Published: Fall 2016 in Feature Story

A Political Scientist Talks Politics


Editor’s Note: The 2016 presidential election has confounded many, including pundits, political scientists and people who don’t like either of the major party candidates. In the aftermath of the vote, Westmont political science professor Tom Knecht shares some personal observations about his discipline and American elections.

Should you listen to political scientists? “When you fly, never tell your seatmates you’re a political scientist. Tell them you work in waste management instead.” I never understood this advice from one of my graduate school professors until I spent several miserable cross-country
flights discussing my profession.

I enjoy talking about politics, especially as I study American public opinion, a field entirely devoted to what other people think. But most people eager to talk politics show little interest in hearing what I have to say. A relative recently cornered me at a family gathering to vent about
President Obama issuing more executive orders than any other president in history. When I explained that Obama falls near the middle of the pack when it comes to executive orders, this family member became incensed and implied my doctorate was worthless.

It’s not just me. Political scientists in general lack a vital public voice. When we speak out on issues, we’re often dismissed as ivory tower eggheads who don’t understand how politics work. Few professions experience this degree of anti-authoritarianism. When I meet someone from another field—say a cardiologist, a botanist or an artist—I tend to defer to their judgment because they’re experts, and I’m not. I’d never think of telling my cardiologist she should “start
performing percutaneous mitral valve repairs for all mitral regurgitations.” I’m inclined to think that politics and coaching football are the only two professions where the laity is absolutely convinced they know more than the experts. The phrase “Monday morning quarterbacking,” or second-guessing the quarterback or coach after a game, fits politics so well that nearly every president since LBJ has used it.

People don’t listen to political scientists for several good reasons.

First, our work is largely inaccessible to the outside world. We use complicated statistical models that only a handful
of scholars understand, our prose reeks of jargon, and we focus on the minutia of politics. Simply put, we’ve insured our irrelevance.

Second, people doubt what political scientists say for partisan reasons. Democrats in political science outnumber Republicans nearly six-to-one. Many Republicans depict academia as an untrustworthy liberal bastion, which is why congressional Republicans have tried repeatedly to cut National Science Foundation grants to social scientists.

Third, politics is more accessible to people than many other endeavors. As citizens, we’re expected to participate in politics and hold opinions on the pressing issues of the day. By contrast, we the people aren’t expected to perform open-heart surgery or fix the fuel exchanger of a Boeing 777 engine. We’ve no need to develop working knowledge of these—or most other subjects—and must defer to experts.

Fourth, it’s dangerous to defer to the authorities because they often get things wrong. Political scientists excel in many areas, but we’re not especially good at predicting when ethnic conflicts will turn violent, when groups will resort to terrorism, when revolutions will occur, or when wars will start. It seems like we should foresee these things, and when we don’t, it’s understandable that people wonder if academics know anything at all.

Finally and most importantly, a fundamental disconnect exists between the ways the general public and most political scientists view politics. The public typically considers politics through the lens of “what ought to be” (e.g., “we ought to cut taxes”; “we ought to do something about climate change”; “we ought to elect Hillary Clinton”).

Political scientists, by contrast, gravitate toward questions such as “what is?” and “why is it so?” This focus puts the science in political science. As such, we probably won’t tell you who you should have voted for in 2016, but we can predict with fairly good accuracy who will win presidential elections.

Despite public skepticism, I think political scientists have some interesting things to share, including some provocative claims:

Elections aren’t what you think they are. Political campaigns rarely matter.

Negative media coverage rarely hurts candidates.

Direct democracy (e.g., initiatives, referendums, and recalls)
and term limits are bad ideas.

Money doesn’t buy a politician’s vote.

Let’s consider two of these: the true nature of elections and the effect of money on politicians.

Elections aren’t what you think they are

Telling folks they’re voting wrong often invites a punch in the face. Far be it from me to tell you which candidate to vote for; that’s your business. But even at the risk of a broken nose, I’m willing to bet you’re voting wrong. The problem isn’t the candidate you vote for—Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump or Lyndon LaRouche—but rather your unstated assumption before you make your choice. Whether we articulate it or not, we all have an underlying philosophy of
voting and elections that determines whether we vote and whom we vote for. If you’re like most Americans, you probably think of elections as a selection process in which you use your individual vote to help bring about a desired outcome.

This seemingly reasonable definition of voting and elections is spectacularly wrong. If you think you’re participating in a selection process when you vote, you implicitly believe your single ballot can affect the outcome of an election. It can’t. Consider that a single vote matters in a selection process in only two scenarios: (1) if the vote creates a tie; and (2) if the vote breaks a tie. All other votes simply pile onto an outcome that would have occurred with or without you. In any decently sized election (above the level of city council), the probability that your vote will decide the election approximates zero. Unconvinced? Imagine what would have happened if you didn’t vote—or did vote—in the 2012 election. Would anything have changed? In fact, go back through any national election in your lifetime and see if a single vote would have been decisive. You have a better chance of being struck by lightning on your way to the polling booth than of creating or breaking a tie with your vote.

