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The Return of Local Political Party Organization: Does the 21st Century look like the 19th?

November 12, 2012 9 comments

As the post-election analysis season begins, political scientists, pundits and campaign consultants will offer several explanations for why President Obama won, and Governor Romney lost. One interpretation offered for President Obama’s win in Ohio was that Obama’s campaign had a much more extensive and effective ground operation. Looking at a map of the Obama and Romney field offices in Ohio reveals a possible (but not definitive) explanation of Obama’s relative advantage over Romney. As Politico.com reports,

Obama campaign officials noted Wednesday that they had years to build up a field operation that was often not visible to the other side. The director of Obama outreach to African-Americans in Ohio oversaw a barber-shop and beauty salon program that helped register new voters and distribute literature. A Congregations Captains Program helped the campaign arm supporters in traditionally African-American congregations with what they needed to mobilize other parishioners.

“Obviously there was still room to grow,” said an Obama campaign official. “We didn’t reach 100 percent capacity in 2008.”

Politico’s post cites Molly Ball’s late October article in The Atlantic Monthly where Ball quotes Obama national field director Jeremy Bird about the ground operation:

“Our focus is on having a very decentralized, organized operation as close to the precinct level as possible,” Bird said. In addition to all those offices, the campaign operates out of dozens of “staging locations,” many of them the living rooms of neighborhood leaders who have been working with their volunteer teams for a year or more, fanning out into the communities they know firsthand.

“Community organizing is not a turnkey operation,” Bird says. “You can’t throw up some phone banks in late summer and call that organizing. These are teams that know their turfs — the barber shops, the beauty salons; we’ve got congregation captains in churches. These people know their communities. It’s real, deep community organizing in a way we didn’t have time to do in 2008.”

What is revealing about this analysis (at this point) is how similar Bird’s description of political party organizing is to political party organizing in the late 19th Century. Then, as now, mobilizing voters through decentralized precinct level political party organizations is an effective way of winning elections.  Despite the nationalizing focus of presidential campaigns, the inclusion of global social media, and the extensive use of data mining and micro-targeting of potential voters, electoral politics—in key ways—remains a low-tech, locally based, decentralized activity. As former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil once reported his father telling him, “all politics is local.”

But is all politics still local? What lessons, if any, does the Obama ground game hold for future elections? On the one hand, many of the problems of politics still confront people at the local level: good paying jobs in the communities where people live, the quality of local schools, affordable housing. Yet, the forces that shape local life (and the solutions to local problems) increasingly appear to come from state, national and global levels. Will decentralized, but nationally affiliated political parties re-emerge as the associations best able to give local citizens meaningful control over local, regional, statewide, and national political processes? Did they ever disappear?

Does It Matter If Political Scientists Publish Great Blogs?

October 23, 2012 9 comments
Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

Two things happened yesterday that have me thinking about the multifaceted relationship between Political Scientists, our students, colleagues, and larger audiences, and the world of politics, government, and public affairs that we study.

The first is that Time Magazine’s Technologizer blog published its annual list of 25 best blogs. Technologizer recognized two blogs written and published by political scientists among its “25 Best Blogs 2012.”  There among blogs devoted to Bookshelf Porn and What Kate Wore you will find The Monkey Cage and Daniel W. Drezner, two of the most prominent blogs produced by members of the political science profession. Technologizer heaped great praise on The Monkey Cage:

 Sharply written and often well illustrated, The Monkey Cage provides a valuable service that’s remarkably rare even in the age of information saturation. It flags publicly available social-science research that’s relevant to the news of the day, presenting theory and data in easily digestible bites. Launched by George Washington University political scientist John Sides in 2007 to publicize his field, the blog has evolved into a hub for academic myth busting of overhyped campaign coverage and is a useful resource for anyone who wants to understand the cogs of democracy.

As far as Drezner, who teaches at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and blogs at the Foreign Policy website, is concerned, Technologizer is just as laudatory:

You don’t need to be an expert on the subject to find his work rewarding. He’s adept at explaining tricky matters in a clear, concise and engaging fashion. He also links to worthwhile posts elsewhere, whether he agrees with them or not. And his far-flung approach to his topic even lets him review bad prime-time TV shows.

The Monkey Cage and Daniel W. Drezner are just two excellent political science blogs. You can find others in the list of links on this blog’s sidebar.

