The New York Public Library has revised a plan that would have moved most of its books out of the flagship Fifth Avenue location that has long been a key site for academic research, The New York Times reported. About 1.5 million books that would have otherwise been moved will remain at the location, which will house 3.3 million of the library's 4.5 million book collection. A donation of $8 million will allow the library to build a new storage facility so that it can make other changes in the library building without sending the books off site. Many scholars have been furious about the plan to move so many books away from the library.
Here’s a case of synchronicity in the public interest: Jonna Perrillo’s study Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity (University of Chicago Press) is appearing just as the biggest teachers’ strike in a generation is coming to an end.
Despite its title, and its timing, the book is not a polemic but a historical study. Perrillo, an assistant professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso, goes through newspapers and union archives to document the clash of values within teachers’ organizations in New York City between the 1930s through the 1980s. The nation’s largest school system was where “two different strands of American liberal thought” emerged with special clarity, and fought it out with lasting consequences. One was “a faith in the power of coalitions of organized individuals to effect change”-- in particular, multiracial coalitions taking on de facto segregation and the unequal distribution of resources throughout the school system. The other was “a belief that institutions were color blind and, therefore, the best medium to promote equality, justice, and social advancement.” The latter perspective was more appealing to educators concerned with defending their status as professionals from demands by administrators or parents.
The conflict came to a head in the New York City teachers’ strike of 1968 (also known as the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis) with aftershocks throughout public education that have still not ended. It’s much too soon to assess the impact of the strike now being suspended by the Chicago Teachers Union, but I got in touch with Perrillo to ask about the context of recent events. A transcript of the e-mail interview follows.
Q: How did you become interested in the history of teacher unionism? Was it your dissertation topic? It’s your first book, so that seems likely, but it doesn’t have that revised-dissertation feel. Either way, why did you stick your head into this particular hornets' nest?
A: You’re absolutely right. My dissertation was a study of a journal written for and by New York City high school teachers. It was published by the Board of Education from 1917 to 1973. What I wanted to do in my dissertation was to think about how teachers conceived of professionalism over time, and I really wanted to capture it in their own words. Examining the journal allowed me to do that, but it was too narrow of a study to work as a book.
When I started research for the book, I did so because I wanted to keep examining teachers’ thoughts on professionalism, and teacher unions offered a more expansive archive. I wasn’t just looking at teachers’ published writing — which comes with all sorts of baggage about who gets published and why — but also reports, minutes, correspondence, and all sorts of raw documents like that. I was interested in the union’s response to race and school quality as an organizing theme, more specifically, because I attended urban schools and because I taught in an all-black high school.
But when I came across some of the pieces I cite about teachers arguing with black mothers in the 1950s over their children’s failure in school, for example, I felt like I had hit a goldmine. Here teachers were talking about professionalism — and race — in ways that felt unedited, to say the least. I thought that I hadn’t just found something that spoke to the most critical issues in public schooling today but that truly captured the thoughts and experiences of many ordinary teachers and the frustrations they felt on the job.
Q: One way to sum up your analysis might be "civil rights and teacher professionalism as zero-sum game," i.e., one side's victory is the other's loss. That's what I jotted down while reading, but it's not quite right. At some point, the interaction between minority communities and teacher unionists became a zero-sum game. Is that closer to your understanding of it?
A: I think it did become a zero-sum game, and by a particular group of teachers. One thing I often have trouble remembering is that teacher unionists at times obstructed the efforts of black parents and activists, but other unionists — members of the Teachers Union, who would in the 1950s be labeled as communists and forced to resign — did as much to advance civil rights in the schools as anyone. They developed the first multicultural curriculums, they passed on easier job assignments to work in Harlem schools, and they publicly and routinely demonstrated against the racism and abuse that black students encountered in public schools.
Hundreds of teachers lost their jobs in the Red Scare waves of the 1950s and they did so, they often said, because they weren’t willing to be quiet about institutionalized racism. This doesn’t mean they were great classroom teachers, necessarily, but I want to remember these teachers because even if their politics weren’t mainstream, they offer a model of teachers using unions to fight for the best interests of children.
