Friday, October 31, 2008


Of course it's Halloween -- that explains the weird decorations, the sudden prominence of pumpkins, the bags of candy in my pantry, most of them opened and eagerly sampled.

About 34 percent of Americans say they believe in the existence of ghosts. Twenty-three percent say they've been in a ghost's presence.

Then again, 5 percent have seen a monster in their closet.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

What We Know -- From Hate Email

We all get them, those bogus viral hate emails spreading doom and gloom about a political candidate (most often, it seems, Obama).

But do they work? Kinda.

article written about some research conducted on the subject reports:

Their preliminary findings: Voter-choice was not altered by exposure to the email, either firsthand or secondhand. Yet, still Obama's "feeling thermometer scores'' dropped in the condition where subjects read the email, and the temperature for him rose in conditions where they read a rebuttal from Obama's Web-site.

I can't find the original research and I should point out that it's not been peer reviewed, so there's no way to judge the methodology, but on the surface it seems sound -- and interesting. To continue, quoting the authors:

"Our results suggest that these types of personal candidate attacks can have an affect on citizen preferences,'' Professors Phillip Hardy and Mary Walsh write in a draft of their report graciously shared with the Tribune. "The preliminary findings from our study point to (1) decreased feeling thermometer scores toward the target candidate; (2) a diminished sense of empathy and morality associated with him; and (3) fear of Obama's religious background.

The bad news is they do seem to work, at least at a vague, hard-to-define, attitudinal/affective level. Not only is that enough to get you publication, if statistical analysis holds up, but it's damned important too.

It's scary to imagine these things actually working, but apparently they do inside the head, under the hood. Whether they translate into behavior, like voting, that's always tougher to find in any kind of research. I suppose next Tuesday will be the ultimate test.

Science: Attitudes and Knowledge

A non-political, non-presidential post.
How rare, and refreshing.

I was reading this
study that examines the relationship between attitudes about science and science knowledge. I love the title of the first section: "To know science is to love it?"

The authors conducted a meta-analysis of 193 surveys conducted across a lot of countries. As a PhDweebish aside, a meta-analysis is basically taking lots of studies and doing a statistical test of their statistical tests. I did one meta-analysis and I'll never do another. It's like actual work.

They found a "shallow but broad" positive relationship between attitudes about science and how much people know about science. Makes sense. They find stronger relationships between general attitudes and knowledge than more specific kinds of knowledge, like genetically modified food. There are a lot of complex tests in here, but the result is fairly staightforward -- a positive attitude about science is related to knowing more about it.

So what? Educate people about science and you hope they will have more positive attitudes, though causality here gets messy. Maybe people who know more are more positive about science? I don't think that's it. It certainly doesn't work that way in political knowledge. A more likely scenario is attitude -> knowledge. No one has really tested that, as far as I know, but it seems more likely.

Science matters. Some partisan and ideological nut cases have waged war against science. It's taken a beating over the last few years, much like the news media, and losing either one to partisan frivolities is a danger to democracy and the nation.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Poll Numbers

Undecided? Perhaps Not

A study suggests that self-proclaimed undecided voters are probably not all that undecided. According to the report:
A dozen years of research and hundreds of published
studies suggest that people have implicit belief systems that may contradict their declared beliefs. These implicit beliefs can affect actions, such as how they vote at the moment it comes time to explicitly decide.

In other words, predispositions get in the way even for undecided voters. Bradley Effect? A surprise next week? Hard to say, but fascinating stuff.

The Magic Number

Despite polls showing a majority of Americans see Barack Obama as the likely presidential winner, quite a few analysts suspect otherwise. In other words, what people think is going to happen may not actually happen.


A WSJ article examines historical trends and the fact that Obama is not polling above 50 percent in key states. Undecideds, quite simply, may break for the given thing (John McCain) versus the new guy on the political block (Obama). It's not so much about race -- though that may play a small part. Lots of other things going on here, from Rep. John Murtha making an ass of himself with his "redneck" comments to traction from the "socialism" angle to, well, everything. We've become a partisan, volatile electorate.

As I blogged earlier, a huge expectation of an Obama win coupled with a close McCain victory could get ugly. Screams of voter fraud, aka 2000, will certainly be heard, as will the "they stopped him because he's black" foaming-at-the-mouth tirades, and the news media would then begin its every-4-year-tradition of questioning how it did its polling, its stories, its entire existence.
Get it wrong, guys, and that sound you hear is the final nail in our coffin.

Do I think we'll have a Truman moment? Nope, but I do think it'll be closer than the polls suggest. I simply can't see the math for a McCain win, but I'll sure as hell be staying up late next Tuesday night.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Personal Polling

Here's a neat story from the University of Alabama-Birmingham's student news site where a columnist did his own political knowledge polling. And you gotta love or groan at the headline: Political prowess proves paltry.

He surveyed 118 UAB students, found McCain and Obama supporters did about as well on a political knowledge quiz. An easy quiz. He asked students to name a current member of Congress, a current Supreme Court justice, and the current vice president. I call this an easy quiz because you can pluck just one name from many, but it's also hard because you have to drag the name out of memory as opposed to prompting with the name and asking for the office. Still, how hard can it be? Name a justice, any justice?

