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”.

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.

A Mix-tape for Our President

An Election wrap-up from Jennifer Lena, author of Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music

“A wise man once said, “never discuss philosophy or politics in a disco environment.”” Frank Zappa interview with Grace Slick on Rockplace (11 February 1984)

In celebration of the end of a long election season, I created this mixtape for our returning President, Barack Obama. For those who have never heard of a mixtape, they are compilations of songs designed for a particular purpose (e.g., as a romantic gesture, to celebrate an accomplishment). The term derives from the 1980s when cassette tapes were the medium in use, although music fans now create mixtapes on CDs and on social media platforms like Spotify.  The thematic link between the songs listed below are the issues our new (and returning) President is likely to consider during his next term in office. The list isn’t exhaustive, and I’ve balanced the thematic relevance of each song with its aesthetic quality and my desire to highlight examples of excellent pop music. Where possible, I’ve included a recording of the song, but readers should note that some songs include profanity and should listen to them before playing the songs around children.


1. “Letter to my countrymen,” Brother Ali (Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, 2012).


“I used to think I hated this place/Couldn’t wait to tell the president straight to his face.” Brother Ali, and many other Americans, enter Obama’s second term feeling as if the American Dream has slipped through their fingers in recent years, or never thought it was their dream to have. Ali’s song is a hopeful and mature response to the disappointments of life in America—eight lines in, he admits: “I wanna make this country what it says it is.” He’s concerned about the corrosive effects of two myths: that of American exceptionalism, and of meritocracy and individual achievement. In the lingering wake of the Occupy movement, and while we are still in what some call America’s “Second Gilded Age,” the President need to lead us in a conversation about privilege—whether it comes from the color of your skin or the class of your parents, and criticize this still-popular notion that we get up on our own.


2. “Reagan,” Killer Mike (R.A.P. Music, 2012).


Obama faces a crisis of legitimacy in some parts of our country. You might argue this is a problem that Nixon created, but this particular president continues to face challenges from Birthers, those who doubt his Christian faith, despair from his handling of the economy (and from a rogue’s gallery of conspiracy theorists with some truly odd ideas).  Rapper Killer Mike lost his faith in the presidency in the 1980s, a transformation he describes in a song titled “Reagan.” Using two audio samples from Regan’s denial and later acceptance of his administration’s exchange of arms-for-hostages, the song’s lyrics chart the political development of a young man watching the Iran-Contra affair and then the war on drugs, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…and at each step, his distrust of, and anger against, the government grow stronger. The lyrics speak to a number of issues the new president must consider, but it’s strongest and longest attack is reserved for the culture of incarceration: “thanks to Reaganomics, prisons turned to profits/Cause free labor is the cornerstone of US economics.” America leads the world in incarcerating its citizens. According to one estimate, we had 5% of the world’s population in 2008, but a full quarter of its prisoners.  One in 100 American adults is in prison, and that number jumps to about 5 of every 100 adult African-American men (and 9 of every 100 black men between 25-40).   The incarceration of citizens affects not only the criminal and his family, but also taxpayers: the costs of incarcerating so many Americans are enormous. By one estimate, California spent $4 billion more on prisons than on the state college systems in 2011. It costs that state less than $10,000 a year to educate a student, while housing, policing, and (hopefully) reforming a prisoner costs over $45,000 per inmate.


3. “Watching the Detectives,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions (My Aim is True, 1977)*.


Privacy laws have arguably not kept up with technology, and the post-9/11 era has been one in which politicians must balance citizens’ civil liberties against the value of new police technologies designed to keep us safe.  In recent months, the ACLU is among those organizations and citizen’s groups that have appeared before government panels to take a stand against these threats, including warrantless wiretapping, domestic drones, and face recognition technology. The new President should consider these issues while listening to Elvis Costello and the Attractions, 1977 hit song “Watching the Detectives.”


*“Watching the Detectives” was released as a UK single in October 1977, but wasn’t on the album; in the U.S. version of the album, it was the last track on the A-side.


4. “Price Tag,” Jesse J (Who You Are, 2011); “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” Bob Dylan (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965).


One of the more controversial legal decisions in recent years was “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.” The new president will consider campaign finance reform and challenges to the notion of corporate “personhood” from those who think money is not speech. For a soundtrack to this discussion, I recommend Jesse J’s huge hit song “Price Tag:” “Seems like everybody’s got a price/ I wonder how they sleep at night/ When the sale comes first and the truth comes second.” Or, if he’s in a more mellow mood, Bob Dylan’s just the thing to remind him that “money doesn’t talk, it swears.”


