Do Millennials Exist? Generations, Social Science and the Trouble With De-Bunking

by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University 

The host of TV’s “Adam Ruins Everything,” Adam Conover is easy to identify by his quirky hairsyle and clothes, energetic presentation, and strong intellect.  His signature style is the use of humor and research to de-bunk common beliefs, angering some people while delighting and informing others.   I am tempted to label Conover a Lenny Bruce or George Carlin for the Millennial Generation, except for one problem:  Conover argues that Millennials Don’t Exist.  Nor do the Greatest, Silent, X, or Z generations which create so much buzz in our marketing and pop culture.  If true, this has important consequences for political science and the other social sciences.  But is it?  In fact, even a de-bunker like Conover sometimes needs to be (partially) de-bunked.  Conover makes some great points in his talk, but in the end, generational cohorts do exist, by whatever name.

Invited to give the keynote talk at a marketing conference, Conover was asked to explain what makes his generation tick.  Instead, Conover adopted his signature style, proceeding to de-bunk the entire idea of generations with jokes and facts.  His primary target was this Time magazine article, in which his was labeled the “me me me generation” and accused of having short attention spans, unrealistic expectations and a digital-screen addiction.  Time cited academic research which seemed to indicate that younger Americans are more likely to have narcissistic traits than do their parents or grandparents.  The article featured the predictable complaints about smart phones, social media and texting, college grads moving back in with parents, and of course, participation trophies.

Conover’s take-down was savage.  He correctly pointed out that in Western culture, older generations griping about younger generations dates back at least to Ancient Greece.  While Conover cited Hesiod, my personal favorite is Aristophanes, the playwright who ridiculed Socrates in The Clouds.  This comedy features a father, Strepsiades, ranting that his son, Pheidippades, has no work ethic and spends his time and money at the chariot races, while dad works hard to make ends meet.  Sound familiar?  The Clouds was written in approximately 419 B.C.E.!  Hesiod is even earlier, his work dated sometime between 650 and 750 B.C.E.  Apparently, older generations have been calling younger ones lazy, spoiled, and entitled this entire time.  There is nothing new here.

In addition, Conover made other important rebuttals, including that it is hard (and rather arbitrary) to establish the years which form generational boundaries, and that it is common for people’s interests, politics, and values to shift as they get older—regardless of when they were born.  Political scientists have long known about this issue, which is why our research distinguishes between life-cycle and cohort effects.  However, research indicates that even when life cycle effects are controlled, there are still notable, generational differences in our political views. That research includes the comprehensive study by the Pew Charitable Trusts which supplies most of the hyperlinks for this blog entry. Perhaps most notable is that the generations are shifting in different directions.  The Pew data show that two adjacent generations, both well into adulthood—Baby Boomers and Generation X—are moving in opposite directions from one another.  Boomers are often stereotyped as the generation of hippies, “women’s lib,” Woodstock, and Vietnam war protests.  Yet these images have always been misleading.  For example, over 10 million Boomers—including an estimated 40% of eligible males—served in the military during their youth, including many who saw combat in Vietnam.  Today, the Boomers are shifting toward being more conservative.

My experiences as a college freshman fit the popular image of Generation X.  Known for being snarky and cynical, our generation came of age in the shadow of Vietnam.  A political and news junkie since childhood, my early political memories include inflation, the Iran Hostage Crisis, and hearing my parents discuss Watergate.  The lesson:  you cannot trust government, they are a joke and cannot do anything right.  During my freshman year at Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State), a 1988 student newspaper poll found that three-quarters of the school’s students were backing George H. W. Bush over my candidate, Democrat Michael Dukakis.  My peers decorated their dorm rooms with a popular poster featuring an oceanfront mansion, exotic cars and a helicopter.  The tagline was  “Justification for Higher Education.”  The Reagan Generation did not want to “imagine no possessions” like that Boomer icon, John Lennon.  No thanks, we were here for our piece of the pie—a big one, please.  Perhaps it worked:  more-recent data show Gen X being the only generation to recover from the 2008 housing crash.

Today, Generation X is becoming more liberal.  This defies a common understanding that people shift toward being more conservative as they age, typified in a famous quote mistakenly attributed to Winston Churchill:  “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart.  If you’re are not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”   First, there is no record of Churchill actually saying this.  Second, how on earth would this popular view of life-cycle changes explain why those of us in our 40s and early 50s are becoming more liberal?  Pew data show a cleavage between Millenials and Xers trending liberal, on the one hand, while Boomers and Silents move the opposite direction.  Additional data reinforce the finding that this is more than just life cycling.  As the Pew researchers note, “First-year job approval ratings for Donald Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, differ markedly across generations. By contrast, there were only slight differences in views of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton during their respective first years in office.”

Returning to Millennials, perhaps the best description of them comes from Conover’s own talk.  As he points out, far from being narcissistic and entitled, Americans born in the late 1980s and the 1990s are in fact defined by less job security, including weakened labor unions (particularly in the private sector), low pay, and an expectation that college students and even graduates have to work at unpaid internships in order to get ahead.  He also shows America’s current young adults have more debt than their predecessors did at their age.  Not surprisingly, they have more anxiety about what lies ahead.  So-called Millennial narcissism may just be a tendency to for people to be more inward-looking when they are anxious about the future.  Also, forget those participation trophies:  the real cause of college grads moving back in with parents is skyrocketing housing costs.

Sorry, Adam.  Your talk is mis-titled.  It should have been called, “Millennials Exist, But Everything You Believe About Them Is Wrong.”  Just about everything else in his talk is spot-on, but as the Pew study shows, generational cohorts do exist.  They are an important part of political and sociological analysis.  Of course, one should never commit the ecological fallacy by generalizing the overall traits of a group back to each individual in the group (does any family really have 1.9 children?)  Yet overall, generational cohorts do have distinct identities, and those identities are worth watching for political and other social scientists.  Comedians, too.

 

Michael A. Smith

Michael A. Smith is a Gen Xer, Professor of Political Science, and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  His newest, co-authored book is Low Taxes and Small Government: Sam Brownback’s Great Experiment in Kansas (Lexington 2019)

NHA’s New Toolkit: Documenting the Impact of Your Humanities Program

By Cecily Hill, NEH for All Director of Community Initiatives

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As of this writing, colleges and universities around the nation have closed their doors; most have shifted to online learning. In-person public programs are on pause, indefinitely. For the majority of us, large components of our work have come to a screeching halt, while we have had to abruptly shift to scores of new personal and professional challenges.

At the National Humanities Alliance, we are continuing our work to document the impact of the humanities in a variety of contexts, but with a particular eye toward how humanities organizations and institutions are serving their communities and constituencies during this challenging time. We are also using this time to support humanities faculty, practitioners, and organizations as they plan for the future.

With this in mind, we are launching a new resource for humanities faculty, practitioners, and organizations. Our new toolkit, Documenting the Impact of Your Humanities Program, is aimed at helping the humanities community collect data about the impact of programs such as professional development seminars, public humanities projects, and programs for students that prepare them for college and help them imagine humanities careers. By collecting this data, you can better make the case for the impact of your work and the resources to support it.

With funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, since 2018 our NEH for All initiative has been helping National Endowment for the Humanities grantees document their impact through surveys of participants in their programs. In partnership with project directors, we’ve designed and implemented pre- and post-program surveys that take into account the programs’ immediate goals and their broader social impacts, including impacts on trust, empathy, community connection, and appreciation for and pride in local culture and heritage. Our goal has been to help these partners collect information that makes the case for their work to a range of stakeholders, including funders, organizational leadership, and policymakers. The surveys are designed to be broadly useful for humanities faculty and practitioners in highlighting and evaluating their programs.