The other reason I have been thinking about the importance of blogging for political scientists was a comment that I saw on Twitter after last night’s foreign policy debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. (By the way I was live tweeting the debate @ProfessorBly.) It’s now common for journalists, including journalists like Andrew Sullivan who are primarily bloggers, and the campaigns to tweet instant reactions to the debate, do on-the-fly fact-checking, and spin the results when the debate is over. During the post-debate spinning, which is now a ritual at these events, one journalist tweeted that he didn’t know why the campaigns bothered having surrogates spinning the results in person when everybody was watching their Twitter feeds to see how the debate was being spun! In fact, that’s just what I was doing, partly so I could turn the TV to the top of the 9th inning in the NLCS, but mostly because Twitter allowed me to sample more reactions, points of view, and spin arguments faster than I could possibly have done by channel surfing between FoxNews, CNN, MSNBC, and the rest. Plus, being able to avoid Sean Hannity and Chris Matthews must be counted a plus.

So here’s where I make my pitch that, yes indeed, it does matter if political scientists are producing great blogs.  I’m indebted for much of what follows to an article that Charli Carpenter of University of Massachusetts Amherst and the unavoidable Drezner (that’s right, the zombie guy) published two years ago in International Studies Perspectives. The article is called “International Relations 2.0: The Implications of New Media for an Old Profession.”

Social media like blogs and podcasts are increasingly becoming a way for political science scholars to share and test their ideas before presenting them as conference papers or publishing them in professional journals. Not only does this mean that scholars will have to develop new skills in developing and sharing their research, it can also open opportunities for a wider spectrum of scholarship in political science to get into public circulation. See for example the provocative blog The Disorder of Things, which is devoted to critical inquiry of global politics, and Front Porch Republic, a blog of communitarian political theorists who are devoted to recapturing civic space for the “overlapping local and regional groups, communities, and associations that provide a matrix for human flourishing.” Both of these blogs carry on interesting, serious conversation that enrich political science.

And as Technologizer points out, blogs like The Monkey Cage, Daniel W. Drezner, and others are particularly good at showing how what political scientists have learned can help everyone better understand politics, government, and public affairs.

Social media are also changing the ways instructors and students work with one another. As blogs become a more established part of political science literature, students will have to learn both how to read blogs and other social media formats and how to write for them. Outlets like PolicyMic have been established to give students a platform for producing blog content, YouTube style videos and other social media output about public affairs. To be relevant to their students’ lives and careers, college professors will need to be nimble in learning how to evaluate, use, and teach others how to use blogs, Twitter, YouTube, and platforms that have not even emerged yet.

Finally, social media are becoming an increasingly important part of the world of politics and government that we study. One of the most contentious foreign policy questions during the current presidential campaign is the hypothetical relationship between an inflammatory anti-Islam video posted on YouTube and the terrorist attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya. Did the video provide a pretext for a carefully planned attack? Did it lead to a fairly spontaneous reaction that provided terrorists an opportunity to attack? Did the video have any significance at all? Questions like this are becoming important for political scientists to study.

Or to bring things closer to home, watch The Digital Campaign, an online documentary from the PBS Frontline series that explores how political campaigns use information about voters mined from Facebook and other online sources to precisely target their messages to individual voters.

Blogging and other social media production will be more and more important in Political Science, a fact recognized by the International Studies Association (mostly political scientists who study IR). ISA has decided to give an annual prize for the best blog in the International Relations subfield. Now that’s serious.

League of Women Voters Candidate Forum

You can watch videos of last night’s candidate forums with Congressman Jerry McNerney (D) and his challenger Ricky Gill (R) and with Assembly candidates K. Jeffrey Jafri (R) and Susan Eggman (D) here. [Ed.: Better quality video will be coming soon.]

Watch for special guest appearances by Prof. Bob Benedetti and Prof. Keith Smith.

UPDATE: Some of the coverage: KCRA, the Record, and Capital Public Radio will be discussing the forum on today’s (10/16) Insight.

UPDATE 2: Here’s the Capital Public Radio story.

[If I ever figure out how to embed video, we’ll get that up so you can watch it all here.]

What would a Polkian presidency look like? | FP Passport

September 6, 2012 Leave a comment
English: Picture of James K. Polk

English: Picture of James K. Polk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What would a Polkian presidency look like? | FP Passport.

Who knew that anyone even remembered President James K. Polk?

Of course, it’s not the mid 19th century anymore and no president can perfectly adopt another administration as a template (See Barack H. Obama and the Team of Rivals template), but the notion that Romney and his people are even aware of President Polk is tremendously interesting. I have long thought that Polk was one of the more consequential presidents. He is, however, mostly forgotten and certainly not included in the pantheon of great presidents. So, I’m basically in favor of more Polk awareness.

