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Main | October 2005 »

28 September 2005

Congress Tarred with the Same Brush

Not only have President Bush's approval ratings been hurt by an unpopular occupation in Iraq, a sagging economy, and more recently a poor response to the Katrina disaster. He has been taking the Republican Congress down with him. As the figure shows, patriotism around 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq obviously helped both the president and Congress. Rising deficits, the Schiavo case, and lack of action on Social Security reform are apparently responsible for dropping approval ratings. These are the lowest congressional approval ratings since the early 1990s.


There is an interesting asymmetry to note. A quick Granger causality test on the data shown here suggests that the president's approval ratings affect those of Congress, but not the other way around. In other words, a popular president helps the Congress improve its image, but so too does a disliked president drag them down. This finding is based on a small N of 56 months between February 2001 and September 2005, but I am unaware of any argument like this in the literature. (Note that the data end just before Katrina hits.) Does this result hold more generally? Is it true under divided government?

Posted by Barry Burden at 4:39 PM | Comments (1)

Media Effects

A recent article in Perspectives by Amy Gershkoff and Shana Kushner examines the effects of framing on the shaping of public opinion toward the war in Iraq. Their thesis is straightforward: there was minimal opposition in the run up to war by either the Democrats or the news media, and the Bush administration successfully linked Iraq and terrorism in the public's mind. According to their content analysis, even the New York Times had about an equal balance of positive and negative stories about Iraq in the eight months or so before the war.

While "the media" may have been singing the same tune about the march to war, we have all witnessed the explosion of news outlets over the last decade or so. Accordingly, it seems time to rethink the way we study media effects. Content analysis of major newspapers is quite easy given the searchable databases available. But with the proliferation of talk radio, cable news, and yes, even the blogosphere, I wonder if we have passed the point of diminishing returns relying solely on the Times or the Washington Post as our sources of data. The politicians certainly seem to have gotten the point, and deployed their spokespeople accordingly.

Posted by Ian Yohai at 12:15 PM

27 September 2005

Council for European Studies Call for Papers

This conference accepts papers on a wide variety of subjects, including political behavior:

The Council for European Studies is pleased to report that preparations are well under way for their Fifteenth International Conference, to be held at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, March 29 ­ April 2, 2006. The Conference Committee is currently accepting proposals for panels, roundtables, workshops, book discussions, and individual papers, encompassing a wide variety of themes. Please note that the submission deadline is October 1, 2005. Forms are attached to this email and are also available at:


Posted by Traci Burch at 6:58 PM

A nation of political voyeurs.

I was checking out some figures on the National Election Survey website and came across this one:


Even as political participation declines, more of us are interested in the campaign (even in the off year).

This reminds me of the article "Consumer Demand for Election News: The Horserace Sells" by Shanto Iyengar, Helmut Norpoth, and Kyu S. Hahn in the Journal of Politics (Feb. 2004, 66:1). Here's the abstract

Reports on the state of the horserace and analysis of the candidates' strategies are pervasive themes in news coverage of campaigns. Various explanations have been suggested for the dominance of strategy-oriented over hard news. The most frequently identified factors are the length of the modern campaign, the built-in conflict between journalists and campaign operatives and the pressures of the marketplace. This paper provides a test of the market hypothesis. Given access to a wide variety of news reports about the presidential campaign the weeks immediately preceding the 2000 election, we find that voters were drawn to reports on the horserace and strategy. Strategy reports proved especially popular among readers with higher levels of political engagement. In closing, we consider what journalists might to make stories about the issues more relevant and marketable.

People want the horse race, and the media is giving it to them. But why doesn't interest translate into turnout?

An interesting comparison might be the number of people who call in and vote for a favorite contestant on a show like American Idol versus the Nielsen estimates of viewers. Watching a show signals interest and hosts of the show are constantly imploring viewers to vote, but only some do. What is the turnout like for these shows? The expected benefits are hard to quantify -- maybe you really enjoy watching contestant X each night in your living room. Also the costs are really low -- according to the show's web page, voting is as easy as a toll free phone call. Maybe the Carter-Baker panel should have looked into this. U.S. elections American Idol style? Would this give John Ashcroft an unfair advantage?