The tendency of Americans to view elections as a selection
process has many consequences, but I will focus on two.

First, it perpetuates the two-party system in America. The French political scientist Maurice Duverger noted that winner-take-all electoral systems like ours in the United States tend to produce two viable political parties. That’s because people who like a minor party candidate usually end up casting a strategic vote for someone else. To illustrate strategic voting, consider Jane, a hypothetical voter who really likes the Libertarian Party. In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Jane reasoned that (a) although she is a big fan of Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson; (b) she thinks Johnson has no chance of winning the election;
(c) Jane doesn’t want to “waste” a vote on a hopeless cause; therefore, (d) Jane casts her ballot for the least objectionable major party candidate, Republican Donald Trump. Most
erstwhile third-party voters behave like Jane, so voter psychology tightens the grip of Democrats and Republicans on American politics.

As a second consequence of viewing elections as a selection
process, our participation in politics varies highly.

We’re simply more likely to vote when we think doing so might affect the outcome of an election. For example, voting turnout tends to be higher in presidential battleground states like Ohio (65 percent in 2012), Florida (63 percent), and Colorado (70 percent) and lower in non-competitive states like Texas (50 percent) or California (55 percent). And more people vote in elections expected to be close (55 percent nationwide in 1992) than in likely blowouts (49 percent in 1996).

Perhaps most troubling of all is the individual variation in voting behavior that follows this line of thinking. The American National Election Study, a large survey taken every presidential election year, asked Americans whether they agree or disagree with the following statement: “So many other people vote in the national elections that it doesn’t matter much to me whether I vote or not.” In 2000, only 32 percent of the people who agreed with the statement bothered
to vote, while 84 percent of those who disagreed found their way to the polls. Unfortunately, voting only when it “matters” means that a large number of Americans don’t vote.

Shouldn’t a political scientist be encouraging people to vote rather than pointing out the insignificance of voters? Yes, and I hope to do that by promoting an alternative to the selection process philosophy of voting. The expressive model contends that we have a civic duty to vote. It reminds us that other Americans have fought and died for our right to vote. The expressive model also sees voting as our chance to register our opinion with government and to suggest a
future course if we don’t like the current one. In short, this view demands that we vote because we ought to vote.

Here is the punch line: If voting is an act of expression rather than a selection, then voters should never cast a strategic ballot for a second-favored candidate or abstain from voting. To cast a strategic ballot means, in essence, that voters are lying about their true political preference, which is an odd thing to do when expressing a preference is really the only logical reason to vote. Simply put, you should vote for whomever you like because your single vote is not going to decide an election. Moreover, the expressive view of voting means that you always have an obligation to vote. It doesn’t matter whether or not the next election promises to be razor close or an absolute blowout, you are a Democrat living in Idaho or a Republican in Vermont, or you like Donald Trump or Gary Johnson. You should always vote, and you should
always vote sincerely. In the expressive model, voting is a constant and is honest; in the selection model, voting is a variable and somewhat dishonest.

For the record, I think we should all vote. However, I also think that we should be clear about why we’re voting and what we expect to get out of the act. I believe voting is an important act of expression, perhaps the most important, and one that requires citizens to give their time and opinion for the greater good. Our vote matters a lot. But I don’t believe I can decide the next election any more than I believe I can win the next Powerball Lottery. So if you do not like either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, think about expressing your displeasure with the major party candidates by voting for a third party candidate.

Money doesn’t buy a politician’s vote

In a press conference before the Iowa Caucus, Donald Trump told the crowd, “The fact is that whether it’s Jeb, or Hillary, or any of ’em—they’re all controlled by these people! And the people that control them are the special interests, the lobbyists and the donors.” The American public tends to agree with Trump. A New York Times/CBS poll showed that 85 percent of Americans believe politicians reward big-money donors with policy favors. Moreover, a Gallup Poll revealed that Americans find lobbying to be the least honest and ethical of all professions, even shadier than car salesmen, ad executives and members of Congress. Clearly, people
with this perspective locate the true seat of power on K Street, not Capitol Hill or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Nevertheless, many political scientists consider this widespread distain of interest groups and lobbyists misplaced for two reasons: (1) interest-group money rarely buys a politician’s vote, and (2) lobbyists are usually honest people. And, no, the American Political Science Association is not selling oceanfront property in Arizona.

What does interest-group money buy?

The evidence shows a strong correlation between the amount of money an interest group contributes to a politician and how that politician votes: more money equals more favorable
votes for the interest group; less money results in less favorable votes. But, as we all learned from Introduction to Statistics, correlation does not imply causation. Consider the two causal mechanisms that could produce a correlation between money and votes. The first possibility is that interest groups use their money to buy a politician’s votes; this is the position of Trump and most of the American public. A second, and equally plausible, possibility is that interest group money follows the votes. In this scenario, interest groups donate to those politicians who already support their position.