This is a different group of teachers than those who ultimately made civil rights and teacher professionalism into a zero-sum game. These teachers belonged to a different union — the Teachers Guild — which in the 1950s grew from a small organization to the basis of the modern United Federation of Teachers (the current teachers union for New York City). My book shows that they did this first by developing campaigns that fought assignments to minority schools for experienced teachers. Later, in the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownville strikes, they fought black parents more directly over teacher assignments.
Between these two events, membership rolls exploded — so while one union was being dismantled, the other was growing. Clearly, these teachers came from a different political orientation that the Teachers Union, but the thing that I also try to capture is that on some level, they had a point: assignments in minority schools guaranteed them larger classes, fewer resources, less support staff, and often more classes than teachers in middle-class white schools. Resisting teacher assignments to struggling schools was ethically problematic, but they made a powerful argument about professionalism and professional agency, one that appealed to thousands of teachers.
This was the beginning of the zero sum game: when they decided that they would not just fight the Board of Education to get what they wanted, but the students’ best interests and the adults who advocated on behalf of their students. The Board of Education often played on this division, antagonizing both unionized teachers and black parents, all the while doing little to improve the schools.
Q: When friends who teach in the public schools vent about their experience, their biggest complaints are about having to “teach to the test,” with overcrowded classrooms and inadequate infrastructure close behind. Evidently the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) did a good job in raising these issues with parents, to judge by interviews and photos in which parents expressed support for the strike. Your book shows similar alliances around quality-of-education problems with Harlem parents in the 1930s. Do you see a parallel between these experiences – or major differences that count more than any similarity?
A: What has struck me as especially noteworthy and important about the strikes is the support that many parents are expressing, either through joining parents in the protests (as you mention) or in testimonies of support that come across in interviews. And of the parents who do register frustration with the union, many are focused, understandably, on the stress and insecurity that comes with suddenly not having childcare means. Again, I completely understand and empathize with this, but I don’t see these parents welcoming any strike over any issue. So, all in all, it really couldn’t be more different from the 1968 New York City teacher strikes, which produced images of teachers and parents visibly angry, heckling each other on the street.
I do think that teachers [in Chicago] made a good case with parents, which begins simply with communicating to parents on the issues, as they had been doing all summer. But as you suggest, this worked because parents were already there. Like in the 1930s, teachers aren’t striking over where to teach but how, and parents and teachers share a lot of wide beliefs here. Small classes are better than large ones. Art, music, and physical education classes are beneficial, not expendable because they aren’t tested. Teachers shouldn’t be encouraged to teach to the test, and they shouldn’t be at greater risk of losing their job because they teach students who face greater economic and social challenges than others. These are easy ideas for parents to get behind because they aren’t just about benefittng teachers, they’re about doing right by children.
Q. People still argue about the New York City teachers’ strike of 1968 – fiercely at times. (If they don’t throw chairs at each other about it, that’s only because of age.) Would you say a little more about it, for anyone who doesn’t know what it was about?
A: The entire nation watched the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strikes, much as we have all noticed what is happening in Chicago, though the 1968 strikes lasted two months. And then to follow that, New York City teachers went on strike again over salary and contract issues in the 1970s as the city was in the midst of a deep fiscal crisis, against [United Federation of Teachers leader] Albert Shanker’s recommendations.
The two strikes were over very different sets of problems, but they both inspired teachers in other cities to protest more, as well. Because of unionists’ effectiveness in getting what they wanted from these strikes, and with the overwhelmingly majority of teachers in the nation belonging to unions by the 1970s, the American Federation of Teachers [which grew out of the UFT] became one of the most important special interest groups to Democratic politicians. But this didn’t mean that teacher unions became more popular as they became more powerful; in fact the opposite was often true.
