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On the Campaign Trail

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By Jack Feuer

Published Oct 1, 2012 8:00 AM


What factors will determine who wins the White House in November? And what will the 2012 presidential campaign tell us about the state of our political system? One of the nation’s most influential political scientists is breaking new ground in bringing academic insight into the hurly-burly of an American election as it’s happening.

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Journalists leave no stone unturned reporting on the day-to-day details of a presidential election. It’s dynamic and often entertaining. But the truth is not always out there.

Beneath the immediate sound and fury of campaign coverage are historical patterns that offer deeper and sometimes more meaningful insight into the politics of the present. Here, where political scientists do their work, the data often tell a different story than the one that dominates the news.

But researchers take years to analyze and publish their findings, by which time an election has long since faded from public discourse. However, in 2012, something entirely new is being added to the mix — an innovative, multi-platform effort by an acclaimed UCLA academic and her co-author to help shape the narrative of the presidential election in real time.

Lynn Vavreck, associate professor of political science and communication studies and director of the Center for the Study of Campaigns, and John Sides, associate professor of political science at George Washington University, are writing The Gamble, an account of the 2012 campaign using digital data collection to deliver rapid response political analyses of the election as it happens.

“It seems so obvious, right?” Vavreck says about her big Gamble. “We view ourselves as being observers of the process, and then we go off and write books about it three years later when the process is over. And nobody cares anymore. It’s like we’re just writing for each other.”

New ideas about how to research politics and analyze data are old hat for Vavreck, whose 2009 book The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns was called “path-breaking” and “required reading.”

We asked the sought-after researcher about her new book, the dynamics of the 2012 election, the state of American politics in general — and how a smart kid from Cleveland was bitten by the politics bug.

"This Has to Stop"

From the time she was about 5 throughout high school, Lynn Vavreck’s dad took her family to Mexico for vacation. It was there that Vavreck had the first of two childhood epiphanies about politics and its effect on people’s lives.

In the summer of 1974, the Mexicans were having a presidential election and Vavreck, about 7 years old, saw “posters everywhere and placards and billboards.” She also befriended a girl at the pool whose father was a chef at the hotel where the Vavrecks were staying. For Lynn’s dad, it was what today we might call a teachable moment — literally.

He asked the little girl’s dad if Lynn could accompany her to school for a couple of days. The young Mexicana’s dad agreed and Lynn went. She was too young to understand that it was a developing country, but she certainly noticed a lot of differences.

“As we were leaving on that trip,” she recalls, “I said to my dad, ‘It’s really good that they’re having a presidential election, because I hope the people can elect a president who will help them and make life better for them.’ And my father said, ‘Well, you know it’s not a real election. They’re kind of fake.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, they’re fake?’ He explained that one party was in control and nothing was really going to change. That bugged me, the disingenuousness and the charade. I felt bad for the people in the school and their families. They were so poor and they didn’t have clean water. And they were being taken advantage of by the people who were supposed to be helping them.”

Back home in Cleveland, because her parents didn’t want young Lynn to be sitting around on Saturdays just watching cartoons, she was sent to a nearby Ukrainian school. Not being Ukrainian, the youngster knew nothing about that people’s suffering — and it was considerable — under the iron thumb of the Soviet Union. But she learned fast.

“The Soviets won’t let them practice their religion; they won’t let them speak their language,” Vavreck recalls. “So that was my second example of government taking advantage of its people. These experiences really lodged in my mind and a little bit in my heart and soul. I guess I wanted to make sure that never happened here. ‘Somebody’s got to be on top of this. This has to stop.’ ”

What Moves Doesn’t Always Matter

The data upon which Vavreck and Sides are building The Gamble are being collected online every week through a partnership with YouGov, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Internet market research firm, and disseminated via a blog called “Model Politics.” The weekly surveys are taken from a representative sample of 1,000 people and began in December 2011. They will continue until November.

There’s No Such Thing as a Sure Thing

Questions are distributed every Friday and results come in every Tuesday, so the researchers can analyze the data quickly and then post blogs about the findings on “Model Politics” (linkable from the upper right-hand side of today.yougov.com. They will also appear on The Huffington Post). About 10 political scientist bloggers are working with Vavreck on the project.

