Sunday, November 16, 2008

Post-Election Knowledge Blues

If you spend time analyzing data, especially survey data collected over time, you'll notice a funny thing -- in presidential years, many variables are higher (participation, interest, and yes ... political knowledge). Mess around with the American National Election Studies cumulative data set, yeah that's a mouthful, and you'll see a herky-jerky up-and-down trend line in data that has been collected every two years since 1948.

Yeah, I'm geeky when it comes to playing with data, and it's pretty damn PhDweebish to get a kick out of analyzing data collected across fifty years. I need another hobby besides Scotch.

But now we have the post-election blues. Interest for this election was high, turnout turned out okay, and I'm guessing political knowledge at least about the campaign's chief actors and issues were higher than a couple of years ago. So now, as the blues set in, issue knowledge will probably decrease. Won't it?

We'll have to see, but my guess is yeah, the news media will see dwindling advertising dollars, especially those local TV boob tube stations, and we'll see a smaller audience, and fewer advertisements, and subsequently less political knowledge. And so it goes.

Soon PhDweebs like me will be craftily analyzing the election data to find out if debates mattered, if advertisements mattered, if parodies like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report mattered, if the news mattered. Oh, and if SNL's Tina Fey mattered.

Pick your Dependent Variable, let a thousand studies bloom, many of which will barely deserve publication but a host of which will find their way to an academic conference near you. Looking specifically at political learning, I'm guessing advertisements will continue their growing role in what people know about the campaign, and debates will also predict political knowledge. I strongly suspect traditional news media exposure will continue to be a predictor, if only because the smaller number of people who rely on those sources tend to score the highest on such tests.

The Internet? When you control for other factors, reading blogs and the like tend to not predict all that much when it comes to knowledge, but that'll be fun to explore as well.

When you move beyond knowledge and look at attitudes and perceptions of the candidates and all that stuff, then it gets even more interesting. As studies roll out, I'll try to keep up here and let people know what's being found. Unfortunately it often takes a year or two before academic studies find their way to publication. The first conferences (ICA, AEJMC, etc.) will be a better source of early results. I'll keep my eye on 'em and let my tens of readers worldwide know what's up.

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