Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Swing Voters

Swing voters, or late deciders, are not often studied in the political science literature. One portrait of the late decider is someone carefully weighing the candidates and their stances before casting a vote.

Not so much.

One study looks at these late deciders and I want to point especially to Table 9 in the paper that examines differences between swingers and non-swingers. How do they differ? The swing or late deciding voters are less interested in the campaign, less likely to participate in the political process through attending rallies or wearing buttons, make a political contribution, and of most importance here in my blog -- less knowledgeable about the candidates or campaign.

A few quick comparisons:

  • Thirty-four percent of non-swingers can name the Speaker of the House, 26 percent of swingers can do so.

  • Knows which party controls the House, 73 percent swingers, 65 percent non-swingers.

  • Fifty-two percent of non-swingers rated "high" in knowledge, 42 percent of swingers.

It's interesting to note that exposure to political advertising is the same regardless of swing status. Ads are hard to escape, even for late deciders. Again, political advertising is become more and more important not only for candidates but as a way people learn about the campaign, mainly because it's hard to avoid ads versus skipping the news.

What do we take from this, and what does it mean today? The "neither" or "undecided" numbers in most national polls are fairly small, in the single digits.

That suggests there aren't many undecided swing voters out there. Don't you believe it. Some polls filter for "likely voters" and some are of just "adults." The filtering, part art, part science, significantly changes how the candidate numbers come out. I'll blog this tomorrow with a couple of good articles this week on the "likely voter" problem in polling, but basically there are more "late deciders" out there than you'd think . . . largely because they don't care all that much but may still vote.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Just How Stupid Are We?

We've suffered a cottage industry of books that bemoan the American political knowledge. Just How Stupid Are We? is one recent example, but there are others.

Now I learn that we're not the only stupids in the room.

A news account of a Finnish study says many there "have inadequate knowledge of political decision making." Two out of three survey respondents were unable to correctly name the parties in the current government coalition.

Thank you, Finland. Whew!

I'm not picking on our Finnish friends. My favorite is a Brit survey of kids who thought Winston Churchill was the first guy to walk on the moon. Clearly this is more than a U.S. phenomenon, so now someone needs to write a book that asks, Just How Stupid is the World? I suppose that'd make us feel better.

Media Bias and Presidential Campaigns

We all know the old mantra: the media is biased. First off, that's grammatically incorrect. The media are biased. Plural.

And yes, they are, but not in the way most people think.

But I'm not going there today. Instead I just read a research paper on whether the 2004 presidential election coverage was biased. The answer? Surprising. The authors, all four of them, looked at bias within stories and within segments. So you may have a single story that is biased (partisan), but if it's balanced by another piece just after, it comes out kinda even (structural). A good idea, one reflective of the way TV does "journalism" (and I'm being kind here).

The findings from the July-September 2008 Mass Communication & Society piece (Volume 11, #3):

  • There is often a bias toward a challenger. That's the nature of politics, of journalism, and they found this in 2004 as well. We've seen a challenger bias in other studies. Change = news.
  • The broadcast networks had more even partisan and structural balance than the cable news networks. The explanation? Broadcast networks like ABC, et al., have a less-interested news audience so they have to broaden their partisan perspective. Not sure Bill O'Reilly would buy this, but it makes sense.
  • CBS and Fox showed the greatest "partisan tilt" in the study -- both for Kerry. Wow! Fox for Kerry? Odd, weird, counter intuitive. And cool. I honestly can't explain this one but the methodology seems sound.
  • Broadcast networks spent less time on Swiftboat and National Guard stories than did the cable networks. You could argue this was partisan in nature, but I suspect it has more to do with bullet #1 above. Different audience, less consisting of news/partisan junkies.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Polls and the Debate

Two polls report more people saw Barack Obama as the winner in last Friday night's presidential debate. One poll was of general voters, another of undecided voters. What we sometimes see is a self-fulfilling prophecy here. One candidate is anointed the winner and that has a small, yet significant, positive effect on overall poll results.

If Sarah Palin crashes and burns this week, the Republican ticket will be in serious trouble.

Let the spin begin. GOPers will be downplaying expectations. I'm not sure they can get quite that low in the downplayed expectations game, because no one really expects her to do well. Speak in complete sentences and she comes out ahead. Joe Biden is in a tough spot. No one expects her to do well, and he's got to avoid piling on.

