Tomorrow We Move to the Washington Post. Here Is How to Follow Us.

postheaderWe will be debuting at the Washington Post tomorrow—Wednesday, September 25.  Soon thereafter, our current URL ——will redirect to their site.  We will also be establishing an archive at with our previous posts and will circulate that URL as well.

To follow us at the Post, you can do one or more of these things:

  1. The new URL at the Post is here.  By tomorrow there will be new content posted.

  2. Our new RSS feed is here.

  3. You can sign up for a daily email newsletter with our posts here.  You need to create a free account first.

  4. You can follow us on Twitter here.

  5. You can follow us on Facebook here.

As we’ve discussed, the mission of the blog is not going to change.  We look forward to the new opportunities we will have at the Post, and hope that you’ll continue reading us.

There is one casualty of the move, alas, and it is the orangutan pictured above.  He was never the perfect fit for this blog—being an ape, not a monkey—but we will miss him nonetheless.

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Direct democracy in Switzerland: Yes to the army, vaccinations, and petrol station shops

Germany wasn’t the only country holding elections in Central Europe this weekend.  Swiss voters went to the polls for a number of referenda on Sunday, and we are pleased to continue our series of election reports with the following post-election report from political scientists Thomas Milic and Sean Mueller, both at the Institute of Political Science, University of Berne.


On 22 September 2013 the Swiss electorate, in its quarterly power of highest law-breaker and constitution-maker of the land, was once more called to the polls to answer three specific questions. First, whether the mandatory conscription service for all Swiss men should be deleted from the Federal Constitution and be replaced with the mere option to serve in the Swiss military for men and women alike; second, whether to approve a new law on vaccinations in times of epidemics; and third, whether to approve the modification of a single article in the Labour Code, thus enabling petrol station shops along busy roads to remain open also during the night. As had been widely expected, Swiss voters rejected the popular initiative launched by the Group for a Switzerland without an Army (GSOA), thereby confirming the existing conscription system, and equally approved of the two legislative reforms. What remains however interesting for political scientists to observe is the wide sub-national discrepancy in approval/rejection rates, the different constellations across the three questions, and the result of various cantonal and communal votes.

An overwhelming yes to the army, but not equally strong throughout Switzerland

In Switzerland, modifications of the Federal Constitution (the term “amendment” is misleading since changes are not attached, but rather directly incorporated in the written document) need to be approved by a majority of people and also a majority of Swiss cantons, whereby the vote of a canton is determined by the way its people decide. From the outset, this was thought to be an extraordinary obstacle for the popular initiative on partial constitutional change – of all the 184 popular initiatives voted upon between 1848 and March 2013, only 20 (11%) had been approved ( and own calculations). Proposals reforming or even abolishing the Swiss army in particular have had a tough stand. This time around, too, an overwhelming majority of 73.2% Swiss citizens voted against the proposal, with quite a respectable turnout of 46.4% (the average turnout between 1990 and 2010 being 44.1%; State Chancellery). Although none of the 23 cantons approved, there are still notable discrepancies as regards the degree of approval of the status quo. Rejection of the initiative, in other words, has reached top-levels of more than 80% in seven cantons, with Uri at the top of the list with 85%. At the other end, in three cantons “only” some 60% voted no, with canton Geneva, at 57.8%, forming the other end of the continuum. To sum it up, rejection was particularly strong in cantons where the left parties are weak and in rural regions, where the number of people actually doing their military service is higher and where the compulsory military service is not regarded as a disadvantage in the labour market (Figure 1; from Tages-Anzeiger).