I think it’s not coincidental that the decades that followed saw the birth of the school choice movement, which is tied to the CTU’s agenda. Even if parents didn’t feel radically different about the individuals who taught their own children, the profession suffered because the public image of the teacher, via the New York strikes and others, had grown so poor. Public school teachers were seen as isolationist, uncooperative, and more concerned about their professional agency than students’ welfare. School choice advocates argued to parents that they could find a more professional and dedicated group of teachers if they left the system. Some parents, fed up with the resistance unions had posed to their local school reform movements, were ready to leave behind schools that they had spent decades trying to reform.
Elected officials were often drawn to school choice for many of the same reasons, and because union officials were often more powerful than they were. And so I think a lot of what has defined education politics and school reform over the last thirty years can be tied to union activism in the 1960s and 1970s.
For this reason, I think the Chicago strikes have marked a powerful change in the public image of the unionized teacher. Some columnists have argued that the strike is a battle of wills between the mayor (and his appointees) and the union, but I don’t think that’s right. A good amount of the reporting has been focused on the issues rather than each side’s representatives and here, again, parental support of the union — and the union’s attention to children’s welfare — has been critical. The CTU has done a good job of presenting themselves as advocates of students and teachers, not isolationists. This isn’t just what the CTU needed to do to get business done; it is what teacher unions need to do to stay relevant in a political landscape in which the education stakeholders and educational institutions have grown increasingly diversified and in which unions have lost many of their traditional sources of influence and authority.
Q: What is your sense of recent developments in Chicago? How do they look, given the history you've studied? [Note: This interview was completed during the final minutes of Monday, Sept. 17th, before the vote to suspend the strike.]
A: If the strike can’t be resolved quickly enough, the CTU runs the risk of parents feeling like any schooling is better than no schooling. It’s difficult for parents to hold fast to long-term goals — such as the far-reaching gains that would result from better teacher evaluation systems — when the immediate situation represents a real crisis for them. So much of what teachers are striking for amounts to a change in education culture and their role in decision-making, and while these aren’t easy decisions to make quickly, that is what needs to happen. It’s a high-stakes, high-pressure situation, and I imagine there are some very heated discussions and disagreements between union delegates behind closed doors.
What is equally if not more threatening, though, is the mayor’s attempt on Monday to seek an injunction based on the rationale that teachers are only legally able to strike over economic issues. While strikes should always be the last effort, it seems clear that in many municipalities, unions -- and teachers on the whole - -really have reached the end of the road. They have been largely ineffective in countering a political movement that has been incredibly punitive towards teachers while doing too little to address the systematic economic and social challenges of many urban areas.
This injunction, if upheld, would relegate teacher union activism strictly to the economic realm, and in the process, would be devastating to the CTU and possibly to unions more largely. For one thing it would give teachers no real means to advocate on issues that are most important to their students and the local communities that their schools serve. For another, it would force unions to become the kind of protectionist, self-serving organizations that their critics already, and incorrectly, claim that they already are. If you read the speeches of Chicago Teachers Federation President Margaret Haley [in the early 20th century] or early New York City unionists, for that matter, you see that they were always interested in much more than bread and butter issues. They fought for improved and more inclusive curriculums, for school integration policies, and for a place at the education-policy making table.
As member of the civic body, we have the right to support or oppose any given strike. But I don’t believe we have the right to tell teacher unions what they should stand for, or that they aren’t allowed to care about education issues with the same passion as salary gains, or that they can’t use the most effective tool at their disposal to fight for what they see as ethical injustices towards the children they serve. To do so would be profoundly undemocratic, not to mention bad for schools.
Students at OCAD University, an arts institution in Toronto, are furious about a required custom textbook for an art course for which they must pay $180, but which does not feature any illustrations. Petitions are attracting signatures. Bloggers are expressing outrage, and word is spreading. The university notes that students have access to online versions of the art discussed in the book, and that the customized textbook was an attempt to save students money by combining several books. University officials said that obtaining the rights to the art would have resulted in a huge increase in costs. Still, university officials have scheduled a meeting with students later in the week to talk about the issues.
University presses are a reticent lot. We flourish offstage, delighted to shine the spotlight on our authors and their extraordinary works. We want them to get the glory; for ourselves, we hope only for enough reflected light to reveal our individual imprints as standards of excellence. Our books and journals speak not only for themselves, but for us.
