Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Research vs. Reality

Reasons matter.  Even for paywalls.

A new study (news summary here, actual manuscript here) suggests if The New York Times had done a better job justifying its paywall, response would have been more positive.

Of course, the NYT paywall is doing quite nicely, thank you very much.  So there's a bit of research vs. reality here.

The study authors did a neat trick.  They surveyed NYTimes readers before the paywall went live, then surveyed them again. Here's the gist of the results:
Results suggest that fairness is a key market constraint that applies equally to consumer interactions on the Internet as to traditional commercial transactions. When participants were provided with a compelling justification for the paywall—that the NYT was likely to go bankrupt without it—their support and willingness to pay increased. In contrast, when participants were provided with a justification that emphasized financial stability, their support and willingness to pay decreased. It is possible that this latter condition simply confirmed participants' sense that the paywall was unfair, rather than providing a compelling profit justification. Either way, results suggest that content providers could benefit from more thorough attempts to justify price structures.

In other words, give a good reason and consumers are more accepting of a paywall.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

What People Know -- About Chemo

My mom has been undergoing chemo and radiation for lung cancer, so this one is kinda tough to write.  Luckily, I know she doesn't read my blog. Advanced cancer patients, a study shows, are overly optimistic about the success of chemo, which can stall, not cure, cancer (summary also here, second item). 
The study, published in the Oct. 25 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, found that 69 percent of patients with advanced lung cancer and 81 percent of patients with advanced colorectal cancer did not understand that the chemotherapy they were receiving was not at all likely to cure their disease. Their expectations run counter to the fact that although chemotherapy can alleviate pain and extend life in such patients by weeks or months, it is not a cure for these types of advanced cancer except in the rarest of circumstances.
And it gets worse.  This:
"If patients do not know whether a treatment offers a realistic possibility of cure, their ability to make informed treatment decisions that are consistent with their preferences may be compromised," says lead author Dr. Jane Weeks. "This misunderstanding may pose obstacles to optimal end-of-life planning." 
That about does it for me on this topic. A wee bit too close to home.

Bulldogs vs Gators II

A couple of years ago I wrote this brief comparison of Google searching mentions of bulldogs and gators in honor, of course, of the annual Cocktail Party in Jacksonville.  Why mention it?  Because I glanced at my analytics this morning and sure enough, that post had popped up because the two teams will fight it out again this weekend in a soggy Jacksonville. 

I'm not doing another comparison search.  Just thought I'd bump this up for the hell of it.

I have two degrees from UF.  Still, go Dawgs.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What High School Football Players Don't Know

Yeah, I know, the headline above is too easy.  What do high school players not know?  Try everything.  The point, though, is an article discussing a study of high school football players and what they know, or don't know, about concussions.  Many players, it says, "are not concerned about the long-term effects of concussions. The study also states that these athletes fail to report their own concussion symptoms because they are afraid to be excluded from play."

In other words, not only do they not know much, they don't care about what they don't know.  Why?  Because.  They.  Play.  Football.

And, as my dad used to say, they're "young and dumb."

That about sums it up.

Seeing Polls Like Ya Wanna See Them

This is an odd presidential election cycle for a lot of reasons, but one of the more interesting to me is the recent spate of selective reading of public opinion polls.

In other words -- partisans are seeing what they want to see.

  • Support the Republicans?  Rick Sanchez has your back, declaring Obama to be "on the ropes" based especially on national polling but pointing also to state-by-state numbers.
  • Support the Democrats?  A new story by The Hill is your cup of tea as it reports two new state polls, one useful, one less so, that suggest good news for Team Obama.

Of course partisans are going to spin polls their direction.  That's what partisans do.  News orgs have also fallen somewhat into this trap (not The Hill above, let me stress).  The good ones, they report them all, whether they favor one side or the other.  The pretenders (including a certain cable news network) tend to ignore the polls that fail to fit a narrative.  And the nutjobs, like Rush Limbaugh, analyze polls through a bizarre unexplainable filter.

So what's the right way to read the polls?

