MPSA Updates 1: Voters in the Obama Era

What is the state of American elections and party competition in what we are now calling “the Obama era”?  That was the topic of discussion at a panel I chaired as acted as discussant for on Sunday at the Midwest Political Science Association meeting in Chicago.

The title of the panel was a bit misleading, however: I’d would have titled it “Voters in a new partisan era.”  This may be a product of my own views of recent political history in the U.S., but reflecting on these papers, and debates over party polarization and conflict that have animated both academic and popular discourse over the last 20 years, I think it’s undeniable at this point that our country is in the midst of a new political era. Obama’s election, in some respects, may ultimately be viewed more as a detour on this road than something completely new and different.  On that, time will tell.

There were two papers presented that I think should be read by anyone interested in American politics, and for the time being, both are available ungated at the web address shown above.

Gary Jacobson of UC-San Diego presented another in what has become a biennial tradition: Jacobson’s take on the state of congressional elections in the U.S.  However, as anyone whose followed Gary’s work knows, he’s increasingly becoming a political historian as well one of our most prominent scholar of Congress.  His works ranges easily over decades worth of candidacies, elections, and public sentiments.

Gary’s paper is rich with data, but the takeaway, in my opinion, is contained in Figure 5, and every academic should be showing this graphic in their classes.  In one picture, Jacobson captures much of the past half century in American politics: our congressional elections are as nationalized today as they have been at any point since 1954.

We can argue about the long run consequences, but the short term effects in 2010 were than moderation was a costly position for Democrats.  The more moderate you were, and the more frequently you supported Obama’s major initiatives, the most likely you were to lose.  Not a good sign for the Democrats in this current Congressional session.

The second paper I would recommend was presented by Simon Jackman (Stanford) and Lynn Vavreck (UCLA).  In the paper, Vavreck and Jackman demonstrate that, contrary to the first wave of analyses of the Obama election, negative racial predispositions did reduce Obama’s vote total, by as much as 3-4% nationally.

What is particularly creative about the piece, however, is how they show this: they take advantage of a series of candidate pairings that were presented to survey respondents through the 2008 campaign (e.g. Obama vs. McCain, Clinton vs. Huckabee), and leverage the historical pairings available over time by using the NES.  To make a complex methodological story short, they are able to estimate the impact of race on ALL Democratic candidates then compare this impact to the estimated impact on support for Obama.

The methodological point is simple (although be warned, the methodology is complex): to truly understand the role of a Black Obama, we have to try as hard as we can to estimate how a White Obama would have performed.  That, they argue, is the true counterfactual.

Even if you dont’ want to read the paper, check out the Figures (on a color screen!): they are a superb illustration of how to convey a large amount of statistical information in graphical form.