The toolkit includes:

  • An introduction to impact-driven surveys;
  • Information about why to survey, how to construct a survey, and how to administer a survey; and
  • Advice for interpreting and using your data.

Many programs that we have surveyed to date took place on college campuses, and the toolkit also includes a suite of editable surveys that can be used in programs run by faculty. These include:

  • Pre- and post-program surveys for a humanities summer bridge program offered to first-generation college students. Among other measures, this survey includes questions about college preparedness, interest in internships with humanities organizations, and understanding of and interest in the humanities.
  • Pre- and post-program surveys for two faculty professional development seminars, one focused on an oral history program and the other on integrating local culture and authors into humanities classrooms. The surveys focus on access to resources, the benefits of building interdisciplinary communities of practice, and gains in content knowledge and capacities appropriate to the curricula.
  • Pre- and post-program surveys for humanities courses designed specifically for veterans, aimed at helping them reflect on their experiences through humanities texts. These surveys assess how these courses respond to some of veterans’ specific needs, such as help dealing with social isolation and building community. They also assess how humanities resources (art, film, literature, etc.) promote self-reflection and understanding.

Additionally, sample survey questions, grouped according to impact, are designed to help you build strong surveys that document your program’s strengths. In addition to using these questions as they are presented, you can adapt many of them for pre- and post-program surveys, making your evaluations even stronger. These questions have been tested—we’ve used them across many programs and found them successful.

These surveys have provided us with compelling insights into how humanities programs—from professional development seminars to reading and discussion programs—have an impact on higher education institutions, their faculty and students, and the communities they serve. They have also provided our partners and us with robust quantitative and qualitative data that speaks to the humanities’ broad-ranging impacts and can be used to engage policymakers, funders, leadership, and the public.

During this crisis, we know that humanities courses and programs are continuing to offer crucial opportunities for people to learn, reflect, and engage in dialogue. And we know that they will provide still more significant opportunities for reflection and connection in the months and years to come. As you plan for the future, we hope that you find this toolkit useful. And we want to hear from you! If you have questions or need advice, please contact Emily McDonald at emcdonald@nhalliance.org.

 
Cecily HillCecily Erin Hill leads NEH for All, an initiative that documents the impact of NEH funding and builds the capacity of humanities organizations to communicate that impact. Prior to joining NHA, Cecily served as Marketing and Communications Director for Books@Work, a public humanities nonprofit based in Cleveland, OH. Her writing has appeared in Studies in English Literature, 1500 - 1900 and Women’s Writing.  She holds a B.A. from the University of Southern Mississippi and a Ph.D. in English from the Ohio State University.

Coping with COVID-19: A Graduate Student’s Reflections

By James Steur, a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Coping with COVID-19

About one month ago, I wrote a blog post about strategies for networking at the 2020 MPSA Conference. To be frank, given the last few weeks, my post about networking and my own research seem moot. In the last few weeks, rates of COVID-19 continue to rise in the US and continue to drastically impact other countries around the world. Roughly 135 universities across the US have canceled in-person classes and are moving to online classes: amplifying concerns about food security for students. Over 3.3 million people people have filed for unemployment leaving many, especially workers in the restaurant and travel industry, without jobs for the foreseeable future. I find this uncertain, tumultuous state of the world paralyzing: How is my community doing? How is my family doing? How are my friends doing? How am I doing?

The answers to my questions change daily, but I have much to be grateful for amidst the chaos. My job and income are secure; my family, friends, and colleagues are all healthy and safe. Unfortunately, I know that many people are not as lucky as me. And my heart breaks for people who have lost loved ones, face financial insecurity, and the general negative effects of this pandemic.

Within such a short period of time, I find myself living in a scary and different world. Although I don’t have a lot to offer—I wish I had more—I can offer a few strategies I’m implementing in my life to make it through these trying times. Take whatever you find helpful, and leave everything else.

1). Prioritize Your Mental Health
Limit Your Screen Time
Now that I’m home all day on my laptop, I find myself tempted to binge the news and social media everyday. However, many studies highlight how excessive screen time on social media, news outlets, and large amounts of television can have negative impacts on mental health for adults and adolescents. It especially doesn’t help that when most of us feel anxious, we tend to remember the stressful and threatening information surrounding our anxiety. I’ve decided to take a social media cleanse to prioritize my mental health: I’ve deleted all social media apps on my phone, and I’ve gotten a good friend of mine to change my password on Facebook so I can’t login on my desktop. If that sounds too extreme, another strategy I’ve found effective was limiting my screen time on social media to one hour a day.  

Be Kind to Yourself
Before I deleted Twitter off my phone, I saw many people tweet about their productivity with statements like, “I wrote one chapter of my dissertation, and I also moved my entire class onto Zoom in one week! I am so productive!” While I’m happy that some faculty members and graduate students are pushing through and being productive, hearing about their productivity brought up feelings of shame and guilt. I’d ask myself questions like, “What’s wrong with me—am I overreacting to the coronavirus? Shouldn’t I be able to work the full 50 hours this week?” Ultimately, I’ve realized comparing others productivity to my own was unhelpful; the only purpose it served was beating myself up for my lack of productivity. I’m cutting myself more slack by acknowledging the impact COVID-19 has on me by writing a list of what I can and cannot control. In particular, I’m acknowledging that my stress makes it more challenging to continue working the same number of hours: I personally can’t pretend everything is business as usual. If you find you’re being unkind to yourself and feeling shame, I find Brené Brown’s discussion of the Shame Spiral a helpful resource, especially reaching out to someone you trust and sharing your story.

2). Prioritize Your Physical Health
Build Routine
Right now, it’s hard to know when COVID-19 and physical distancing is going to end. As a result, I’ve focused on building a routine that prioritizes my physical health: sleeping eight hours a night, eating healthier foods, and exercising my body. My advice to myself was simple enough, but I found it challenging to actually workout in the morning and stop eating ramen for lunch everyday after the first week. So, I readjusted my expectations by setting small goals I could achieve. If I’m eating ramen almost everyday for lunch, it is an unrealistic expectation that I make healthy salads for all my lunches and start eating them in one day. If I focus on eating one healthy lunch during the week and gradually changing my behavior, I find that I’m more likely to succeed in my goals—and be kinder to myself if I slip up. I’ve also found an accountability buddy that I text to check-in with and workout with over YouTube videos, which has been extremely helpful. (I’ve heard that some people do Zoom workouts together, although I haven’t tried that yet.) By having a buddy, I find that I hold myself and them more accountable to actually workout together. In the end, part of my fear is the unknown for how long we’ll be living with COVID-19. By building routine into my life that prioritizes my physical health, I find myself feeling better. 

3). Prioritize your Social Health
Practice Physical Distancing: Talk with Family & Friends
Social isolation can have negative consequences on our health: when we feel isolated, our immune and endocrine systems don’t work as well. While I’ve practiced physical distancing, I’ve found myself feeling more lonely, so I’ve been reaching out to my friends and loved ones. I find talking with them on Zoom or over the phone gives me energy and helps address my feelings of loneliness. To be frank, talking with them is usually the highlight of my day. However, I initially found it easy to talk about negative topics for long periods of time with them, so I often left these conversations feeling drained. Now, I emphasize we talk about positive topics like good news in their lives, TV shows that make them laugh, and podcast recommendations. I now have a slew of new shows to watch, which I can talk about with them the next time we check-in to distract ourselves from the world. Finally, I’d say it’s worth checking in with your friends who live alone and don’t have pets. Personally, I’ve found quarantine especially challenging because I’m all alone, and it has meant a lot to me when people reach out to check-in on me. 