Many scholars in my profession hold this position. For instance, political scientist John Wright found that in the 1980s and 1990s, tobacco companies donated to politicians already opposed to more governmental regulation. In this case, Big Tobacco didn’t buy anyone’s vote; it just rewarded those members of Congress who shared a common interest. Think of this another way: How much money would the NRA have to pay Hillary Clinton to channel Charlton Heston, hold an AK-47 over her head, and snarl: “From my cold dead hands!”? Or how much money would it take to convince Donald Trump to put a flower in his hair, admit he was wrong on the 2nd Amendment, and advocate throwing all our guns into the deep, blue sea? I doubt there is enough money in the world to effect either change.

What does interest-group money buy if not votes?

First, it helps the right people get elected and stay in office. If an interest group has identified a stalwart supporter in Congress, they obviously want that person to stay in office for a long time and don’t mind paying for the privilege. Second, interest-group money buys access. All things being equal, politicians are far more likely to sit down with a generous financial donor than with non-donors, a fact that politicians use to their advantage. Lobbyists routinely receive dialing-for-dollars calls from members of Congress who say, “I’m hosting a $1,000 per plate dinner this Friday. How many tickets do you want?” The message is clear: Want access?
Pony up! This congressional shakedown turns on its head the conventional view that interest groups are the puppeteers who use money to pull politicians’ strings. Finally, money
buys activity. Navigating the labyrinthine D.C. legislative process takes effort, and interest-group money can buy a “horse” or a member of Congress willing to expend the necessary energy on a group’s behalf. While none of this seems sporting in an ideal democratic world, it’s not the perfidious, backroom, quid pro quo that most people assume exists between politicians and interest groups.

Lobbyists are honest?

Most people think “lobbyists” and “honesty” go together about as well as “Trump” and “humility” or “egg nog” and “sushi.” But when lobbyists deal with members of Congress, they usually behave honestly as their entire career depends on access to politicians, and trustworthiness is the key to that access. A lobbyist who lies to a member of Congress loses all access to that member forever—members of Congress don’t like to be lied to. Moreover, the offended member of Congress will likely encourage her colleagues to also sever all ties with the lying, no-good lobbyist—members of Congress can be quite vindictive. Consequently, lobbyists have a strong career incentive not to lie to members of Congress.

None of this suggests that interest groups and lobbyists always champion the public good. A series of highly questionable Supreme Court decisions have given interest groups—including corporations and unions—the ability to spend unlimited amounts of largely unregulated money to spread their message. This “issue-advocacy” advertising doesn’t have to be fair, transparent or even remotely truthful. Consequently, individuals and/or groups with more money have more (not necessarily better) political speech, which offends my conception of political equality. And although lobbyists rarely lie to members of Congress, they are pretty good at spinning issues. In the Hollywood movie Thank You for Smoking, Big Tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor reframes smoking not as a public health concern (he admits smoking is bad for you) but rather as a matter of liberty (you have the freedom to make bad choices). Spinning isn’t necessarily
lying, but it’s not completely truthful. So the groups with the most money to spend possess the greatest ability to spin political issues for the American public. In the end, the group that can spin is the group that can win.

I tend to believe that money has a corrupting influence in American politics, just not in the way that most Americans think. Interest groups and lobbyists usually can’t buy off members of Congress with a paltry PAC contribution. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we’ve embarked on a troubling new era in which Super PACS spend massive amounts of dark money to shape public opinion. Perhaps we should worry less about interest groups buying politicians’
votes and worry more about interest groups buying our own.

So, what lessons should we take away from the 2016 election?

First, although political scientists sometimes get things wrong, our models are still pretty accurate.

Nobody in my field predicted Trump would win the GOP primary let alone the presidency, but that does not necessarily mean we were wrong. Sometimes things just beat the odds: sometimes it rains in Santa Barbara; someone will win the Powerball jackpot (unfortunately it won’t be you); and sometimes a candidate who says outlandish things and has no political experience will win the presidency. Still, good prediction means playing the odds—and political scientists
are pretty good at setting those odds.

Second, I hope that you look at your vote as a chance to express
your political opinion.

The odds are that your single vote will not decide the outcome of any election, so vote for whomever you like. Don’t fall for the fallacy that “a vote for Johnson is a vote for Clinton,”
or “a vote for Stein is a vote for Trump.” If you don’t like either major party candidate, vote for someone else. You’ll feel better about your vote.

Finally, money corrupts politics, but probably not in the way you think.

Be less concerned that special interests are buying politicians votes and be more concerned that they are buying our vote. Don’t listen to those television ads paid for by the shadowy “Committee to Make Everything Awesome.” Doing your own research is the best defense against dark money.

Back to Top

Comments are closed.

Westmont Magazine Archives

Magazine Archives

+ browse all past issues
+ contains 1995 - current

Browse the Archives

Westmont Magazine App

Magazine App

+ exclusive content
+ alumni class notes
+ in-app bookmarking

Download the App