Political Science and Journalism: Some Thoughts


The American Political Science Association's annual meeting has come to Washington, D.C., and I've been asked to participate on a panel about the interaction -- and lack of interaction -- between academia and the media. Usually, the interactions are short. Journalists will call a political scientist for a quote, attempting to add substance (or a patina of substance) to a story that is largely based on anecdotal evidence collection -- reporting. But do journalists, when writing about politics, use well-settled theories about the electorate as points of departure? Can political journalists tick down the leading theories about, say, presidential persuasion (Neustadt ... Barber, Cronin, uh ...)? And do academics (with a few exceptions) spend time inside the political bubbles? How does current history merge with the increasingly quantitative field of political science?

The moderator of the panel, GWU's John Sides, has asked each of us to come up with one example of something we've learned from political science, a specific question we wish political science would be able to answer, and a limitation, or a blind spot, that we want political scientists to notice about their own methods and thinking.

I've learned a lot from political science. For example: I tend not to write about candidates competing for "independents" anymore without pointing out how most people who consider themselves independent are behaviorally indistinguishable from people who identify with a political party. These are "leaners." The percentage of the electorate that is truly independent is often, contrary to popular belief, the least informed, and the least able to sift through competing claims. Nationalized American elections are about building party coalitions, about energizing (a journalism word) people who are predisposed to vote a certain way but, for whatever reason, do not. 

Political science does not have a good explanation for Sarah Palin, and while it can, in retrospect, apply its theories of candidate selection, it cannot tell us why John McCain believed that he could trust Sarah Palin, or why President Obama was so stubborn about health care. It cannot shed much light on the personality of a president and how presidential personalities effect governing and management. There are typologies, but they are created post-facto and aren't very satisfying. Historians can locate Sarah Palin fairly easily (as they can Glenn Beck) as the latest in a series of conservative populist candidates that have been revolting against elites from the days of Jacksonian America, but their stories are satisfying because journalists are predisposed to recognize patterns (even where they do not exist) and jump onto a narrative. Historians tend to be closer to journalists in using descriptive, reporting-based analysis, rather than the hard tools of social science, to answer questions.  

As for a blind spot, I really wish that political scientists spent more time interacting with the people they write about. The lived experience of politics and the academic representation of it often differ. Journalists and political scientists need to bridge the gap.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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