What academia can teach us about politics

A man dressed as Captain America at aTea Party rally near the U.S. Capitol Reuters

You can't find a Food Network stew any richer than when political scientists gather: vector autoregression analysis, word of growing cheating on political surveys, talk of faked orgasms, and microscopic parsing of President Obama's speeches meld with revisionist takes on the Tea Party.

It happened again when the Midwest Political Science Association drew 5,000 attendees from around the globe to an annual Chicago gathering. The high-brow feast concluded Sunday but not before hundreds of panel discussions and the surfacing of 4,239 academic papers.

Yes, 4,239, and with lots of footnotes, graphs and vector autoregression analyses. Closing my eyes and randomly picking just four papers in the event's 574-page, phonebook-like program, I give you the following:

"The Effects of Teachers' Race on Adolescent Risky Sexual Behaviors," "The Impact of State Politics and Policy on Fossil Fuel Plant Construction," "Out of Africa: Electoral Failure and the Future of Political Islam in West Africa," and "Political Knowledge of Local Courts: Are Rural Voters More Informed than Urban Voters?"

But this spoiler alert: Show up at one of these -- and, as best as I can tell, I am the only journalist in America who does routinely -- and one may actually come away wiser. You might have second thoughts about some of the media's ironclad assumptions as we dissect politics, especially in an election year, not to mention learning a lot about very different topics, be it decision-making in the German court system, the long-ago efforts of Spinoza and Locke to liberalize Christianity or psychological roots of somebody self-identifying as a libertarian.

Those qualms about our elections involve how much campaigns really matter, especially given the time and energy the media spends on them; how much Americans really care (not all that much) about politics; the assumed impact of negative advertisements; and even the power of the presidency.

When I asked John Mark Hansen, an astute political scientist at the University of Chicago, about what he'd most like to know about the rest of the presidential campaign, he didn't mention how Mitt Romney will do with women, Latino turnout for Obama, policy toward Iran, impact of the Citizens United campaign finance decision, social media, targeting of independent voters, terrorism or trends in swing states.

No, he'd like to know figures about third-quarter personal income growth. That, he thinks, will be a truly significant predictor of who wins. "It's a primary predictor of election outcomes---the better personal income growth, the higher the vote share of the incumbent party."

And "don't overestimate Americans' attentiveness to politics," said John Sides of George Washington University and a prime contributor to the Monkey Cage, a nifty blog on political science. "They are not learning the sorts of detail that reporters (or political scientists) are professionally obligated to learn."

Sides and I were on a roundtable about the possibilities of inspiring more dialogue between political scientists and journalists, and melding a bit more social science into the incremental obsessions of daily reporting. In sum, both could profit greatly by a more active, ongoing relationship and blame can be shared for insufficient communications.

Lynn Vavreck of the University of California at Los Angeles even wondered about the utility of her perhaps running a one-day "boot camp" for political journalists so that the academics can diplomatically vent about all the stuff they feel most political reporters and their editors are missing.

That includes exaggerating the effectiveness of attack ads and of campaigns in general. "This is most in evidence in news coverage of presidential general elections," said Sides, "where I think the ability of campaign events to change voters' minds is routinely overestimated."

As for the power of a president, especially his rhetorical clout, academics who have studied the matter generally think that the bully pulpit is just not anywhere near as powerful as people think. Indeed, here's a Monkey Cage post about just that.

Of course, believing that a president's words aren't as potent as White House reporters must professionally assume, lest their self-images as critical middlemen in public understanding plummet, doesn't stop academics from parsing every word.

Indeed, I sat through one presentation, by a University of Pennsylvania academic, titled, "It's Not the Economy, Stupid: Rhetoric, the Economy and Presidential Approval" that tried to meld an analysis of every sentence (and there aren't all that many) spoken on race by President Obama with data on his approval ratings and the state of the economy.

At another session, I was rather nonplussed by a young Indiana University academic's offering, "Barack Obama, Coffee Drinker: Tea Party Influence on Presidential Rhetoric," in which he claimed to have dissected a variety of Obama speeches for "conciliatory" and "combative" assertions and even came up with a "net combativeness" measure.

In sum, a president who captivated many by deriding red state and blue states divides is becoming less conciliatory in his rhetoric, in case that seemingly obvious reality had passed you by.