But the Obama/Team of Rivals parallel mentioned above points to an essential problem. Historical analogies may be instructive in some ways, but they are inevitably problematic. Let’s hope that the Romney team is reading up on Polk and his time more carefully than they considered Guns, Germs, and Steel. Let me recommend that they look into another old favorite of mine, Neustadt and May’s Thinking in Time. Neustadt and May urge decision makers who look to history to be just as aware of how things now are different as they are of historical similarities.

Fifty-four Forty, anyone?

When Jordan Met Mitt

April 4, 2012 Leave a comment

Pacific Political Science student Jordan Schreiber recently attended a fundraiser for GOP frontrunner MItt Romney. Here’s Jordan’s account of the event.

While I would say on most issues I tend to land on the Democratic side of the political spectrum, first and foremost I consider myself an American political junkie. It was this longstanding addiction that motivated me to attend the Mitt Romney fundraiser here in Stockton. I read in the Record that the former Massachusetts governor would be swinging through town for a $1000-a-plate breakfast at ‘Villa Angelica’, the home of well-known local billionaire Alex G. Spanos. Now as a college student about to graduate, I assume it goes without saying that a grand is more than I plan on spending on any meal anytime soon, but I was determined to get into the event and hear what the candidate had to say. I decided then that I would call the number listed in the article for those wishing to purchase tickets and plead my case: ‘I’m a political science major at the local university and while I may not have the money to attend such a prestigious event, I feel the student voice will play an important role in the upcoming presidential election and I would gladly be in attendance as a representative of that population.’ It took some persistence on my behalf and a background check on theirs, but I was, in the end, successful in my venture.

I must admit I felt like a wolf in sheep’s clothing as I entered the Spanos compound. I was one of the few younger attendees and every time I was told I was the future of the party, I couldn’t help feeling that I probably had more in common (politically and socioeconomically) with the scores of protesters standing outside in the rain. But I took my seat, made small with my fellow table 23ers and eagerly awaited Romney’s speech. He was introduced first by one of the grandchildren of the Spanos’ and then by his wife Ann, who discussed her husband’s adherence to family values and the importance of the upcoming race before turning the microphone over to the candidate.

Pacific Political Science student Jordan Schreiber met GOP frontrunner MItt Romney at a Stockton, CA fundraiser.

The bulk of the governor’s speech focused on the economy and his concerns regarding President Obama’s policies stifling American growth. He told a variety of anecdotes about people he’d met on the campaign trail who have found great success in their entrepreneurial endeavors and explained how each were each a symbol of the spirit of this country’s economic drive. He traced their success to an American culture rooted in the principles of our founding fathers, a commitment to freedom and opportunity. He went on to state the current administration fails to understand this atmosphere of innovation and that they would rather government, not individuals, guide our industry. He cited the controversy surrounding Solyndra, the solar energy company, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2011, two years after the Obama administration pledged $535 million as part of a federal program to boost alternative energy growth. Romney stated that it was programs like Solyndra that proved the current president is determined to undermine economic freedom and crush that entrepreneurial spirit that is so much a part of our country’s past. It was clear that he knew he was in a room full of dedicated supporters, for the rhetoric was slightly more heated than I had heard at campaign rallies over the past few months.

The governor spoke for about twenty minutes and allotted the same amount of time for questions from the room. The questions ranged from Romney’s ability to reconcile between his Massachusetts healthcare plan and President Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act of 2010 to what federal departments he would eliminate once in office. The majority of his time was spent responding to a gentleman’s question regarding a ‘hot mic’ gaffe the president had made while talking to Russian President Dmetry Medvedev in South Korea a few days prior. The microphone overheard Mr. Obama claim that after the election he’ll have much more flexibility in terms of foreign policy. Governor Romney explained that the statement was damning evidence that the president “has an agenda he is not communicating to the American people, not just with regards to Russia, but with regards to many other policies.” He painted the president as a naïve player in world politics, who fails to understand the threats posed by nations like Russia and Iran as well as non-state actors such as “radical violent jihadist”. The governor closed the event thanking his hosts and all those in attendance and was rapidly escorted out of the hall, in a hurry to make it down to Los Angeles for a scheduled appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

I must say that leaving the breakfast my opinions on the upcoming election and the issues that America faces hadn’t changed dramatically. But I was very happy to have an opportunity to meet the man I’ve spent the last year reading about. I can now say I’ve seen Mitt Romney’s charm and I’ve shaken his hand. Whether I support him or not, he is clearly a man who cares deeply about this country and I’m fortunate to have gotten to see that. At the very least I can say that I got my political junkie fix for the week.

