Author Archive | John Sides

Americans Are Reticent About Attacking Syria — and Why That Doesn’t Matter


I think that the fact that the polls say Americans are wary in Syria does not mean all that much. If the Obama administration is able to do something that has a decisive effect, they will look like heroes. And if they look impotent in their use of military force, it will rebound against them. But the polling numbers showing American reticence, as of right now, doesn’t add up to much, because it’s really not a salient issue. It’s not enough to look at the numbers of people opposing intervention; you have to look at how much people care and at this point it isn’t very high on the list, as of today. That can change if things escalate and it starts to look like a “real” war, as opposed to Libya — which was obviously real if you were there — but from the United States the perspective was that no Americans were on the ground and no American planes were being shot down. If Syria looks like that, the pubic won’t get all that engaged. It would potentially be foreign policy success for the Obama administration, though coming awfully late, after a lot of horrible things have happened there. But if it doesn’t go well and America is gradually sucked in — throwing good resources after bad — eventually it could become a big political liability, and you could get significant public engagement. This could have happened in Afghanistan, too, if more Americans started getting killed. But it hasn’t escalated in that way.

From an interview with Matthew Baum at Journalist’s Resource.  More here.

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The Monkey Cage Is Moving to the Washington Post

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We are very pleased to announce that The Monkey Cage is going to become part of the Washington Post.  After 5+ years of writing and growing as an independent blog, we think that the Post offers a tremendous opportunity both to increase and broaden our audience and to improve our content.  We think that it will be a great place to continue the blog’s mission of publicizing political science research and providing informed commentary on politics and current events.

We are grateful to everyone at the Post who helped make this possible—especially Marty Baron, the Post’s editor, Stuart Farrell at the Washington Post Company, and Ezra Klein.  We also thank Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, Melissa Bell, and the others with the Post’s digital team who have already been working on bringing us on board and who will be helping us as we make the transition.

We will have more to say about what this move will mean for us and for our readers.  But I wanted to share this good news now.  Thanks to everyone who has read, commented on, tweeted, and shared our content for these past 5 years.  We would not have this opportunity except for you.

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The Anniversary of the March on Washington, and What It Means for Public Opinion

Given the news of recent months – the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin shooting, the Supreme Court’s invalidation of part of the Voting Rights Act, and controversy over the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy – the anniversary of the March may be the unusual event that helps bring the perspectives of whites and blacks closer together.

That is Danny Hayes, over at Wonkblog.  More here.

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Around the Polisci Blogosphere

We thank Bennett Butler for all his help with this feature over the summer, and wish him well as his semester begins at Princeton.

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Academic Conferences Are “Lumbering Dinosaurs.” Can Anything Change Them?

The conventional political science conference is a dinosaur, large, lumbering, and increasingly ill-suited for its environment, although extinction does not appear imminent.

So begins a recent article by Georgetown political scientist Mark Rom.  On the eve of the next American Political Science Association meeting, his take is well worth digesting.

For starters, consider this.  In 2008, Rom hired 8 graduate students and offered each student $10 to fill out a questionnaire for every APSA panel they attended.  There were 14 timeslots for panels during the conferences, giving students the chance to make $140.  But on average, the students attended only 2-3 panels, not the 14 possible.  To be sure, most people who attend political science conferences, or academic conferences, or maybe conferences of any sort, don’t attend all the panels available.  People have other things to do at these meetings.  But it does suggest that panels are hardly a big draw, even when there’s a little money in it for the person attending.

Rom then reviews the problems with organizing conferences according to panels: the quality of the papers on the panels varies dramatically, the quality of the presentations also varies, the panels may not align with what attendees want to see (such as when they’d like to see different papers being presented simultaneously on different panels), and the presenters often get poor feedback.

Rom proposes what he calls the “customized conference.”  He would eliminate panels and create two kinds of presentations: “teaching” and “learning.”  Teaching presentations are for more polished projects—where the presenter can teach the audience something.  They would resemble traditional presentations, with a scholar describing research findings and answering questions. Learning presentations are for works in progress—where the presenter still has much to learn and would benefit from feedback.  These would entail smaller-scale interactions, perhaps even one-on-one, and would more resemble traditional poster sessions at political science meetings.

Rom argues that teaching presentations would be selected via a process of on-line voting.  The ones that scholars indicated they most wanted to hear would be the ones formally incorporated into the conference.  Rom further argues that learning presentations needn’t be limited at all—except by whatever space constraints there are at the conference.

With this arrangement, the argument goes, the quality of presentations would improve, people would be more likely to see what they want to see, and people with research-in-progress would get better feedback.  The article has responses to many potential criticisms of the system, particularly to the notion of allowing people to vote on presentations.

