The Economy, The War, and The President

On Friday, September 26, 2008, CSDP and the Brookings Institution held the second of five seminars on this year's election: Election Fundamentals: The Economy, The War and The President.

Moderated by Larry Bartels, Director, Center for the Study of Democratic Politics, Donald E. Stokes Professor of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, and Thomas E. MannSenior Fellow, Governance Studies, The Brookings Institution, panelists were: Robert Erikson, Professor of Political Science, Columbia University; John Mueller, Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies, Mershon Center Professor of Political Science, Ohio State University; and Ron Elving, Senior Washington Editor, National Public Radio

Following is a small sampling of intriguing comments -- for the full transcript, click here.

...I think maybe the most important difference between the journalistic world view about electoral politics and campaigns, on one hand, and the political scientist’s view, on the other, has to do with a kind of discrepancy in our professional skills and interests. On one hand, the journalist’s primary interest is to convince you that you have to pay attention every day to what’s happening, get up in the morning and listen to NPR in order to have an idea of how things are going and how the election is going to turn out.

On the other hand, the political scientist's interest is to convince you that the stuff that’s really important is the more fundamental, long term patterns, the kinds of things that we can get out through historical comparisons and statistical analyses and analogies more or less exact with what’s happened in the past.

So there’s a whole industry of political scientists who have studied presidential election outcomes by looking for patterns in history, mostly in history of the post-World War II period, which is the period for which we tend to have better data on many of the kinds of factors that we think are likely to be important.
Now, some political scientists look at these patterns and try and make judgments about the relative importance of different kinds of issues and how they might work in the current campaign context. Others are more systematic and rigorous in developing statistical analyses based on past data and extrapolating or projecting the implications of those analyses for the current year. So you’ve probably seen forecasts of the election outcome by political scientists based on these historical patterns. The people who do these kinds of things often will point out that they are more accurate than the current polls in terms of trying to predict the outcome of the election.  I think, by and large, that’s true, but I think the extent to which it’s true is often overstated.... Larry Bartels, Director, Center for the Study of Democratic Politics, Donald E. Stokes Professor of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University


People talk about Americans being casualty phobic or defeat phobic, and that doesn’t seem to be the case. I think Americans, because they don’t care that much about foreign policy, are perfectly willing to accept defeat, even ignominious defeat, if you get out at a time when the casualties are still low. So Ronald Reagan sent troops into Lebanon in 1982; 280 or so were killed in a terrorist bomb, 1983, in 1984, he pulled them out, a humiliating fiasco, the election in 1984 came by and no one could even remember Lebanon. And when you ask people, they said, well, it was a good idea, it didn’t work, and so too bad those guys died, but they basically took it in stride.
Similarly, a thing happened with Somalia. No one really wanted to spend lives to save even hundreds of thousands of people in Somalia. Clinton had this thing in October, 1993, where about 19 Americans were killed, six months later he pulled the troops out, another sort of humiliating failure. But when the election in 1996 comes up, it doesn’t even register.
And the most impressive achievement of this is in Vietnam. Gerald Ford presided over total debacle in Vietnam in 1975. The next year he’s running for re-election in 1976, and he brought it up, he said, when I came into office, we were still involved in a war in Vietnam, now no American is fighting anywhere in the world, vote for me. In other words, he’s taking credit for a total debacle. I don’t think that necessarily helped him in the election, but that was in a prepared statement in one of the debates. And it’s also the case that because of this attention deficit disorder, there’s not much political gain from success in wars..... John Mueller,  Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies, Mershon Center Professor of Political Science, Ohio State University


...Which are the more compelling narratives for this election; is it McCain/Palin or is it Obama/Biden? ...Which of these two sets of narratives is more compelling to the electorate, broadly defined, and let us remember we are talking about the American electorate, and I will go so far as to say the traditional American electorate. That’s to say we may see a November 4th in which young people vote as much as older people, poor people vote as much as affluent people, and non-white people vote as much as white people. I think that would be a wonderful thing on its face, prima fascia, wouldn’t that be a great thing, shouldn’t everyone agree, but, of course, we know that has enormous political ramifications, enormous political ramifications.... Ron Elving, Senior Washington Editor for National Public Radio News

A complete transcript of this seminar is posted here, and video excerpts of the discussion are available here.

About this site

The mission of Princeton’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at the Woodrow Wilson School is to promote empirical research on democratic processes and institutions.  That broad mandate has attracted a diverse collection of faculty, students, and visitors pursuing a wide variety of research topics. However, the American electoral process has been a recurrent focus of interest for many of the scholars associated with CSDP and a frequent topic of conferences, colloquia, and other events sponsored by the Center.  As the 2008 campaign unfolds, we thought it might be helpful and fun to collect the election-related research, analyses, and offbeat insights of our extended scholarly community, both for our own edification and as a resource for others interested in how political scientists are thinking about the election.  We welcome contributions, comments, and suggestions. For more about the people and activities of CSDP, please visit our website, To post a comment, click the "speech bubble."

  — Larry M. Bartels, Director

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