5. “The City Consumes Us,” The Delgados (Universal Audio, 2004)

According to the U.S. Census, eight out of every 10 people lived in a metropolitan area in 2010, and more than one in 10 lived in either New York or Los Angeles.  We might think America’s culture is defined by its heartland, it’s “breadbaskets,” or its “prairies,” but most of us live in concrete jungles. “Watch how the city consumes us,” sing the Delgados, “Watch how the city destroys us,” and yet, it is a “cost I am happy to pay.” The list of great songs about cities is too long to share, but here are some of my runners-up: (1) the live version of Mano Negra’s “Guayakill City,” (2) Brazilian Girls, “Internacional,” (3) “Chocolate City,” Parliament, (4) almost the entire Jay Z catalog including “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” and, of course, “Empire State of Mind,” (5) “Living for the City” (Stevie Wonder), (6) “Every Ghetto, Every City,” Lauryn Hill, (7) “Detroit Rock City” (Kiss), and (8) “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns n’ Roses, perhaps the best song ever written about Los Angeles.


6. “Disparate Youth,” Santigold (Master of My Make-Believe, 2012)


Although Santigold’s 2012 single “Disparate Youth” is not a commentary on climate change, it is one of the changes she despairs in this tremendously good song. “Don’t look ahead, there’s stormy weather/ Another roadblock in our way/But if we go, we go together/Our hands are tied here if we stay.” According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we can expect temperature rises, more frequent heavy rainfall events, more serious summer-drying and drought, less snow and sea-ice, and the retreat of glaciers and ice-caps.  Our hands are tied if we stay.


7. “All Falls Down,” Kanye West (The College Dropout, 2004)


Remember when George Bush told us that the best response to 9/11 was to fly and go on vacations? Now that millions of Americans have found themselves unable to afford their mortgages, the time is right to have a national discussion about consumer spending and debt. America’s consumer debt rose to $13 trillion in the second quarter of 2012, just $2 trillion shy of our country’s total yearly economic output.  Kanye West has a message for our new president, in his 2004 song “All Falls Down:” “It seems we living the American dream/But the people highest up got the lowest self esteem/The prettiest people do the ugliest things/For the road to riches and diamond rings/We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us/We trying to buy back our 40 acres/And for that paper, look how low we a’stoop”


8. “Fire Fire,” M.I.A. (Arular, 2005)


The U.S. Census Bureau set the official poverty rate in America at 15.1% in 2010, with over 46 million of our nation’s citizens falling below that threshold. Our president might heed the concerns of British-Sri Lankan-American pop artist M.I.A., who has developed a reputation as a voice of the poor and oppressed. Any one of the songs from her chart-topping 2005 album Arular, 2007’s effort Kala or 2010’s Maya would provide our new president with a frank examination of poverty and its consequences on political activity, daily life, gender relations, and family. “Fire Fire” is one song that warns of the dark side of poverty: the militarization of the poor—a theme that reflects M.I.A.’s concern about the persecution of her native Tamil people, and echoes themes in contemporary Americans’ concern about Islamic fundamentalism: “You shoulda been good to me,” M.I.A. sings, in the persona of a young rebel, “Then I wouldn’t get so rowdy rowdy/ You shoulda kept ya eye on me/ Then I wouldn’t get so baddy baddy.”


9. “Once in a Lifetime,” Talking Heads (Remain in the Light, 1981)


The Baby Boomer generation is aging, and the Census estimates the dependency ratio (the number of people 65 and older to every 100 people under 65) will climb rapidly in these two decades (from 22 to 35).  By 2030, one in five Americans will be over 65. David Byrne fronts the Talking Heads in their classic song about change, and time, and getting older: “Time isn’t holding us, time isn’t after us/Time isn’t holding us, time doesn’t hold you back.” If you prefer something with more…jazz fingers…try Tom Lehrer’s “When You Are Old and Grey.” The president will, of course, consider the impact of our rapidly aging baby boom generation on health care policy, and for this, I suggest Loudon Wainwright III’s “My Meds.”


I’ve considered adding a song to speak to the issues faced by Hispanic-Americans; only Mexico (112 million) has a larger Hispanic population than the United States (50.5 million in 2010) and that population is expected to grow to over 130 million by July 2050.  Of course, our education system is perennially the subject of public discussion, along with our financial and immigration systems, and the problem of bullying and self-inflicted harm in the LGBTQ community (especially among the young), to name a few of many issues.


Our second term President faces an extraordinary number of challenges, which I’ve only started to address in the above. I need at least another five songs to finish my playlist—what should they be?


This post was inspired by Dorian Warren and includes suggestions from R. L’Heureux Lewis, and Daniel Radosh.

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.

“Racial Resentment” and the Undecided Voter by Lynn Vavreck (at Campaign Stops blog)

Lynn Vavreck has a terrific article at the Campaign Stops blog charting the influence of “racial resentment” on the likelihood that individual voters will vote for President Obama.