The race is tightening.  It was bound to tighten.  They tend to tighten the closer we get to Election Day.  Romney has "the momentum" but it's hard to say whether it's real or just people finally making up their minds, as you'd expect, or if it's something more real.  Given the nature of the debates it's hard to argue (unless you're a partisan, of course) that Romney's recent poll successes are anything more than a natural closing of the gap between two candidates.  That's my read, at least so far.

Short of some October surprise (isn't Trump doing one today?), the election will come down to turnout.  That's a different topic for a different day.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Rush Limbaugh: Public Opinion Theorist

So speaks Rush Limbaugh about the latest polls going Mitt Romney's way:
We're getting close to the election, and the pollsters want, of course, their final polls to be as close to the real outcome as possible.  So the days of attempting to shift and move public opinion are now dwindling in place of the polls reflecting public opinion.  

Yes, Limbaugh the public opinion theorist, the survey methodologist.

Okay, propagandist is a better word, still you've gotta call out the bullshit when you see it.  And above?  Simple-minded bullshit.

Of course the polls are tightening.  Anyone with a clue knew they would.  If Limbaugh thinks he's impressing anyone, he's not.  "The race for the White House is exactly as I predicted and right on schedule," he says in the same broadcast.  Sorry Rush, everyone (including my cat and my dead dog) knew it'd tighten.  Breaking News -- Not.

First off, Limbaugh assumes polls influence people.  They really don't, at least not the way he thinks they do, and I discussed this briefly the other day.  I know he's not one to let hard data get in the way of a good narrative.  See, after all, his complete misunderstanding and complete bullshit about science.  He's out of his depth there so badly he swerves into fantasy most of the time.  But that's okay, he's playing to his audience.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy listening to Limbaugh.  He got me tenure thanks to my reams of research on the early days of talk radio.  He's funny and an idiot at the same time.  I still remember the first time I listened to him.  A college buddy of mine, back in the late 1980s or so, said I had to listen to a guy on the radio named Rush Limbaugh.  I did.  As God as my witness I thought this was parody, a guy making fun of conservatives (like Colbert does today).

I understand the need to drive audience, to be outrageous, and apparently to call young women sluts to make headlines -- but really, any political pro would tell him -- if they had the balls to do so -- that his analysis above about polls is complete crap. 

Obama vs Romney: Reaching People

Deep in the guts of the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll are a couple of questions worth a second look.  They ask respondents if and how they'd been contacted by the Obama and Romney camps.  See the top answers below.

From Romney
  1. Mail (19%)
  2. Telephone calls (11%)
  3. Social media (11%)
  4. Email (9%)
  5. Other personal contact (4%)
  6. None (66%)
  7. Not sure (-)
From Obama
  1. Email (17%)
  2. Mail (16%)
  3. Social media (15%)
  4. Telephone calls (11%)
  5. Other personal contact (5%)
  6. None (61%)
  7. Not sure (1%)
Look at the difference.  Romney goes mail first, Obama goes email first.  That's telling.  Obama's combined email and social media contact numbers (32 percent) far outstrip Romney's (20 percent).  No doubt this reflects the older, more traditional Republican base and how best to reach them, but I'd argue it probably also reflects very different approaches to campaigning by the two sides.  Overall, 38 percent of survey respondents said they'd been contacted in some way by Obama while 34 percent said they'd been contacted by Romney. 

I suspect these are all the same folks, the ones unlucky enough to live in a swing state.

And there's one final lesson here -- often the most interesting questions are buried deep in these surveys.  Yes, that Obama and Romney are tied nationally among likely voters (in this poll) is the news lede, but dig a little and you'll find other gems. 

Proof I'm a PhDweeb -- it's what I do in my spare time.

Monday night is, of course, the last presidential debate between these two candidates, their last time on stage together.  If you're interested, while watching the debate check in at  There'll be a link that'll take you into a chat where I'll join a few others live commenting during the debate. 