Ultimately, as we embrace living a new “normal,” I hope we can treat each other with kindness and help each other during these challenging times. If you’re able, donate to a relief effort; take physical distancing seriously; and reach out to a loved one who may be lonely and struggling during these challenging times. If we all work together, I firmly believe we can make it through these challenges times.

 

James SteurAbout the Author: James Steur is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include political psychology, political behavior, and the role of emotions in citizen decision-making. He is a first-generation student, passionate coffee drinker, and excited to be blogging (for a second time!) at MPSA. You can find James on Twitter @JamesSteur

Understanding and Reducing Biases in Elite Beliefs About the Electorate 

by Miguel M. Pereira, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis.

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A central question in the process of representation is how elected officials gauge and respond to voter signals. As office-seekers, politicians have strong incentives to be informed. However, there is a growing recognition that gauging constituent preferences is more demanding than originally suggested (Butler and Nickerson 2011). Representatives often have a distorted image of their constituents (Broockman and Skovron 2018; Converse and Pierce 1986) Hence, a key ingredient for responsiveness is often missing. In this study, I explore two questions related to this puzzle: (1) why do politicians misperceive voter preferences; and (2) how can misperceptions be mitigated.

I argue that elite misperceptions result from a combination of differential exposure and personal biases of legislators. First, representatives do not interact with all segments of the electorate in the same way. More affluent and organized groups are more likely to make their voices heard in the policymaking process (Giger et al. 2012; Schlozman et al. 2012). If legislators rely on availability heuristics to gauge public preferences, imbalances in political engagement may lead elected officials to overestimate the support for policies endorsed by these subconstituencies. Second, personal biases of elected officials may also hinder the development of accurate beliefs. Representatives may be inclined to engage in social projection: projecting their own policy preferences on voters (Krueger and Clement 1994). This cognitive bias may lead representatives to overestimate support for policies they endorse.

I tested these expectations in two complementary surveys with elected officials. The first study is based on a panel of Swedish MPs covering two decades. This dataset was combined with mass surveys fielded concurrently to create measures of perceptual accuracy. The analyses reveal that elite beliefs disproportionately reflect the preferences of high-status voters: white collar voters, or college-educated, or in the top 15th income percentile, or urban voters. Figure 1 summarizes the main findings. The probability of an MP correctly perceiving the majority opinion on a given policy issue decreases, on average, 12 percentage points when white-collar voters disagree with the median voter. The analyses also show evidence of social projection: elected officials systematically overestimate public support for policies they personally endorse.

Figure 1. The role of high-status voters and MP personal preferences on perceptual accuracy.

Figure 1

Note: Points are estimates from linear probability models with perceptual accuracy as the outcome variable (1 if respondent correctly identifies the majority position on a given issue; 0 otherwise). The key predictors are listed on the y-axis. Each color represents a distinct model based on the operationalization of high-status voters. All models account for preference imbalance and include fixed effects by party, year, and issue.

The second study was designed to provide causal evidence for the key predictions derived from the theory and to assess the degree to which misperceptions can be mitigated. In an original survey that leveraged real political events, 2,918 Swiss local representatives were asked to estimate support for two upcoming referendums in their municipalities. Together with the disaggregated results from the popular votes, these data allowed me to produce precise measures of perceptual accuracy at the local level. Officials were randomly assigned to informational cues designed to (1) overcome inequalities in exposure and (2) social projection. The results reveal that representatives were significantly more accurate in their predictions when encouraged to avoid availability heuristics and to consider the electorate more broadly. Figure 2 presents the main results of the experiment.

Figure 2. The effects of exposure and self-awareness to social projection on perceptual accuracy

Figure 2

Note: Points are estimates of the difference in the probability of Swiss local officials correctly perceiving the expressed preferences of the majority of voters in their constituency by treatment condition (control = baseline).

The findings have several implications for the study of political representation and responsiveness. First, the patterns uncovered provide a rather pessimistic view of the ability for constituents to control public policy. The study joins recent scholarship in the United States uncovering relevant distortions in elite perceptions of public opinion (Broockman and Skovron 2018; Hertel-Fernandez et al. 2019). However, Sweden and Switzerland are two of the most socially inclusive societies in the world. The fact that in both countries inequalities in political voice seem to have meaningful effects on perceptions of public opinion is concerning. The results shed light on the path yet to cover until societies are able to sustain fully inclusive political institutions.

The results also suggest that inequalities in responsiveness may have deeper roots than prior work suggests. Even when legislators are not trying to favor any particular subconstituency, differential exposure can reproduce inequalities in representation by systematically distorting elite beliefs about the preferences of voters.

At the same time, the Swiss study suggests that misperceptions are not inevitable. The informational nudges designed to help legislators avoid availability heuristics induced more accurate beliefs about the electorate. These results suggest that improving perceptions of public opinion is possible even with low impact interventions.

 

References
Broockman, David E. and Christopher Skovron. 2018. “Bias in perceptions of public opinion among political elites.’’ American Political Science Review 112(3): 542-563.

Butler, Daniel M. and David W. Nickerson. 2011. “Can learning constituency opinion affect how legislators vote? Results from a field experiment.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 6: 55-83.

Converse, Philip E., and Roy Pierce. 1986. Political Representation in France. Harvard University Press.

Giger, Nathalie, Jan Rosset, and Julian Bernauer. 2012. “The poor political representation of the poor in a comparative perspective.” Representation 48(1): 47-61.

Hertel-Fernandez, Alexander, Matto Mildenberger, and Leah C. Stokes. 2019. “Legislative staff and representation in Congress.” American Political Science Review 113(1): 1-18.

Krueger, Joachim, and Russell W. Clement. 1994. “The truly false consensus effect: an ineradicable and egocentric bias in social perception.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67(4): 596-610.

Schlozman, Kay Lehman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady. 2012. The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

 

Miguel PereiraMiguel Pereira is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis. His research focus on political representation and the behavior of political elites in established democracies. For more information about Miguel Pereira, please visit miguelmpereira.com or follow him on Twitter @miguelmaria 

How the Pandemic Became Partisan: A Story of Parties, Science and Professionals

by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University 

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How did the Coronavirus pandemic become partisan?

The partisan divide on responses to the pandemic is only the latest iteration of a story that has been steeping for more than a decade.  Put briefly:  the political parties have realigned, with the Democratic Party now firmly entrenched as the party of the professional class.  Since this includes many epidemiologists currently estimating the impact of COVID 19, this makes their claims inherently suspect to Republicans.  This distrusted professional class also includes mainstream media reporters who are disseminating the news about the pandemic.

While the Democrats also retain others in their coalition, their alignment as the party of university-educated professionals also makes the Republican Party free to align itself as the party of backlash against these professionals.  It has done so, particularly under the leadership of President Trump.  Of course, there has also been a backlash to the backlash among science professionals themselves, some of whom have sought public office despite never having planned to do so before now.

In one of my last face-to-face classes before online migration, we discussed public acceptance or rejection of scientific research.  One of my students suggested that if someone does not trust science, there is not much can be done in the way of persuasion by those of us who do trust that process.  This is incomplete.  In the case of Republican skepticism, not only toward the Coronavirus outbreak but also toward global warming and a host of other problems raised through scientific research, the problem is not that they distrust science.  The problem is, they are less likely to trust scientists, whose views they view as being self-serving, at least in part.