If Palin crashes, the combination may be enough to solidify in enough people's minds that the election is over. That's an interesting effect, because sometimes that works against a ticket or candidate. The base takes a break, doesn't show up on election day.

If people know it's over, then that can make all the difference, and not the way they intended. Gonna be an interesting week.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The First Debate

I've little time today to blog on this as I busily cab kids to various Saturday activities, but ya just can't let the first presidential debate slide by unblogged.

My sense? Obama wins first half, McCain wins second half. Edge to McCain, as if it matters. I'll be more interested in studies of what people learned from the first debate. I doubt very little since the two of them kept close to their script, though it's surprising how few people have been keeping up so some of what they said will be new to viewers.

There were a few points scored, but the only people who noticed were pundits and partisans, people who need to get lives and focus on more important topics -- such as the Georgia-Alabama game tonight. Failing economy? Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Presidential election? Pfffft. Football!

I'll look for any snap polls later today, perhaps comment on them, depending on the football game.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Anger and What People Know

People are angry. They're pissed about the economy, about Iraq, about gas prices. So it's no wonder that folks are angry about the proposed trillion dollar buyout to hopefully fix a looming economic crisis.

Anger and other strong emotions have an interesting relationship with knowledge. In general, emotions tend to increase motivation but hinder learning. Pissed off people pay attention, but the emotion gets in the way of reasoning. The result is often a focus on individuals, someone to blame. Scapegoats.

Enter, the CEO.

I agree, I want someone to blame as well. Public execution of a few CEOs, with pay-per-view television, might go a long way toward helping with the bailout. Since that doesn't seem likely, we may have to go with the Bush plan, with some changes. It took me a few days to accept this after some heavy reading, thinking, and acceptance that my pay-per-view idea was never going to fly.

But some GOPers in the House, for philosophical and political reasons, are balking. I'm not a partisan, and yet here's my gift to the Dems. A line that may or may not work:

Let a Hundred Herbert Hoovers Bloom.

Yeah, ya gotta be historically knowledgeable to get the line, but what the hell, I'm a PhDweeb, so boiling that down any more wouldn't work. Maybe a good preface, like: "As well all remember, Republican Herbert Hoover failed to blah blah blah." And then let the hoovers bloom.

Not a bad line for the debate tonight, if there is one.

My money? McCain walks in at the last second to a rousing ovation.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Presidential Debates and Learning

Do people learn from presidential debates?

Yes. A majority of studies show a connection between watching the debates and campaign issue knowledge. Now this gets tricky. Are politically interested folks drawn to watch debates and therefore do better on such tests? Obviously yeah, but often these studies statistically control for many of the factors associated with what people know (education, age, etc.). In a few, controlled experiments attempted to tease out the effects.

However, a few studies have failed to find a connection between learning and viewing debates. In some cases, to use doctoral PhDweebspeak, "it depends." It depends on the kind of campaign, the kind of candidates, the kind of questions one asks. It's a difficult area to study.

In general, if one carefully reads the literature, you'll find televised debates do improve issue knowledge, issue salience (how important certain issues are to you), and evaluations of the candidates (from likability to perceptions of competence and character).

Okay, but how about those irritating post-debate analyses?

One of my first studies as a graduate student was of the 1988 debates and I remember sitting in a room as students watched the infamous Lloyd Bensen/Dan Quayle vice presidential debate.

Students had a thingie where they signalled emotional response to whatever the candidates said. Fun, especially when the famous "you're no Jack Kennedy" line spilled out. Crazy data.

But what we were interested in was not infamous quips but the effects of the analyses after the debate.

Students watched and were then assigned to either watch the analysis or a filler program. We found that analyses damped partisan reactions, which kinda worked opposite of what we expected. With selective attention we figured hearing about the debates would lead to more extreme feelings either way, depending on your predispositions. Theory said so. Instead we found hearing people from both sides talking about the debate actually reduced extreme opinions.

Needless to say this was opposite what most others found and a book later on debates attacked that study. Hell, we were grad students, making it up as we went. The research ended up as a conference paper but never in publication. Probably best for all.

Fox & Friends and Polls

I like to watch Fox & Friends in the morning. It's like picking at a scab: you know you shouldn't do it, you know it's bad for you, but you simply can't resist.

Over the last couple of weeks F&F spent a lot of time on public opinion polls, noting trends in John McCain's favor. Again, and again. Never mind the numbers didn't really support their bandwagon argument all that well, they were trying to create a sense of trend toward their favored guy -- McCain.

