Political Science Explains the News

Recent news stories remind me how much political science can add to understanding (or prevent misunderstanding) of what goes on in politics. So here goes:

Sorry Tagg Romney, your dad Mitt Romney wasn’t going to be president even if his advertisements showed how cuddly he is. Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe, cheap shot at elected officials the other day – but political science can show you a way to give them proper credit while still suspecting their motives. And the NRA channels a long gone political scientist’s wisdom.

The Boston Globe printed a Romney election post-mortem Sunday that claimed, among things that the loss is attributable in part to the campaign’s failure “to sell voters on the candidate’s personal qualities and leadership gifts.” In recognition that Mitt Romney was not regarded as an empathetic figure, Tagg compiled a list of twelve individuals his father had aided, with the hope the campaign would use those examples to humanize the candidate. There were other shortcomings acknowledged, but my take away from the story is that if only we knew Mitt like Tagg knows Mitt, “Oh, oh, oh what a guy.”

But a more lovable seeming Mitt Romney was not going to be president. As political scientists’ John Sides and Lynn Vavreck argued in their e-chapter of The Gamble, “The Hand You’re Dealt,” research on presidential elections shows that “an incumbent running amidst even modest economic growth was the favorite.” The 2012 political environment favored the re-election of the president. Read about why media emphasize many popular misconceptions in Professor Sides’ post at themonkeycage.org, The 2012 Election Was Good for Political Science. Among other insights that upset the conventional wisdom, field organization matters, TV ads are over rated, especially early ads. Yes campaign effects can impact an election, including I suppose perceptions of Mitt Romney’s kindness; but many other factors are more important.

On December 23 the Globe’s Kevin Cullen wrote about a grandmother raising an ill and dependent grandchild and the extraordinary roadblocks she faces, many of them from government. In a strange implication about politicians, Cullen wrote: “Now, it would probably make this a much juicier story to say that Jean Fox ran into complete apathy when she turned to politicians for help. The truth is actually worse. The pols were wonderful, yet Jean Fox’s predicament remains.”

Politicians, at least the ones who plan on being re-elected, do not treat constituents with “complete apathy.” There is a whole body of political science research on case work and constituent service, which can increase positive assessments of the official and thus prospects for re-election. If you bring a politician your problem to solve you are doing her a favor. Constituent service is pure profit – no one gets mad at you as they will if you take an issue position. So Mr. Cullen can continue to view politicians as self-regarding, but not as apathetic.

Finally, the NRA provides a political science lesson. Political scientist E.E. Schattschneider wrote of the “socialization of conflict” in politics. So when I read the other day of NRA executive director Wayne LaPierre’s demented press conference in which he let guns off the hook while blaming video game makers and Hollywood, I knew he understood at least one of Schattschneider’s insights: if you are losing the policy conversation, enlarge the scope of conflict. So LaPierre tried to turn the blame to video games and movies without knowing if Adam Lanza ever watched them. (Mr. LaPierre cited some pretty appalling examples though I suppose Hollywood and the video game industry might wonder why someone who loves the Second Amendment so much has such little regard for the First Amendment).

I respect and depend on the good work of journalists, and I think political science has a lot to add to understanding of the topics they cover.


About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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