Tune in and check out my bourbon-fueled snark.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

What Chinese Know (or Don't) about 1962 War

In my never-ending scramble to search the Interwebs for research and polls and stories about what people know (or don't know), here's one that pinged the hell out of my search this morning.  There are four versions I could point to, so let me pick this one at random.  Below, the lede:
BEIJING: More than 80 per cent of the Chinese population have no knowledge of the 1962 war with India and want the two neighbors to walk out of the shadow of conflict, a survey by state-run media said.
The obvious reason, the Chinese population is weighted heavily toward the young.  But the survey is really about relations between India and China -- two regional powers and emerging world powers.  So read the following:
Over 61 per cent of the people regarded Sino-Indian ties as normal or good, while over 34 per cent of the respondents believed the two countries have constant frictions.

This is in sharp contrast to the recent survey results published by Washington based PEW agency which stated that “roughly a quarter (23 per cent) have a favorable opinion of India, while 62 per cent offer a negative opinion.”
When it comes to sound poll methodology, I lean toward Pew.  The difference is interesting and may be a function of when the polls were conducted.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Of Bandwagons and Underdogs

There's a new batch of polls out today and if you cherry pick with care, your guy is ahead.

And then there is the complaining.  About polls.  About their influence on journalists and pundits and -- most important -- public opinion.

So what the hell is public opinion?  Quite simply, public opinion is what public opinion polls measure.  That's as circular a definition as you'll ever find, and a topic for another day.

Here I want to touch ever so briefly on whether polls influence people.  That is, does seeing or reading or hearing about polls make people move to the majority in a poll?


It's called the bandwagon effect.  It exists.  It's real.

But there's also an underdog effect.  It exists.  It's real.  And it often offsets any movement to the majority by a movement to the minority in a poll.

There have been careful studies about both the bandwagon and underdog effects, even a brilliant dissertation written on the topic.  I'm not going to spend my lovely Friday afternoon digging them up and breaking them down for you.  Maybe next week.  Just trust me that polls do influence a few people -- very few -- but the influence cuts both ways, at least when it comes to opinions about a candidate and the likelihood to vote for him or her in an upcoming election.

There are, obviously, more subtle effects of poll results.  Campaign contributions, for example, tend to go to the likely winner, the person ahead in a race.  Why bet on a losing horse?  More subtle but equally important, though, is how a set of positive poll results influences the news narrative.  In other words, today's polls has at least one good result for Romney (Gallup tracking) but a bunch of fairly good ones for Obama.  Expect certain news organizations and pundits to cherry pick their favorite, or you can read someone like Nate Silver, the scary smart guy at the 538 blog, who will break it down for you in a reasonable manner.

But to return to my theme here -- yes, polls can influence people, but they tend to nudge people in both directions, basically the way they were already leaning, and the results largely cancel one another out.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Knowledge is Also Local

Nearly every study of political knowledge focuses on what people know about the nation or the world.  Rarely do we see studies that focus on local political knowledge.  It turns out, that can matter -- especially in understanding differences based on race or gender.

A study in the most recent Public Opinion Quarterly (Fall 2012) looks at what factors predict knowledge at the local versus national level.  The differences are fascinating. 

Take race, for example.  In general, whites outperform blacks on nearly every published study of political knowledge.  Keep in mind nearly all studies focus on national or international knowledge (who is Speaker of House, who is Prime Minister of the U.K., etc.).  In the study published by Lee Shaker at Portland State University, the national survey reflects this basic finding found over and over again.  Even controlling statistically for other factors, such as education and income, blacks do poorly compared to whites, women do poorly compared to men.

Ah, but on local issues, it all changes.

In local knowledge, the differences between blacks and whites, or between women and men, disappear.

I can be PhDweebish about this and report regression coefficients, but instead just take my word for it.  On the index of questions measuring national knowledge, blacks (and women) do significantly less well than whites (and men).  On the index of questions measuring local political knowledge, being black plays no role.  Nor does being a woman.

The survey was conducted, I assume, while Shaker was a doctoral student at Annenberg given the data is about Philadelphia (and national) politics.  There are several questions that make up the local and national scales, all reasonable items you'd expect to find in such a survey.  

