you know of others? Leave a link in the comments below to other animated book jackets.


Free E-chapters available from The Gamble by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck

Princeton University Press has never shied away from trying new things when it comes to academic publishing and our latest venture, The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election by Lynn Vavreck and John Sides is no exception. That Princeton University Press would publish a book of analysis by two top notch political scientists isn’t news, but the way we’re doing it certainly is.


Anyone who follows politics and particularly Election 2012 knows that political pundits are everywhere. But you probably also know that their analysis is often either based on anecdotes and personal experience or seems biased toward one political party’s views. This is all the more reason we need objective, scholarly analysis by accomplished political scientists. However, a typical political science book from an academic press about the 2012 election might appear two to three years from now, well after interest in the election has faded.


“Political scientists have much to offer all of us in understanding how voters make choices, what impact campaigns have on elections, the role of big money, and the role of political parties and interest groups in elections, among other issues. And yet nearly all the work is published years after the elections take place,” notes Chuck Myers, Executive Editor and Group Publisher of the Social Sciences at Princeton University Press


So, we are pushing the limits of academic publishing by releasing several free e-chapters from the book as they are completed. The result is peer-reviewed scientific analysis in real-time and a chance to inject a dose of reality into a discourse too often dominated by speculation and folklore.


Download THE GAMBLE: “The Hand You’re Dealt” here:

Download THE GAMBLE: “Random, or Romney?” here:


THE GAMBLE gives political science a voice in the ongoing conversation about this campaign,” says Sides. “It brings hard data to bear and casts doubt on a lot of commentary and conventional wisdom.”


“If you want to understand what’s happening in this election, you have to understand the data,” explains Vavreck. “We have great partners in YouGov and General Sentiment providing us with mountains of data that we can analyze to help readers understand what really mattered and what did not.”


The first two e-chapters of THE GAMBLE“The Hand You’re Dealt” and “Random or Romney”—begin to tell the story of the 2012 presidential election.


“The Hand You’re Dealt” describes the lay of the land at the end of 2011, as we enter into the election year. Sides and Vavreck explain why President Obama may be better positioned than a weak economy would typically predict.


“Sixty years of economic and election data tell us this should be a close election for President Obama, but his general likability and the public’s inclination to blame his predecessor for the economic downturn are making him more popular than we might expect given the slowly growing economy,” explains Vavreck. “People just generally like President Obama, and in a close election, that could make all the difference.”


“Random or Romney” challenges the “anyone but Romney” myth. It demonstrates that, despite the surges of candidates like Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich during the fall of 2011, by the eve of the Iowa caucus Mitt Romney was well-positioned to win. And in contrast to commentators who emphasized Romney’s problems with conservatives, Sides and Vavreck show that conservative Republicans had more favorable views of Romney than did moderate Republicans—suggesting that he would ultimately be able to unite the party, as in fact he has.


“What most people don’t understand is that Romney went into the primaries popular and stayed popular. He was already a familiar candidate to the media, so they tended to pay more attention to the other candidates whenever they did something noteworthy. The news coverage helped the other candidates surge in the polls, but their temporary surges didn’t mean Romney was disliked within the party,” says Sides. “Another myth is that Romney needed help in mobilizing the base. The data tell us that this is not really true.”


“The Hand You’re Dealt” and “Random or Romney” are now available at Princeton University Press’s website and through online retailers. Additional chapters that discuss the rest of the GOP primary, the summer campaign, the selection of Paul Ryan as Romney’s running mate, and the conventions will be available closer to the election. In total, four chapters from THE GAMBLE will be released prior to the publication of the physical book in September 2013, and Sides and Vavreck hope that this early material starts a dialogue with readers.


Myers expands on this novel publishing program, saying, “We hope that the finished book will benefit from the comments of our readers, taking advantage of ‘the cloud’ to improve the analysis and the presentation of the story of the 2012 presidential election.”


The book’s web site:


About the Authors:


Lynn Vavreck and John Sides are authoritative voices on voting behavior and campaign effects in political science. Vavreck (, @vavreck) is Associate Professor of Political Science and Communication Studies at UCLA and is author of The Message Matters and co-author of Campaign Reform: Insights and Evidence, & The Logic of American Politics. In 2003, she helped start an online survey research company that became YouGov/America, and in 2010 she co-founded Model Politics, a political blog dedicated to bringing data to bear on contemporary questions. She has been interviewed in the media on campaigns, elections, and media research.


Sides (, @monkeycageblog), an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University, is a leading authority on public opinion and voting behavior in the United States and abroad. He is co-author of Campaigns and Elections: Rules, Reality, Strategy, Choice and is co-founder of and contributor to The Monkey Cage, an award-winning blog about politics and political science. He is also an occasional contributor to the 538 Blog at the New York Times and Wonkblog at the Washington Post. His writing has appeared at the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Review, Salon, the New York Daily News, Al Jazeera, the Washington Monthly, the American Prospect, and Bloomberg View and he has been interviewed in the media numerous times in recent years.