The first three chapters of The Gamble — an introduction, a chapter on the political landscape leading up to the election and an analysis of the Republican primary — are already available for download at www.thegamble2012.com and at press.pup.princeton.edu. The complete print and electronic versions of the book are scheduled to be published in the spring of 2013, well before most scholarly accounts of presidential campaigns appear.

The book’s title actually refers to more than one gamble. There’s the one the electorate will make on November 6, placing their political bets on an incumbent in a slowly recovering economy or on an unknown quantity who claims he can do better. But the real gamble is Vavreck’s unconventional concept of making political science part of the process in the heated now of a national campaign.

“It’s not that journalists get things wrong,” Vavreck explains. “They don’t. [But] they’re a bit like frogs. Frogs can only see things that move. Nothing is as boring to a reporter as something that stays the same day after day. But in elections a lot of the things that drive outcomes are the things that are stable.”

Vavreck offers this recent example: “The percentage of [people saying they would vote for] Mitt Romney stayed at 25 percent throughout the summer, through Rick Perry’s boomlet, Cain’s boomlet, through Bachman, through Newt Gingrich’s first and second boomlet, through Santorum — totally steady. That was very uninteresting to reporters. ‘He’s hit a ceiling. He can’t break through.’ But when we see that, we say, ’25 percent in a seven-, eight-person race, stable over all that time, over all the momentum built up by all these other candidates? That guy’s getting the nomination.’ ”

Most pundits assume the economy will be the decider in 2012. It is true that if you were ”predicting aggregate election outcomes,” as Vavreck describes it, for every presidential contest since 1948, and you based your prediction on the state of the economy in the first six months of every election year, you’d be right 75 percent of the time. But, she adds, “A coin flip will get you a 50-50 chance So [placing your bet based on the economy] gets you an extra 25 percent. But that’s not 100 percent. The economy is a backdrop in front of which the play of the campaign will be carried out. But what the two candidates do and who they are in this play does matter.”

She continues, “An incumbent in a growing economy can blow it by not saying, ‘I’m the guy who brought you prosperity.’ In 1976, the economy favored Gerald Ford’s reelection, but he didn’t talk about it. And he pardoned Richard Nixon. So Jimmy Carter, governor of Georgia, peanut farmer, could come in and say, ‘This guy’s an insider.’ That only worked because of who Ford was and who Carter was.”

In some way, shape or form, in fact, we are being told daily how different 2012 is going to be from other elections. But again, Vavreck counsels that we proceed with caution about these declarations. “All of the things that you hear about that are going to make this year different from all of the others — the slow recovery, the Eurozone crisis, the high level of unemployment — all of that is largely irrelevant,” says the UCLA researcher. “In 2008, it was, ‘But he’s black!’ ‘She’s a woman!’ In 2004, it was, ‘But we’re fighting two wars!’ Every election, people come up with these exceptional points that mean we should throw out all the past data and that the pattern is irrelevant. My job is to say, ‘No, the pattern is the pattern. There are always things like this.’ ”

It Ain’t Broke, But We Still Fixed It

Another meme that’s burrowed deep into the public perception of the state of our politics is that the system, battered by polarization, is hopelessly broken. But Vavreck reminds us of at least two other periods in modern American history where trust in government was as least as low, and maybe lower, than it is now: Watergate and going into the Clinton presidency. However, she does agree that there’s been a dramatic change in our politics — one that we the people probably brought on ourselves.

“There used to be a lot of people in the middle in Congress from both parties,” Vavreck says. “There were Republicans to the left of Democrats and Democrats to the right of Republicans. But in the ’50s and ’60s, we talked about how we really wanted responsible, accountable parties. Well, guess what? It’s pretty clear now what it means to be a Republican or Democrat in Congress. We wanted accountable politicians and now we have them and people don’t like it because there’s no middle. And most voters will tell you they prize compromise. It’s a little bit of ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ ”

So no, the system isn’t hopelessly broken. “That’s why I like what I do,” concludes Vavreck. “The data and the evidence are a real reality check. We [compare] what we’re going to do in The Gamble to the movie Moneyball. We could buy into all these myths and anecdotes about politics, just like people think hitters get on hot streaks and pitchers who don’t have pretty girlfriends are not going to be great pitchers. These kinds of myths exist in politics, as well. But when you bring the data to bear on them, you can see [what really] drives elections. And chances are, it’s not going to be which guy has the prettiest wife.”

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