Transparent partisanship is okay, even by three smug faces who are journalistically clueless, but I noticed in the last few days they stopped mentioning polls. Why? Could it be that the momentum has all swung Barack Obama's way? Perhaps. Certainly the economy is a stronger issue for Obama, the war for McCain, and all the news about the economy gets worse and worse.

Is there really a bandwagon effect? Yes, the reporting of poll results can move a few people in the direction of the majority. But there's also an underdog effect, people shifting to support the candidate who is behind. Typically people who are predisposed to eventually vote one way or the other see or hear a poll and shift in the bandwagon or underdog direction, depending on their particular preferences. In other words, polls are often a wash when it comes to persuading people to move one way or the other.

So Fox & Friends probably won't be mentioning any more polls until their guy gets some momentum again. Assuming it's mostly McCain supporter watching these three lightweights, the poll reporting won't do all that much.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Younger and Smarter

According to the Pew Center for the People and the Press, younger voters are bucking the trend when it comes to campaign knowledge. Usually age is a positive predictor of knowledge, which means the older you are, the better you tend to do on the various ways we measure the concept.

Not so much, this year. In fact, just the opposite.

Sixty percent of voters 18-29 correctly identify Obama as being pro-choice, while only 51 percent of voters ages 50-64 got it right. Only 41 percent of those 65 and older nailed the question.

Most everyone did better in identifying candidate positions on Iraq than they did on abortion.

So what's going on?

In part this is an Obama Effect. He energized young voters, enough so that they were a little more likely to pay attention and get the answer right. I'm frankly surprised that they pulled ahead of older respondents instead of merely pulling even. That's damn surprising given the usually significant age effect we see on knowledge. Maybe there's something different about abortion as an issue. Maybe something else is at work here.

Coming Soon to a Blog Near You

In honor of the upcoming presidential debate, I'll write tomorrow or the next day on what we know from the research on debates and post-debate analysis. Do debate performances change minds? Do people learn from the debates? Do zingers matter, as in "you're no Jack Kennedy" in 1988 or President Ford's infamous freeing of Poland in 1976? And how about those talking heads who later tell us what we just saw, what effect do they have on public opinion?

More later.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


With little comment, I offer this interesting article about the use of swiftgoogling much like the good old 2004 swiftboating. Basically, campaigns purchase Goggle key words to point searches at sites or articles they want you to read. Check out the link above. Interesting, and given how people use Google and the net to find stuff out, this perhaps has some small effect.

I Was Stupid to Read This Book

Rick Shenkman's Just How Stupid Are We, or perhaps Stupid R Us, has a better title than it does content. I wouldn't call the book an elitist screed because it's not monotonous. The provocative title alone gets your attention, but it is full of vague attacks on regular Americans who fail to measure up to a political scientist's lofty goals, especially if they dare elect someone the polysci guy doesn't like.

It's well written in places, but there's nothing new. I thought the book would include some interesting analyses of political knowledge and why it matters, but other than the ability to read an occasional Pew survey question I can't see much here that breaks any ground, much less new ground. The title was good enough to get him a visit on The Daily Show. Oh well.

I tried to find if Shenkman has published any interesting work on what people know, on political knowledge, anything that includes theoretical or methodological approaches to the question. Maybe it's out there and I missed it. That's damn likely. But the folks who work in this area are pretty well known to me and I thought I'd come across something he'd done in the area, published either in a serious academic journal or one of the major conferences. He deserves better and I should have looked harder.

Then again, it shouldn't be that hard.

For those interested in the political knowledge of the American electorate and what it means to society and government, there are much better choices out there. The titles may not be as cool, but the work is far superior.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Political Browser

I seem to be pointing to lots of other sites lately rather than doing my own analysis. Sorry. I'm in the middle of reading Shenkman's Just How Stupid Are We? and will have comments later this week. So far, the title is better than the book. I've discussed the book earlier, as well as his discussion of five myths about the American voters.

But I did want to point to this cool news site for political nerds and junkies out there (you know who you are). It's done by the fine people at washingtonpost.com and is called Political Browser. The idea is simple: gather all the best political coverage, even by your competitors, and point to it online. I'd call it anther example of the blog effect on mainstream news.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Presidential Politics and Coke

In shameless self promotion, here's a link to my column on politics and how people refer to soft drinks -- and the relationship between the two. Kinda Dave Barry meets freakonomics, though nowhere near as good as either.