Apparently, harder than I imagined. See the story for the results, and a good job by the columnist, Daniel Sims, at taking the poll out into the street.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Socialistic Traction

Some political observers think the socialism and redistribution of the wealth arguments by McCain against Obama are gaining traction. I think so too, though probably not enough to save the GOP.

And now there's a little evidence, this from a recent Newsweek poll:
I'm going to read you a list of reasons some people say might keep them from voting for Barack Obama. As I read each one, please tell me if this is a major concern that might keep you from voting for Obama, a minor concern, or not a concern. What about [see below]?

Then follows several areas, including "socialism or redistribution of the wealth" and another that gets more at taxing small business. The results? For "socialism or redistribution of the wealth" some 35 percent view this as a "major concern." But -- taxing small business is a 40 percent "major concern," so it comes out as bigger than the socialism angle. Obviously they're related. If you look at all the results, these two stand out, and the "taxes" angle works much better in creating doubt about Obama and his proposed policies.

Tie them together in a speech, you probably have the McCain campaign's only chance late in this election season. Minds are mostly made up. What people know about these candidates is largely settled, but if McCain is lucky, he might be able to create just enough doubt in some minds and make this a closer election than it seems.

I don't see it working, but it seems the only way Republicans can keep it close. And give me a reason to stay up late.

Taking it to the Street, Sorta

A TV station took the three infamous Pew political knowledge questions, blogged about so often by myself and others, and asked some of their local politicians to see how well they did. The story is here. As you may remember, only 18 percent of Americans got all three questions right. Here's a summary of the Pew study based on a PR release rather than the study itself, only because I'm tired of linking to Pew. The El Paso politicians did about as well as the public, maybe a bit better.

The media differences seen in the PR release I've blogged on before, so I don't want to repeat myself any more than is usual for me. Just tossed this out for those who like to keep up with this kind of thing (which, let's face it, is an audience of 1 -- me)

Like Colbert did below (see the video link in my earlier post), it'd be more fun to take these questions to the general public. There's a problem, though, something more methodological than anything else -- people get pissed if you ask them tough knowledge questions they can't answer, so you (1) put them at the end of a survey and (2) always preface them with something like "not everyone can answer these, so it's okay if you're a complete political moron" and can't do it. Well, not exactly those words, but something nice that tells them it's okay if they don't know.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Colbert's Audience

Stephen Colbert is upset that his audience did so well on the infamous Pew political knowledge test. As always, funny . . .

If Obama Loses

Obama has been steadily ahead of McCain now for a while, with polls all pointing to him winning the White House. When asked who is going to win, about 60 percent predict Obama. Expectations, oh the power of expectations.

But what if McCain wins?

A UK article suggests police around the U.S. are planning for this. Friggin scary. Says one cop who will have his people on standby: "We always try to prepare for the worst."

Why am I going on about this? Because perception is everything. We know that those on the losing side of a close election tend to be a little more down on democracy and the fairness of the vote, but what if they really really really are sure their preferred candidate is going to win and all the polls have told them their candidate is going to win and all the pundits have said, yeah, your guy is going to win. And then your candidate doesn't win.

Oops. Bad karma. Hanging chads. Riots?

It's a recipe for electoral disaster should McCain pull it out. All the numbers say Obama will win, even if there is a Bradley Effect. It's hard to argue with the numbers. But if Ohio and Florida and a few other places screw up the voting -- and McCain wins -- there could be some ugliness.

Honestly we'd be better off if the race tightens now and people go into Election Day with it being neck-and-neck. That way, whoever wins, at least both sides would have a little less of an expectation effect. Otherwise it might indeed get ugly.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Squiggly Lines Redux

Remember my earlier post on CNN's squiggly debate lines? You know, the measure of emotional response by undecided voters watching the debates? Sure you remember.

Anyway, came across this WSJ article on how those lines may influence people watching CNN. Here's a quote:
"We don't realize how much we are influenced by other people," said Steven Fein, a social psychology professor at Williams College who has used footage from residential debates in experiments examining how voters might be swayed. "We can't ignore what we think other people think."

Damn right. Remember my infamous quote from that old old play: Public opinion is no more than this, what people think other people think. Nice to see someone else go that direction. And this makes twice in one day I've drawn from the Wall Street Journal. A new record for me.

WSJ, Pew, and Knowledge

Interesting column online by the Wall Street Journal's "Numbers Guy" that looks at the Pew research on what media people say they use and their political knowledge. It's more about what media people say they consume than discussion of political knowledge, but still kinda interesting, especially the stuff on social desirability when asked what news or television we watch.

We know social desirability is a problem in survey responses. For example, we underestimate how much TV we watch and when reporting our TV viewing, we overestimate how much "quality" or "highbrow" stuff we watch (PBS) and underestimate how much crap we watch (Dancing with American Idol's Survivor).

