Posted in Politics

The trials and tribulations of getting a PhD during a presidential election

I have a confession: I’m studying for a PhD in American politics and I don’t want to talk about the election. More than 500 days ago, when Donald Trump announced his candidacy, I was excited at the prospect of going back to school. It would be fun, I thought, to study the electoral process while watching this crazy election take shape. I was wrong.

Studying political science requires a certain objectivity, which provided some comfort during this contested election. Conversely, there was something extremely dissatisfying about the coldness of theory during a heated campaign season. Worse than that, being dispassionate can blind us to reality—because reality is all about passion. But all I saw was the instant gratification of analyzing an election while studying elections!

It started better than I’d expected. Last spring, after I posted the requisite announcement on Facebook that I would be pursuing a PhD, I received an email from an old friend. This friend, who is British and currently resides in Old Blighty, emailed me to see if I could explain the rise of Trump. She couldn’t understand Donald “Big League” Trump could be doing so well.

It turned out that the British media failed to discuss the peculiar nature of American primary elections. Party primaries, I explained, ask only registered party members to vote (for the most part) and attract only a small subsection of these voters. For example, I told her, there was record turnout for party primaries in 2008. That year, not even 30 percent of voters from both parties cast ballots, according to a Harvard Kennedy School report—and we are only looking at the turnout for one party. So Trump had not won a majority of American’s votes (and he still hasn’t).

It was great; I felt like an expert already!

More recently, a family friend listened to me explain Anthony Downs’ left-right ideology axis and Duncan Black’s median voter theorem over brunch. With the ketchup representing the far right and the basket of rolls representing the far left, I explained that the condiments will vote Trump and the carbs will vote Clinton. It’s the people in the middle who could be swayed either way, depending on the positions of the candidates. As Trump moves further to the right he risks alienating everyone in the middle. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is a relative moderate and hopes to get votes from people who like bread and condiments equally. She actually listened!

I almost didn’t bore my family when I explained the merits of looking at the “poll of polls” or referring to state polls rather than national ones. I actually got to discuss statistical error and Robert Erikson’s theory of poll bounces and bumps (bounces go away, bumps remain—for example, Clinton held on to her post-convention bump but her temporary rise in the polls after each debate were bounces) before they tuned out. I’d never have gotten that far if not for the election.

But you can have too much of a good thing.

That British friend got back in touch to ask me, again, how it was possible that so many Americans could support Trump. I wanted to say, “Ya’ll had Brexit, so you can shut up about Trump.” That didn’t seem worthy of me as a political scientist.

I gave her a properly academic answer. America is polarized; we are more partisan than ever before. As study after study (for example the series of American Voter studies) has proven, party affiliation is the single best predictor of voting behavior. So as we become more partisan, it follows that more voters will vote for their party even if they don’t like the candidate. This means that majority of Trump voters aren’t be racist, sexist, xenophobes. They are Republicans who can’t bring themselves to vote for a Democrat (an explanation that does actually help account for Trump’s victory).

Just a few nights ago, I called a friend who never wants to hear about my studies. I figured that she, at least, would give me a break from the constant bombardment of politics on my consciousness. I asked her how she was and she responded, “Not good at all.” “Oh no,” I said, “did something happen at work?” No such luck.

She’d seen the November 1st Washington Post/ABC poll that had Trump up by one point. She was terrified that Trump might win and she wanted me to make her feel better. Like a good friend and political scientist I tried to calm her down. I rehashed the information on polling that I was so nerd-ish-ly excited to explain to my family, but my enthusiasm was gone. I even explained a theory I’d just learned in class: it turns out that closeness in a race can mobilize voters, at least according to Steven Rosenstone and John Hansen. So don’t worry, I told her, “This one poll isn’t concerning, but it still might panic people—just like it panicked you—enough to get out and vote.” (I didn’t mention that there are also studies, such as a recent one by Daniel Stockmer, showing that closeness rarely affects turnout.)

I should have been happy that my family and friends were showing more than a passing interest in my studies. But I grew tired of being the voice of reason. I wanted to freak out about the possibility of a Trump presidency. Since I answered that first question so many months ago, I believed that he would lose because theory told me so. Still, no one else seemed to hold with reason and logic this election cycle—why did I?

After Trump won the Republican nomination, a colleague of mine at Congresswoman Slaughter’s office said that the pundits should have asked her. On a daily basis, she saw the same discontent that voters expressed when they cast their ballots for Trump. I had seen that, too, but I somehow allowed myself to be lulled into a false sense of security by theories, polling, and calm, rational discussion.

There are, of course, academic theories—particularly those discussing economic voting and campaign effects—that will explain this election. But if we have to pick and choose theories like a sharpshooter who shoots first then draws the target to fit, we will never be fully satisfied. Political science helps explain events after the fact but, as this election teaches us, it isn’t very good at predicting things. That’s terribly frustrating and deflating, especially on top of election results that are, themselves, frustrating and deflating. My one consolation is that when we do this again in four years, I’ll be buried so deep in my dissertation research I probably won’t even be aware of the election!


Hi, I'm Mercedes. I'm a PhD candidate in politics and a trained pastry chef. I'm also an amateur photographer, hobby quilter, and all-around nutty girl living in the Big Apple.

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