Pundits blanket the airways every election cycle with their profoundly thoughtful analyses of what the voters are expected to do on Election Day and why. But according to Stanford University political scientist, Dr. Morris P. Fiorina, pretty much every thing they know is wrong. I tip my hat to Molly Ball at The Atlantic for bringing this to my attention so that I, in turn, may do the same for you.
The Forum: A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics is a peer reviewed scholarly journal of political science offering "professionally informed commentary on issues affecting contemporary American politics". Last month, The Forum published a fascinating article entitled, If I Could Hold a Seminar for Political Journalists… which began with these intriguing remarks:
My wife hates presidential campaign season. Like many other political scientists (you know who you are), I carry on a running argument with election commentators on TV: “That’s not quite right.” “Not true in general.” “That is totally wrong.” “Not according to ANES data.” “Give me a break, what about the__ election?” And so on, and so forth.Follow me out into the tall grass for more of what Dr. Fiorina was talking about.
Here are some examples. Have you every heard the pundits and talking heads bemoaning the "polarization" of the electorate? Guess what. It just isn't so. Rather than being polarized, voters have become what political scientists call "sorted", something altogether different. As Dr. Fiorina explains, once upon a time, say the 1970's, both major parties contained liberals, conservatives and moderates. Since then, however, the electorate has become sorted, with all the liberals moving to the Democrats and all the conservatives moving to the Republicans with everyone winding up in the "correct" political party.
in common usage, polarization tends to connote a process of individual conversion – individuals move from moderate to more extreme positions as they listen to Rush Limbaugh or watch Rachel Maddow, for example.Another important point Dr. Fiorina makes is differences in election outcomes more likely spring from changes in the candidates available for the voters to choose from, rather than changes in the voters themselves. As he puts it "Kerry is not the same as Kennedy, and Bush is not the same as Nixon".
In contrast, sorting is more often a compositional phenomenon – rather than change their views, the categories to which people belong change. These correspondences certainly are not perfect; people could sort because they have converted on some important issue or convert on some issue because they have sorted for other reasons. Likewise, the two processes are not mutually exclusive
temporal comparisons made by election commentators often implicitly assume that any change in electoral behavior indicates a change in the voters, overlooking the fact that the change may be in the alternatives between or among which voters choose. 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? To some extent they did, according to ANES data, but the more important part of the story was that each party nominated a factional candidate who was strongly opposed by other factions of the party.In other words, changes in the choices available to the electorate account for the outcome much more than changes in the electorate itself.
Dr. Fiorina makes a number of other insightful points, including that independent voters aren't nearly as secretly partisans as most pundits hold them to be, that head to head polls and election results tell us much less about actual voter sentiment than we are usually told and that the billions spent on political media advertising makes a lot less difference than the pundits usually say it does.
The good doctor does have something positive to say about one at least one pundit, however, our very own Dear Leader, Kos whom he quotes for the proposition that pundits consistently overlook the fact that the people they encounter are simply abnormal, that is, each individual is ordinarily very little like any hypothetical average voter.
According to Markos Moulitsas (2012), founder of Daily Kos:I highly recommend that everyone read Dr. Fiorina's informative and intriguing article. For an alternative, check out Molly Ball's treatment of the article in The Atlantic.
Americans Elect and Unity 08 are history. No Labels an irrelevant joke. Despite repeated efforts by Beltway hacks to appeal to a mythical and nonexistent bipartisan “middle,” it’s clear there is zero appetite for such constructs from the American public.
And from the other side of the political spectrum, conservative commentator and author Stanley Kurtz (2012) concurs:
First, we need to understand that our political divisions are real and growing. They are rooted not in top-down political rhetoric but in profound and lasting social and cultural differences. For a while, analysts tended to make light of our polarization, fruitlessly predicting year after year that our culture war (still raging) was just about to end. If anything, the culture wars have expanded now to include the whole of politics.
Political journalists need to remember that most of the people they talk to professionally are abnormal, that is, that they are statistically far from the average. The political class comes from the tails of the distribution of American public opinion.
Finally, for those who like watching video more than reading about political science, please enjoy this excerpt from the immortal Firesign Theater's performance of Everything You Know is Wrong.