Martin Gilens discusses Affluence and Influence on The Rachel Maddow Show

Martin Gilens appeared on The Rachel Maddow this past Monday to discuss his new book Affluence and Influence:
Economic Inequality and Political Power in America
with guest host Ezra Klein. In his book, Gilens analyzes decades of polling data and proposed policy changes and shows that when the preferences of the rich diverge from the preferences of the poor and middle class, the government responds staggeringly to the affluent. His book raises some very important questions about economic and political inequality, topics sure to become talking points leading up to November’s presidential election.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Our love-hate relationship with Compromise

Do citizens value compromise? Americans are ambivalent about it. That is the most striking pattern revealed in surveys of public opinion in recent years. The ambivalence shows itself in public attitudes toward politicians who compromise and also toward compromise itself. In a typical survey, the vast majority of Americans said they prefer leaders willing to compromise, but at the same time two-thirds of all the respondents also said that they “like politicians who stick to their positions, even if unpopular.”

For the complete excerpt, please visit

Are these conflicted feelings about compromise to blame for Senator Lugar’s upset in Indiana?

Some news reports have suggested that Lugar’s openness to compromise may have played a factor in his stunning loss to challenger Richard Mourdock (“Mr. Mourdock’s campaign was fueled by Tea Party groups and national conservative organizations that deemed Mr. Lugar too willing to compromise” writes the New York Times).

And Mourdock, for his part, is already trumping his unwillingness to compromise in places like The Hill:

Mourdock, who won in part on the strength of the Tea Party, also predicted there won’t be much compromise in the next Senate.

“I recognize that this is one of those times where there is great polarization between the two parties, and frankly the ideas for which the parties are working are really at opposite ends of the spectrum — I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of successful compromise,” Mourdock said on CNN’s “Starting Point” Wednesday.

“You never compromise on principles — if people on the far left have a principle they want to stand by, they should never compromise. Those of us on the right should not either,” he said.


Yet, history tells us that successful government requires compromise, so where does this leave us?

For a more circumspect take on the role of compromise in government, check out this exclusive excerpt at from The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson.



Q&A with Amy Gutmann & Dennis Thompson on The Spirit of Compromise

Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson kindly agreed to answer a few questions about their forthcoming book The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It. If you have any of your own follow up questions, please leave a note below and maybe we’ll have a chance to get them answered soon.

PUP: Why did you write this book?

Amy Gutmann & Dennis Thompson: A central theme of our earlier writing—and a major challenge for any large democracy—is how people who deeply disagree can come together to make laws. Compromise has to be part of that process. It was only through difficult and often painful acts of compromise that the Constitution was written and ratified and the United States charted a course over the past 223 years. That is an unmatched achievement in a country that is so large, diverse, and oftentimes divided. But in recent years, it struck us that an essential lesson of this success has been forgotten. The difficulty of compromise is built into the democratic process itself, but so is the need for compromise. A better understanding and appreciation of compromise might be especially useful in this time of political polarization.

PUP: Is refusing to compromise a recent phenomenon in American politics or have politicians always had this problem?

AG & DT: Compromise has always been difficult. The successful bipartisan tax reform compromise of 1986, which the book offers as a model, was certainly not easy. But key leaders (President Reagan, House Speaker Tip O’Neil and others) were able to put their minds to governing rather than campaigning. In recent years this has become less common and more difficult. One reason why is that campaigning has come to dominate governing more than ever. The 24/7 news cycle, unlimited flows of money into political campaigning, and polarization all feed what has come to be called the “permanent campaign.” Every day is effectively election day. Political leaders are always finding it necessary to act with the next election cycle foremost in mind. This makes compromise increasingly difficult. Even when politicians may be willing to compromise, they are loath to admit it. As Speaker Boehner has said, “I reject the word.”

PUP: How can you expect Congress to compromise when the public seems to be demanding that their representatives just stick to their principles?

AG & DT: It is true that most Americans say they want politicians to stick to their principles. But they also say they want politicians who are willing to compromise to get things done, and they strongly disapprove when politicians—even those whose principles they support—refuse to compromise to head off a crisis. The attacks of 9/11 and the world financial meltdown of 2008 brought both parties together to make difficult choices, which the vast majority of the American public supported. Most recently, faced with the risk of government default on its debt in the summer of 2011, even a majority of Tea Party supporters (the group typically most opposed to compromise, according to polls) said that they would support a compromise that included tax increases as well as spending cuts. Yet every candidate running in the Republican presidential primary declared they were not willing to accept even one dollar of increased revenue for every ten dollars of tax cuts. So the public is often ahead of the politicians on the question of compromise.

PUP: You compare two historic compromises that many readers will have personally experienced – tax reform under President Reagan and health care reform under President Obama. What do these examples tells us about compromise at large?