It's an interesting problem because overestimation of news viewing could scram the numbers, create artificial relationships with measures of political knowledge. Higher or lower, I'm not sure. Gotta think it through, and to do this you'd have to consider what kind of people are more likely to overestimate news consumption.

There are measures of this, by the way. Sometimes in surveys we'll try to get a sense of someones likelihood to answer questions in a socially desirable way and then control, statistically, for this possibility. But you don't see this done very often in surveys. That's probably too bad.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Competing Views of Americans

How politically knowledgeable is the American public? This has been the topic of articles, books, and blogs. If you summed all this work up and looked at it as a Supreme Court decision, you'd quickly see there is a majority opinion and a dissenting view by the minority. Call it a 7-2 vote.

Majority Opinion. The public is ill-informed, illogical and ideologically inconsistent, and probably some other "i" word I'm missing. Given the needs of an informed electorate in thriving democracy, "the voter falls short," according to one classic study. The pile of research supporting this position is overwhelming.

Minority Opinion. The findings above, according to the dissent, has more to do with a failure of the scholars than with the people they study. "The voters are not fools," V.O. Key famously said. Ask questions that matter to people rather than to political scientists, they argue, and you get very different results.

Which is right? It's hard to argue with a 7-2 vote, but the failure of the public can be explained. Not explained away, mind you, but explained.
  • People have better things to do with their time than keep up with all this stuff.
  • When they do pay attention, they organize the world in ways that, while they may drive social scientists nuts, make perfectly good sense to them.
  • It's irrational to keep up with politics when you don't care, when you have little say in the final decision.
  • Public affairs and politics, given the media coverage, has become more theatre than meaningful substance. Why bother?
  • Scholars ask the wrong questions, in the wrong ways.

If forced I would side with the majority, but I am sympathetic to the minority view. Knowing which party controls the House of Representatives tells us something about how much a person keeps up with current events, but it tells us damn little about how they make sense of their political world.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Becoming Known

Sarah Palin went from nobody to somebody, at least on the national stage, in a fairly short time. In one poll, 20 percent had never heard of the Alaska governor and GOPVPer in August of this year. The latest poll shows 1 percent have never heard of her. How the heck do braindead people answer the phone and answer a survey? Amazing.

Poll differences are interesting. While the poll above by CNN has those numbers, one done by CBS/NYTimes has quite different numbers. In that one, Palin's "don't know" numbers have dropped from 59 percent to 10 percent. The same drop, just with different numbers. The questions are almost identical, but the pool is different. The CNN folks have their early number of just "registered voters" and their latter number of "likely voters." The CBS/NYT is just of "registered voters."

In other words, we're talking two very different pools here. That only 1 percent of likely voters haven't heard of Palin while 10 percent of registered voters haven't heard of Palin makes perfect sense. The "likely voter" screens look at people with a history of voting who say they'll vote this November -- a more politically active pool than anyone who happens to be registered.

The footnotes and fine print sometimes explain everything. And sometimes not.

Between appearances on SNL and being parodied on SNL, it's hard to imagine anyone -- voter or not -- hasn't heard of Palin. Sometimes you just wonder about what people don't know.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Power of Optimism

Never underestimate the political power of making people feel optimistic. "It's morning in America," was a great slogan, and when times are tough it is vital a candidate make people feel good about themselves, about their country. In the world of what people know, if you can come across as the one hopeful, you have an advantage.

Thus, Obama.

Want numbers? I got your numbers. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll asked respondents: "Regardless of who you may support, who do you think is more optimistic?"
  • McCain 30 percent
  • Obama 62 percent
Ouch, if you're a McCain supporter. Knowing nods if you favor Obama.

Affect is as important as cognition, emotion as much a part of what people know as is breaking down issues and policy stances and projections of what a candidate may do, who that candidate used to pal around with, and all the rest. How a candidate makes us feel, that matters. Reagan did this so well. Clinton too. Obama has that same magic, at least according to the numbers and any objective view of his campaign stump speeches and his debate performances.

But the McCain folks ain't out of this yet. I think their "spread the wealth" socialism tack has some traction. It's a neat line aimed at Obama: "if the beret fits, wear it." Whether they can do enough with that in the next couple of weeks seems unlikely, but if Obama has hit some kind of ceiling effect in certain key states, they may stand a chance of making this closer than it appears.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What Three Questions?

If you were designing a three-question test of political knowledge, what would you ask?

The Pew Center, famous for its polling and political knowledge quizzes, those the following:
  1. What party controls the U.S. House of Representatives?
  2. Who is the Secretary of State?
  3. Who is the Prime Minster of Great Britain?

Let's look at these. The first is a standard question that taps current political events knowledge and is the kind of information one picks up easily by even a casual exposure to the news. Partisans will do particularly well on this one, which perhaps is why viewers of Hannity and Colmes or listeners of Rush Limbaugh scored the highest of any media use group.

But the last two are a different matter.

