Thursday, 10 November 2016

2016 US Presidential Results: Avoiding Absolutes, Inspecting Change, and Income

For my second blog post of the day on the US Presidential Election results, I'd like to point out some big flaws in the analysis of many of my colleagues and co-commentators.

I am seeing a vast amount of claims that victory was or was not granted to Donald Trump by a particular group of voters, based on the proportion of that social group which voted Republican according to the exit polls.

For example, many have been claiming that this was "not a Brexit 2.0", because "lower income groups actually voted more Democrat than Republican".

Further, I have seen claims that the outcome was perhaps due to racial voting (or racism), with the figures suggesting that less than 1 in 10 Black voters went for Trump, as opposed to a majority for Trump among White voters.

The same can be said of gender, with more women voting Clinton versus men for Trump. There are suggestions there that we can categorise the result as a battle between men versus women.

While each of these observations are entirely correct, using them to explain how Donald Trump won the Presidency is horrendously misleading, and at worst plain wrong. Principally, I just don't think these explanations capture what went on at all.

Such analysis of these headline figures completely rejects change, and misses the part that swing has to play in tipping battlegrounds and changing elections. If we want to understand why states such Wisconsin, Iowa, Florida, and Pennsylvania flipped to Republican, we have to be seeking change based explanations. Why did those states swing? Which voters were pushed away from the Democrats, and toward the Republicans? And why?

Income Groups:

The most oft floated claim I have seen is that Trump's victory was not a case of left behind, lower income groups 'revolting'. This is the frame used to describe the rise of UKIP and Brexit in the United Kingdom, and has been suggested as a potential explanation for Trump's victory on Tuesday.

The argument against however supposedly goes that because lower income groups in fact voted mostly for the Democrats, that a working class revolt must be dismissed as a potential explanation for Clinton's defeat. Indeed, those earning under $30,000 voted 53-41% in Clinton's favour, according to the exit poll data (shown below, courtesy of the New York Times). There is a similar margin for voters earning between $30,000 and $49,999. Brexit 2.0 this was not, some say.

However, looking at the above figure if we ignore the absolutes and inspect the change, we see a completely different picture than to the "this was not a working class revolt" frame. Among those lowest earners, there was a 16 point swing to the Republicans. 16 points. That is in fact the biggest swing of any aggregated group in the exit polling. Among the second lowest income group, the swing is much smaller but still there: 6%.

So how then can this definitely not be a class based explanation?

Further, and crucially, many of the States which flipped from Democrat to Republican are very much below average in terms of income and wealth. Where else but there should we expect to see lower income groups punish the political establishment?

Indeed, in Wisconsin exit polling suggested that Trump had almost closed the gap in terms of lower income voters. In 2012? A 62-37% lead for the Democrats. Wisconsin turning Red of course was a complete surprise, and was the State which pushed Donald Trump over the 270 line.

In Minnesota, which was very much in the balance for most of the night despite it being a traditional Democrat stronghold, the Democrats enjoyed a lead of 55-42% in lower income groups in 2012. However, look ahead to 2016 and this lead has completely disappeared.

Finally, in Ohio we see the exact same trend of rapidly narrowing Democrat leads in lower income groups between 2012 and 2016, according to the exit poll data. All across the Mid-West, exit polling suggests that lower income groups switched in big numbers to support Donald Trump.

Democratic leads among low income voters might not have disappeared, but the big swings in key Rust Belt States is certainly a huge part of the explanation as to why so many of them changed hands from Democrat to Republican. I'd suggest that from these figures, we could very, very much be looking at Brexit 2.0.


Another claim I would like to argue against is that the victory was necessarily about white voters. Again, looking at the exit polling it seems a fairly innocuous suggestion that it was the White vote which put Trump in office. Nearly 60% of Whites voted Republican.

But again, this absolute figure has barely changed since 2012. Trump has done no better among white voters than Mitt Romney did in 2012.

Equally, while there are clear majorities for the Democrats among all Ethnic Minority groups, these margins are actually down on 2012 when Obama stood for a second term. To be expected with the first Black President leaving office, perhaps? Certainly, but swings in ethnic minority support away from Democrats means that fascinating on Trump's large White vote as an explanation for his victory is misguided.

Most interestingly, despite everything the Republican nominee said about them in the run up to polling data, Trump actually won a higher percentage of Latino voters than Romney managed in 2012.