Still, fun to write.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Match Your Candidate

ABC News has a fun little quiz in which you read two comments, one by John McCain and one by Barack Obama, and decide which one you most agree with. At the end it tells you who's your guy in the 2008 election.

Takes about five minutes to see who gets tossed off the see-saw.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Fact Check II

A couple of days ago I blogged about such cool sites as PolitiFact and Factcheck and how they answer whether candidates and handlers and independent pains the in political ass are telling the truth, or lying, about the other candidates. And along comes this article that touches on the same subject.

It's the subhead I like: "the effect on voters is unclear."


This is an experiment waiting to happen. All you budding mass comm scholars out there, you students looking for a dissertation topic, you assistant professors desperately needing to publish to get tenure, the world waits for you to answer a simple question -- do factcheck sites actually make a difference?

Probably not.

As the article notes, we're dealing with political predispositions here.

To some extent, it’s in the eye of the beholder,” says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “Facts derive their meaning from the context in which viewers see them.”

In other words, some people are going to care deeply that, for example, Governor Palin is making questionable or untrue assertions about her record and others won’t. “It depends on your view of Sarah Palin,” says Mr. Rosenstiel.

My earlier post had more to do with whether factcheck sites influence political knowledge, which is the focus of this blog, but attitudes (and emotions) matter as well, and they're all intertwined to create our overall impressions of candidates (or journalism profs who blog too much). A neat study could be crafted here, one that looks at whether hearing the "other side" being corrected has more influence than hearing your own side getting caught with its pants on fire. The possible dependent variables: knowledge, attitude extremity, overall impression, affective response, and on and on and on.

Someone, do this study. My plate is full.

Changes in Political Knowledge

Rick Shenkman, in a Washington Post article this week, sets up five straw myths about what people know and knocks 'em down, one by one. Kinda.

Shenkman, author of the book Just How Stupid Are We?, says the myths are:
  • Our voters are pretty smart
  • Bill O'Reilly's viewers are dumber than Jon Stewart's
  • If you just give Americans the facts, they'll be able to draw the right conclusions
  • Voters today are smarter than they used to be
  • Young voters are paying a lot of attention to the news

In fairness, a few hundred words in the Post is not enough room to give any of these points the depth and credit they deserve. But there are a lot of apples and oranges comparisons going on here, particularly when talking about change in knowledge over time. Age and education also get all intertwined with media exposure factors such as who watches what program or network. The third point is subjective, and certainly the people who promote deliberative democracy projects would hasten to argue as to whether giving information leads to better decision making (assuming we can all agree what are the "right conclusions").

The column jumps from 9/11 to a recent Pew knowledge test to argue the final point, that young voters pay a lot of attention to the news. David Mindich probably answered this better than most in his book, but even then it gets more complicated than the Post column suggests.

If I didn't have to run out and take care of some business, I'd break this down more. Damn those non-blogging responsibilities.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fact Checking and Political Knowledge

The sites FactCheck.org, and PolitiFact have become for many pundits and the public as the goto place to debunk political myth. These sites examine the campaign spew to tell us what's true, what's a lie, and to point fingers at whose pants are on fire.

What people know about the candidates is strongly influenced by this stuff, true or not. Does Barack Obama support sex ed for kindergartners? Not really, but Fox News this morning repeated the claim. What's odd about that? Bill O'Reilly the night before, on Fox, fussed about the McCain folks using this misleading ad (and one by the Dems, just to be fair).

Pro campaign advisers know that what matters is getting the allegation out there in the public mind -- put the other guy on the defensive, sow doubt among the undecided, energize the base.

What people know becomes a function of the bits and pieces they've picked up from grazing on news and blogs and talking heads on TV and radio. This cobbled together picture often fits predispositions, and there are a lot of people with some doubt about Obama, a relatively new guy on the political block.

The GOP pros are exploiting this because they have a simple choice, the "Straight Talk Express," or winning. You'll see the Dems doing some of the same at Sarah Palin, though so far nowhere near what the other side has done so far.

Let a million factcheckers bloom.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

News and Work

A new Pew report states:

Of the 44% of the public who regularly go online while on the job, more than two-thirds (70%) check the news during the course of the day according to a recent Pew Research survey on media trends.