Today’s Trump-supporting Republicans have projected onto the Democratic Party and the word “liberal,” an identification with a professional class that they do not trust, and that they do not believe shares their values.  According to them, professionals—including those engaged in scientific research—are part of an elite, self-serving group of people that know less than they tell us they know.  Frequently utilizing the Internet, and often relying on conservative publications and Fox News, these critics often “clap back” at researchers with data they have gathered on their own.

In this pandemic, the most-frequent tactic of these doubters is to juxtapose their own findings regarding how many people have currently tested positive, and how many have died from the virus, with the much-higher estimates of how many will contract it (including those who already have it but have not been tested), and how many will die.  The difference is vast.  As I write, the number of Americans known to have died of COVID 19 is about 6600, well short of the number who die each year of Influenza strains. Yet one panel of epidemiologists projections holds that even with actions we have already taken, approximately 195,000 Americans will die directly from the virus even with the precautions currently in place.  Others may be lost after being turned away from overflowing hospitals which have no beds or staff available to treat other life-threatening conditions, particularly in “hot spots” such as New York City.  Still other estimates hold that far more people have Coronavirus but have not been diagnosed, due to a shortage of test kits and the fact that the virus can manifest itself with mild symptoms or even none at all, yet these carriers can still spread it.

The latter numbers are all estimates, computed with computer models by experts.  They are only valid if one trusts the data-gathering, the computer models, and most of all, the experts themselves.  Democrats overwhelmingly tell pollsters that they do trust these experts.  Republicans are not so sure.  A recent Pew poll found that 59% of Democrats and independents leaning Democratic saw the pandemic as a major threat.  For Republicans and Republican leaners, the number drops to 33%.  Republicans generally do not deny the existence of a new strain of Coronavirus, nor that it is spreading around the world.  Rather, they distrust the experts regarding the danger it poses, and what to do about it.

This map shows the notable divide between Democratic governors and Republican ones, regarding stay-at-home policies.  As this blog entry goes to press, twenty two states with Democratic governors now have such policies, versus nine with Republican governors.  Interestingly, these nine Republican governors include three which are currently serving in heavily Democratic “blue” states—Massachusetts, Maryland and Vermont.  How did they get elected?  Voters are more willing to cross party lines to elect governors than they are for virtually any other office these days.  This leads to an interesting takeaway for those coping with the pandemic:  Americans have more faith in state and local governments than in the federal government, to handle the problem.

Outside of the current pandemic, no contemporary issue more starkly illustrates this partisan divide than global warming, or climate change.  The term climate change itself was coined by a Republican pollster, apparently because it was less foreboding than global warming.  This pollster has since changed his position.

Lexicon does not deter Democrats and Democratic leaners, 78% of whom agree that addressing climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress.  For Republicans and Republican leaners, the number drops to 31%.  Those skeptics that delve more deeply into the issue often offer their own evidence, similar to the current comparisons of Coronavirus deaths to date and those from the flu.  Climate change skeptics argue that the problem is exaggerated.  Experts, or “so-called experts,” as the deniers would say, counter that the full scope of the problem is quite serious and it captured by better, more accurate measures than those used by the skeptics.  Yet in order to make this leap of faith, one must trust the data, the models, and most of all, the experts themselves.  For most Republicans, this is nothing doing.  As with the epidemiologists mentioned above, Trump supporters often dismiss these climatologists as a self-serving political class out for their own interests.  Even the relatively-mainstream Wall Street Journal has editorialized that climatologists are exaggerating the threat.

This distrust of “so-called experts” runs so deep that a few years ago, a sitting speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives suggested that the state should stop using the longstanding practice of budgeting based on consensus revenue estimates compiled by economists.  The then-Speaker proposed that only the amount of money the state currently had on hand should be used for budgeting.  His critics were quick to counter that revenues vary throughout the year—for example, at tax filing time and during Christmas shopping season—and that the consensus estimates had been used for years and had generally proven accurate.  But for Speaker Merrick, the so-called experts espousing estimates instead of counting the actual money on hand were just spouting more government hocus pocus and mumbo jumbo to keep their positions.  If you want to know how much money you have, just count it.

Of course, the doubters’ favorite example of a blown call by experts concerns Trump’s victory itself.  As I detail in this blog entry, the assumption that Hillary Clinton had the election in the bag was widespread among reports and pollsters, and it seemed to fit the data from public opinion polls.  However, many political scientists did, in fact, predict that Trump at least had a credible chance to win.  As noted expert Nate Silver put it, the data did show that “Donald Trump has a path to the presidency.”  The problem came when we second-guessed Silver’s and other research findings. Incidentally, the related argument that a poll is not valid unless you or someone you know, personally, has been polled is another classic example of this disagreement.  From a social-scientific standpoint, this objection is absurd.  Polling is based on randomized sampling.  But for Trump supporters, this argument is just another way to counter the so-called experts with some good old common sense.

In the 1950s, professionals often aligned with the Republican Party.  In fact, in the landmark study The American Voter by Converse, Campbell, Miller, and Stokes (1960), the group interest voters were was found to be the largest bloc, and the most commonly-used statements by these voters (using the gendered language of the day) was, “Democrats are for the working man, Republicans are for the businessman.” Today, the political system has realigned, with professionals trending heavily toward Democrats.  While they have long led among voters with postgraduate degrees, Democrats have now overtaken Republicans in support from voters with Bachelor’s degrees as well.  College-educated women are a major reason why the Democrats where able to retake the House majority in 2018, running particularly strongly in suburban districts.

In short, America’s divided response to Coronavirus reflects a partisan realignment, with most of the professional class identifying as Democratic or Democratic leaning, while most of their critics favor Republicans.  It is distrust of these experts—or so-called experts—that drives our partisan response to the current pandemic.

 

Michael A. SmithMichael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter

To Networking & Beyond: Strategies for Successful Networking

By James Steur, a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Networking

As MPSA 2020 fast approaches, my colleagues have talked to me about the part of conferences they dread more than their presentations: networking. Someone I know remarked, “I feel like an inauthentic version of myself networking, and the person I’m speaking with also feels like an inauthentic version of themselves.” Although networking can feel uncomfortable—especially for highly introverted people—there are ways to make the process more comfortable and authentic.

Scheduling a Meeting
The first step to make networking more comfortable is scheduling your meeting in advance: I suggest six to eight weeks of notice. One advantage of scheduling a meeting in advance is that you’re more likely to successfully meet busy scholars with full schedules. More importantly, more notice means more time to prepare what you’d like to talk about, which can help make the meeting feel less uncomfortable. That said, there are multiple ways to schedule a meeting with different people at MPSA.

1). Email
Email is a simple and powerful tool to connect with scholars. If you want to meet with a faculty member or graduate student whose work you admire, check to see if they are on the MPSA program and email them. When you send the email, introduce yourself, provide some context about why you’re reaching out (e.g., similar research interests), and see if they’d be open to meeting for 15–30 minutes at MPSA. If you don’t get a response within a week, send a reminder email to check-in with them: people can get busy. If you don’t feel comfortable cold emailing someone, ask around your department and see if there’s a common connection to the person you’re emailing. Perhaps a faculty member or graduate student in your department went to the same school—establishing a common connection helps build rapport.

2). Twitter 
Twitter is a great (and often underutilized) way to meet with folks. Currently, there is a “take jr folks to lunch MPSA” Twitter thread with many senior and junior faculty members offering to take groups of graduate students to coffee or lunch to discuss the profession. Other faculty members and graduate students are tweeting outside the thread to meet with people and discuss topics like publishing, teaching, imposter syndrome, and other important topics. Keep your eyes peeled on Twitter before the conference, and reach out to meet with someone if a particular topic interests you. Last year, I reached out to a faculty member, got lunch with him and another grad student, and had a great time chatting. Alternatively, you can post your own tweet asking if anybody would like to meet for coffee or lunch at the conference and see who responds.