She defines racial resentment as “one of a set of regularly used political science measures of attitudes about race. It is born from the concept of symbolic racism, which has its share of critics. Essentially, it is a scale of four survey questions asking people to agree or disagree with questions about whether ‘generations of slavery’ have made it hard for blacks to work their way up the economic ladder – or whether blacks would be as well off as whites if they only ‘tried harder.’”

The data looks like this:

What does it mean?

Vavreck explains that the data show “the racial attitudes of undecided voters do not affect their vote for or against Obama as dramatically as those same attitudes affect otherwise-similar early deciders. On the one hand, this could be interpreted as more good news — another blow at the caricature. Perhaps undecided voters are truly post-racial. If race mattered to them as much as it does early deciders, they’d have already made up their minds, as the more partisan do. Maybe these voters are the ones who have moved ‘beyond’ race, at least in terms of their candidate selection.”

Read the complete, informative piece here:

Robert Goodin and the Settling of a President

First the Republicans had to settle for Mitt Romney. And today, for those in both parties still not feeling inspired by either candidate, it’s time to settle once again. But is that really such a bad thing? Robert Goodin‘s On Settling, called by The Wall Street Journal a “gentle meditation on a subject that is larger and more controversial than it may at first seem”, suggests that although we live in a restless culture that worships a ‘shoot for the stars’ ideal, settling is actually how we get anything important done. Life is about choice; Goodin says it’s time to make one. If you still need inspiration to head to the polls, read his post here:



The Settling of a President

Robert Goodin


The story of the 1968 presidential campaign, after the dead bodies and tear gas were cleared away, was “the selling of the president.”  The intrusion of marketers and big money into politics, an increasingly familiar phenomenon over the intervening decades, has ratcheted up several notches yet again this year.  Still, the real story of the this election lies elsewhere, in “the settling of a president.”

If Dr King was the dreamer and Senator Obama the dream, President Obama is perforce the doer.  Soaring rhetoric inspires, but hard slog is what gives words practical effect.  As president, Obama settled in and settled down to work, leaving the lofty speeches behind.

As President Reagan said of naps, so too President Obama could well say of speeches:  you can’t have one every day.  Many who were attracted to the inspirational messaging find themselves bored by the mundane doing.  In one way, that is to mistake the nature of the job.  If it’s a weekly message of hope that you’re after, take yourself off to church, not the president’s press conference.

In another way, it is right to be disappointed that as president Obama has laid so very low rhetorically. Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt’s book of that title taught JFK, is the power to persuade.  Ironically, given his gifts, failing to explain and persuade people of the fundamental principles underlying his policies is perhaps the greatest failing of Obama in his first administration.  With congressional opponents who have sworn an oath of blind intransigence, appealing over their heads to the people at large is the only way forward.

As president, Obama has settled down not just rhetorically, but in other ways as well.  Any president – indeed any one of us – must settle for what we can realistically be done.  Of course we shouldn’t set our aspirations too low and settle too soon or for too little.  But inevitably, we have to accept some unfortunate features of the world as fixed, for now, in order to focus our energies elsewhere.  Attempting everything at once we would accomplish nothing at all.

The whole point of settling in some dimensions, however, is to enable us to strive more successfully in others.  Settling in every dimension is just plain “giving up.” Grubby deals are needed to get things done, anywhere.  But if there is nowhere Obama as the Great Compromiser is willing to draw a line in the sand, nothing he is simply not prepared to settle for, then the dream invariably seeps into the sand.

Citizens settle in an election, too, however.  Life is a series of choices among imperfect options.  Despite all the disappointed hopes, I will for my part settle for Obama.  He’s the best one on offer.  I’ll hope for better, if not in his wake (I do not expect to see a more able person in the White House in my lifetime), then perhaps in his second term.


Robert E. Goodin is professor of government at the University of Essex and distinguished professor of philosophy and social and political theory at Australian National University.

Voting matters even if your vote doesn’t: A collective action dilemma

Voting is a good example of the kind of large-scale cooperation among non-relatives that makes our species so unusual a member of the animal kingdom. In their new book Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation, Lee Cronk and Beth Leech explain that cooperation is stymied by two things: coordination problems and collective action dilemmas. In their previous post on this blog, they explained how ballots solve a coordination problem by allowing people to cast their votes strategically, i.e., for candidates who may not be their first choices but who have some chance of attracting enough votes to win. In this post, they take a look at voting as a collective action dilemma: Why do we vote when our chance of having an individual impact is so small?


Why Bother to Vote?

Lee Cronk and Beth L. Leech


On Tuesday, well over 100 million Americans will go to the polls to vote (or will have voted already through early voting options).  They will do so despite the fact that voting takes time, effort, and preparation. They will need to figure out where their polling place is. They will need to find time before or after work or while the kids are at school to travel to that place. They may have trouble finding parking. They may have to stand in line. And they may worry whether they know enough about issues and whether they are making the right choice.