Prompting with an office and asking for a name is much more difficult than the flip side, first giving a name and then asking for an office. It's a cognitively more difficult task. In my perfect three-question index of political knowledge, I might include one of this kind of question, but never two. Overall people did less well on this question. Fifty-three percent got the House question right, 42 percent accurately answered the Secretary of State question.

The last one is the real discriminator, to borrow from testing theory. We know Americans suck at geography and international news, so that's a negative right off. Add the "name-first" option and you know the numbers are gonna be bad. And indeed they are, with only 28 percent managing to answer #3 correctly. You'd expect different media to predict #3 than #1 and indeed this is the case, with readers of Atlantic/New Yorker scoring the highest

My point? I think this three-item index needs improving. I'd keep the U.S. House question, I'd keep one political actor question, and I'd add one "civics textbook" type question. I'll get more into that another time, but I'd prefer a more balanced index and not one with two of the three questions the rather difficult "office-first" order.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Debate Summary - Who Won

Who won the McCain-Obama debates? Summing up the USAToday/Gallup polls, the numbers for Obama were 46, 56, and 56 percent for debates 1, 2, and 3. McCain had 34, 23, and 30 percent, respectively.

So Obama improved from #1 to #2, then held his ground in #3. McCain's performance, even GOP loyalists have to admit, was far from inspired. He had flashes, his moments, but for a guy who is supposed to be a good debater he was a disappointment to many.

What's more interesting, from a what people know perspective, is responses across all three debates to a question asking if people's impressions were more or less favorable about the two candidates after the debates. For McCain, kinda a random walk, but Obama improved after each debate: 30 percent favorable, then 34 percent, and finally on the third debate, 37 percent.

Keep in mind that for about half of all respondents, nothing really changed despite the debates. The response to Obama is not unlike that to Reagan in the 1980s. At first people were suspicious of this former actor and California governor. Did he have the seriousness to be president? He did well in the debates and people grew more comfortable with him. Obama enjoys a similar debate effect.

Friday, October 17, 2008

God-less Debates

I noticed the absence of God and religion in the 2008 presidential debates, especially compared to the devoutness battle waged by Bush and Kerry in 2004, but this article sums up Godlessness from the McCain vs. Obama meetings. If you're interested at all in the intersection of religion and politics, it's worth the quick read.

Religion plays a major role in how many people make sense of their world, including their political world, but they got little if any guidance from the debates. Why? I suppose a lousy economy trumps religion, or at least trumps "moral values" type of issues. Which candidate this helps or hurts is hard to say.

Attitudes vs. Opinions

An attitude and an opinion. Same thing, right?

Nope. At least not to social scientists who study this stuff.

Getting a little PhDweebish, but opinions are observable manifestations of an attitude. An attitude is a durable orientation toward some object, while an opinion is more of a visible expression of an attitude -- kinda like answering a survey question.

Why does this matter? Studying this stuff is in part how we define concepts, in part how we measure them, and in part how we examine the relationships among them. It's great fun, but you have to be careful in meaning what you mean. I may have an attitude about an object (or person, or issue, or whatever) but I've never expressed it, never really given it much thought, up until someone asks me or I am forced in some way to access my attitude. So they're not interchangeable, at least not in social science, though in journalism we do exactly that all the time.

Why am I going on about this? Well, values and beliefs get mixed up with attitudes and opinions and -- yes -- political knowledge (you knew I was going there, right?). Lemme borrow from one text: "For example, one's attitude toward the welfare system does not flow directly from relevant core values like individualism or equality, but from the linkage of these values to what is known or believed to be true about the specific program and the environment in which it will operate" (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996).

In other words, knowledge gets in there too -- either factual knowledge or, and this is important, perceived knowledge. What we think we know.

Throw in our tendency to selectively expose ourselves to information we prefer, or to misremember what we read or hear and fit it into our own predispositions -- well, that explains how some people go off on tangents about presidential candidates, how they're sure candidate x is this or candidate y is that. Values, beliefs, attitudes, knowledge (real or otherwise), all tied eventually into an opinion, one perhaps yelled out at a rally and people nearby shake their heads in agreement, even if what was yelled was absolute bullshit.

Doesn't matter. It's all a mess up there in the black box, a nest of inconsistencies, facts, values, beliefs, and the end result through some bizarre algebraic formula are the opinions expressed to pollsters. It's a wonder we can walk and chew gum at the same time, or do both while answering a survey question.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Three is Enough?

CNN asked the following question in a new survey:
"Would you like to see Barack Obama and John McCain participate in additional debates between now and election day, or do you think three presidential debates is enough?"

Two-thirds of respondents said: "Thanks but no thanks, three is fine. We're good. That'll do, debaters. That'll do."

Thirty-two percent said they'd like more debates. Not included were their answers to other survey questions. The same people also reported they enjoy visits to proctologists, like to hit their heads against the wall, and will voluntarily drink light beer.

One percent said they were unsure. Of what, we don't know, but they're sure that they are unsure.

Debates and CNN's Squiggly Lines

Mesmerized by those little squiggly lines at the bottom of CNN during the presidential debates? Me too. Love 'em. Can't get enough of 'em. Might dress as one at Halloween.