Apparently, they don't speak loudly enough. Our modesty -- perhaps a virtue in other times -- has become a liability. Many university presses face serious budget cuts and other convulsive changes. In recent months the University of Missouri, having first announced the closing of its press, reversed course to declare the press would remain open, but operate under a drastically different model. Subsequent to that the university announced that the press will retain many of its original staff, features, and goals. After the highly publicized and contentious deliberations, University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe stated that "my goal is to develop a press that is vibrant and adaptive...."
If university presses spent more time beating our own drum, President Wolfe might have recognized before he first acted that there are few modern educational institutions as adaptive as university presses. In a rapidly changing publishing culture, that's precisely what we must do and have been doing to remain vibrant. Indeed, Wolfe’s stated goal for the University of Missouri Press helps to define the next chapter in our challenge to discharge our scholarly mission.
High-quality scholarship is now a necessary but insufficient benchmark for success. Economic scarcity has increased competition within the university for shrinking resources while digital technologies and the web have created the misperception that publishing is simple and cheap. It isn’t. Yet, we directly contribute to the university’s teaching and research missions in a way that results in the widest possible dissemination of scholarship at the lowest possible cost.
Universities generally perceive their presses (if they have them — only about 90 North American universities do) as being relatively small units focused on the humanities and social sciences, areas that themselves have constituted smaller and smaller pieces of overall university allocation and focus. Our budgets are small, especially compared to those of academic divisions or of the university library. But our need for financial support when we already sell a product puzzles many administrators and creates the notion that we are not successful, critical acclaim for our products notwithstanding. Too many of our colleagues think we’re resisting the shift to digital scholarship, instead focusing on dull old print technologies. We aren’t hip and we don’t want to see that information wants to be free.
All too often university administrators don’t see their press as essential to the university’s core mission. With all due respect, they couldn’t be more wrong — but the failure to demonstrate our importance rests with us and we will begin to correct that failure now.
A revolution is taking place in scholarly communications. From something as broad as the development and evolution of the web to technology as narrow as digital print machines, changes in production, distribution, marketing (yes, even scholarship requires marketing to reach its broadest audience), and selling can and must follow. Such change requires new business models, and we’re developing them; if managed well, they could allow universities and their faculty more control over the information they create but too often cede to others.
University presses are one of the few centers of expertise regarding scholarly communication to be found on any campus, and their knowledge is broader than any other entity. Librarians are acutely aware of some dissemination issues, like price, but not so much about cost and business models. Academic computing center staff know the technical aspects of the web and are hands-down the experts on hardware. But in the broadest context of scholarly communication it is presses, charged with recovering on average 80 percent of their operating costs, that have the greatest expertise in all aspects of the big picture.
From conducting peer review (a critical step that distinguishes scholarship from other forms of publication) to creating metadata that allow broad discovery of scholarship to experimenting with innovative ways to provide that scholarship to libraries, faculty, and students on a lower cost-per-page basis than commercial scholarly publishing entities, we have been building expertise for years. It is expertise sometimes learned at each individual press, but especially in recent years also from cooperative ventures ranging from common production, marketing, and fundraising efforts to coalitions to expand international markets. That expertise can be used to help the university create the infrastructure it needs to lessen the cost of scholarship purchased from other entities.
It is self-evident that the books and journals we publish benefit faculty in their roles as authors, researchers, and teachers. Less evident is that our conduct of peer review and the luster of our imprints together support the tenure and promotion system that has characterized American higher education for generations. Sadly, this system has allowed colleges and universities without presses to "free ride" on the backs of those that have them; it costs them no more than the university press books and journals they choose to buy. Any solution to university press support might do well to address such freeloading.
Less recognized in the academic world is the degree to which university presses, through their publications, serve students. It is true that few presses publish core textbooks such as “Introduction to Economics” (though that’s an area where we are helping in the development of open-access texts), but a very large proportion of the books read either alongside or in lieu of a core text are university press publications. Indeed, our lifetime best-selling books are virtually always those read in undergraduate and graduate courses.