Shop opening hours and state vaccinations: the rural-urban cleavage

The other two questions to be decided at national level both concerned legislative reforms against which a referendum (that is a petition signed by at least 50,000 citizens) had been launched. Although both rather detailed items to be decided, at least the campaign on extending the opening hours of petrol station shops was marked by an interesting alliance of left-wing trade-unions and religious groups, on the one hand, and liberal and business interests, on the other. For the former, although the reform concerned merely 24 shops throughout Switzerland (Figure 2; from Der Bund), the issue really was about protection of workers from having to work all night and family values at risk in a so-called “24-hours society”. The latter, however, saw in the existing regulation a “bureaucratic monster” – the 24 petrol stations in question could already remain open all night, but had to close off their shopping areas between 1am and 5am. The result was accordingly a rather narrow victory of the liberalisation camp, with 55.8% voting in favour of the reform (turnout: 45.8%). This time, however, the less well-off cantons of Valais, Uri and Jura plus Fribourg and Neuchatel voted against the overall trend; the people of Jura even by a 65.3%-strong majority.

Eidg-Abstim_Kantone 2-sp

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Background Information on German Elections

As we wait for the results of the German elections, we are pleased to be able to provide some background on this election from Benjamin Preisler, who most recently obtained his second M.A. from the College of Europe and is now looking for new opportunities. He blogs and tweets.  We will have post-election reports in the coming days.


The outcome of the federal elections that took place in Germany today, September 22, had enthralled Europe for the better part of 2013. Clearly, some national elections have become continental issues as the attention paid to Greek or French elections in recent years had already hinted at. Little surprisingly, Merkel’s reigning CDU/CSU has won, yet much remains uncertain as to what kind of coalition will – or even can – govern Germany.

The setup of the Bundestag had remained remarkably stable following its inauguration in 1949. Apart from two small exceptions in 1949 and 1953, the same three parties (CDU/CSU, SPD & FDP) topped the necessary 5%-hurdle, split all seats amongst each other and determined the government – with the FDP oftentimes tipping the scales – all the way up to 1983.

This inertia (or stability) of the party system started eroding over time with the process of – relevant – new parties emerging taking place increasingly rapidly. In the 1980s the Greens became a fixture on the parliamentary scene providing the blueprint for a bipolar four-parties, two-camps opposition that culminated in Schröder’s red-green coalition. Following reunification the former state party of East Germany became the PDS and made its entry onto the parliamentary scene as a regional power, which it consolidated through a union in 2007 with a predominately West German protest movement (the WASG) that resulted in today’s Die Linke.

These four established parties are joined in these elections by the Pirates who in 2011-2012 garnered enough votes to make their entry into four state parliaments. Currently drawing most attention though is an absolute newcomer on the German political scene in the Euro(zone)-skeptic Alternative für Deutschland, which arose out of a conservative economist-heavy backlash against the Merkel government’s supposedly failed policies in the framework of the eurocrisis.

From a stable three party system, Germany has thus moved to a volatile four to seven party whirlwind. As the exit polls beneath make clear, a parliament that currently seemingly consists of four parties could feasibly have either five or six at any point during this night.

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The Santorum Challenge to Romney: An Excerpt from The Gamble

Salon has an excerpt from The Gamble, Lynn Vavreck’s and my account of the 2012 election.  Here is one bit about how Santorum pulled off his victories in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri:
Santorum filled it by outhustling the other candidates in these states, despite his seat-of-the-pants campaign. He did so in part with a little outside help and in part with the shoe-leather campaigning that even an underfunded campaign can do (much as he did in Iowa). And with the other candidates doing far less to contest these states, the information his campaigning produced—via advertisements, voter contact, rallies, and local news—likely helped him persuade and mobilize voters. Santorum’s campaign benefited from the support of a super-PAC, the Red White and Blue Fund (RWBF), largely funded by wealthy businessmen William Doré and Foster Friess. Thanks to their support, RWBF actually aired more ads in Missouri and Minnesota than did any other candidate or affiliated super-PAC. In the three weeks before the two caucuses and the primary, RWBF aired 121 ads in Missouri (no other candidate aired any) and 193 ads in Minnesota (Romney’s super-PAC aired 150 and Paul aired 125). In Colorado, where Romney did advertise and Santorum did not, RWBF organized a phone bank to mobilize Santorum voters.

Santorum also did quite a bit of work himself. In the seven days before these primaries—from January 31 to February 6—Santorum held nine events in Colorado, twelve in Minnesota, and two in Missouri. He held more events in each state than did Gingrich, Paul, and Romney combined. Gingrich appeared only once in Minnesota and once in Colorado, virtually guaranteeing—or perhaps acknowledging—that he would not rebound from his defeat in Florida by winning in one of these states. Romney appeared only once in Minnesota, twice in Colorado, and not at all in Missouri.