On the limited impact of presidential nominees

September 12, 2011 36 comments

The Republican nomination season is well under way, and the remaining major candidates recently gathered at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. The popular press (and I include the blogosphere here) has, is, and will spend a significant amount of time between now and the Iowa and New Hampshire contests weighing the pros and cons, merits and demerits, and “electability” of each of the candidates.

Is Mitt Romney palatable to southern evangelicals? To what extent will his past as Governor of Massachusetts help/hurt him? Can Michele Bachmann ride the Tea Party express to the White House or will she remain a fringe candidate? Will Rick Perry be perceived as the second coming of Bush? How much will his book help/hurt him with general election voters? Is John Huntsman be too moderate for Republican primary voters? Will Sarah Palin enter the race? Why/how is Newt Gingrich still hanging around?

While it is fun to watch the candidates (and watch the press cover them) pursue the nomination, an interesting question is whether it ultimately matters who wins. Does it make a difference if Republicans nominate Romney as opposed to Perry or any of the other people currently seeking the nomination? Or, could Bachmann, Paul, and Cain do just as well?

To begin with, the answer is obviously yes. Who the candidate is absolutely matters. Candidates have to spend long hours in front of large (and small) crowds all over the country repeating the same themes in the same speeches. They have to possess the energy, stamina, and drive to do it and do it well. (I’m thinking of you Fred.) Candidates have to devote considerable time and energy raising money in small amounts from a very large pool of potential donors. Not everyone is willing to do so. (I’m thinking of you Newt.) Candidates can’t have skeletons in the closet that will sidetrack for long periods or derail their campaigns. They have to be taken seriously by their party’s elites (Palin? Perry?), win their support in the year prior to the actual voting contests, and pass the media’s smell test. Not everyone will. (I’m thinking of you Donald.)

The thing is, though, by and large the people we saw on the stage last Wednesday night have all demonstrated they have these qualities. (Well, maybe not everyone.) So how much, if anything, of what’s left to distinguish the various candidates will matter come next November?

The answer is probably not that much. One political scientist estimates maybe two percentage points in the national vote.

To begin with, the choice of nominee is not going to matter that much to the vast majority of voters come November 6. Contrary to the media’s constant proclamations, very few people are politically independent. (If anything, the percentage of the population that is really independent is getting smaller, not larger.) Instead, almost everyone who votes (a) is aligned with one of the major parties (whether they are willing to admit it or not) and (b) will vote their party no matter who the nominee is.

What matters to most voters is not a candidate’s stand on any given issue or set of issues or even the candidate’s personality, it is whether a candidate has the right letter (R or D) behind his or her name on the ballot. What’s more, in an age or political polarization, the relationship between party identification and vote choice is only getting stronger. Republicans are largely not going to vote for President Obama and Democrats are largely not going to vote for whoever the Republican candidate is.

Moreover, it’s not clear that independent voters matter all that much anyway. Presidential candidates are better served activating people who already support them rather than trying to convince people who might. My favorite bit on this front comes from the Daily Show (WordPress won’t let us embed Flash video, so you’ll have to click the link)

http://media.mtvnservices.com/mgid:cms:item:comedycentral.com:187570

So if most people are going to vote their party no matter who the nominee is, and it may not be worth the candidates’ time and effort to woo independents, what does matter? Things that are largely out of control of and have essentially noting to do with the candidates themselves—e.g., the state economy (i.e., GDP growth and changes in unemployment), whether there is a war going on, the president’s net approval rating, and how many consecutive years a party has controlled the White House.

Using a relatively limited set of variables like these, we can model and predict—with considerable accuracy—which party will win the presidency. My favorite model, among the many that are out there, comes from Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. Abramowitz’s model uses just three variables to predict the popular-vote winner (bearing in mind that 2000 demonstrated that winning the popular vote doesn’t always mean you win the presidency) in presidential elections:

  1. Real GDP growth in the second quarter of the election year,
  2. Net presidential approval (Gallup approval – disapproval), and
  3. Whether a party has controlled the White House for at least two terms.

Using just these factors, Abramowitz is able to predict the popular-vote winner in every election since 1952 (there was no Gallup data previously). Based on these factors, any Republican currently has a fighting chance against Obama next year. If the economy picks up at all, though, no Republican can win.

How much control does Romney, Perry, Bachman, Paul, or any of the other potential Republican nominees have over the rate of economic growth, presidential approval, or the fact that Democrats have only controlled the White House for three years? None. Zero. Zip. And yet these factors, more than anything else will likely determine who will win next November.

So maybe the nominee doesn’t really matter who the Republicans pick.

(Of course, that said, the nominee might matter even when all these things are in their favor.)

For other thoughts on this topic, see here.

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