5 False Assumptions Political Pundits Make All the Time

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From voter polarization to campaign ads, a political scientist calls out the mistaken notions commonly perpetuated by election commentators.

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If following the 2012 presidential election sometimes made you want to scream at your television, imagine how political scientists felt.

As they watched, helpless, the pundits paraded across their screens, spouting theories about the way politics works that academics know to be wrong. In the words of Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford: "Like all election seasons, the 2012 campaign was rich in commentary that was at odds with or unsupported by findings from political science."

Fiorina is the author of a recent article published in The Forum, a political-research quarterly, that seeks to dismantle some of the most widespread misconceptions. It's called, fittingly, "If I Could Hold a Seminar for Political Journalists ..." (I came to it from a link on George Washington University Professor John Sides's invaluable blog The Monkey Cage, which educates journalists about political science on a daily basis.)

If you're a pundit, someone who loves a pundit, or a cable-news viewer who enjoys feeling smarter than the people you see on TV, here's what you can learn from Fiorina's analysis.

1) The electorate is not "polarizing." It's "sorting."

An electorate is "polarized" if voters are increasingly drawn to extremes -- the right getting more conservative, the left getting more liberal, and moderates dwindling. An electorate is "sorted" if voters are increasingly settled into ideological camps, that is, conservatives are almost all Republicans, liberals almost all Democrats.

Pundits talk all the time about "polarization," but it's not happening. As Fiorina points out, the percentage of Americans who call themselves "moderate" is the same as it was in the 1970s (the American National Election Studies survey has put it at between 20 and 30 percent since 1972). Nor are we more divided when it comes to issues. In the words of a 2012 Pew study, "The way that the public thinks about poverty, opportunity, business, unions, religion, civic duty, foreign affairs, and many other subjects is, to a large extent, the same today as in 1987. The values that unified Americans 25 years ago remain areas of consensus today, while the values that evenly divide the nation remain split." The commonplace idea that Americans today are irrevocably divided into politically extreme camps just isn't the case.

What has happened to the American electorate in recent decades is sorting. A few decades ago, there were thriving factions of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, among both voters and their elected representatives; that is to say, the parties themselves were internally diverse. Nowadays, however, ideological consistency is the rule. This is the real reason behind many phenomena commonly, and incorrectly, attributed to "polarization," Fiorina points out, such as the massive decline in ticket-splitting. Today, voters are likely to find that all the candidates who agree with their views belong to the same party, whereas in the 1970s, many House and Senate candidates didn't have much in common with their party's presidential nominee. Sorting also accounts for voters' increased party loyalty. They haven't necessarily become more rigid -- they're just more likely to find all the candidates they support concentrated on one side of the aisle.

There's an important footnote to this discussion: While voters haven't become more polarized, Congress has. There are far fewer moderates in the House and Senate, and members have increasingly inclined toward the ideological extremes.

2. Candidates change more than voters do.

Commentators, Fiorina observes, often point to swings in voter preference as evidence that voters are changing. But voters are more often responding to their changing slate of choices. "Did Republicans defect more than usual in 1964 (Goldwater) and Democrats more than usual in 1972 (McGovern) because their party identifications experienced a sudden weakening in those years?" Fiorina asks. Not really -- what happened was that in each case, the candidate in question was too extreme to appeal to the broad spectrum of his own party. That's an obvious example, but it applies just as well to Bush-Kerry or Obama-Romney. Claims about the electorate "swinging" toward one ideology or another are likely to be overblown.

This observation also applies to the common lament about the tiny swath of "swing voters." You often hear how few voters are willing to change their minds according to polls -- a commonly cited figure is 10 percent, and in the 2012 presidential campaign pundits often noted that even fewer voters told pollsters they were undecided or persuadable. But that's likely because the nature of the choice before them was, in a word, easy. They made up their minds early on. A vivid example from Fiorina:

In 1984 (Reagan v. Mondale), some surveys indicated that the number of swing voters was in the single digits, but 8 years later, nearly 20% of the electorate swung against both major parties and supported Ross Perot. Did the voters change that much in 8 years? Or more likely, did a large number of them arrive at a different decision when given a different set of choices?

3. Independents aren't partisans.

Here, Fiorina is arguing in part with his fellow political scientists, some of whom have suggested that most voters who call themselves "independents" are really just partisans who don't like labels -- that is, they tend to vote for the same party just as often as party members do.

Not true, Fiorina says, based largely on his own research that finds that those who identify with a party, even weakly, are more consistent in both their voting and their views than those who call themselves independent, even if the independents "lean" toward one party or another.

It's true that self-described independents are more likely to have a partisan leaning than to be "pure independents" -- centrists who find themselves equally sympathetic with both sides' views. But the "independents" are still more independent than the partisans on either side.

4. "Division" is easy to overstate.

Because President Obama received 51 percent and Mitt Romney 47 percent of the popular vote, many have conjured visions of a country in deadlock. But as Fiorina notes, "closely divided" and "deeply divided" are two different things. This goes with his earlier point about polarization: Many people (as many as ever) are not strongly partisan, and might like both candidates almost equally, but in the voting booth, they have only two choices, and will choose the one they prefer, however slightly. "I suspect that when the relevant analyses are performed, they will show an American citizenry that was less intense about its candidate preferences in 2012 than in 2008, and certainly one less intense than in 2004," Fiorina writes.

Along the same lines, the world of cable news that dominates many journalists' frame of reference isn't the world most voters inhabit. Even if every Fox News viewer voted for Romney, Fiorina notes, that would still mean that more than 58 million of Romney's 61 million voters "did not watch Fox News last night," and nearly 64 million of Obama's 65.5 million supporters didn't watch MSNBC.

5. Campaign ads really, really, really don't make much difference.

In this part of the paper, Fiorina's exasperation becomes palpable. Political scientists have studied the effect of campaign media for decades and consistently found it to be very small. But that doesn't stop commentators from talking endlessly about the potential effects of ads. "I shall say no more about this, because given the long history of the disjunction, it is doubtful that academics could change journalists' minds about this subject if they had a whole semester," Fiorina huffs. "Who are they going to believe: academic researchers, or their own eyes and ears?"

Fiorina cites voters' relative immunity to political messaging as evidence that the electorate, by and large, "is not stupid." Voters are often ill-informed, it's true, and not particularly interested in politics most of the time. But that doesn't mean they're easily duped or bad at making reasoned judgments in the end. As Fiorina can't resist jabbing: "The collective electorate manifests a degree of knowledge and wisdom that gives those of us who have studied that electorate for decades some cause for optimism. If only I could say as much about the knowledge and wisdom of the political class."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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