The study also examines what predicts being a "know-nothing" at the local and national level.  In other words, who makes up the segment of society who are clueless about politics -- at least as measured by political scientists and fellow travelers.  The results are similar to above.  Being black, after controlling for a bunch of other factors, does predict your likelihood of being categorized as a "know-nothing" at the national level, but it is negative predictor at the local level.  In other words, being black makes you less likely as to be categorized as a know-nothing at the local level.  On gender, men were less likely than women to be categorized as such at the national level.  At the local level, no difference is seen.

I'd take this as a good news-bad news result, obviously.  I'd love it if race and education and all the other factors that tend to predict political knowledge no longer actually predicted knowledge.  That's damned unlikely.  As Shaker notes, "Different citizens are knowledgeable about different matters based on relevance, accessibility, and aptitude." That's researchspeak that means, simply put, different stuff matters to different people, and local Philly news apparently matters a lot more to blacks there than national news. 

Maybe these findings are unique to Philly, maybe not.  But it's useful to ask, this local vs. national methodological question, because it probably says a lot about access and relevance, about knowledge that matters or is perceived as mattering. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Do Memes Matter?

After every presidential debate -- hell, after nearly every major event -- we have memes going viral on the Internet.  Last night's debate is no exception, especially based on the "binders full of women" line from Mitt Romney.

Which begs the question -- do memes matter?

A meme, according to that source of all info (wikipedia), is "an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture."  Here's a Politico story on the memes about women binders.  You've probably seen them on Facebook and Twitter already (the Bill Clinton one, damn funny).  I'm not going to repeat them here.  Instead, I go back to the question above.

Yes, memes are funny.  But do they matter?

As far as I can tell, in my cursory search, there are almost no studies on whether political memes influence opinion.  I'll try a more in-depth search later, but we're probably stuck relying on the larger base of research on the effects of political humor -- specifically on political satire.  The guidance there is slim because memes are so ephemeral, so easily laughed at and forgotten.  Yes, so are Stewart and Colbert, but to me the masters of political and news satire are more substantive, more long-lasting, and therefore the effects we know about humor (it persuades, some) are of little use when talking about memes.

Here's my theory.

If a meme reinforces widely held beliefs about a candidate, then it's likely to have some small effect.  The "binders full of women," that doesn't really fit Romney.  If Bill Clinton had said it in, say, 1996 -- oh hell yes, an effect.  No, for a meme to work about Romney, it'd probably need to be about money.  If he'd said something about binders full of cash, then the memes might have influenced some undecided voters, or pushed the mildly decided just a bit more to Obama.

If I come across a meme study or two, I'll post them here and discuss further.  Otherwise, just sit back and enjoy the memes.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Offline and Online Participation

As our lives have become more digital, so has the recognition that political participation can have both offline (traditional) and online aspects.

The traditional measure of participation is giving money, putting a campaign sign in your yard, attending a rally, the sort of "offline" activities that we normally think of when we say we participate in politics.  Online is different, from "liking" on Facebook to "retweeting" via Twitter to almost anything we can manage to do with our opposable thumbs and a keyboard.

This 2012 study (in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication) looks at both types of participation forms and includes, in Table 2, a number of factors thought to predict them -- including political knowledge and news exposure.  It also includes some structural equation modeling, which for the statistically uninitiated can be a fearful thing.  My advice -- just admire the pretty pictures and don't worry about the smoke-and-mirrors underneath the analysis strategy.

It's interesting that political knowledge predicts offline (traditional) but not online participation.  The roles of social media, they look largely the same for both forms of participation, though the generic "media use" factor is certainly a much stronger predictor of offline than online participation.  That makes sense, given "media use" is more traditional, thus it predicts the more traditional of two participation measures.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Join or Die

Here's a question for you.

How many academic or professional organizations are enough?