University presses have become the leading regional publishers in the country. State university presses in particular have played a major role in publishing books that help citizens recognize and celebrate what makes home, home. From histories to natural histories to cookbooks and sports books, we help give American citizens a better sense of who they are.
Finally, the dissemination and sale of university press products throughout the world has helped spread awareness of our individual universities more broadly than any other single product — including the football team. Scholars around the world are acutely aware of Temple University Press’s pioneering and prize-winning Asian American studies, while LSU Press’s four Pulitzer Prizes bring renown to its commitment to literature that matters. The University of Minnesota Press enjoys the same global accolades for its critical and social theory list and for bringing innovative European thought to North America through its well-known translation program. In all cases, the light shone on the press reflects the parent university’s commitment to serious, cutting-edge scholarship.
University presses have enriched American education and American intellectual life for over a century. These are tough times to be sure, and presses today need to share in the sacrifices being made by all parts of the university. But it will be a long-term mistake if the expertise and contributions of presses are sacrificed to resolve short-term budget problems.
Alex Holzman, Douglas Armato and MaryKatherine Callaway
Alex Holzman is director of Temple University Press, Douglas Armato is director of the University of Minnesota Press and MaryKatherine Callaway is director of LSU Press. All are former presidents of the Association of American University Presses.
Internet2 and Educause, two higher-ed technology organizations, announced on Tuesday that they are expanding a group purchasing effort that allows member institutions to purchase access e-textbooks from McGraw-Hill at a discounted price. The effort, which began in January with five universities, "aims to advance a new model for the purchase, distribution, and use of electronic textbooks and digital course materials," according to a press release. The program added 20 additional institutions on Tuesday, including both small liberal arts colleges and large state universities. The idea is that negotiating deals for e-textbook access at the institutional level, as a group, will make it cheaper and easier for colleges and universities to support professors who want to take their courses digital. The first five universities to sign on recently collaborated on a report summarizing the experiences of students and professors in the first semester of the pilot. The results were mixed.
This year is the centenary of James Harvey Robinson’s bookThe New History: Essays Illustrating the Modern Historical Outlook, which made a case for teaching and writing about the past as something other than the record of illustrious men gaining power and then doing things with it.
“Our bias for political history,” he wrote, “led us to include a great many trifling details of dynasties and military history which merely confound the reader and take up precious space that should be devoted to certain great issues hitherto neglected.” The new breed of historians, such as the ones Robinson was training at Columbia University, would explore the social and cultural dimensions of earlier eras -- “the ways in which people have thought and acted in the past, their tastes and their achievements in many fields” – as well as what he called “the intricate question of the role of the State in the past.”
One hundred years and several paradigm shifts later, this “new history” is normal history; it’s not obvious why Robinson’s effort was so provocative at the time. You can see how it might have upset turf-protecting experts concerned with, say, whether or not Charles the Bald was actually bald. But it also promised to make connections between contemporary issues and knowledge of the past -- or threatened to make those connections, to put it another way.
Hold that thought for now, though. Jumping from 1912 to the present, let me point out a new collection of papers from the University of Georgia Press called Doing Recent History, edited by Claire Bond Potter and Renee C. Romano. (Potter is professor of history at the New School, Romano an associate professor of history at Oberlin College.)
There’s something puzzlingly James Harvey Robinson-ish about it, even though none of the contributors give the old man a nod. It must be a total coincidence that the editors are publishing the collection just now, amidst all the centennial non-festivities. And some of Robinson’s complaints about his colleagues would sound bizarre in today’s circumstances – especially his frustration at their blinkered sense of what should count as topics and source materials for historical research. “They exhibit but little appreciation of the vast resources upon which they might draw,” he wrote, “and unconsciously follow for the most part, an established routine in their selection of facts.”
As if in reply, the editors of Doing Recent History write: “We have the opportunity to blaze trails that have not been marked in historical literature. We have access to sources that simply do not exist for earlier periods: in addition to living witnesses, we have unruly evidence such as video games and television programming (which has expanded exponentially since the emergence of cable), as well as blogs, wikis, websites, and other virtual spaces.”