3). MPSA Networking Opportunities and Mentoring Panels
Beyond scheduling your own meetings, MPSA offers mentoring opportunities. You can attend the MPSA Mentoring Reception (held on Friday, April 17, from 6:30–7:30PM at the Palmer House) to meet with different scholars whose research interests align with yours. You need to sign up as a mentee to participate in the Mentoring Reception by March 16, so look at the mentor bios and sign up sooner rather than later. Another option is participating in the Academic Year Mentorship program. Both are excellent options for graduate students who feel less comfortable reaching out to network, and are great opportunities for faculty members to connect with younger scholars.

If this is your first time attending MPSA, I highly encourage you to attend the First Time Attendee Reception and Tour on Thursday, April 16, from 4:45–6:15PM. You can make great connections with others who are also new to the conference by signing up here.

The Meeting
Your meeting is scheduled: now what do I do at the meeting? How should I act? There are a few easy things you can do during the meeting to make a good impression: be on time, thank the person for meeting, ask how they’re doing, and bring a notepad to take notes if it seems appropriate. If you’re meeting in a group with multiple people, be respectful and let everyone speak. Domineering a group conversation can be disrespectful to others who may want to speak or ask questions. Relatedly, many people make a common mistake and act like they are meeting with old friends—remember you’re establishing a professional relationship. Perhaps the relationship can become a friendship, but the context of the meeting is at a professional conference to discuss research and other professional topics.

But how do I make this meeting less uncomfortable? My personal strategy is to ask myself, “Why was I interested in reaching out to this person?” The answers vary depending on the person: some people have written academic articles that shift how I think about the world, and I want to talk about how they come up with their ideas. I may be interested in a new method they used, or I’d like to learn more about how to engage in public scholarship. The bottom line is that I respect some aspect of their work, and I’m interested in learning more about them. Once I express my genuine interest in them and their work, the conversation and relationship feels more authentic and less uncomfortable.

After The Meeting
Like I mentioned in a post at last year’s MPSA, it is easy to lose touch after meeting. My strategy is to keep a professional network spreadsheet that reminds me who I have met, what we talked about, and their contact information. If you want to follow-up on something you discussed with them, you should feel comfortable sending an email or reaching out. That said, I would also be aware of how busy they are and not send too many emails.

In the end, networking doesn’t have to feel uneasy or uncomfortable. People are usually more than happy to meet with you and discuss professional topics like research if you reach out. The more you put yourself out there, the easier it becomes to network. So take the first step and reach out to chat with somebody at this year’s MPSA to establish an authentic connection and build your network.

 

James Steur

About the Author: James Steur is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include political psychology, political behavior, and the role of emotions in citizen decision-making. He is a first-generation student, passionate coffee drinker, and excited to be blogging (for a second time!) at MPSA. You can find James on Twitter at @JamesSteur 

Study the Humanities: Articulating Career Pathways

By Scott Muir, Study the Humanities Project Director, National Humanities Alliance

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Commentators have offered a variety of explanations for the widely observed decline in humanities majors and enrollments. Evidence suggests the primary cause is a dramatic reordering of student priorities away from existential educational aims toward pragmatic financial goals, beginning around 1970 and accelerating after the financial crisis of 2008.

Herein lies the greatest opportunity for reversing the decline, for the problem is with students’ perceptions more than reality. It’s not that the humanities don’t prepare students for career success; humanities majors’ career outcomes are in fact quite strong. But in the absence of clear pathways to a sustainable career, students and parents whose confidence has been shaken by the Great Recession and rising student debt fill the void with their fears. To restore confidence in the humanities, we must replace a cloudy picture of uncertain outcomes with a brighter vision of expansive possibilities. But how?

At the National Humanities Alliance (NHA), we have gained a unique perspective on this challenge and the opportunity it presents. Over the past two years, we’ve assessed the field of undergraduate humanities recruitment efforts, including a recent survey of more than 390 faculty and administrators at nearly 300 institutions. We’ve collected a wide variety of promising strategies for recruiting students with the goal of sharing these strategies to benefit the whole community. Many involve clarifying career pathways for humanities majors, ranging from efforts aimed at persuading prospective students to those that help graduating majors successfully navigate the job market.

For prospective students and their parents, many faculty and administrators have reported that presenting the national employment data featured in our Study the Humanities toolkit helps confront widespread misconceptions concerning career prospects. Additionally, data and success stories drawn from one’s own institution provide a more concrete and accessible picture of the possibilities. For example, at Brandeis University, the School of Arts and Sciences has partnered with the Hiatt Career Center to present outcome data by major, which Dean Dorothy Hodgson reports “shows the tremendous placement success—and overcomes parental and student anxieties.” At Lebanon Valley College, the English Department researched their graduates’ career outcomes and created a brief video that presents the actual job titles of alumni to prospective students and their parents.

Once on campus, general education courses provide crucial opportunities to demonstrate the practical value of humanities skills to broad populations of students. At the University of Missouri, the College of Arts and Sciences appointed a Career Readiness Faculty Fellow to help faculty across the college incorporate modules explaining how the liberal arts equip students for long-term career success into their gen ed courses. And at the University of Minnesota, the College of Liberal Arts developed a pedagogical tool to help students identify the skills developed through their assignments and translate them to non-academic settings. Importantly, they also implemented incentives to encourage faculty to incorporate the tool in their courses, as well as identify transferable skills on their syllabi. As a result, more than 10,000 students completed the translation assignment last semester.

Other initiatives help ensure humanities majors preparing to graduate are equipped to transition to the workforce. For example, the English Department at West Chester University created a poster series and annual event entitled “What can you do with an English major?” to help students explore a variety of career pathways. Furthermore, the department created an internship course and a series of six workshops that help majors translate academic accomplishments for job application materials. At Hendrix College, John Sanders redesigned the Religious Studies Department’s capstone course to help students articulate transferable skills gained through previous courses and capstone projects. Meanwhile, students work with career center staff to hone their resumes and interview skills.

Finally, humanities faculty and administrators are developing new ways to engage alumni and employers to identify opportunities for their students and increase demand for their skills. For the past decade, Duke University has hosted an annual weekend of programming that brings together arts and humanities majors interested in working in a wide variety of media-related fields with alumni who have found success there. And at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, the Humanities Network and Consortium has partnered with career center staff to bring employers and recruiters to campus for regular events that highlight the professional advantages provided by the humanities.

Together, these initiatives present models for identifying transferable humanities skills and illuminating career pathways, helping to correct misconceptions and provide a clearer, more accurate picture of humanities majors’ career prospects. Of course, there are many other benefits to studying the humanities and strategies for highlighting them. Several campuses are experimenting with cohort programs to help students forge deep connections. Others are developing or revising courses to demonstrate how the humanities can help address a wide variety of contemporary challenges.

In the coming year, we will be working to ensure the lessons learned on individual campuses benefit the whole humanities community. To better understand which recruitment strategies are most effective, we have developed survey instruments to measure their impact on students’ perceptions and behaviors. We are partnering with directors of compelling initiatives to implement customized surveys. And we will distribute resources that provide an overview of various strategies faculty and administrators across the country are employing and highlight particularly promising models. We invite you to partner with us in these efforts by sharing your strategies via our survey.