Now this isn't a big surprise. People are also online at work checking sports, checking porn, checking this blog for any exciting new updates. That they also check news and blogs and the like is to be expected.

And there is a political knowledge connection. The report notes that few in the public can answer the most basic of knowledge questions. However:

among those who regularly go online from work political knowledge is somewhat higher. Fully 28% are able to answer all three political knowledge questions correctly. Only 20% of this group answered all three questions incorrectly.

So keep checking the news from work. It's gotta help, even if it's on someone else's dime. Among the pubic at large, only 18% got them all right and 33% got all three questions wrong.

This does raise a few interesting questions, at least for me, about whether reading the news at work influences certain kinds of knowledge over others, such as big splash controversies versus more mundane stuff, like basic stands of candidates on issues. It's hard to say from this data, but this is probably an area ripe for research -- news consumption from work and how it differs from news consumption at home, and the consequences of either.

There ya go, aspiring PhD's, a dissertation waiting to be tackled. I'll wait for the check.

Monday, September 15, 2008


So I'm working on a piece of research with a simple underlying thesis -- names matter. This gets into how we structure knowledge, but the basic idea is that asking someone a political knowledge question that starts with the name (as in, who is Dick Cheney?) is easier to answer than one that starts with the office (who is the vice president?).

Simple, eh?

Peek under the hood, into the engine of the brain, and this has some interesting twists and turns and cables and hoses, but what I'm working on is a media connection, that people who rely on entertainment-based news or even TV news will be more successful at questions in which they are given the name versus questions in which they are prompted instead with the office. People who rely in print news, a more active process, should be better able to handle both kinds of questions. Again, this gets into how each form of news is remembered and how this in turn influences memory structure.

Okay, so what did I find? Some support, at least in my initial data analysis. I've got a lot of fine tuning to do, numbers to crunch, data to manipulate, and I've got to think through some complicated interaction effects. But I think I'm on to something.

There is little practical use for this beyond understanding how people structure political information in their heads, except that the kinds of knowledge questions you ask in a survey can strongly influence who is likely, or unlikely, to answer them. As people become more and more reliant on skimming the news, catching it on The Daily Show, or a few minutes of CNN they will become less able to answer the "hard" questions.

In some ways this resembles the results I found in my Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media piece a year or so ago, in which I found some support for the idea that watching comedy news programs was more associated with recognition of political information than with actual recall of political facts.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Convention Bounces

Political conventions tell the stories of their Prez and VP candidates. For many citizens, it's their first real opportunity to learn who these people are. Now that the major party conventions are over (thank god!), and each appears to have had a bounce, does it matter? A Miami Herald story, quoting research done by the American Enterprise Institute, suggests not. According to the article:

Bounces up in polls immediately following conventions are no guarantee of victory in November. Candidates who got higher post-convention poll bounces than their opponents and went on to lose include Barry Goldwater in 1964, Jimmy Carter in 1980, Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988, according to a study by Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

I found one version of a study on the AEI site, but not the one I think they're citing.

What the story doesn't note -- some candidates are so popular that you can't really expect much of a bounce instead get a ceiling effect. This may be especially true for an incumbent. Oddly, Kerry got no real bounce in 2004, while Clinton got a huge one in 1992. Both Dem challengers, but one of them actually a good candidate.

But as a predictor of the final election outcome:

Candidate A Bounce > Candidate B Bounce = Candidate A Wins

Nope, doesn't work that way bounce fans.

Now we're truly into silly season. We have lipstick and pigs, kindergartners taking sex education, and all the rest. Imagine aliens watching all this from the other side of the universe and telepathically messaging each other: "No way I'm gonna visit that craphole."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Knowing Sarah

The Pew Center folks asked an interesting survey question:

Apart from the WAY news organizations are reporting the story, do you think it is important that voters learn about the details of Sarah Palin's background in order to judge whether she would be a good vice president, or do you think the details of her background are not related to her ability to serve as vice president?

This gets at people's self-judgments as to whether they know enough, and whether it's important for them to know more about the GOPVP nominee's background. In other words, does her background matter?

A lot of people, 70 percent, said it is important to know these kind of details. Twenty-seven percent said it's not important. Three percent of respondents didn't have a clue. As an aside, there's almost an even split on whether people think news orgs have been fair to Palin, no doubt broken down nicely by partisan/ideological lines.