No doubt cranky talk-show hosts and unemployed Charles the Bald scholars will take umbrage at Jerry Saucier’s paper “Playing the Past: The Video Game Simulation as Recent American History” – and for what it’s worth, I’m not entirely persuaded that Saucier’s topic pertains to historiography, rather than ethnography. But that could change at some point. In “Do Historians Watch Enough TV? Broadcast News as a Primary Source,” David Greenberg makes the forceful argument that political historians tend to focus on written material to document their work: a real anachronism given TV’s decisive role in public life for most of the period since World War II. He gives the example of a sweeping history of the Civil Rights movement that seemed to draw on every imaginable source of documentation -- but not the network TV news programs that brought the struggle into the nation's living room. (The historian did mention a couple of prime-time specials, but with no details or reason to suppose he'd watched them.) Likewise, it’s entirely possible that historians of early 21st-century warfare will need to know something about video games, which have had their part in recruiting and training troops.
Besides the carefully organized, searchable databases available in libraries, historians have to come to terms with the oceans of digital text created over the past quarter-century or so -- tucked away on countless servers for now, but posing difficult questions about archiving and citation. The contributors take these issues up, along with related problems about intellectual property and the ethical responsibility of the historian when using documents published in semi-private venues online, or deposited in research collections too understaffed to catch possible violations of confidentiality.
In “Opening Archives on the Recent Past: Reconciling the Ethics of Access and the Ethics of Privacy, “ Laura Clark Brown and Nancy Kaiser discuss a number of cases of sensitive information about private citizens appearing in material acquired by the Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For example, there's the author whose papers include torrid correspondence with a (married) novelist who wouldn't want his name showing up in the finding aid. Brown and Kaiser also raise another matter for concern: “With the full-text search capabilities of Google Books and electronic journals, scholarly works no longer have practical obscurity, and individuals could easily find their names and private information cited in a monograph with even a very small press run.”
The standard criticism of James Harvey Robinson’s work among subsequent generations of professional historians is that his “new history” indulges in “presentism” – the sin of interpreting the past according to concerns or values of the historian’s own day. In Robinson’s case, he seems to have been a strong believer in the virtues of scientific progress, in its continuing fight against archaic forms of thought and social organization. With that in mind, it’s easier to understand his insistence that social, cultural, and intellectual history were at least as important as the political and diplomatic sort (and really, more so). Students and the general public were better off learning about “the lucid intervals during which the greater part of human progress has taken place,” rather than memorizing the dates of wars and coronations.
None of the contributors to Doing Recent History are nearly that programmatic. Their main concern is with the challenge of studying events and social changes from the past few decades using the ever more numerous and voluminous sources becoming available. Robinson’s “new history” tried to make the past interesting and relevant to the present. The “recent history” people want to generate the insights and critical skills that become possible when you learn to look at the recent past as something much less familiar, and more puzzling, than it might otherwise appear. I'm struck less by the contrast than the continuity.
Robinson would have loved it. In fact, he even anticipated their whole project. “In its normal state,” he wrote one hundred years ago, “the mind selects automatically, from the almost infinite mass of memories, just those things in our past which make us feel at home in the present. It works so easily and efficiently that we are unconscious of what it is doing for us and of how dependent we are upon it.”
Our memory — personal and cultural alike – “supplies so promptly and so precisely what we need from the past in order to make the present intelligible that we are beguiled into the mistaken notion that the present is self-explanatory and quite able to take care of itself, and that the past is largely dead and irrelevant, except when we have to make a conscious effort to recall some elusive fact.” That passage would have make a good epigraph for Doing Recent History, but it’s too late now.
In June, Inside Higher Edtold readers about Princeton University Press’s impending experiment with a political-science volume on the 2012 presidential election: It would make excerpts from the work-in-progress available online free while the campaign was still under way. It required a “truncated timetable” for peer review -- getting the readers’ reports back in two or three weeks instead of a few months.