And in case you were still wondering how Obama beat John McCain in 2008, a Florida professor disclosed that he's now concluded that the factors included these: it was the Democrats' year, a message of change resonated, the Democrat raised more money, McCain was too old, youth were energized and Sarah Palin bombed.

But that's not to say our firm convictions, even of recent events, don't deserve reconsideration. A paper by a quintet at Duke University [pdf] struck David Darmofal of the University of South Carolina as an exemplar of the annual gathering's strength as it moves well behind a tale of the 2010 congressional elections as focused solely on the Tea Party to underscore that blame and responsibility played differential roles in the voting decisions of Republicans and Democrats.

As the paper noted, most media and scholarly takes emphasize the unpopularity of the Democrats' policy agenda as the catalyst for the huge Democratic losses. But the persuasive paper from the Duke colleagues shows that while for many Republicans and Tea Party supporters, voting revealed primarily anger toward Obama and his party, the elections were not simply a reaction to that agenda but revealed far more complex assessments of individual candidates and the two main parties.

For sure, that doesn't necessarily mean that voters were very well informed in casting their ballots, a suspicion underscored at one of many sessions that touched upon the state of Americans' political knowledge.

The one I dropped by got into the methodological weeds and in part broached the possible unfairness of pollsters relying solely on words.

Markus Prior of Princeton University came armed with a draft of his new work, "Visual Political Knowledge: A Different Road to Competence," suggesting that questions only using words, and not visual cues, may shortchange those with less formal education.

His research includes asking questions with photos. So instead of just inquiring, "What is the position held by Nicholas Sarkozy?" one might use his photo and ask, "What position is held by this man?" or perhaps ask using both his name and his photo. There tend to be more correct answers when a photo is included.

The business of cheating came up via Brad Gomez of Florida State University, who served as the "discussant" for the knowledge panel. That meant he followed and critiqued the four presentations by Prior and professors from the University of Texas, University of Pennsylvania and Wayne State University, meant to help them refine their papers for ultimate publication.

Gomez noted the tendency for a relatively small but apparently rising number of survey respondents to cheat on Internet and mail surveys. When it comes to the Internet, "It's pretty clear people are cheating," especially when they at first don't know an answer.

Robert Luskin of the University of Texas referred to "cheating on steroids" when it comes to both Internet and mail surveys, with respondents perhaps googling a response or asking a nearby family member for help. "You're not necessarily getting the respondent who was randomly selected," he said.

You would need steroids, and a free pass to the hotel Starbucks, to get through a slew of the sessions at a gathering that included a dinner speech by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and is also a de facto jobs fair as the young and aspiring network and seek employment.

The job market in the field is oversupplied, if not as much as elsewhere in academe, such as in sociology or history. Too many schools are probably producing too many PhD's. The stress felt by graduate students is all the greater amid budget cuts at state universities, financial challenges at private colleges and universities and with some ongoing developments that may limit the number of tenure track positions even available.

Not needing to be perky and socialize, I did begin dozing off during a mildly provocative session about voting. It included research on whether support for a statewide proposition to ban gay marriage in California was any better among citizens who cast their votes at churches serving as polling places (unclear) and the impact of a candidate's name being first on a ballot (quite clear, it helps, but depends a bit on whether he's a major or minor party candidate and if the race is nonpartisan).

But I was fully focused at a panel on "Political Impacts of Targeting Voters with Material Benefits," a look at buying votes during recent elections in Honduras and Argentina, as well as on the heavy-handed ways of various authoritarian regimes. I have a soft spot for unvarnished larceny.

There was a catchy-sounding paper, "They Didn't Steal that Election, They Bought it Fair and Square," by three University of Missouri at Kansas City academics. And the opening slide for their oral presentation included this unavoidable, far-from-pedantic quote:

"The wives of United Russia party members don't fake orgasms. They falsify them."

As best I could tell, their point was that the received wisdom in the field treats authoritarian regimes as false democracies. In fact, said Mona Lyne, "We believe authoritarian regimes are democracies that haven't got there yet" and that have their own distinct pressures to deliver real benefits to their constituents.

Their thesis was subjected to characteristically diplomatic but firm questioning by their discussant, a hallmark of these proceedings; as if a reporter were grilled for 20 minutes about the draft of a years-in-the-making investigative piece.

The Kansas City trio will go back and recraft their thesis and documentation, even if one desperately hopes that they don't ditch the line on fake orgasms. Fortunately for them, and those interested in politics, graft and corruption should endure in Honduras, Argentina, Russia and elsewhere.

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