Posted by Andrew Reeves at 6:26 PM | Comments (1)

26 September 2005

Political Behavior (the journal)

There's a proposal afloat to link Political Behavior with the Elections, Public Opinion, and Voting Behavior section of APSA. Similar connections have taken hold in the methods, state politics, and legislative politics sections. I applaud the proposal as a way to raise visibility of the journal and strengthen the subfield. Take a look at the proposal and share your thoughts in the comment area below.

Posted by Barry Burden at 10:43 AM | Comments (3)

24 September 2005

What's the matter with Cambridge?

Yesterday’s PPBW workshop featured Steve Ansolabehere discussing the supposed culture war between “red? and “blue? America (paper in pdf format here). Ansolabehere argues that the vision of a deeply divided nation is misguided – electoral divisions between states or counties have diminished over time, not grown; there’s little sign of deep polarization in the distribution of policy preferences among the public (with the possible exception of abortion); and voters appear to weigh economic preferences more than moral issues when casting their vote.

The meatiness of the paper (and the fact that everyone loves arguing about the state of the nation) led to much discussion. Of particular interest was Ansolabehere’s findings that low-income voters were cross-pressured in terms of issue preferences: on average holding more liberal economic views, but more conservative social views (raising the Marxian question of whether the working class are duped into voting against their own interests. The answer according to the paper? Possibly, but not by religion, which failed to account for much of the variance in political divisions). On the flip-side, high-income voters appear to be equally cross-pressured by their conservative economic views and liberal social views. The people’s republic of Cambridge, Massachusetts votes as much against its own class interests as rural Kansas.

Of course, key to all these findings is how we define an “economic? or “social? issue. The answer from the room seemed to be that we’d know one when we saw one – and that we’d recognize problems with other people’s definitions just as quickly. Some issues don’t map onto either dimension neatly (crime, for example). Yet others are ignored by the “culture war? arguments that Steve and his colleagues want to critique yet have arguably polarized politics and the parties just as much (such as civil rights and racial issues). And other issues which at first glance fit neatly onto one of the two dimensions may implicitly ask respondents’ preferences about other issues (questions about equality, used to assess respondents’ economic preferences, may well be tapping views about race).

There’s also the question of what’s going on at the elite level. Fiorina’s recent book accounts for the apparent culture war by pointing to elite polarization. Candidates at election time routinely attack each other on these social issues – and the rhetoric certainly doesn’t stop after November. Yet this disconnect between masses and elites is puzzling (especially given that as political scientists we often assume some form of “trickle down? in attitudes from politicians to publics). Campaigns and parties oppose each other on social issues while ordinary Americans (at least according to Ansolabehere) cast their vote more on the basis of economic issues. For those of us who worry about representation, legitimacy and accountability, this seems to raise a puzzling set of questions. Are voters making their choice based on a set of issues that candidates do not campaign on? Are politicians winning votes because of one set of issues but campaigning - and perhaps governing - on another?

Posted by Phil Jones at 10:40 AM

22 September 2005

Program in Survey Research

For those interested in the survey research aspects of political behavior and
opinion, check out the new website of the Harvard Program on
Survey Research at www.iq.harvard.edu/psr headed by Sunshine Hillygus. Feedback is welcome.

Posted by Barry Burden at 10:35 AM | Comments (1)

Does George W. Bush Care about Black People?

Anyone watching the east coast broadcast of the NBC telethon to benefit Hurricane Katrina’s victims witnessed Kanye West’s seemingly off-the-cuff remark that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.? Apparently, West was not the only black person deeply disturbed by the images of the screaming, dying legions of black people trapped in New Orleans shelters for days after the storm. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released last week revealed that 60 percent of blacks believe that race played a role in the federal response to Katrina; only 21 percent of blacks believe that President Bush cares about black people. Whites largely disagreed with the sentiment that race kept the federal government from acting decisively to rescue the people of New Orleans.