Santorum’s campaigning did not much affect his national news coverage, but it did appear to affect his local news coverage. We tabulated the number of mentions that Romney and Santorum received during this seven-day period in both the national news media and the local news media in each state. Overall, Romney received about five times as many mentions as Santorum in the national news—as one might expect given that Romney was the front-runner and Santorum mostly an afterthought. But in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri, Romney received roughly three times as many mentions. On the day before the caucuses and primary were held, Romney received only twice as many mentions. To generate even half as much local media attention as Romney was arguably an accomplishment for Santorum, a candidate who was polling in the single digits nationally and all but written off by many commentators.

The headline that Salon attached to this is “The Republicans almost went insane: Santorum really could have beaten Romney.”  That is unfortunate, since it is the opposite of what Lynn and I argue in the book.  We downplay the threats that both Gingrich and Santorum posed to Romney.

The book is available on Amazon here.  I will be posting more about it in the near future.  In the meantime, enjoy the excerpt.

[Photo credit: Gage Skidmore.]

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Sociology Establishes an Open-Access Journal

I’m very pleased to see that Sociological Science is open for article submissions, and expects to start publishing articles early next year. The journal is designed to ameliorate several problems that beset academic publishing. It’s an open-access, peer-reviewed journal that promises a fast turnaround time in review. It’s common enough in some fields for authors to get stuck, literally for years, in Reviewer Hell….Sociological Science promises a 30 day up-or-down review process, with no “development” effort and no R&R process. They hope to accomplish this with a relatively large pool of Deputy Editors with authority to accept or reject articles.

As a properly open-access journal, they’ve chosen to fund themselves through submission and publication fees instead of signing up with a major journal publisher or soliciting institutional support from a university or a foundation. The fee schedule is graded by rank, so students pay least and full professors pay most. The incentive is that authors retain copyright on their work and everything published is available ungated and immediately.

That’s Kieran Healy over at Crooked Timber.  The model is similar to the new political science journal Research and Politics, which Erik has been helping to start and described in this post.  I’m glad to see this model being established in other disciplines.

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Getting to a clean CR: A tour of the Senate’s parliamentary weeds

weedsThe House has passed a “CR” that temporarily funds the government, but “defunds” implementation of ObamaCare.  Even Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas (whose badgering of the “Surrender Caucus” helped to fuel today’s House action) recognizes that the Democratic-led Senate will reject the House GOP ploy. Niels Lesniewski was first out the gate here and here explaining how Senate Democrats would strip the CR clean.  Still, I’ve seen some confusion about how the Democrats will pull this off.  So, what better way to finish up a Friday afternoon than to take a tour of Senate parliamentary weeds.  (I don’t know why I call them weeds; I quite like them.  And so apparently does the woman on the left, who came to the Capitol dressed like a weed for National Invasive Weeds Awareness Week.)

Two caveats before the tour begins.  First, I don’t know for sure of course which procedural path Senate Democrats will take. But this particular route seems likely.  Second, Senator Cruz termed Reid’s plan a “gimmick” and others have called the procedures “obscure.” But this is as close to “regular order” in the Senate as it gets—if such a thing as “regular order” were to exist.   So, let’s go!

We start with the challenge faced by Majority Leader Harry Reid: getting the CR+defund bill onto the Senate floor.  This is the Senate, so this could take a couple of days.  Reid must first offer a motion to proceed.  Under Senate rules, this motion is “debatable,” Senate lingo for “subject to a filibuster.”  Reid will likely first try to secure “unanimous consent” to proceed to a vote on the motion to proceed.  But Cruz and other ObamaCare opponents are likely to object, insisting on their right to debate the motion to proceed.  Thus, Reid will have to file cloture on the motion to proceed, requiring Democrats to attract 60 votes to stop debate on the pending motion to proceed.  Would Cruz and other Republicans (Mitch McConnell, call your office) be able to muster 41 votes at that stage to block cloture? I doubt it.  In effect, Republicans would be filibustering a CR that defunds ObamaCare, risking  blame for shutting down the government.  Given GOP disagreement about the House GOP’s strategy, I suspect Democrats can attract enough GOP votes to secure cloture.  With 60 votes for cloture, the Senate would then vote on the underlying motion to proceed, which requires only a simple majority to pass. (See, easy!)  And, now, if you haven’t already peeled off the tour to hit the Capitol Hill cafeterias, we can move onto the bill.