AG & DT: Both tax reform and health care reform required politicians to compromise more than they expected when they began, and both sides had to overcome their mutual distrust. Both also show that major compromises are a lot less pretty than most politicians’ favored rhetoric about finding common ground suggests. Compromise almost always requires mutual sacrifice in order to achieve mutual gain. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 was a bipartisan political compromise in which members of each party gave up some things they valued. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 was a compromise exclusively among Democrats with all Republicans in the House and Senate voting against it. Reaching a compromise on health care was at least as hard as reaching one on tax reform: there were strong disagreements among Democrats about single payer options, expansion of Medicare and many other issues. But in American democracy when a major policy compromise is forged solely within a single party, its political durability is more precarious. The continuing threats to dismantle the law, and a raft of court challenges, culminating in a decision by the Supreme Court, indicate some of the problems that result when attempts at bipartisan compromise fail.

PUP: How does the election cycle affect the spirit of compromise?

AG & DT: Campaigns are the ultimate winner-take-all events; to the winners go the spoils and to the losers go defeat. An uncompromising mindset during a campaign enables a candidate to stake a clear difference from opponents and can help rally supporters to the cause. To the pollsters, pundits and promoters of permanent campaigning, compromise is a threat to their reason for being. It’s now the era of the permanent campaign. When members are not openly campaigning, they are out raising money. When the campaign mentality dominates, the spirit of compromise cannot get any traction. All are looking to the next election all the time, hoping that their party will win complete control, and not have to compromise. This is a fantasy, but that doesn’t stop many from fantasizing.

PUP: Why should anyone worry so much about the failure to compromise in politics? Especially conservatives who do not want to see more laws passed anyhow?

AG & DT: The main reason to worry is that a persistent failure to compromise biases the political process in favor of the status quo and stands in the way of desirable change. And that does not mean that nothing changes. It just means that politicians let other forces control the change. In the deeply divided politics of 2011, rejecting congressional compromise on raising the debt ceiling would not have left the economy unchanged. Almost no major change can happen without major compromises. Without compromise on health care and taxation or other major issues, the status quo prevails, even if it preserves a policy that serves everyone’s interests poorly and even if it leads to a major crisis. Conservatives need the results of compromise as much as liberals. In the modern welfare state, those who want less government have to legislate to get it, and that usually means they have to compromise. No one is always satisfied with the way things are. The only reason to privilege the status quo as a general rule is the fatalistic belief that any change is bound to make things worse. In politics this is not realistic in the long run. In today’s world, with its many looming problems, this is an especially dangerous illusion even in the short run.

PUP: Does your praise of the compromising mindset mean that you want to see more moderates and fewer partisans in politics?

AG & DT: Because American politics has become so polarized, it could help the cause of compromise if moderates were more influential, and if the extremists did not dominate as much as they do. But that is not necessary to improve the prospects of compromise, nor is it our main point. The compromising mindset is quite compatible with holding strong partisan positions. Despite standing consistently and firmly on the right and left wings of their parties, Senators Kennedy and Hatch managed work together to produce some of this nation’s most important health legislation. During the nearly two decades in which they alternated as either chairman or ranking member of the Senate committee concerned with health care, education, and labor issues, they cosponsored many significant legislative initiatives, including measures that provided support for victims of AIDS, created the children’s health insurance program, and established protections against discrimination toward individuals with disabilities. We do not want to see the uncompromising mindset banished from politics. Our book also emphasizes that it’s an important part of democracy, not only in campaigns but also in social movements, political protests, demonstrations, and activist organizations. The uncompromising mindset is a problem only when it take over the business of governing, as it is doing now, and makes desirable compromise impossible.

PUP: What institutional reforms do you propose for improving the prospects of compromise in our politics?

AG & DT: We discuss several proposals in the book, including incentives to encourage members of Congress to spend more time together, modifying the filibuster, changing the rules of party primaries and campaign finance, and promoting better civic education. Most of these reforms have been proposed for other good reasons as well. What we argue in the book, which has not been widely recognized, is that any major institutional reform will require compromise, and that means that some change in mindsets must come first. There is a kind of political catch-22 here. To make any major institutional changes, especially those needed to encourage compromise and tame the permanent campaign, politicians have to compromise. To get out of this bind, at least some politicians will have to take the lead, and adopt a different attitude toward compromise. They will have to appreciate the dynamics and logic of compromise better than many do now— and in ways we describe and analyze in the book. You don’t have to be a political philosopher or political scientist to appreciate the basic point. In an earlier uncompromising era, a more popular group of thinkers known as the Beatles got it just about right: “You tell me it’s the institution. Well, you know. You’d better free your mind instead.”

PUP: Who do you most hope reads this book and what do you want them to take away from it?

AG & DT: Like Judy Woodruff, we wish (as she generously wrote) that “every policymaker would read it.” Just as important are citizens, especially students and other young people who will set the tone and lead our politics in the future. We of course are under no illusion that our book, or any single intervention, will change the toxic political climate that makes compromise so difficult. But we do hope that those who read The Spirit will come away with a greater appreciation of what makes compromise so difficult—the uncompromising mindset that stand in its way—and also a better sense of why it is so necessary and why we need more of the compromising mindset that can move democratic politics forward for the benefit of all of us.