I'm gonna throw some alphabet soup your way.  Right now I belong to AEJMC, AAPOR, IRE and ONA.  Maybe I'm forgetting one or two.  They're all costly, figure a hundred bucks or so a year, and that comes straight out of my pocket as UGA doesn't kick in a dime.  And even within AEJMC, the major academic organization of my field, I pay extra to belong to various divisions or interest groups.

So, how many is enough?

I ask because my AAPOR dues are, well, due.  I owe $115.  I've belonged for a long time.  I've already cut ICA and SPJ, so AAPOR may be next in line.  What's it stand for?  It's the American Association for Public Opinion Research.  In 20 years I've never attended an AAPOR conference, but I'm a fan of its journal (Public Opinion Quarterly) and I teach grad classes in public opinion, including one this coming Spring semester, so it's hard not to be a member.  And yet, and yet.  As in -- and yet soon I'll have two kids in college.

It's a semi-interesting question as to how useful such organizations are and whether they're worth the cost.  I certainly am stuck with AEJMC, would never quit IRE, can't say much about ONA yet, and as to AAPOR, I don't read much of the journal or even the listserv any more (does it even exist, the old AAPORnet?  Can't seem to find it).

Odds are I'll couch up another hundred bucks or so and send it into the black hole that is organizational membership, supporting AAPOR's mission of publishing highly technical papers about how to measure public opinion that even I sometimes struggle to understand and holding conferences that I never have the travel money to attend.

In other words, I'm whining.  But I suspect faculty elsewhere also face a situation of dwindling funds and deciding what orgs they can keep, what ones they can let go.

AEJMC = Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication

IRE = Investigative Reporters & Editors

ONA = Online News Association

ICA = International Communication Association

SPJ = Society of Professional Journalists

Who is a "Likely" Voter?

There's an excellent column out about the Gallup poll in particular, but about "likely voters" in general.  Down deep, it describes how Gallup decides who is categorized as a likely voter:
They ask seven questions, known to correlate generally with turnout, about voting intentions, past voting, interest in the campaign and knowledge of voting procedures. They then combine those questions into a index that they use to designate some predetermined fraction of their adult sample as most likely to vote.

Yes, this moves deeply into the methodological weeds for most people, but why should you care?  Because the switch from registered to likely voters usually comes with a Republican advantage of between 1 and 3 percentage points. GOPers simply are more likely to vote and more likely to say they're gonna vote (or did vote, or meet the other criteria listed above).  Thus, the Obama-Romney results shift.

Every polling shop has it's own special sauce when it comes to deciding who gets to be called a likely voter.  People lie about whether they voted int he past and their plans to vote in the future, so other questions are designed to tease out the most likely of likely voters, thus making polls more predictive when Election Day rolls around.

If you read the HuffPo column -- and I recommend you do so if you're into polling or consume polls or worry about polls -- read #5 on the list about how "internals" are being conducted.  It's interesting stuff, the kind of thing rarely shared with news folks except tangentially, when the news is good.  A few well-connected journalists do get to hear or see some of these "internals."  Pay attention to what they say versus the typical political pundits.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Vanity Cite Searching

I admit to running vanity searches.  You know, Googling yourself.  I do it for two very good reasons.  First, when you're quoted as often as I am in stories and such, it's good to know what people are saying about you.  The other is, of course, it builds self esteem.  Or you hope it'll build self esteem.

Anyway, I had a few minutes today to see who is citing some of my research.
  • My 2005 study on whether young people learn from Jon Stewart, etc.  This was among the first studies of its kind and it gets cited a lot, most recently in Chinese Journal of Communication, Journal of Intercultural Communication, and of course the flagship journal in my field, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly.  This article has been cited 63 times, or so says Google Scholar.  This includes a bunch of international journals.  Bite me, college promotion committee.
  • My 2010 Obama/Muslim study has been slow to get cites, mainly because it's in a small journal that didn't make content available easily online until the last year or so.  But it's now cited in a book and a couple of journals, including Communication Studies and Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy.
  •  My media fragmentation piece in JMCQ a few years ago didn't get cited much because somehow the databases had it all messed up and combined with another paper.  That's apparently now fixed, at least as of this year, so it's getting cited in places like Communication Theory, Journal of Communication and the Journal of Media Economics.
  • In 1995 I published a JMCQ piece on perceived vs. actual knowledge and it still gets cited, including a 2012 book on media literacy.
Not great, but not half bad either.  Luckily there's a BA Hollander out there in the hard sciences who apparently cranks out the stuff, so if I skim a few off the top there, my numbers look all the better.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