But are the measures valid?

An article suggests not. Says Cliff Zukin of Rutgers and former AAPOR head:
"It has no scientific validity -- it's not a sample of anything that has generalized validity," he says. What's more, he argues, it introduces inaccurate numbers that assume a power of their own. "The problem with bad numbers is that people tend to believe their eyes."

The lines go down at interesting times, such as when candidates sharply question one another, or pull out some anecdote. I love the gender breakdowns. Obama and women, what's up with that? Now to be fair, the people turning these little dials, at least last night, were uncommitted Ohio voters. But exactly what does it mean when you're told to dial up if you get a favorable feeling or down if you get an unfavorable feeling? Is that specific enough, or are such general guidelines good, letting people decide for themselves what "favorable" and "unfavorable" mean.

Social scientists like more info than that. We like to triangulate, we like to measure the same concept in multiple ways. We like to be able to run Cronbach's Alpha on stuff. It makes us feel special and it gives these comforting stats that suggest we're seeing a reliable and valid measure.

So the dial-a-thon is really a question of validity (is it measuring what we think it's measuring -- some doubt this) and reliability (if we measured it again, or with some similar measure, would we get the same results -- I'm thinking probably not).

Let's get down to it then: the dial-a-thon is theatre, plain and simple.

Kinda like presidential debates.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

McCain, Debates, and Hospitals

What do people know from watching the televised presidential debates? If nothing else, John McCain always opens by telling us who's in the hospital. I'm not sure anyone measures political knowledge via the health status of noted political figures, but if they do, the public sure is informed.

Of course I'm being picky, but it's either that or actually attend to the debate.

Political Attacks

I've blogged recently about how people versus how political professionals respond to negative advertising and attacks. A NYTimes poll out today suggests a backlash against the McCain campaign. We see this sometimes in negative political ads, but more often when the ads come from within-party competition, not from outside the part.

In part the results reflect the overall lead by Obama, so it's not surprising that more people would see the McCain approach in a negative light. Six of ten don't like the negative attacks, but only 53 percent say they'll vote for Obama. That's enough of a difference to suggest at least some undecided voters are unhappy with the McCain camp's recent approach.

All that aside, McCain is getting pushed by some Republicans to take it to Obama tonight in the debate, to bring up Ayers and Wright and so on. It's tough. The economy is in the tank right now, otherwise this might work, but people are so worried about jobs and retirement that the usual tactics don't seem to work this campaign. Bad timing, I guess. We'll probably see a conflicted McCain tonight, drawn to attack which is against his nature, but forced by reality to do something to shake up his chances as polls trend away from him.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Coffee and Candidates

Brief but funny piece at on 7-Eleven offering customers a choice of a coffee cup with either McCain or Obama's name on it. Vote by coffee! The DC results not surprising: 83% Obama, 17% McCain. In Virginia: 61% Obama, 39% McCain. In Maryland: 59% Obama, 41% McCain. The coffee contest apparently called the 2004 election correctly.

This 7-Eleven site gives more details. Go there, click on Results to see a cool map.

Learned Helplessness and the News

People sometimes get a sense of powerlessness, of learned helplessness, from consuming the news. The issues seem so big. The actors seem so distant. And the journalistic routine of providing competing sides on an issue, or even competing solutions, can make things even worse.

If I were measuring learned helplessness or a sense of powerlessness or self efficacy right now, I'd tie it to the economic issues of the day. Dow drops. Dow climbs. Banks fail. Government acts, kinda. And it all seems so beyond the control of everyday people. TV is a factor. The "rendering of the story," according to one study, helps create learned helplessness in the viewers.

The good news? There's an election. Maybe ya heard about it.

If the news media can provide "mobilizing information" then people, theoretically, should learn more and as a consequence, act on that information. So a crisis timed with a presidential election is not necessarily a bad thing. We should see more participation, more political learning.

Okay, so that's the theory, but some of this is based on previous research. One study found that citizen apathy about topics in the news "results from a profound sense of powerlessness." Give "mobilizing information," they argue, and this provides a sense of self efficacy. People learn. People act. They feel more a part of the democratic process. A spiral of sorts is created, a good one, as they get a taste for being informed and involved.

But there is something in the nature of television news that helps promote learned helplessness, and yet there is something about really good candidates who can bridge this aspect of the medium by connecting, ironically through television, to tell people they really do matter. Whether this campaign, tied as it is to a financial crisis, results in more political knowledge is something many scholars will be asking. I can't wait to hear the answer.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Who Will Win

Predictions of who is going to win a political campaign are fascinating stuff. Many people project their own preferences onto an outcome. In the literature that's called wishful thinking. The origins of wishful thinking research is out of studies of sport fans who think their team is going to win even when all the evidence suggests otherwise. Then the notion got moved over into politics. A few studies have been done. Here is some my own data.

Respondents were asked who is going to win. I then combined that with who they supported. Looking at presidential elections from 1968 to 2004, you see how much preference guides prediction.