Scott Muir leads Study the Humanities, an initiative that provides humanities faculty, administrators, and advocates with evidence-based resources and strategies to make the case for studying the humanities as an undergraduate. Prior to joining NHA, Scott pursued training at the intersection of the humanities and social sciences, earning a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Duke University, an M.T.S. from Emory University, and a B.A. from Dartmouth College. He has taught at Duke, Emory, and Western Carolina University, and his work has appeared in Sacred Matters Magazine and the Journal of Religion and Society. He can be reached at smuir@nhalliance.org.

Beyond the Hat: Will the Trump Coalition Hold in 2020?

by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University 

2020 Election

Will President Trump’s Coalition hold in 2020? Hardly anyone seems to be asking this question, at least in public these days.  It is up to us political scientists to remind voters that some of the conventional wisdom still holds, when analyzing elections.  Trump’s voters are not a monolith but a coalition, and his key to re-election rests upon his ability to hold together that coalition.  Like any motley crew, Trump’s coalition includes a range of supporters, from rock-solid to undecided to those who decided, early on, that they made a mistake.  He must hold his coalition together to win four more years in office, just like a more conventional President seeking a second term.

These insights are not mine—or rather, they are not mine alone.  I found this conclusion to be the emerging sense of the meeting a few months ago, when serving on a roundtable on the 2020 Presidential election, at the Great Plains Political Science Association annual meetings.  Colleagues Kim Casey and Bronson Herrera of Northwest Missouri State, Nicholas Nicholetti of Missouri Southern, and I bounced around numerous ideas, from rigorous and research based to purely impressionistic, during our lively exchange.  Ultimately, one thing we could all agree upon is this:  President Trump’s supporters are not a single, monolithic group.  Many do not wear “MAGA” hats or visit alt-right websites.  They run the gamut from evangelical Christians to hardcore religious skeptics, war hawks to isolationists, traditional Republicans to independents and ex-Democrats.

In popular culture, the focus is generally placed upon the ways in which Trump’s coalition does not appear to be diverse.  They tend to be white and non-Hispanic, middle-aged or older men and married women, heterosexual, and reside in suburban and rural areas.  The vast majority identify as Christian.  Yet even this conceals some diversity.  Twenty-eight percent of Hispanic voters, for example, supported Trump in 2016—about the same percentage that backed Mitt Romney.  The conservative news/editorial media is abuzz with early reports that African American voters support Trump at higher rates than previous Republican candidates—though they still prefer the Democrats by a substantial margin.

Trump’s continuous stream of Tweets, outrageous quotes, and confrontational behavior can easily confound observers into thinking that the old political campaign playbook has to be discarded this term.  Add in the fact that some in academia—and many more in the news media– blew the call for the 2016 election.  Yet we political scientists are notorious debunkers of the conventional wisdom—and that includes the so-called insight that Trump completely rewrote the way we view campaigns.

One group that already knows this, is Trump’s campaign staff.  Trump brought a lot more to the table than MAGA hats and campaign rallies in 2016.  His staff developed a sophisticated microtargeting operation, much more advanced than Hillary Clinton’s.  Expect this to be back for 2020.

Microtargeting—a concept popularized by journalist Sasha Issenberg in his 2012 book The Victory Lab—is a powerful reminder that Trump’s campaign has to do a lot more than hats and rallies.  Just as would a more conventional politician, Trump must hold together key blocs of supporters to stay in office.  Otherwise, his razor-thin margins in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin may disappear.

The value placed upon “swing” votes may be overestimated.  A recent Politico article featured a rather overhyped synapsis of Dr. Rachel Bitecofer’s research.  Bitecofer made dead-on predictions of the 2018 midterm elections, which featured a dramatic turnout surge compared to 2014.  Democrats will undoubtedly seek to capitalize on this, particularly among young voters.  Bitecofer argues that elections today are turnout battles with heavy emphasis on negative partisanship—that is, voting against, as opposed to voting for.  Other analysists agree that swing voters are diminishing.

Still, a presidential election is not a midterm, and Democrats will be looking for whatever cracks they can find in the Trump coalition.  These will be more apparent in some constituencies than others.  Again it must be borne in mind that even slight shifts in states such as Wisconsin can shift their electoral votes, since the vote there was incredibly close in 2016.

The Trump coalition includes the following:

1. The alt-right

This group dominates perceptions about Trump, particularly by his opponents.  With their MAGA hats and boisterous rallies, Trump’s so-called “alt-right” supporters cut quite a figure.  Trump’s early decision to appoint Steve Bannon of the alt-right online publication Breitbart.com to a key White House position further energized this group, as do his staunch opposition to illegal immigration, his attempted (and partly successful) “Muslim ban,” and of course his speeches and tweets.

Yet just as most Democrats are not yoga-posing, Prius-driving vegans, the stereotypes of Trump supporters as being exclusively made up of these vocal and visible alt-right voters are highly misleading.  Most voters for Trump—as for nearly all candidates—have never been to a political rally and have no desire to go to one.  This is why turnout tends to be dramatically lower in caucus states than in primary states, for example—most voters don’t want to invest the time, nor publically disclose who they are backing.  While alt-right voters are active on social media, the bombast of their words may cause us to overestimate their numbers.  These voters aren’t going anywhere, but good political analysis requires us to push past this group and look at the rest of the President’s coalition.

2. Evangelical Christians

Trump does not speak for all Christians, as many passionate dissenters have made clear.  Critics of faith object to Trump’s treatment of immigrants, hawkish stance on Iran, environmental policies, cuts to social programs, and non-cooperation with Congressional investigations into his own behavior—including the impeachment trial.  Yet among the rank and file, most evangelicals remain fiercely loyal to the President.  Supreme Court appointments and the possibility of overturning the Roe v Wade court decision are of course front and center, but there is more. Trump’s recent authorization to kill Iranian General Qassem Soleimani is widely supported by evangelicals, and it reinforces a narrative that Islamic extremists are a danger to the western world, and to Christianity in particular.  Trump’s hawkish stand on Israel is also much more popular with evangelicals than it is with most Jewish Americans, the latter of whom still overwhelmingly back Democrats, and play a key role in battleground Florida.  Progressive Christians like Jim Wallis cite anecdotal evidence that Trump’s evangelical supporters are having doubts, but it is unlikely that Democrats can peel away more than a small number of them, particularly when they are re-energized by actions such as Soleimani’s assassination.

3. Regular Republicans

I was one of the analysts who blew the call in 2016.  My prediction of a Clinton victory was based largely on my assumption that many traditional Republicans—of the sort who backed John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012—would defect from the party over Trump’s nomination.  Not only were Trump’s comments often shocking, he also defected from longstanding Republican precedent by advocating for tariffs—which had not been discussed openly in American politics for about a century—in place of the party’s longtime support for free markets and free trade.  I thought many Romney supporters would switch to Clinton this time.

What happened, was that I forgot about the fundamentals that my mentors taught me in grad school.  As documented in John Sides and Henry Farrell’s excellent ebook The Science of Trump, these fundamentals apply just as much to Trump, as to more conventional candidates. Most voters simply are not ideological—not liberal, not conservative, not even moderate.  Their attachment to parties and candidates comes from other sources like family, race, and religion.  Trump shifted the Republican Party on some key policy issues, but many of their voters did not care.  If these voters did not leave the party in 2016, it is highly unlikely they will do so in 2020.

And as for my own mistake in predicting the 2016 election:  fool me once…

4. Obama-Trump voters in general

Yes, they are a thing.  Estimated at about six million nationwide, they are particularly concentrated in the Great Lakes “firewall” states that flipped in 2016 and put Trump in the White House.  These voters have policy views remarkably similar to other Democrats on issues like abortion rights, health care, and the DACA program for undocumented immigrants brought here as children.  Yet, these voters are notably more conservative on other immigration issues, including Trump’s border wall, and are more likely than other Democrats to believe that people of color and feminists are making too many demands of white men.  These issues will be tricky for the Democrats to negotiate and have received a lot of coverage in the press, but in the end showing some empathy for their belief that working-class whites are being left behind may prove to be pivotal for Democrats seeking to win back some of this group.