What Brits Know

There's an annual "health check" on British democracy and the latest results suggest things are not so good for our friends across the pond.  A few highlights:
  • Those "very" or "fairly" interested dropped 16 percentage points in a year.
  • The number of those above is 41 percent, the first time the series of checkups has found it below half.  This the eighth annual checkup.
  • Those who have talked about politics with others is also at its lowest point since they started doing the surveys.
  • As one measure of participation, the number of folks who say they've signed a petition also hit a record low.
  • Knowledge overall continued to drop as well.
  • But ... and this is interesting ... the percentage of people who feel they can make a difference, what we often call internal efficacy, that's increased slightly.
  • Similar to above, perceived knowledge (what people think they know) has improved some.
What's our takeaway?  Some sense that while people think they know what's going on or their ability to participate, their actual knowledge and interest continues to decline.  Not a healthy development.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

This Election

Let's set aside who's ahead and who's behind in the U.S. presidential election and instead look at how interest in 2012 stacks up against previous years.

For example, "how much thought have you given to the coming presidential election" is a question asked last week and in previous early October election years (data source here).

Year        a Lot    

2012        73%    
2008        81%   
2004        74%
2000        60%

As you can see, while this year is a bit lower than the excitement of Barack Obama in 2008, it stacks up well in comparison with previous years.  I'd call this, at worst, an average year. 

Is this an enthusiasm gap?  Certainly compared to the Obama phenomenon of 2008, but overall 2012 compares pretty well with previous elections.  When asked if they plan to vote, respondents score as high this year as earlier.  Yes, people overestimate their turnout, but it's telling that the numbers are essentially identical to the last four presidential elections.

There is emotion out there.  Among Mitt Romney supporters, 31 percent feel strongly toward him.  That compares favorably to the 21 percent in early October 2008 who felt strongly toward John McCain.  Even Obama is not doing too badly.  Thirty-two percent feel strongly about him this year, down a bit from 36 percent who felt that way in 2008.  Want bad?  Kerry had only 24 percent back in 2004 who felt strongly for him.

The takeaway?  This is not a down year.  Indeed, it seems to compare well to previous years.  That bodes well for turnout, though it's hard to imagine it'll be as high in 2008.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Who Wins at Social Media: Romney or Obama?

Who's winning the presidential social media battle?

Obama, or so says a survey released today.

This is an interesting survey, more so than your typical Gallup-call-a-thousand-folks kind of poll.  As the story notes:
Querying 2,500 Internet users nationwide, a little over 64 percent of those polled chose the incumbent president over the Republican candidate, the exception being within the category of Americans over the age of 64.
If you like, skip the PR release and go straight to the results. You'll need to click to dismiss some instructions (middle of the screen) and then you'll find some breakdowns.  To be honest, I can't judge how valid the survey truly is, but it kinda fits what you'd expect to find.  On the left, click on some of the filters (gender, age, where ya live) and it's rather interactive, which is nice.

But ... and this is weird ... If you clear all the filters and just ask for those who make over $150,000, there's only one response (which Obama gets, for what little it's worth).  In other words, older higher income folks are nearly invisible in this survey -- at least as best I can tell.

So, is Obama winning the social media battle?  Yeah, but mainly because his natural constituency tends to dominate social media, or at least responds to this survey. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Who Watches Tonight?

So, how many will watch tonight's presidential debate?

A brand new NPR poll suggests nearly three out of every five likely voters will tune in for the whole thing (it's a PDF, scroll down to Q45 or hunt for the word "debate").  Another 17 percent say they will catch some of the debate.