Republicans: Out of 6,960 surveyed, 81 percent predicted their preferred candidate would win.
Democrats: Out of 6,664 surveyed, 64 percent predicted their preferred candidate would win.

The amount of wishful thinking from year to year is fairly stable, but predictive accuracy (getting it right) ranges wildly from election to election. This is important. When elections are close (like 2000), personal preference and wishful thinking gets in the way and people are less accurate in predicting the outcome.

When it's a runaway election, like 1972, then accuracy improves. You'd think media exposure would improve accuracy, if for no other reason than reading or watching the news would expose people to public opinion polls and the viewpoints of others, but it does damn little to dampen the preference -> prediction bias.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Data Gets in the Way of Theory

First, the background. There's research that suggests being on the losing side in an election will cause one to be less trustful of government. Makes sense.

So I extended this idea to something I blogged about a day or so ago -- perception of opinion.

It's simple. In the ANES are these questions about who you think is going to win an election. I figure that people who think their candidate is going to win and end up on the losing side will be even less trustful of government and democracy than those who are on the losing side but guessed their guy was going to lose.

Dammit. Data gets in the way of good theory.

I looked at data over three decades, certain I'd stumbled on this brilliantly publishable idea. To add a dash of mass comm to the recipe, I figured news consumption would help dampen this effect. Media tend to include poll results, so even if you're on the losing side you'd be more likely to be exposed to polls that tell you this and be a little more accepting when you lose -- even if you thought you might win.

Again, dammit. Data. In the way. Good theory.

None of this really worked as expected. It should have. It should have been this groundbreaking piece of research destined to appear in Political Communication or some journal of that stature. Shoulda woulda coulda. Instead I have this great theoretical idea that simply doesn't pan out in the data. I will revisit the idea at some point, or maybe someone will take up the challenge and prove that I was an idiot and missed something obvious, making an academic name for themself. Maybe.

Bugger the data.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Addendum to Below

On my earlier post today I talked (at length, sorry) about perception of opinion and why it matters. In reporting Obama's lead over McCain, a new Fox poll tells us:
A 61 percent majority of voters believes Obama is going to win the election — more than three times as many as believe McCain will (18 percent). A month ago it was evenly divided: 41 percent Obama and 40 percent McCain (Sept. 8-9). This summer, voters were more likely to say Obama would win: 51 percent Obama and 27 percent McCain (July 22-23).

I wish I could remember where I once read that perception of who is going to win is a better predictor of an election outcome than merely seeing what a poll tells you on who people prefer. Let me say that another way. Asking who you are for ends with Obama getting 45 percent of the vote to McCain's 39 percent (according to this very poll). But asking who is going to win gets Obama with 61 percent.

I vaguely recall reading once, as a grad student perhaps, that asking who you think is going to win is a better predictor than just counting up those for or against the candidates. This question, neat as it is, suggests a sense of inevitability among even McCain supporters. That gets right at the power of perception.

Some other day I'll blog about a related matter -- wishful thinking. Again, this is about perception and I've done some work in the area, but basically we tend to wishfully think and see our own preferred candidate as likely to win. Fun stuff, as of course all mass comm research is -- if you're into the whole research thing.

Public Opinion

Public opinion is no more than this,
what people think other people think.

- Alfred Austin, 1891
in Prince Lucifer

I've always been partial to the above definition of public opinion -- and to Victorian-era plays named after the devil, but that's a different story. The play itself sucks. I read it in grad school when I came across this definition. Kept the definition, forgot the play.

Scholars in various fields have nibbled around the idea that the perception of opinion matters. Read spiral of silence, or false consensus, or pluralistic ignorance, or bandwagon effect, or third-person effects and you'll find the roots lie in what people think other people think. The consequences depend on your theoretical approach. In spiral of silence, for example, the perception that one is in a distinct minority on some issue creates a fear of isolation and results in people being a little less likely to speak out on their position. The "spiral" in this case is the slow disappearance of minority viewpoints.

Okay, we've had our dose of Theory for the Day. So what?

Perception matters. If people sense a shift in the opinion climate, some will follow and some will simply grow more quiet, some will jump on the bandwagon and some will root louder for the underdog. It's interesting that as the presidential campaign gets closer to ending (thank God!) and Obama eases away from McCain, we've seen some ugliness on both sides. The perception of opinion going against your way can lead to people staring at a TV screen in disbelief. The poster child for this is the guy at the McCain rally the other day who begged McCain to go negative, that he can't believe America is following Obama. It's fascinating stuff.

I should also mention polls here and the discrediting of polls when they go against our side. "They never asked me or anyone I know" is often heard from people who don't like what the polls tell us about the opinion climate. Since we tend to hang out with people like ourselves, we create these artificial bubbles of like-minded opinion. When polls say otherwise, they just don't make sense. My guess is people for McCain right now are scratching their heads, wondering how this is happening (it's the economy, stupid). Supporters of Kerry and Gore did the same thing in 2004 and 2000.

It's human nature. Our perception of opinion is biased by those we hang out with, those we talk to, those we see in our neighborhoods or at work. When a broader measure of opinion disagrees with that, we're stumped. And that screws with our perceptions of opinion. Some people correct their own estimations of opinion, some argue with the source of the disagreement.