5. Auto industry voters

The data presented in last article hyperlinked above also shows something not discussed by the article’s own authors—a huge gap between Obama-Trump voters and other Democrats on the Paris Climate Agreement.  The former group is much less supportive, and I have a pet hypothesis as to why.  These voters are heavily concentrated in states where the auto industry has a large presence:  Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and to a lesser extent, Iowa.  Two more auto industry states, Missouri and Indiana, shifted over just 8 years from a near-tie between Obama and McCain back in 2008—Obama actually won Indiana the first time—to double-digit Trump victories in 2020.  Why?

The American auto industry today includes many factories run by overseas-based companies like Toyota, Nissan, and Volkswagen.  Most of these are non-unionized, and many are in the South.  Yet the traditional “Big Three,” UAW-organized auto industry remains a strong presence in the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley states, and two of these three companies—and an estimated 1.5 million jobs– were rescued from bankruptcy by Obama Administration policies.  Obama’s advertising from 2012 highlighted Mitt Romney’s notorious “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” editorial headline, while another commercial featured a cartoon Romney putting company logos into a wood chipper.

If Democrats seek to renew their support for the workers and retirees of U.S. auto industry, they are going to have to confront a big problem:  fuel economy.  Environmental advocates, who overwhelmingly favor Democrats, want more of it, for example hailing California’s strict new gas mileage standards and support for electric cars.  Yet the traditional U.S. auto industry does not excel in the market for these cars.  Instead, they dominate the market in larger SUVs and pickup trucks, which tend to be gas guzzlers.

Many of these auto industry voters are members of the United Auto Workers, which traditionally supports Democrats, and they agree with their old party on issues like health care.  Yet in order to win them back, the Democrats will have to convince them—as did Obama—that their jobs, and their pensions, are not at stake, without losing the staunch pro-environmentalism supporters to nonvoting or to third-party candidates.

Donald Trump’s behavior as candidate and President is anything but conventional.  For one thing, he just became the first President in U.S. history to seek re-election while being impeached.  Yet it is incumbent on us political scientists to cool the hype—in this case, the overblown case that traditional approaches to political analysis are no longer relevant.  Nothing could be further from the truth, and operatives working quietly but effectively in the campaign organizations of both parties already know this.  Now it is time for the rest of us to realize it, too.  In order to get re-elected, the President must hold together his coalition.  In order to defeat him, Democrats will have to simultaneously turn out new voters, and cut into Trump’s coalition, targeting those who are most cross-pressured.  Neither job will be easy, and it would be very premature for either side to throw out all those old campaign playbooks.

Michael Smith

Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter

Can Gerrymandering be Measured? Here Come the Mathematicians

By Brian Hollenbeck and Michael Smith of Emporia State University

Just weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court acted to sharply limit the role of the courts with regards to partisan gerrymandering. In Rucho v. Common Cause, the Court majority upheld the Davis v. Bandemer case of 1976, reaffirming that partisan gerrymandering is a “political question” and refusing to intervene. In Rucho, the Court found that “None of the proposed ‘tests’ for evaluating partisan gerrymandering claims meets the need for a limited and precise standard that judicially discernible and manageable.” They also noted that racial gerrymandering may be held to a different standard, because “race-based decision making…is ‘inherently suspect’ [as per] Miller v. Johnson [1995].”

Are they right? In recent years, mathematicians and mathematically-trained political scientists have begun to weigh in on the gerrymandering question. While the struggle to identify and analyze instances of potential partisan gerrymandering is more than 200 years old, new insights and computer models move it into new territory. Was a state’s congressional district map intentionally drawn to favor one political party?

There are four main criteria one can check to determine if a district map should be flagged for potential partisan gerrymandering:

  1. Does a district contain significantly more or fewer voters than another?
  2. Does the shape of a district appear to be unnatural and thus indicate manipulation?
  3. Does the distribution of voters among the districts negatively affect one party more than another in an election?
  4. Does the outcome of a potential election for a particular district map drastically differ from the expected outcome of a non-partisan map?

Measuring Compactness

The first criterion is known as “one-person, one-vote” and is simple to check. This criterion requires each district contain approximately the same number of voters. In a hypothetical community of 100 people, to be divided into 4 equally-populated districts, there are 1.6 x 1057 possible configurations!

The second criterion stems from the original case of gerrymandering, where the bizarre shape of a state senate election district in Massachusetts provoked a now-famous political cartoon mocking its likeness to a salamander. States have tried to combat this by requiring the shapes of districts to be “compact.” Intuitively, this means the district should not zigzag unnecessarily around the state. But extra constraints such as county lines, rivers, mountains, and population centers necessitate the need for exceptions. Thus, deviation from perfection is to be expected for most districts in most states. To quantify the magnitude of this deviation, mathematicians have created several definitions for compactness.

One perimeter-based definition is known as Polsby-Popper, introduced in 1991. The Polsby-Popper score uses the ratio of the district’s area to the square of its perimeter. This method is advantageous because it is simple to understand and penalizes any shape that meanders a lot. However, this means any district with long borders due to rivers or other physical obstacles will also be penalized.

A second definition makes use of the convex hull of a district. The convex hull can be thought of as the shape a rubber band would make if it were wrapped around the boundary of the district. The score is calculated by finding the ratio of the district’s area and the area of its convex hull. This score can sometimes be easier to calculate than a perimeter-based score since the hull “smooths” convoluted edges. However, this feature could minimize the impact of gerrymandering on a district’s score. Convex hull scores often reach similar overall results as perimeter scores, when comparing districts for compactness.

A third definition of compactness, known as Reock, compares the ratio of the district’s area with the area of a circle that circumscribes the district. This is both simple to calculate and understand. However, the Reock score can be misleading since a district with a large distance in one dimension will automatically require a large circle to contain, thus scoring low for compactness. This is true even if there are natural formations such as a coastline, which may offer a nonpartisan explanation for why the boundary meanders.

In short, there is no one, best standard to use in measuring compactness. Real-world geographical boundaries often complicate matters too much to reach a final conclusion.

Measuring Partisan Bias

These attempts to measure gerrymandering via the district’s shape have led us to a muddle. Perhaps it is time for a different approach, one which focuses on the outcome of an election based on voter distribution, rather than the shape of a district. In this case, we are trying to identify maps drawn in which voters from one party have been spread out among several districts (known as cracking), or grouped together in a few districts (known as packing).

The efficiency gap was introduced by Stephanopoulos and McGhee in 2015 and is calculated by finding the number of wasted votes for each party. A wasted vote is any vote that did not contribute to a party winning its district. Any votes above the minimum needed for a party to win the district are considered unnecessary and therefore “wasted.” Likewise, all votes cast by the losing party in a district are also wasted. The efficiency gap is calculated by finding the difference between wasted votes for the two parties and expressing this difference as a percentage of the total number of voters in a state.

One cannot assume that a high compactness score will always correspond to a low efficiency gap. Alexeev and Mixon have concluded in some situations, “a small efficiency gap is only possible with bizarrely-shaped districts.” In fact, they proved that every districting system will be flagged by at least one of our first three criteria.