Is this likely?  No.

As Dr. House always reminds us, people lie.  In surveys, they lie about attending religious services and they lie about whether they voted or not.  And they're likely lying here.  Still, expect big numbers tonight as Obama and Romney share the stage for the first time.

By the way, Questions 46 and 47 are kinda strange but, if you're a political junkie, kinda fascinating.  Sixty-two percent nationally (60 percent in battleground states) say the debate is not really going to change their mind.  Thirteen percent nationally (15 percent battleground) say it will.  Those numbers reflect the base, I suppose, and represent those who "strongly" hold to that belief.  The "softer" folks, you see a greater likelihood that the debates will sway their opinion.  That's the voters the candidates are really aiming at, so this suggests tonight's debate really does matter.

Q47 suggests, if you read it carefully (and take the time to figure out exactly what they're asking here) that people are watching to learn about Mitt Romney more than they are about Barack Obama (not a huge margin, but it's there).  That makes sense.  The first debate is often about the challenger, not the incumbent.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Who Shot Lincoln?

Who shot Lincoln?

Lee Harvey Oswald, of course.  Or so says 7 percent of Americans, according to this survey.

Who "Wins" Wednesday's Debate?

The pundits and the public will, of course, reach some kind of consensus over whether Obama or Romney wins tomorrow night's prez debate.  But why wait?  The latest Quinnipiac poll has folks predicting an Obama debate victory -- by about a 2-to-1 margin.

Here's the lede:
An 18 point lead among women puts President Barack Obama ahead of Gov. Mitt Romney 49 - 45 percent among likely voters nationwide, and voters expect 54 - 28 percent that the president will win the debates, according to a Quinnipiac University national poll released today. 

That pretty much says it all.

Except, of course, it's probably wrong.

Usually the challenger "wins" the first presidential debate with an incumbent (think John Kerry against George W. Bush not so very long ago).  Why?  Because the incumbent is on the same stage, looks presidential, and assuming no goof comes off ahead merely by not seeming as kooky as some people thought.

That's Romney's mission.  Not to look kooky or scary, to seem, well, as Ronald Reagan did so well in 1980 -- to seem reasonable.

Can people predict the winner?  Are they right?


In part, the expectation comes from people choosing their preferred candidate to win.  It's called wishful thinking.  There's a long body of social science research to back it up.  But that doesn't explain the 2-to-1 margin, much greater than Obama's poll advantage.  No, I think this is a function too of Romney's faltering campaign, of stumbling from gaffe to gaffe (47 percent), from a smooth Democratic convention compared to Clint Eastwood mumbling at an empty chair.

So I suspect the public has it wrong.  Romney will "win" Wednesday night -- for what little that's actually worth -- but unless Obama makes a huge blunder it won't really matter in the numbers.  Yes, they'll tighten a bit in Romney's favor, but the math for him, in a state-by-state comparison, needs to significantly improve for him to win the electoral count.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Prez Debates and Political Learning

Let the pundits argue about this week's presidential debate and whether it persuades voters.  Let's ask a different question -- do people learn from such debates?

As always, there's the short answer and the long answer.

Short Answer:  It depends.
Long Answer:  It depends, with a whole bunch of caveats and academic nuances and all the stuff that gets in the way of a simple answer (unless, of course, you do talk radio or cable news, where everything is simplified to the point of meaninglessness).

Stay with me here.  It's worth it.  

One study, for example, examined five presidential election years (1976 to 2000) using ANES data, which the authors admit "is not optimal for conducting this sort of research."  But this is key: they found learning about incumbents to be minimal, but learning about challengers to be more significant.  That fits this upcoming debate between Barack Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney. 

The former Massachusetts governor, as pundits have noted for several weeks, has so much to gain from being on the same stage as an incumbent president.  This study suggests people will also learn more about Romney.  What they learn, that's of course of import, but the research suggests Romney gains a great deal from Wednesday night's debate.

Tomorrow (or maybe later today), what else research tells us about this week's debate.