In Florida, the Democrats' failure to dominate the Latino vote in the same way they did the Black vote arguably could have cost them big time. State level exit polling in Florida from this year suggests that 35% of Latinos voted Trump. This was only slightly down from 39% in 2012. The Democrats managed to gain 2% more of this vote, but it was not enough to tip the State over into the Democrat column.

Such a meagre increase, despite all that had been said by Trump about Hispanics/Latinos, will be very disappointing for the Democrats. If they had made more progress with this group, they could well have won here and held on to the 29 electoral college votes Florida offered.

So, was the result racialised? Perhaps: but very much in the opposite direction as to that which you might expect. While whites certainly overwhelmingly voted Trump, they also voted overwhelmingly for Romney. And more importantly, the Democrats appear to have lost ground with Ethnic Minority groups.


Finally figures from the Exit Polling on sex are below. They suggest that while men indeed did tend to vote for Trump over Clinton, and that this swung up by 5% in the Republicans' favour from 2012, the percentage of female voters backing the Democrats has scarcely moved an inch.

So men were more likely to go Republican this time around than last at the national level, but it doesn't appear that women were more likely to go Democrat. Clinton's candidacy did not draw in female voters, according to these figures.

This rather mixed picture comes through again in those battleground states. In Michigan 2012 exit polls reported that 48% of men had voted Republican, and 57% of women had voted Democrat. In 2016, 53% of men voted Trump, an increase of 5%. But also, only 53% of women voted Clinton - a decrease in the Democrat vote share among women of 4%. In fact, in Michigan the same percentage of women voted Republican in 2016 as in 2012 (42%).

In Wisconsin the same trend bears out: 51% of men voted Republican in 2012, according to the exit poll. This increased to 54% in 2016. A 3 increase in favour of Trump. However, the Democrat voting figures among women show an even bigger change: 57% in 2012 down to 53% in 2016. Indeed, there was apparently 1% increase in Republican voting among women.

A majority of men voting Republican and a majority of women voting Democrat is not exceptional, and the latter trend has changed very little from 2012 to 2016. Could that overall 5% swing in men have pushed Trump over the line? Possibly, it's something for sure, but it's nothing on the 16 point swing of lower income groups above.

What this certainly was not is a mass movement of men versus women, or that women had flocked to vote for Clinton and abandoned the Republicans. This contest was not really any more gendered than a usual Democrat versus Republican contest normally is.

Potential Explanations - Lower Income Group Power:

Overall, I would suggest that the working class revolt, Brexit 2.0 style explanations have far more explanatory power than many commentators and pundits are suggesting. Lower income groups have swung dramatically, and analysis of exit polling data suggests that this swing occurred as much in many of the Rust Belt states which flipped to the Republicans as it did anywhere else.

Race has also certainly played a part, but I think in a more nuanced way than some are claiming. Will it have been predominantly Whites on lower incomes in the Rust Belt who flipped the States red? Quite probably. But equally, it looks like the Democrats did not capture the Latino vote in Florida (and of course probably elsewhere too) in anywhere near the fashion that they would have hoped. Overall, the Democrats nationally did not perform as well with Ethnic Minorities as they might have hoped, given who they were up against and given their traditional success with these groups.

I would also suggest that gender will have acted as a compounding factor. Perhaps being lower income and male made you more likely to flip, but it seems certain that a large number of women flipped too. Moreover, I believe income had a much stronger effect than gender.

In short, at this early stage it's my belief that swinging lower income voters (perhaps more likely to be white and male) coupled with the Democrats coming up shorter than they would have liked with the Latino vote is the best explanation for the States which flipped, and thus this result.

As a caveat: it's important to remember that these exit polling figures are only polls, not results. They're not likely to be completely accurate in terms of the marginals at least - the general movements and swings you can most likely count on.

2016 US Presidential Results: Primary Warnings

As we all conduct our polling and forecasting post-mortems and try to figure out just how Donald Trump won the US Presidential Election on Tuesday, I propose turning our attention back to primaries for a potential explanation.

On the night, news that Clinton was really struggling in Michigan and Wisconsin were almost the final nail in her coffin - the Rust Belt was abandoning her when her earlier failure to pick up Florida and North Carolina meant that winning these states was crucial. Eventually it turned out that even Pennsylvania would turn its back on the Democratic nominee. The Blue Wall had crumbled.

In theory, that shouldn't have happened. These states have been solidly Democrat since the 1980s, and polls conducted there suggested Clinton had a sizeable lead. So much was her confidence, that Clinton did not once visit Wisconsin, and appeared in Michigan just a handful of times, and sent only surrogates in the final weeks in an attempt to see off Trump's advances there.