Each voter goes to this effort despite the fact that the chance that his or her vote will affect the outcome of the presidential election is infinitesimally small.  One scholarly estimate puts the chance that a given vote, even in a battleground state, will change the course of an election at 1 in 10 million.  Why, then, does anyone actually bother to vote?

Collective action dilemmas arise whenever everyone in a group would like some public good to be produced while also preferring that others in the group do the work to produce it.  The problem becomes worse whenever the group becomes large and whenever the impact of each individual contribution is low.  Voting in a large, democratic society thus should pose a collective action dilemma in the extreme.  The “paradox of voting,” as described by political scientist Anthony Downs more than a half century ago, asks why voting does not pose more of a collective action problem than it does. Clearly the costs exceed the benefits for the individual voter, and clearly the individual has little impact on the election outcome.  And yet, if no one voted, democracy would collapse.

Fortunately for democracy, many people tend to overestimate their own efficacy. One well-known study documenting this tendency comes from political scientist Terry Moe, who  found that members of the economic organizations he surveyed tended to overestimate the extent to which their own dues and other contributions would help the organizations achieve their goals.

Why do people tend to overestimate their own efficacy?  One possible evolutionary explanation of this finding begins with the simple observation that most people are not particularly good at understanding large numbers. Why would they be? Although the modern world may force us to deal with large numbers every day, for our ancestors, who lived in small groups and had no money, small numbers were the order of the day. Even today, many languages have counting systems that amount to nothing more than “one,” “two,” and “many.” Thus, even something as commonplace and essential to today’s society as voting may rely upon the difficulty we have with large numbers and our resulting tendency to overestimate the impact that our vote will have on an election’s outcome.

Another possible reason why we tend to overestimate our individual efficacy arises from an evolutionary insight regarding the way we make mistakes. Ideally, natural selection would have designed our minds with the ability always to make the right decision, accurately weighing the costs and benefits of our different options. In reality, we make errors, and those errors come with costs. If the cost of making one kind of error is much larger than that of making another kind, selection pressure on how we make that kind of decision will be asymmetrical. A tendency to make more of one kind of relatively low-cost kind of error rather than more of a relatively high-cost kind may be a design feature, not a flaw, of the human mind. This is the idea behind error management theory, developed by evolutionary psychologist Martie Haselton and her colleagues. Another evolutionary psychologist, Randy Nesse, explains the idea with an analogy to smoke detectors. You might like to buy a smoke detector that only goes off when there is a true emergency and not simply when you are making toast, but in reality such a perfect smoke detector is impossible to design. Given a choice between a smoke detector that sometimes goes off when there is no real threat of a fire and one that sometimes fails to go off when there is a real threat of one, which would you choose?

Applying this idea to Moe’s observation, it may be that the error of contributing to a public good and having that contribution not bear fruit is often a small price to pay compared to the error of failing to help create a public good from which one would have benefitted greatly. Given that our ancestors lived in small groups, this could easily have pushed our psychology in the direction of erring on the side of participation by overestimating the degree to which our contributions really matter to the success of the collective action. Thus, an additional reason why we vote may be that the cost of voting is so small that it is worth paying on the off chance that one’s vote will actually make a difference. Something to keep in mind on November 6.

Lee Cronk is professor of anthropology at Rutgers University. He is the author of That Complex Whole: Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior. Beth L. Leech is associate professor of political science at Rutgers University. She is the coauthor of Basic Interests: The Importance of Groups in Politics and in Political Science (Princeton).

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.

[Video] A quick history of voting rights in the United States

Source: Democracy

This is a terrific quick video showing the progression of voting rights from 1776 to now. Princeton University Press books are also a terrific source for more information on who votes and why in the 21st century. Here’s a quick reading list:

New Faces, New Voices

The Hispanic Electorate in America
Marisa A. Abrajano & R. Michael Alvarez
Why Movements Succeed or Fail
Opportunity, Culture, and the Struggle for Woman Suffrage
Lee Ann Banaszak
Creating a New Racial Order

How Immigration, Multiracialism, Genomics, and the Young Can Remake Race in America
Jennifer L. Hochschild, Vesla M. Weaver & Traci R. Burch
Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State

Why Americans Vote the Way They Do
Andrew Gelman
Pocketbook Politics

Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America
Meg Jacobs
Still a House Divided

Race and Politics in Obama’s America
Desmond S. King & Rogers M. Smith
Strength in Numbers?

The Political Mobilization of Racial and Ethnic Minorities
Jan E. Leighley
Latino Catholicism

Transformation in America’s Largest Church
Timothy Matovina
Not Even Past

Barack Obama and the Burden of Race
Thomas J. Sugrue

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.