The full report, which is here, includes a fascinating comparison with Dan Quayle from 1988. More people in 2008 (70 percent) think it's important to know this stuff than back then (56 percent). I'm not sure what this means and the report doesn't break the numbers down into categories, but more people thought coverage of Quayle was unfair than of Palin today. This may represent the partisan breakdowns of the time, or that Quayle was at least a U.S. senator and had some experience at the national level. Or maybe it had to do with spelling potato. Impossible to say.

These will be fun data to play with some day, a comparison of the two Veep nominees.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Faux News beats No News,
but not Real News

People do not learn as much from fake news programs such as The Daily Show as they do from real news, according to an account of a new study.

According to the release:

People watching television news learned more about a candidate’s position on issues and about political procedures compared to those watching the fake news shows, while fake news shows primarily taught viewers about a candidate’s personal background.

I've not read this issue of Journal of Communication yet, so I'm basing my comments on the news report. When I see the actual research I'll post again.

The authors conducted an experiment with 85 real people (as opposed to college students). Some watched NBC or CNN, some watched The Daily Show, and some watched a control group science documentary. Then subjects wrote what they remembered, ranked them as positive or negative toward a person or group mentioned, and then took a 29-question knowledge test.

The results showed that people who watched the NBC and CNN news segment were able to recall more details about all topics than those who watched The Daily Show clip. They also averaged two more questions correct in the test. The real news clip led viewers to learn about who the nominee was and where he stood on important issues, while also increasing their understanding of political policies and issues.

In contrast, people watching The Daily Show remembered details about the nominee’s college choice and family members, but were less informed on important political issues and the nominee’s stance on those issues.
As a controlled experiment, this tells us a lot that survey-based research cannot easily tease out, in part because of the interest and education differences between those who watch faux news and those who watch mainstream, traditional news. What I can't tell from the press release are the differences between the entertainment-based segment and the news segment and whether the facts were more or less identical and a host of other methodological problems that can crop up in studies like this. JoC is a helluva journal, so I'm assuming all is kosher on the methodology front, but I'll report back when I can look at the study.

The abstract, all that's available online, suggests this is a much deeper piece of research than reported in the press release. That's not unusual since a news release goes for the "news" angle, not the theory.

But I can't say I'm terribly surprised that you'd learn more from being forced to watch a real news program than you'd learn from watching a funny, entertainment-based, fake news program. But in mass comm we sometimes dare to research the obvious, in part because someone has to test the obvious before we move on to other possible effects. In that, this study appears to provide support for what we'd expect to find.

This has little to do with motivation, though. People seek out such faux programs because they're either tuned out from news or because they find the approach of journalists to be, ahem, dreary. That's more real world in its significance, both for journalism and the fate of democracy.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Third Person and Racism

A Non-Political Post. Yah!

One of my favorite areas of research is the third-person effect. Simply put, this is the notion that the media content won't influence me, but it will influence other people. I also like it because it touches on another favorite topic of mine: perceived knowledge, or what you think you know.

Third person is not only interesting from a psychological perspective but it also has policy ramifications. If I think other people are susceptible to certain kinds of media content, I may be more likely to support banning such content or at least placing constraints on it.

One small study looked at children and perceptions about race. The argument is straightforward: racism is learned, not inherited, and kids who think they are unaffected by certain media content may become less critical viewers or readers. It's an interesting hypothesis.

Knowledge in this modest study had no effect on third-person perceptions, perhaps due to the way it was measured, especially self-ratings on how knowledgeable they are. I would expect self ratings of knowledge to be positively associated third-person effects. Or, to get out of PhDweeb mode, the more you think you know, the more likely you'd see yourself as unaffected by some media content but see others as victims of such content.

This area deserves more work. We know third person is associated, in part, with maintaining self esteem, and I'd guess that perceived knowledge fills much the same role, but the latter should also have other sources. What people know is often positively associated with what they think they know. One might boost third person perceptions, the other might lower them. That's a hypothesis waiting to be tested.

Note: it's so nice to not blog about presidential politics.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Obama and Religion

Polls tend to show about 1 in 10 Americans think Obama is a Muslim. Of course, about 1 in 10 also think cows can fly, but that's another post for another blog. One poll went as high as 15 percent, one as low as 8 percent, who thought Barack Obama was a Muslim.

