Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Five top books on how Americans vote

Andrew Gelman is a professor in the Departments of Statistics and Political Science at Columbia University, director of the Applied Statistics Center, and also the founding director of the Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences program.

His books include Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.

One of five top books on how Americans vote Gelman discussed with Sophie Roell at The Browser:
The 480
by Eugene Burdick

Let’s go on to your next book, The 480, by Eugene Burdick.

This is a novel that was written in 1964, by one of the authors of The Ugly American, which is a book you might not have ever heard of but you’ve heard the phrase. It was a cultural touchstone. It came out in the late 1950s, and it took place in a hypothetical, Vietnam-like country in Asia, and it’s about the Americans losing the war of hearts and minds to the Communists.

The 480 is about evil political consultants who are manipulating the American public to vote for an empty-suit type of character for president. The number 480 referred to an actual analysis that was done by some political scientists, including a political scientist named Sam Popkin, who is now at the University of California in San Diego. They divided the population into 480 demographic and geographic subgroups, based on things like religion, age, sex, what region of the country and so on. The idea was that they knew how many people were in each group and they would pitch their messages to those groups. It’s a classic work in political science. I think they also advised the Kennedy campaign. Back then it was very impressive, but we can do much more now in terms of data analysis, we can get estimates for all 50 states now which they couldn’t do back then.

But there was something funny about this book, about these backroom political consultants manipulating the election. It’s not at all realistic, though it’s much more realistic than a book like The Manchurian Candidate, which is a big joke. This book is a satire but it reflects serious concerns about politics.

Presumably, then, the implication is that there is something sinister about having all this information?

The idea is that these people know enough about us so that they can manipulate our vote. Realistically, political consultants nowadays know a lot about us, and they do try to convince us. There are two kinds of people they follow. One is people where they know who they’re going to vote for, but they’re not sure that they’re going to vote. The other is people who are very likely to vote, but you don’t know which way they’re going to vote. The first type of person they try to mobilise just to turn out and vote, and the second kind of person they try to persuade. They’re pretty good at knowing who people are. In fact, at this point, a lot of this is just a question of resources. To the extent they have resources they will go out to people and call you on the phone. If they think you’re already likely to vote for a certain candidate, they’ll try to find somebody to knock on your door and convince you that it’s an important election and it’s worth voting for. In some sense it’s not as mysterious or conspiratorial as it’s made out to be in that book.

It’s just a question of resources?

Yes, it’s expensive. It’s said to cost about $40 per vote. You have to get enthusiastic volunteers and really knock on people’s doors.

It’s not about sending out some subliminal message – it’s just about having someone enthusiastic on your doorstep?

They do play with the messages a lot. They do a lot of experimentation. I remember reading one paper that came out where they framed the same question in two different ways. They try to say things like, “Everybody votes, so you should vote too.” I don’t know how much I believe it, but from some experimental evidence they claim that certain phrasing is particularly effective. Of course both sides are doing it, which is what you’d want. It’s only fair for both sides to do it. A lot of the great inequalities arise before you get to the general election. Certain candidates just don’t have a chance in the primary because they don’t have the money. The two parties are more equally balanced. The other issues in unfairness come in what policies the parties consider. The actual election is not too far from a fair fight.

What do you mean by unfairness in the policies parties consider?

I mean that there are policies that get proposed and policies that don’t get proposed, and the lobbyists have an impact. When the election year comes up, we think a lot about elections. But if you think about what issues get raised in Congress and what things the president does and doesn’t do, a lot of those are going to be affected by campaign contributors.
Read about the other books Gelman discussed at The Browser.

Learn more about Andrew Gelman and his work at his website and blog.

Writers Read: Andrew Gelman (September 2008).

--Marshal Zeringue