Given the stately pace of scholarly publishing, such a turnaround counts as feverish. By the standards of punditry, it’s almost languorous. The idea was to give the public access to portions of The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Election just as the convention season began.
And so they are. Two chapters are now available for download from the Princeton website, here and here. The authors, John Sides and Lynn Vavreck, also have a website for the book. (They are associate professors of political science at George Washington University and the University of California at Los Angeles, respectively.) The material runs to about a hundred pages of text.
It would be hard to read Sides's and Vavreck’s work during the conventions, amid all the funny hats and confetti. But their research puts a couple of things about the campaigns into perspective. Keep in mind that the authors are responding not just to data (most of it quantitative) but to the received wisdom of the past several months regarding the campaign -- and on two points in particular.
Each is an assessment of a candidate’s presumed vulnerabilities.
The first holds that President Obama’s chances of re-election depend -- more than anything else, and perhaps even exclusively -- on the state of the economy. Incumbency has its advantages, but unemployment rates could trump them. The second is that Mitt Romney lacks the support of his party’s base, which is considerably to the right of him on both social and economic issues. Romney doesn’t suffer from Sarah Palin’s very negative approval rating among the public at large, but he can’t count on the support of her followers, Twitter and otherwise.
In social-science books, the methodology is usually as salient as the findings themselves. Each chapter comes with an appendix stuffed with additional analysis. Suffice it to say that a few patterns have emerged from studies of presidential campaigns in the past. The challenge is to move from generalizations about yesteryear to the electoral battle now unfolding.
For example, the country’s economic performance during a president’s administration -- but especially in the months just before the election -- is a pretty solid index of his re-electability. In the sixteen presidential elections between 1948 and 2008, changes in gross domestic product between January and September of the election year tracked closely to the fortunes of the incumbent party’s candidate. “It’s hard to beat an incumbent party in a growing economy,” Sides and Vavreck write, “and even harder to beat the actual incumbent himself.”
When the change in GDP over the three quarters preceding the election is negative, the incumbent party’s presidential candidate is sure to lose -- at least if the examples of Nixon (1960), Carter (1980), and McCain (2008) are anything to go by. The stronger the economic contraction, the bigger the defeat.
But the pattern of the past 60 years isn’t much help for handicappers of the race now under way. GDP during the first quarter of 2012 grew an incumbent-friendly 2 percent, while the initial estimate for the second quarter was 1.5 percent growth. As it happens, this column is running on August 29, when the Bureau of Economic Analysis is scheduled to issue a revised estimate of second-quarter growth based on additional data. (And the first estimate of GDP in third quarter isn’t out until 12 days before the election.)
In any case, the GDP itself can give only a rough sense of how voters experience and understand the economy. Sides and Vavreck have developed a model that correlates public-opinion poll results from each quarter between 1948 and 2008 with a number of other data points. These include three economic factors (unemployment and inflation rates, plus the change in GDP between quarters) as well as “events such as scandals and wars that might push approval [ratings] up and down” and the president’s length of time in office, counted in quarters.
From all of this information, the authors extracted a general model of how much each factor counted in determining the presidential approval ratings. Then they ran all the numbers again to see how well the general model could retroactively “predict” the changes in each president’s approval ratings from quarter to quarter. And the model proved good at it. The actual quarterly ratings were usually quite close to what the formulas expected, given the economic and other factors in play.
Plugging in relevant data for 2009-2011, the authors generated a graph showing the approval ratings that would be expected given the tendencies of the previous six decades. Here things get interesting:
“Although early on in his presidency Obama was slightly less popular than expected (by about 1 percent throughout most of 2009 and 2010), by the end of 2010 and continuing into 2012, he was more popular. In 2011, his popularity exceeded expectations by over 6 points. This feat is something that few presidents have accomplished. Only one president, Ronald Reagan, consistently ‘beat’ the prediction in his first term to an extent greater than Obama.”
The authors suggest that, if anything, their model may have overestimated the level of Obama popularity that might be expected if all things were equal, relative to earlier presidencies -- which they weren’t. The economic slump that began in 2008 has been deeper, and lasted longer, than any over the previous 60 years. High unemployment yields diminished approval ratings, of course -- but compounding it with a rise in long-term unemployment should presumably push them down even harder.