Naturally, I have my own opinions on this, but let me turn it over to any commenters.  There is an APSA Task Force on Public Engagement that is, among other things, going to think about political science conferences and how to redesign them.  I’m part of the task force and I’d welcome any thoughts.

[Photo credit: ferswriteshoe.]

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The Nefarious Plot behind the Unveiling of Sunny Obama

Sunny, the new Obama family dog, on the South Lawn of the White House, Aug. 19, 2013.

The unveiling of the new White House dog brings to mind, naturally, the seminal research on the strategic use of presidential pets—which was detailed here many months ago.  Here is how I summarized the key finding of my colleagues James Lebovic, Forrest Maltzman, Elizabeth Saunders, and Emma Furth:

Drawing on 50 years of news coverage of presidential pets, the authors show that such stories are more likely when the president is caught up in a scandal or waging war—exactly what one would expect if Millie or Buddy or Bo was meant to distract the public.  However, when the economy is struggling, the opposite is true: presidents appear reluctant to be seen gamboling with their pets on the South Lawn when Americans are suffering.

Clearly, as Sarah Kliff suggests, trouble is about to befall Obama, and he is trying to distract us.

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Can Public Broadcasting Make Us Smarter Citizens?


There are no end of lamentations about what voters do—and often do not—know about politics and current events.    Could the solution be waiting in the welcoming arms of Big Bird?  Could watching public broadcasting, which tends to feature more substantive “hard” news than does commercial broadcasting, make people more knowledgeable about politics?


In a new article (ungated), Stuart Soroka and a team of scholars address this question.  They conducted surveys in 6 countries—Canada, Italy, Japan, Norway, the UK, and Korea—asking respondents about their knowledge of current affairs and their attention to various media.  Obviously, there are challenges of sorting out correlation and causation here.  Do people who consume public broadcasting become more knowledgeable?  Or are knowledgeable people just more likely to consume public broadcasting?  Via statistical modeling, Soroka and colleagues go some distance in isolating the possible effects of public broadcasting—though they are clear that their modeling is no panacea.


Nevertheless, the results are interesting.  In most countries, people who consume more public broadcasting know more about current events than people who consume less of it.  But these same differences emerge to a lesser extent among those who consume more or less commercial broadcasting.  This suggests that public broadcasting helps citizens learn.  Here’s a graph:


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One further question is why watching public broadcasting seems to help more in some countries (like the UK) than in others (like Italy).  With only six countries in this analysis, there’s no firm answer.  But Soroka and colleagues show that two factors may have something to do with it.  First, the larger the public portion of the public broadcaster’s budget, the larger the apparent impact of consuming public broadcasting.  Second, the more independent is public broadcasting from the government, the larger its apparent impact.  This helps explain why public broadcasting seems to be less effective in Italy, since the public broadcaster there is much more under the government’s control than, say, the BBC.


Back here in the US, these findings don’t necessarily bode well for what Americans know, or could learn, about politics.  The audience for public television is shrinking.  The news for public radio is better, mainly because its audience is stable, not because it is growing.  Perhaps the growing on-line audience for public broadcasting is cause for optimism, but regardless of these trends, the audience for American public broadcasting is just small compared to that in many other countries.

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Partisan Bias in Media Coverage of Political Scandals

We study the coverage of U.S. political scandals by U.S. newspapers during the past decade. Using automatic keyword-based searches we collected data on 32 scandals and approximately 200 newspapers. We find that Democratic-leaning newspapers—i.e., those with a higher propensity to endorse Democratic candidates in elections—provide relatively more coverage of scandals involving Republican politicians than scandals involving Democratic politicians, while Republican-leaning newspapers tend to do the opposite. This is true even after controlling for the average partisan leanings of readers. In contrast, newspapers appear to cater to the partisan tastes of readers only for local scandals.

From this piece by Riccardo Puglisi and James Snyder, which is ungated for the next two weeks.  Enterprising researchers can update the study by comparing, say, New York Times and New York Daily News coverage of Carlos Danger.

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The New Journalism: Same as the Old Journalism

As a result, most Americans still get news that is largely filtered through the debates happening among political elites in Washington. To be sure, this process is more complicated today. But the content of political news has not been revolutionized. Journalists, whether in the new media or old, still play a game according to very similar rules as did their 20th-century predecessors. In some ways, those “old times” the president referred to are right now.

That is Danny Hayes over at Wonkblog, pivoting off of Obama’s comments this week.  See also this Brendan Nyhan post linked therein.

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