Perhaps this debate about whether or not President Bush cares about black people is a bit misplaced. After all, “caring? in this context can have many different meanings. For instance, most of the people who agreed with West probably do not think that the President is a flaming racist—in fact, they would concede that Bush probably has nothing against black people generally and even wholeheartedly likes a good number of black people in particular. However, the fact remains that this administration had few political reasons to attend to the needs and preferences of poor black communities before Katrina. Blacks voted overwhelmingly for Gore and Kerry in the last two elections and Republican attempts to court black voters are unlikely to pay off significantly in the future. Moreover, the economically liberal policies preferred by most blacks directly contend with the supply-side economic policies favored by many of Bush’s core supporters. Each of these factors combined to push issues such as the intersection of crushing poverty with race off the national political agenda. One can only hope that the increased international attention brought by this disaster will focus our attention once again on the problems faced by the poor in our society.

For a transcript of Kanye West’s comments: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/03/AR2005090300165.html

For the CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll Results:

Posted by Traci Burch at 9:01 AM

21 September 2005

Electoral politics and FEMA's poor performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

The aftermath of Katrina has brought about a critical examination of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Many commentators have suggested that only the military is equipped to handle the aftermath of natural disasters (see a recent article by Mark Sappenfield in the Christian Science Monitor). This is an interesting observation since prior to the end of the Cold War (up until 1993), FEMA directors typically had military backgrounds and the agency was often criticized for its preoccupation with military objectives (see the 1994 Mother Jones article by Ted Grup, "How the Federal Emergency Management Agency learned to stop worrying -- about civilians -- and love the bomb". )

Fast forward to 2005 and the aftermath of Katrina. How did FEMA stop worrying about the bomb, and what exactly does it love these days?

Some say that FEMA stopped worrying about the bomb when President Clinton appointed James Lee Witt to head and reorganize FEMA. Although Witt is generally praised for his management of FEMA, he along with Clinton were criticized that the agency was being converted to a reelection slush-fund to essentially buy votes (see " Money! Come & Get It!; Reinventing disaster, Bill Clinton has turned the decrepit FEMA agency into another arm of his permanent campaign" from The American Spectator by James Bovard).

A paper that I've been working on sheds some light on this question. In it, I examine presidential disaster declarations from 1981 through 2004 (note that Katrina is not included). Among the bullet points (so bulleted) are:

  • there is a relationship between the electoral importance of a state (as measured by the competitiveness of previous statewide presidential contests and the number of electoral votes) and how many presidential disaster declarations a state receives;
  • this relationship is present from 1993-2004, but not from 1981-1992; and,
  • voters reward presidents at the ballot box for disaster declarations throughout the entire period.

Reassuringly, the very best predictor of whether a state gets a disaster declaration is actual need (measured using data from a private company that collects insurance data). But the analysis suggests that Clinton and W. Bush have allowed their presidential disaster declarations to be shaded by electoral concerns.

The figure below displays presidential disaster declarations and private disaster declarations (a measure provided by the ISO and based on insurance data -- see the paper for more details).


What if Clinton had maintained (or W. Bush restored) the military leadership of FEMA but (somehow) restructured the mission of FEMA? Would the federal response to Katrina have been better? I only examine presidential disaster declarations -- but would Louisiana have received more preventative disaster aid had it been more electorally important (or if only need were considered)?

Posted by Andrew Reeves at 11:41 AM

20 September 2005

The Afghan Election: Is Voting Really Not a Paradox?