At the same time, the model does not account for what the authors call “the ‘penalty’ of his race” -- the marked tendency of those with negative attitudes toward black people in general to disapprove of Obama in particular. Sides and Vavreck estimate that his approval rating might be up to four points higher if not for his skin color.
In short, Obama entered the 2012 campaign with considerably more support than one might expect given the lackluster economy. The authors leave it to others to speculate on the source of this strength. But what about his opponent? Isn't Mitt Romney out of step with the rest of his party -- hence vulnerable to conservatives staying home?
When he emerged from the Republican primary season a few months back, Romney seemed less a victor than the last man standing. And inexplicably so: until a few years back, he spoke in favor of both Roe v. Wade and LGBT equality. And Jonathan Gruber, the economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and "intellectual architect" of the healthcare reform bill that Romney crafted while governor of Massachusetts, has compared it to Obamacare in colorful terms: “it’s the same [flippin’] bill.” Shouldn’t he be exhibited by the Smithsonian Institution as the last surviving member of an extinct species, the Rockefeller Republican?
Sides and Vavreck challenge the idea that the Republican primary process revealed a deep yearning by conservatives for “Anyone But Romney.” All the other candidates courted them assiduously, only to be done in by scandal or gaffe or the inability to remember which government programs he or she intended to close down, once in office. Romney was what the party had left. (Actually "had left" is probably a bad way of putting it.)
The authors concede that Romney “never ‘surged’ in the polls" in late 2011 and early ’12, "and never experienced the reinforcing cycle of positive news coverage and gains in the polls.” As a result, he "appear[ed] to be a weak candidate, unloved by many in the party. But this also concealed the underlying structure of the race, which tilted in his favor.” A poll from last December showed that he “was viewed positively by likely Republican primary voters whether they were conservatives or moderates, pro-life or pro-choice, relatively wealthy or not.” More than two-thirds of the Tea Party members surveyed expressed a favorable opinion of him, with non-Tea Party people doing so at the same rate.
The authors make their case with charts, graphs, and whatnot, but looking at them, I felt some cognitive dissonance. It’s hard to shake the impression that the GOP has a sizable wing that is so far to the right of Romney that he had to placate them with a veep candidate with stronger conservative credentials. When I raised the issue to the authors by e-mail, Sides replied that "people have overestimated two things about GOP voters: (1) just how conservative they are (or perceive themselves), relative to how they perceived Romney; and (2) how much ideology drove their feelings about Romney and the other candidates.” That misperception was strengthened by the “media boomlets” that seem intrinsic to the 24-hour news cycle.
“When news coverage focused on a candidate other than Romney and that candidate had conservative bona fides,” Sides continued, “then conservatives were more likely to vote for that person than Romney…. But this does not mean they were implacably opposed to Romney. Preferring another candidate to Romney is not the same as opposing Romney.” He may have won out “not because he was ideologically who every conservative activist or voter wanted, but because he was the compromise candidate of the various party's factions. It doesn't mean he was widely loved, but he was satisfactory to all. Which makes him like most other presidential candidates, really.”
The authors are still analyzing the primary season while also following the latest twists and turns of the process. I wondered if that meant the chapters now available were working drafts of a sort.
“We will probably rework the chapters a little bit,” Lynn Vavreck wrote back, “but not very much I suspect. We may adjust some of the error or uncertainty estimates, but the general take-aways will remain the same.”
Writing a monograph with the campaign still in motion is a way to shake things up some in the discipline. “It bothered us that parties, candidates, consultants, and journalists had better data on campaigns and elections than political scientists had -- and we wanted to be a part of what was happening, when it was happening, so we could share in those data and use them in real time.”
They hope the project serves as a model to others, while acknowledging that it’s “not the kind [of effort] that academics are typically strong on making -- partnerships have to be forged, things have to be delivered on deadline, and you have to promote your results and your work to a wider audience.” It sounds like what anyone else engaged in politics must do, except with a bibliography.