More Lessons from Political Science

How understanding the horse race can keep us from obsessing over it

I’m late in flagging it, but Slate’s Chris Beam, riffing of my magazine article on what political journalists can learn from political science, has a funny parody piece that asks, “What if political scientists covered the news?” Here’s a taste:

Obama now faces some of the most difficult challenges of his young presidency: the ongoing oil spill, the Gaza flotilla disaster, and revelations about possibly inappropriate conversations between the White House and candidates for federal office. But while these narratives may affect fleeting public perceptions, Americans will ultimately judge Obama on the crude economic fundamentals of jobs numbers and GDP.
That’s pretty apt, even if the last sentence should really emphasize real income growth rather than employment. And it captures one bit of protest I heard from a former newsroom colleague-turned-Ph.D. candidate in political science, which is that many academics can’t seem to be bothered to write with a broader audience in mind.

But there’s a more important point here, which is that political science—in addition to adding some much-needed rigor to the hazy speculation that too often passes for journalistic analysis—could, by rendering much of the “horse race” part of politics simple, predictable, and a bit boring, orient journalists’ attention toward policy debates and their consequences. This is exactly the point that Matthew Yglesias, a regular advocate for poli-sci, makes about Beam’s piece.

It’s also, as it happens, a point that’s been advanced by political scientists themselves. In 1993, Andrew Gelman and Gary King published a much-cited (364 times, according to Google Scholar) paper (PDF) that asked why campaign polls are variable when the results of presidential elections are predictable, and concluded that short-term survey swings—the things that can drive campaign coverage for weeks at a time—don’t amount to much. In a blog post Monday, Gelman explained what he was hoping to achieve:

When we wrote the article, Gary and I wanted to make a difference, to elevate public discourse. It was so frustrating to see the news media focus on the horse race, especially given that there was no evidence that these horse-race stories made any difference. We thought our article might change things, because instead of the usual strategy—criticizing the media for distorting politics with endless stories on the horse race—we were taking the opposite tack, essentially mocking the media for running story after story about campaign gaffes etc. that had no effect. If it’s really true (as we found from our analysis) that what’s most important are the so-called fundamentals (political ideology, party identification, and the economy), then the way the media could have the most influence would be to report on the fundamentals—report what’s happening in the economy and report the candidates’ positions on major issues—rather than the trivialities.

Those are some big ambitions, and it would be a stretch to say that they were achieved in short order, perhaps because journalists weren’t paying attention, perhaps because they wanted to delude themselves into thinking that all the churn and noise do matter, and perhaps because, as Gelman has elsewhere suggested, horse-race coverage is what political news readers—who are by definition inordinately engaged with politics, and thus quite likely to have established views and a “horse” they’re rooting for—really want, and most reporters don’t enjoy writing the same story every day.

Even if the horse-race story really is What the Reader Wants, though, journalists have a responsibility to get the horse-race story right—which means, in addition to getting more comfortable with repetition, taking note of what political science has to say. And there are, finally, signs that this is happening. In addition to the examples I flagged in the story, consider work like this from J. Patrick Coolican of the Las Vegas Sun, about the real source of Harry Reid’s troubles.

Over e-mail, Coolican added an important note: “in some respects political science grounding has more to do with what you don’t write than what you write”; a poli-sci primer is like an injunction against “nonsense momentum stories and such.” That takes us back to the key point: for readers and reporters alike, elections are important, and elections are entertaining, but at least in most cases, they’re pretty straightforward, and can be explained with a fraction of the words we devote to them. Meanwhile, there’s a whole fascinating, compelling, consequential world of political activity out there waiting to be covered. So by all means, let’s have fun with Super Duper Tuesday. Then let’s get on to the hard stuff.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.