The results of Sunday's Afghan election won't be in for a few more days. No doubt, it will take quite a bit longer to find out whether the country's experiment with democracy will be successful or whether Afghanistan will once again plunge into chaos and civil war. One thing we do know, however, is that about 50% of the 12 million registered voters showed up to the polls. Some officials expressed disappointment in the lower-than-expected turnout; still, 50% is a pretty respectable number, even by the standards of the world's most successful democracies (by comparison, turnout in this weekend's German election was around 40%). Possibly the best-known solution proposed by rational choice theorists for the age-old "paradox of voting" - as stated in Aldrich's classic AJPS article - is that voting is neither a “good? nor is it a particularly “problematic? example of the collective action problem. Turnout is a low cost, low benefit action; the decision is made “at the margins,? with small changes in costs and benefits often proving critical. Given that voting is not a good example of a CA problem - so the argument goes - the fact that millions routinely show up to the polls does not kill rational choice. In most settings, it is quite realistic to think of voting as a low cost activity. Elections held in the past few years in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, however, may be seen as pretty glaring anomalies in this respect. The benefits of voting remain quite low; the costs, however, appear to be immeasurably higher than those we generally face in American or European elections. Is it reasonable to say that the decision made by millions of purple-fingered Iraqis and Afghanis to go out and vote is not much of a puzzle because costs and benefits are low? If not, what does this say about the standard rational choice defense?

Posted by Federico Ferrara at 8:59 PM | Comments (2)

PPBW: Ansolabehere

The first PPBW session is this Friday with Ansolabehere, Rodden, and Snyder's paper, "Purple America." (Note that the room has changed to CGIS N354.) From the paper:

In this paper we challenge the culture war argument. As we read the works in this vein there are three key assumptions. First, voters are divided or polarized over issues, especially moral issues. There are few moderates on abortion, gay marriage, and similar public questions, and the divisions on these questions map into important demographic categories, especially religion and type of community. Second, moral issues have more salience or weight in the minds of voters than economic issues. Third, the division maps into geography. Red state voters are more morally conservative and put more weight on moral issues.

Ansolabehere et al. reject 2 of these 3 assumptions. More after the workshop.

Posted by Barry Burden at 7:59 PM

Japanese Elections

Japan now appears to be on the only industrial democracy on the planet without a competitive party system. Aside from a few months in the early 1990s, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has ruled continuously for 50 years now. In the elections on September 11, the LDP increased its seat share to 62% of the House of Representatives. In a nation where the economy is limping along and LDP scandals are frequent, how has this happened? Find out at my talk on Tuesday, September 27, which is based on this APSA paper. How does the theory apply in other nations? Didn't the Democrats used to "run for Congress by running against it?" Wasn't this Koizumi's approach too?

Posted by Barry Burden at 3:23 PM | Comments (2)

Political Behavior Graduate Seminar

Graduate students in Cambridge might be interested in a seminar called Political Behavior that I am co-teaching with Andrea Campbell this semester. The course is "An examination of mass and elite political behavior in the US, with an emphasis on elections, voting behavior, political participation, political inequality, and political organizations." Political Behavior is cross-listed at Harvard and MIT.

Posted by Barry Burden at 1:47 PM


Welcome to the Political Behavior Blog. The blog is hosted by the Institute for Quantiative Social Science (IQSS) and associated with its Political Psychology and Behavior Workshop (PPBW).

The purpose of the blog is to make the seminar conversations and hallway chatter about political behavior at Harvard public and continuous. The blog will extend these face-to-face discussions on-line and include participants from outside the university.

What should you expect to see over the coming months? Look for summaries of the papers presented at PPBW (and audience responses), research questions currently occupying the attention of Harvard researchers, postings of papers, commentary on newly-released datasets, conference announcements, reactions to political behavior research that makes news, and thoughts on controversies in the field.

The blog team includes all of the people listed as Members on the left side of this page. Barry Burden is an associate professor in the Department of Government at Harvard. Traci Burch, Federico Ferrara, Phil Jones, Andrew Reeves, and Ian Yohai are graduate students there. Sarah Sled is a graduate student in political science at MIT. Between the seven of us we hope to post fairly regularly. We invite others to participate by submitting comments in response to our postings.

Posted by Barry Burden at 12:25 PM