He sure doesn't help himself with slips like the one below:

What people know about a candidate is in part created and crafted by the candidate, in part the product of the various media (news and entertainment) and in part the product of the opposition. This won't play a huge role in the election, though it'll be interesting to see if religion comes up a lot in the debates. Kerry got religion in 2004, Gore ignored it in 2000, Obama is all about it in 2008, so the Dems have kinda figured it out. The Republicans have never had a problem with talking about faith and I expect Palin to showcase this in her VP debate.

Be interesting if "Muslim" comes up in the Prez debates. I don't see McCain raising it, so that'll leave it to the moderators.

Friday, September 5, 2008


Finally the conventions are over. McCain is no great orator, we all know that, but I thought the writing in huge chunks of his speech was mediocre and mundane and probably some other "m" words stolen out of my Thesaurus. All in all, average stuff, but the GOPers liked it and he tossed them the kind of red meat the Republican faithful love to hear: God, country, lower taxes, and the like. In that way, it succeeded.

And I can finally stop writing about convention speeches.

What I'm waiting for now is a sense of the polling, the post-convention bump, and how these candidates were able to define themselves -- and each other -- in the minds of Americans. A CBS news poll from 9/1 - 9/3 has the race a dead heat. Weird, because other recent polls have Obama ahead by 5 or 6 percentage points. I don't think we can pay much attention to any of them until we see polling done after both conventions.

Silly season is upon us. Jon Stewart kinda gets at it below.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Bloody Brilliant

The news media apologize. Except not.

Meet Gov. Palin

Sarah Palin pulled off a good speech last night, full of red meat for the GOP faithful as she tried to form in the American mind who she is and who she thinks Barack Obama is. Did she mention Biden? Can't remember.

What's that smell from St. Paul? Could it be the scent of . . . victory? Republicans think so, but I suspect they're just giddy with relief that W couldn't make it to the convention and that Gustav didn't decimate New Orleans.

McCain tonight, then we move to "ordinary time," at least until the debates. I can get back to blogging about what people know, political knowledge, and all that academic stuff.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Two for the Price of One

Two posts in one. Tell your friends!

Post 1

I have a working theory that GOPVP candidate Sarah Palin is a brilliant stroke by the McCain folks. No, really! Wait! Hear me out. The heart of my thesis is this: the instant coverage of her daughter's pregnancy, etc., paints her as the victim of a heartless media onslaught. She can play the righteous indignation card, on that'll play well with the GOP base.

Picking Lieberman as VP was a no-go, picking Romney was a yawner. Picking Palin, get the sense that the evil liberal-biased media is picking on a 17-year-old girl and her mom, and you win back the conservatives who were not exactly jumping on the McCain bandwagon.

Okay, it's only a theory. But watch her speech tonight, watch the father of her kid's baby standing behind her. Watch and hear as the righteous indignation card is played to a roaring and receptive crowd, energized

Post 2

Interesting column in Tuesday's NYTimes called Fish or Foul? It has to do with how certain people are more easily fooled, that "the ideal victim is not an ignoramus but an expert." In other words, the more you know or think you know, the more likely you are to jump to conclusions based on a few hints.

"Expectations are everything," writes Edward Dolnick, using as a terrific example an experiment where people were handed strawberry yogurt, the lights turned off for a "fair taste test" and instead they were given chocolate yogurt. Nineteen of 32 praised the chocolate flavor, including one who said strawberry was her favorite (expert?). The fish or foul title refers to an earlier NYT story on sushi and food expecations.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Knowing the VPs

Vice presidents rarely matter -- even the awful choices. So I doubt Joe Biden and Sarah Palin matter all that much in electoral votes or how people learn about the campaign or the impressions they form of McCain and Obama.

If people could vote separately for vice president, who would they pick? Biden, it appears, at least according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll, by a 54% to 41% (4% undecided, 1% unsure). It's interesting that the margin of preference is a little greater for the VPs than it is for the presidential candidates. Latest poll has Obama with a 50-43 advantage, no doubt a post-convention bump. Pre-convention polls had it more or less even.

Palin is largely unknown, though news this weekend will change some of that. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they haven't heard enough about her to have an opinion. So we have Joe Who and Sarah Who. For the GOP, at least she has only 11% negatives. In the mind of the U.S. electorate, she's a blank slate. The battle's already underway to fill in those blanks, either with positives or negatives depending on your political flavor.

But in the long run, it matters very little. It does, however, give the talking heads something to do with their time.