Democrats have to take a few steps to set up a vote to strip the ObamaCare defunding provision from the bill.  Reid/Democrats will probably offer an amendment, in the form of a “motion to strike” the defunding language.  Counter to claims that this move exploits an obscure procedure, Senate floor amendments come in three different flavors (i.e. forms)—including motions to strike. Reid might also “fill the amendment tree,” meaning that he would  fill up all of the remaining amendment slots with inconsequential amendments to block GOP senators from attempting to amend the CR themselves.

With the motion to strike defunding pending, Reid would file cloture on the BILL. Keep in mind that the BILL is still the House bill (CR+defund).  Any GOP effort to block cloture again puts the GOP on the wrong side: Republicans would be blocking a CR that defunds ObamaCare.  Assuming Reid again gets 60 vote for cloture, that brings the Senate to its customary 30 hours of “post-cloture” consideration time (including time spent on debate, voting, and so on.)

This is the most important part, because this is when the Senate would vote on the motion to strike.  The 30-hour time cap post-cloture means that by definition there cannot be a filibuster of any of the votes that are attempted during the 30-hour period.  In other words, there would be no need for Reid to file cloture on the amendment: Any effort to talk the amendment to death would have to end when the 30 hours were exhausted.  Under Senate rules, amendments only require a simple majority to pass, allowing Democrats alone to strike the defunding language from the bill.   So, the motion to strike would be brought up for a vote, it would pass by simple majority, and then after 30 hours are over (or earlier if Cruz and others tire of the fight), the Senate would move to the final up-ordown, simple majority vote on the now-amended bill (stripped clean of the defunding provision). Ball then is in Boehner’s court.

That’s the long version.  The short version: Senate rules—combined with the strategic context and GOP disagreement—give Democrats the upper hand.  Of course, as Mayhew told us long ago, lawmakers are rewarded for the positions they take, more so than for the outcomes that result. So, from the House GOP’s perspective, there’s a silver lining (a flower amongst the weeds if you will) to this certain defeat—even if many of them concede to voting for the clean CR when it returns from the Senate.  Of course, there’s a debt limit to be raised as well.  But this tour’s over!


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Federal Funding of Scientific Research Produces Unexpected Successes

Seven researchers, including two Nobel Prize winners, will be honored today at the second annual Golden Goose Award ceremony, celebrating researchers whose seemingly odd or obscure federally funded research turned out to have a significant impact on society.
The awardees will be honored at a ceremony on Capitol Hill, where they will receive their awards from a bipartisan group of Members of Congress.

From the press release.  The Golden Goose website is here. A short item at Inside Higher Ed is here.

Several months ago, I wrote a post called “Why Study Social Science” and said this:

…it’s very hard to determine the value of any research ahead of time.  It’s hard because any one research project is narrow.  It’s hard because you can’t anticipate how one project might inform later ones.  It’s hard because some funding goes to create public goods—like large datasets—that many others will use, and those myriad projects also cannot be anticipated.  It’s hard because some research won’t work, and we can’t know that ahead of time.

The Golden Goose awards illustrate what I meant, as does Robert Putnam’s story.  This is all the more reason why cherry-picking projects that sound “silly” (duck penises, etc.) is not a useful way to evaluate the efficacy of federal funding of scientific research.

