Political Scientist Walter Stone Responds to Eric Cantor’s Criticism of His Research

Feb 15 '13

In today’s New York Times, Eric Cantor responds to Paul Krugman by saying in part:

bq. The National Science Foundation finances important research helping find cures for devastating diseases. But the foundation has only enough funds to support 15 percent of the applications it receives for research grants in the biological sciences. Yet we spend nearly $250 million annually on research in the social, behavioral, economic and political arena, such as a recent $266,821 grant to figure out why voters chose the candidates they did in the 2010 election. This money could fund another 1,000 grants in life sciences!

We are pleased to welcome a guest-post by the recipient of the grant to which Cantor refers.  He is Walter J. Stone, Professor of Political Science and director of the UC Davis Congressional Elections Study.  The 2010 phase of the study, funded by NSF, is entitled “Political Context and Citizen Response in the 2010 Elections” (SES-0852387).  For more, see here.  He writes:

As the principal investigator of a political science project referenced in a letter to the New York Times today by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor attacking social science funding at NSF, I feel the need to reply.  Mr. Cantor’s description of the study is accurate: “…a recent $266,821 grant to figure out why voters chose the candidates they did in the 2010 election.”  The next sentence may suggest to some that, rather than understanding voting choice in 2010, the money could have better spent elsewhere:  “This money could fund another 1,000 grants in life sciences!”  I assume Mr. Cantor is referring to the “250 million annually on research in the social, behavioral, economic and political arena….” rather than the relatively small amount allocated to support my project.

I do not dispute Mr. Cantor’s obligation as a member of Congress to decide how federal dollars are spent, nor do I think it illegitimate to argue that scarce federal research funding would be better spent on the medical and biological sciences, rather than the social sciences.  I do believe, as other Monkey Cage authors have suggested, that devoting NSF funding to the social sciences is worthwhile, given the importance of advancing our understanding of questions these disciplines address.  As for political science, which Mr. Cantor has mentioned more than once in recent statements criticizing social science funding by NSF, I would remind him that the program receives less than 5 percent of the entire social and behavioral science budget, hardly enough to fund an additional handful of studies in medicine or biology.

As for my project, we are using new methods to measure the policy positions and quality of candidates running in House elections to study how voters responded to the choices on offer in the 2010 elections.   Mr. Cantor might be interested to learn that our findings challenge a fair amount of the conventional wisdom about congressional elections by showing that they work pretty well.  Scholars and other critics, we show, have been too quick to conclude that voters are misled by the power of incumbency, money, and even party.  We find that voters tend to choose candidates on the basis of policy agreement and the competence and personal integrity of the candidates running in their districts, much as traditional defenders of democracy would hope.

As a result, winning candidates for the House (including most incumbents) are closer to district preferences and more qualified than losing candidates.   Moreover, the Republican candidates in 2010 (many of whom affiliated with the Tea Party) who wrested their districts away from the Democrats, restoring Mr. Cantor and the Republicans to the majority in the House, were actually closer to their district preferences than the Democrats they defeated.  This was true despite the fact that many of the Republican winners were strongly conservative in their views, while the Democrats they defeated were relatively moderate.  The reason was due to the conservative views of the districts that swung to the Republican Party in 2010.

Are these and other results we are reporting worth the $267,000 support NSF granted the project?  I have no idea.  Could the money have created more value for the nation if it had been devoted to medical or biological research?  Possibly.  I am confident, however, that some small investment in understanding citizen behavior in the world’s oldest democracy is worthwhile.  If we find that voters act reasonably in selecting candidates for seats in the “people’s House” — that they are not dominated by money and other distorting influences — perhaps we will learn to trust that deliberations in Congress, including over how best to spend federal research dollars, will ultimately reflect the public interest.