On Historic Day, Political Scientists Take the Long View

How do academics respond to a unique, precedent-shattering election? Insist it was predicted by entirely ordinary models.
November 5, 2008

The country just elected its first African-American president, a historic event capping a nearly two-year campaign of shattered fund-raising records, massive voter turnout and unprecedented participation in politics. Academics may be savoring the moment, but political scientists, at least, are more interested in how very ordinary it was.

Political science, as a discipline, tends to take the long view, developing models over time that explain the workings of the government and the electorate -- who votes, how parties align themselves, why elections turn out the way they do.

As it turns out, some of the models political scientists have been using for years to predict the outcomes of national elections -- taking into account factors like the popularity of the incumbent, party identification and economic indicators -- weren't tossed aside along with the many other fragments of conventional wisdom that were upended during the campaign. In fact, they were validated.

And while commentators are already marveling at the milestone reached Tuesday, many political scientists see it in a way that perhaps only data-driven academics could: as one more "data point" around which to test existing theories about racial attitudes and governing.

"The models were correct in that they predicted an Obama victory, a Democratic victory, and that's what resulted. So in that sense, given the state of the economy, given the popularity of the incumbent, you'd expect a Democrat to win," said John Sides, a professor of political science at George Washington University.

For all the talk about Hillary Clinton's supporters shifting over to John McCain, for example, or McCain losing support within the Republican Party, both candidates ended up with roughly equal support within their parties. "We live in an era of very strong party loyalty, and this election is really no different," Sides said.

Similarly, various demographic groups have increased their support for Obama this election, but that's been true of most groups. "I think by and large, it's a uniform swing ... there are exceptions ... but pretty much it's throughout the country, and all groups getting that swing," said Andrew Gelman, a professor of political science and statistics at Columbia University who spoke from near Grant Park in Chicago last night just before Obama took the stage.

And while much has been made of the importance of African-American voters in this election, "there wasn't much room to grow" over their support for John Kerry four years earlier; the level this year, at least 95 percent, "is about as close as you could get to unanimity in a free election," said Philip Klinkner, a professor at Hamilton College.

Many pundits and historians have stressed the uniqueness of the circumstances surrounding the 2008 election. Gelman noted that even so, there are parallels to previous campaigns. "It's a lot like Kennedy's election. You're talking about a member of a minority group ... who himself, although a member of the minority group, is very well-educated, sort of a more intellectual kind of person, being in the out party, winning a close election ... in tough economic times, and tough foreign policy times too, so there are a lot of similarities in that way."

Or, to put a point on it: "I don't think it's going to shake the discipline."

Rather, he continued, what may be more interesting to study in the coming years will be what happens when Obama starts governing with unified party control in Congress. Having the same party in control of two branches doesn't automatically ensure easy passage of a legislative agenda, and it's a natural experiment that political scientists can't necessarily count on occurring.

In short, Obama -- regardless of what makes him unique -- will be evaluated and studied much as any other president would. But what does make him unique could also create a pathway for new studies on race relations and how they affect national politics.

"The Obama presidency will be a fascinating case study in racial identity and racial attitudes," Sides said. "We have a lot of research about elected politicians who are minorities at the level of House and Senate, lower levels of office. But this is the first president. That has the potential to introduce some potentially interesting dynamics."

Measuring the Turnout

Political science, like any academic field, is not without its internal disputes. One, over how best to predict voter turnout, could be on the verge of a resolution. Many have argued that American voter turnout has been on the decline for decades, but Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University, insists that it's largely an artifact of how eligible voters are counted.

Reached after midnight tabulating exit poll numbers, McDonald said turnout would likely break 64 percent, a modern record. "Yes, I think this is going to change the way people look at this from wondering why turnout's going down to why it's going up," he said.

Traditional theories have postulated that factors like negative campaigning, low trust in government and the prevalence of cable television work to decrease voter participation. This time, he said, "all those sorts of explanations will have to be re-evaluated given the elevated turnout rates in this election."

McDonald continued: "It was a close election, the issues facing the country, historic candidates, and on top of that we had the parties over the last decade ... engaged in mobilization efforts that have proven effective at increasing turnout rates and especially on Obama's side, we had a very well-organized mobilization effort to get people out to vote, so I think in the aftermath of all of this one of the things that we'll probably point to is the mobilization efforts."


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