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The Science of Hotness

As John notes below, hotness science has made some remarkable theoretical and empirical advances since my 2009 post. Nonetheless, the claim that political scientists are unusually smart given how hot we are seems to me to smack of special pleading. After all, even if we’re on the right side of the regression line, we’re still collectively subject to the ironclad law that physical hotness is associated with mental notness. Furthermore, using the precepts of Sound Social Scientific Reasoning1, we can surely draw inferences at the individual level too. And, as a complete aside, it might be interesting to inquire into the implications of the fact that Sides rates a sizzling pepper (the highest possible hotness rating) on Rate My Professor

1 A term of art, covering the axiomatic statements “ecological problems, schmecological problems,” and “g, a statistical myth except and unless it’s rhetorically convenient.”

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Is coffee a killer? The statistical significance filter strikes again

coffee Thomas Lumley writes:

The Herald has a story about hazards of coffee. The picture caption says
Men who drink more than four cups a day are 56 per cent more likely to die.

which is obviously not true: deaths, as we’ve observed before, are fixed at one per customer.  The story says
It’s not that people are dying at a rapid rate. But men who drink more than four cups a day are 56 per cent more likely to die and women have double the chance compared with moderate drinkers, according to the The University of Queensland and the University of South Carolina study.

What the study actually reported was rates of death: over an average of 17 years, men who drink more than four cups a day died at about a 21% higher rate, with little evidence of any difference in men.  After they considered only men and women under 55 (which they don’t say was something they had planned to do), and attempted to control for a whole bunch of other factors, the rate increase went to 56% for men, but with a huge amount of uncertainty. Here are their graphs showing the estimate and uncertainty for people under 55 (top panel) and over 55 (bottom panel) FPO-1 There’s no suggestion of an increase in people over 55, and a lot of uncertainty in people under 55 about how death rates differed by coffee consumption. In this sort of situation you should ask what else is already known.  This can’t have been the first study to look at death rates for different levels of coffee consumption. Looking at the PubMed research database, one of the first hits is a recent meta-analysis that puts together all the results they could find on this topic.  They report
This meta-analysis provides quantitative evidence that coffee intake is inversely related to all cause and, probably, CVD mortality.

That is, averaging across all 23 studies, death rates were lower in people who drank more coffee, both men and women. It’s just possible that there’s an adverse effect only at very high doses, but the new study isn’t very convincing, because even at lower doses it doesn’t show the decrease in risk that the accumulated data show. So. The new coffee study has lots of uncertainty. We don’t know how many other ways they tried to chop up the data before they split it at age 55 — because they don’t say. Neither their article nor the press release gave any real information about past research, which turns out to disagree fairly strongly.

I agree.  Beyond all this is the ubiquitous “Type M error” problem, also known as the statistical significance filter:  By choosing to look at statistically significant results (i.e., those that are at least 2 standard errors from zero) we’re automatically biasing upward the estimated magnitudes of any comparisons.  So, yeah, I don’t believe that number. I’d also like to pick on this quote from the linked news article:
“It could be the coffee, but it could just as easily be things that heavy coffee drinkers do,” says The University of Queensland’s Dr Carl Lavie. “We have no way of knowing the cause and effect.”

But it’s not just that.  In addition, we have no good reason to believe this correlation exists in the general population. Also this:
Senior investigator Steven Blair of the University of South Carolina says it is significant the results do not show an association between coffee consumption and people older than 55. It is also important that death from cardiovascular disease is not a factor, he says.

Drawing such conclusions based on a comparison not being statistically significant, that’s a no-no too.  On the plus side, it says “the statistics have been adjusted to remove the impact of smoking.”  I hope they did a good job with that adjustment.  Smoking is the elephant in the room.  If you don’t adjust carefully for smoking and its interactions, you can pollute all the other estimates in your study. Let me conclude by saying that I’m not trying to pick on this particular study.  These are general problems.  It’s just helpful to consider them in the context of specific examples.  There are really two things going on here.  First, due to issues of selection, confounding, etc., the observed pattern might not be real.  Second, even if it is real, the two-step process of first checking for statistical significance, then taking the unadjusted point estimate at face value, has big problems because it leads to consistent overestimation of effect sizes.

I’m posting this here (as well as on our statistics blog) because I think these points are relevant for political science research as well.

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