Again, cool stuff.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

What Happened in 1066?

Begin Gushing

The best book-length treatment of political knowledge is probably What Americans Know about Politics and Why It Matters by Delli Carpini & Keeter. The thing is full of information, statistics, and analysis of why political knowledge matters in a democracy. A brilliant book.

End Gushing

So I'm looking at a 2-page table (Table 2.7, for those who care) and it has all these questions and the percent who answered them correctly over many many years, over many many surveys. They have two categories on this table: geography and social & political history. The highest percent correct for geography was locating Texas on a map (91 percent). The lowest? Where is Belize (4 percent). On social and political history, the greatest accuracy was on identifying the first president of the U.S. (93 percent), and the lowest asked what happened in 1066 (10 percent). Oh, the answer to the blog title -- Battle of Hastings.

I think it's kinda neat that at least 10 percent got the last one right. Honestly, it could have been a lot lower.

For those of you fascinated by political knowledge and what people know, I cannot recommend this book high enough. It ranges from what we mean by political knowledge to why it matters. I'll blog about it some more between debates, polls, and other presidential stuff. Hell, you could blog the appendices for a week and not run out of material.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Debates and Drinking Games

A CNN poll has Barack Obama winning last night's debate. Fifty-four percent said Obama won, 33 percent went with John McCain. If my math is right, 13 percent called it a tie. Yada yada yada.

Let's get to what really matters -- drinking games.

For the VP debate it was "maverick" as the signal to down or chug or shoot or whatever the hell it is people do, depending on what they're drinking. Last night it hit me what the right word/phrase would have been -- "my friends."

By the fifth or so time McCain used it, I realized that was the key phrase of the night. Not as good as a wink, but still it came often enough that you'd get a serious buzz if you followed through with the downing or chugging or shooting.

What did people learn, though, from last night's festivities? Obama is smooth, McCain can have his moments but seems outclassed, or out-presidentialed. They disagree on some key fundamental issues. We got to hear the same talking points again, in case you missed them in the previous debate. And we learned that the town hall format can surprise you with the quality of the questions and how well the candidates respond.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Cool Site

Been meaning to put this up ever since Mark Johnson pointed it out to me. Had a minute, so here it is, a graphical display of the amount of coverage received by McCain and Obama. Very cool.

Be interesting to put this next to a graphical display of opinion polls to see if there is a correlation. If all publicity is good publicity, then this should reflect that. Sometimes, though, you'd rather not have some of the coverage you get. This is a blunt instrument to be sure, but it's still neat.

Political Smears and Learning

Both the McCain and Obama camps have gone negative. It must be October.

There's an old line about negative advertising -- people hate it, but it works. Obama "palled around" with domestic terrorists, or so says Sarah Palin. McCain palled around with the guy behind the huge savings and loan scandal many years ago, or so say recent ads. Tonight is yet another debate, and everyone wonders if the McCain and Obama's heels will go on and their gloves come off.

Political smears are old school presidential politics. They have a pedigree stretching back to some of the earliest presidential campaigns. Nothing new, nothing surprising, and we know they can sometimes influence voters.

But do they affect learning?

Yeah, kinda. How's that for a PhDweebish answer? Negative information grabs the attention, breaks through the indifference of some voters, energizes others, and generally can lead to some political learning. Advertising has become a key factor in what people know about a campaign, in part because the ads invade their entertainment programming and are harder to escape than straight news stories.

So tonight, if the heels are on and the gloves are off, we might not only see great political theater, we may have some people learn more than from a wonky policy discussion.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Citizen Journalism and Knowing

Sometimes what people know is wrong.

The journalism field has been abuzz since last week when a citizen journalist posted on CNN's iReport that Apple guru Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack. A great version of the problem is here.

This false report affected stocks, got the feds involved. It provides a whipping boy, or case study, (depending on your take) on the idea of citizen journalism.

Bad facts, bad story. But the CNN iReport community did what online communities are supposed to do. According to CNN, "the community brought it to our attention." In other words, real online communities create and maintain their space, they self correct the problems that emerge, or often they shout down the people who are obscene, are trolls, or who are just plain wrong.

So I'm of two minds here. The pro journalist side of me, who has done it for real and who teaches it at a j-school, dislikes the idea of anyone posting to something like CNN without the traditional rules of verification. But the new media realist in me likes the idea of communities maintaining their own space, fixing the problems that emerge.

So what's it all mean for what people know? Ah, here lies the danger. Ideas get lodged in the public mind, even untrue ones. It's damn hard to dislodge those misconceptions and all it takes is one friggin stupid story to do the job.

Sometimes when a thousand citizen journalists bloom, the fertilizer smell is hard to avoid.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Mixed Media

People are skimmers: a little from this medium, a little from that medium, a dash of this and a smidgen of that. There is hard news and soft news. Some rely on the New York Times or NPR, some rely on Jon Stewart and Rush Limbaugh, but most people take a little of everything to make up their news media diet.