Furthermore, convoluted attempts to undermine the minority party can have unintended consequences. The Court’s majority opinion in Rucho noted, “Democrats also challenged the Pennsylvania congressional districting plan at issue in Vieth. Two years after that challenge failed, they gained four seats in the delegation, going from a 12-7 minority to an 11-8 majority. At the next election, they flipped another Republican seat.”

Best Outcome among Many Possibilities

Criterion #4 requires simulation to find the most common outcomes for thousands of random maps. A map could be deemed “gerrymandered” if its election outcome does not fall into one of the expected distributions of seats. This is what the dissenting opinion proposed in Rucho: “Suppose now we have 1,000 maps, each with a partisan outcome attached to it. We can line up those maps on a continuum – the most favorable to Republicans on one end, the most favorable to Democrats on the other … And we can see where the State’s actual plan falls on the spectrum – at or near the median or way out on one of the tails?”

So, that is exactly what we did. Here at Emporia State, we randomly chose 100,000 possible maps for a hypothetical district of 100 people, divided into four districts. In this district, one party has a 52% majority, the other 48% supports a second party. For the sake of simplicity, these maps did not require the districts to be contiguous. While such districts might not be practical in reality, it does guarantee the most non-partisan maps possible since “urban electoral districts are often dominated by one political party-can itself lead to inherently packed districts” (Rucho). This simulation shows that for a state of 100 voters, about 54% of non-partisan maps will lead to the majority party winning two seats. Another 40% will yield three seats to the majority, while 5% will give the majority one seat.

However, results change dramatically when the parameters for a state are tweaked. As the table below shows, the expected distribution of seats quickly changes if the advantage of the majority party increases.

Number of votes out of 100 for Party X (the majority party)

Seats won by X 50 52 55 60 65 70
1 17% 5% 0% 0% 0% 0%
2 66% 54% 24% 2% 0% 0%
3 17% 40% 63% 43% 14% 3%
4 0% 1% 13% 54% 86% 97%

These trends become more pronounced as the population of a state increases. As the next table indicates, even a slim 52% majority will eventually guarantee Party X wins all four seats if the population is large enough. This fact was recognized by the majority opinion in Rucho: “[i]f all or most of the districts are competitive … even a narrow statewide preference for either party would produce an overwhelming majority for the winning party in the state legislature.”

Distribution of random map outcomes for various populations when Party X has 52% of the vote

Seats won by X 100 voters 1000 voters 10000 voters
1 5% 0% 0%
2 54% 19% 0%
3 40% 64% 5%
4 1% 17% 95%

A more sophisticated simulation will generate different results. The fact that states generally do not have all their districts vote in favor of a single party indicates that contiguousness of districts affects the outcome. In other words, party affiliation is not randomly distributed across a state. Thus, the minority party is likely to have enough votes concentrated in one region of a state to win at least one district. Simulations that take into account contiguousness, county lines, or other state-specific restrictions will be less random and more likely to benefit the minority party.

North Carolina 2016 House Districts Map

Now let’s try a real-world example. Consider the 13 congressional districts of North Carolina. In the 2016 election, 49.8% of voters selected the Republican nominee for President while 46.2% chose the Democratic nominee. Despite this slim difference, ten of 13 districts voted Republican. Using the given percentages from 2016, suppose we assign each of North Carolina’s 2,706 precincts a voter preference – Republican, Democrat, or neither. We next randomly distribute those precincts into 13 districts of approximately the same size. We repeat this experiment 1000 times.

The next table shows the results of this simulation, assuming any tied districts went equally to Republicans and Democrats. Notice about 40% of these maps will result in Republicans winning at least 10 seats. On the other hand, a less random simulation, conducted by an expert witness that takes into account North Carolina districting criteria, had zero maps out of 3000 give Republicans a 10-3 advantage or better (Rucho). In other words, the state’s districting criteria actually lead to a smaller Republican advantage than would be predicted by a random simulation.

Simulation of percentage of North Carolina districts won by Republicans

# of districts won by Republicans 7 or less 8 9 10 11 or more
% of maps 5% 18% 36% 30% 10%

Conclusion

Instead of viewing gerrymandering as a tool to pad the majority, it may make more sense to view it as a tool that may be used to increase minority representation. Furthermore, as political scientists have noted for years, multimember districts with proportional representation—while not required by the Constitution or Court rulings—remains by far the more effective method to ensure fair representation for minorities. However, this method is rarely used in U.S. Congressional or state legislative elections.

About the Authors: Bran Hollenbeck is a Professor of Mathematics at Emporia State University and Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more from Smith on his blog and follow him on Twitter.


The views and opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Midwest Political Science Association, MPSA staff, and/or other site contributors.

Show Me the Money: Securing Research Funding

By Charmaine N. Willis of University of Albany

Word map with various currencies scattered around edges
One of the most important parts of conducting any research project, regardless of its methodology, is securing research funding. The recent MPSA conference offered several roundtables dedicated to research funding; in this blog, I cover the roundtable co-sponsored by the Midwest Women’s Caucus, the Gender and Politics section, and the Professional Development section. The panelists offered several useful pieces of advice when considering where and how to apply for research grants that are applicable for researchers at any stage, including graduate students.

Explaining Your Research

A key theme that the panelists touched upon was the importance of being able to explicitly and succinctly summarize one’s research. While this is a piece of advice that many of us have heard before, the roundtable provided some specific suggestions on how to do it. Firstly, a grant application should provide the bottom line up front (BLUF). Grant reviewers must review hundreds or thousands of pages-long grant applications for funding. Therefore, it is important for applicants to succinctly present key information about their projects such as what the project is, what it will do, and why it is important in the first part of the application. Relatedly, a researcher should also think about a keyword or key phrase that summarizes their research. For example, my dissertation examines the causes of variation in anti-US military protest mobilization in Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. Keywords and key phrases would include “mobilization” and “anti-US military protests”. Identifying the keywords allows a researcher to tease out the core of their research project, and in doing so, may make it easier to communicate their research to funders who may not be familiar with the broader research area.

Contextualizing Your Research

A related roundtable theme was the importance of contextualizing one’s research. Researchers need to be mindful of the fact that funding sources vary widely, and, in many instances, may come from outside one’s discipline. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that funders may not be familiar with disciplinary jargon or literature and researchers should write their applications accordingly. Even for those funders who are familiar with the discipline or the research area, grant applicants need to spell out the significance of their projects. Questions to consider include:

  • How does this project fit and contribute to the broader disciplinary literature?
  • How does this project aid or advance the sciences?
  • How does this project help people?

The ability to highlight the importance of one’s research to the discipline and society at large may mean the difference between receiving funding or not.

The panelists also emphasized the importance of understanding funders’ priorities.

  • What are the goals of the funding organization?
  • What projects have received funding in the past?

Researchers should use these cues to emphasize the aspects of their project that align with organizational priorities to improve their chances of getting funded.

Research Collaboration

Finally, panelists emphasized the importance of collaboration in securing research funding. First, researchers in search of funding should consider public sector partners who may be interested in their research and accordingly, may be willing to provide some research funding. Public sector partners may include municipal, state, or national governments or public non-governmental organizations. Second, researchers may want to consider collaborating on a research project. Collaborative proposals, especially cross-disciplinary or cross-university projects, tends to be more likely to be funded. Additionally, adding contributors from different disciplines or institutions may open up the types of grants for which researchers can apply. While it may be difficult to identify potential collaborators, the panelists suggested that graduate students and early researchers contact their advisors or other faculty mentors for recommendations.

About the Author: Charmaine N. Willis is a PhD Student in the Department of Political Science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her research focuses on civil society and contentious politics. Her current project examines the role of framing in anti-US military contention in East Asia. You can also find Charmaine on Twitter and her website.