Take this notion and combine it with criticism of how journalists often frame the news as a contest and you get -- best I can tell -- an interesting study like this. The link provides only the abstract, but these are serious folks doing the study and the abstract alone is enough to make me want to find an obscure journal like CyberPsychology and Behavior.

From what I read, they seem to suggest that framing political stories as a game, as competition, or as they call it -- strategically -- appears to help people who use mixed media make sense of the political world, or at least keep "absorbing and learning in a mixed media environment."

As I can't see the whole piece, we'll have to rely on the abstract, but it raises a pretty cool question and point. For some people, stories framed as a competition keeps them engaged, especially if they use a mix of lots of media (and are perhaps less politically involved on a whole). Horse race polls are bad? Perhaps not always. Stories framed as a game trivialize the process? Maybe, but they may also engage people. We know that entertainment-based news like The Daily Show does seem to break through the attention barrier for some folks, though it remains up in the air how much they learn versus how much they think they learn from such programs.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Celebrities and the Election

An interesting story about celebrities and the U.S. election, especially the ones criticizing Sarah Palin's political experience and knowledge.

Do celebrity endorsements, or non-endorsements, really matter? There's not a lot of research on that specific question, but persuasion research suggests these kind of comments affect only those with little interest in the topic. And let's face it, people who don't care, they're not likely to vote anyway.

Plus, does anyone really care what Barbara Streisand thinks? Or Britney Spears?

Matt Damon's youtube bit on Sarah Palin, presented below as an example.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The VP Debate

First, the who won. A CBS poll of uncommitted voters gave Joe Biden the edge, 42-21 percent, over Sarah Palin. A CNN poll of regular voters looks about the same, 51-36 percent thinking Biden won. And he did, by any objective, non-partisan analysis.

In Palin's favor, no stumbles other than a creepy wink thing (see video below). Eighty-four percent said the Alaska governor did better than they expected. Something, then, for everyone. I thought at times she shined, at times she repeated the mantra. To stand toe-to-toe with an experienced guy like Biden, not bad.

And though I bitched a little (see below) about the moderator Ifill and her book, 95 percent polled thought she was fair. And she was.

The Fox folks this morning insisted Palin won. I think they watched their TVs with the sound off.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

What We Know, about VPs

Joe Biden and Sarah Palin do the VPFaceoff at 9 p.m. EST on various TV channels. You know the mantra: Biden's gotta be careful not to be condescending, Palin's gotta look smarter than she appeared on earlier interviews, the moderator is writing a book with a chapter on Obama, so she's suspect.

A word on the Gwen Ifill book on blacks in politics thing. The PBSer should have told the debate commission she was writing the book -- any reasonable journalist would instantly recognize this as a potential problem and bow out, but I guess it's something you can't pass up. Stupid stupid TV people, hungry for one more minute in front of the camera. Sheesh. Not that I think the book is a real conflict or she can't rise above it, but something they never seem to get is the appearance of conflict. That's all that's needed out there in the weird wild blogosphere.

Stupid stupid TV people.

So what we know about Sarah Palin, in particular, will be formed in the American mind tonight. For her supporters, they hope she keeps it simple, earthy, and doesn't ramble incoherently. I'm guessing she'll do fine.

Plus, the VP debate rarely matters. Even Dan Quayle getting ripped in his 1988 VP debate couldn't sink Bush Sr.'s presidential run, so if Palin stumbles I don't think it'll matter all that much. Obama has the momentum, so to me the pressure is on Biden not to screw that up, but even if he does I don't think it'll matter.

Let's face it. We're watching for the theater of the moment. Waiting for the crash.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Likely Voters

If you read polls closely, you'll see some are of "adults," some are of "likely voters." So how do you decide which one is likely, which one is not? And why does it matter?

Filtering out the likely from the unlikely has some art, some science, and a whole lot of educated guesswork by pros who do this for a living. And even they don't agree on how to weigh this factor versus that factor. A recent story by Rob Daves lays this out much better than I could ever do. I recommend you click that mouse and check it out if you ever wondered about presidential trial heats, why some differ from others, and what the hell is a likely voter. As Daves writes:

Pollsters use different "likely voter" models and those who have been around the block a few times keep track of how their models perform in various elections. They use some for high-turnout elections; some for low. Some use screens to eliminate unlikely voters. Some weight all respondents, counting likely voters' responses more and those less likely to vote less. There's no industry standard "right way" to model a likely electorate, and virtually all pollsters have their favorite method.

Okay, fine. Different screening and filtering methods, different ingredients in that witch's brew, and you get differing results. This matters, especially if you buy the notion of polls and a bandwagon effect.

What people know about a campaign comes in part from the polls they consume. There's a great definition of public opinion that I'll use again and again: "Public opinion is no more than this, what people think other people think." This is from a play called Prince Lucifer and qualifies as my obscure reference of the day (we academics get points for this). If you look carefully at the trial heat polls on, you'll see some are registered voters, some are likely voters. That will help you to understand, at least in part, some of the odd differences.