But of course it did. Wisconsin voted Trump, and Pennsylvania followed. Iowa flipped back to the Republicans, along with Ohio. Clinton seems to have just about scraped a victory in Minnesota, but Michigan is still on a knife edge as we move into Thursday.

While some might have found this surprising, there was a clear pattern: Clinton was struggling in Northern States where Bernie Sanders either won or ran her to the wire in during Primary season. The map below demonstrates this perfectly.

County-level Primary Results: New York Times

Looking at those North East and Mid-Western states, we are instantly reminded that Sanders in fact won Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. He ran Clinton down to the wire in Iowa, and was much closer to Clinton in Pennsylvania than the polls were predicting. Sanders also won in New Hampshire - another State where Clinton is currently still unable to claim as the count goes down to the final few precincts.

It's not that Clinton is struggling in all States that Sanders collected in the Primary contests: she's done very well in Vermont, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington for example. But where Clinton has struggled, particularly in the Mid-West and North-East, it seems to correlate very highly with Sanders support (with the exception of Ohio).

What does this mean? Have Sanders supporters in those States abandoned her and stayed at home - or worse turned out and voted Trump?

Possibly, maybe in the case of a few. But far more likely I think hat the Primary results in these states were a warning shot across Clinton's bow, which she completely ignored. They captured a feeling, demonstrated conflicting emotions and values which Clinton and her campaign should have taken very seriously.

I travelled around Wisconsin while the Primary battle-buses were in town, and the anti-Clinton feeling there was huge. Democrats were very much pro-Sanders, particularly in the ever-blue city of Milwaukee. They of course went out and overwhelmingly backed him ahead of Clinton.

Republicans, though mostly supporting Ted Cruz, were vehemently anti-Clinton, citing her as an embodiment of entitlement and privilege, a shining light of success while their State struggled and failed economically to keep up with its neighbours.

But among independents too, taxi drivers, students, and bar goers who had no affiliation, there was a tangible anti-Clinton feeling. Everyone I spoke to after the result was pleased that Sanders had won on the Democratic side. Everyone.

It's my view that the results of those primaries should have been a shot in the arm to Clinton - here were the kind of areas where perhaps life wasn't going so well, where the liberal, free market values of the modern Democratic Party establishment were not at all shared.

I don't believe that voters who backed Sanders in those Primary contests went out en masse and voted for Trump on Tuesday, but I do believe that they captured, or that they personified, a feeling. An attitude and a set of values that were totally at odds with everything they believed Clinton was about.

Voters in places like Wisconsin had already taken one opportunity to take aim at Clinton, and she totally ignored them. Was it all that surprising that they ended up doing it again?

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

US Presidential Prediction

For my first Blog post in a while, I'm offering a prediction for today's US Presidential Election.

The vast majority of predictions have Hilary Clinton favoured heavily as the winner. Even the usually highly cautious 538 forecast (ran by Nate Silver) now has a Clinton win predicted with over 70% probability. Other forecasters are ranging in the high nineties, with some as close to 100% as their mathematics can allow. For an excellent overview of what each of the prediction and betting markets are saying, this piece by Dr. Steve Fisher at Elections Etc is an excellent resource.

My prediction isn't the result of a mathematical model, just my reading of state level polls and other prediction houses and betting markets.

Principally, I am also calling a Clinton victory (no surprise there), but with a slightly higher Electoral College count than 538, closer to some of the less-cautious alternatives. My map of projected outcomes (put together using 538's prediction tool) is below.

In terms of the popular vote, I'm expecting Clinton to fetch just shy of 50% to Trump's 45%. My projection actually hasn't changed in about a week, since the impact on the polls of the latest round of negative Clinton news bottomed out and favourable state-level polls came out for Clinton in many key states.

Donald Trump seems to have recovered from scares in Arizona and Georgia, and looks solid in Ohio, so I'm predicting him to win there. Since Trump seems to be doing well in the Buckeye State, I also expect him to cling on to North Carolina in a Romney-like fashion. This is the state I am least certain about, but early turnout information from this key battleground seems to suggest a decrease in black voters heading to the polls, which won't be good news for Clinton.

Contrary to some expectations, as well as holding on to New Hampshire, Michigan, Virginia and Pennsylvania, I believe Clinton will sweep up in all three of Colorado, Nevada, and Florida. The latter is by far the least certain, with most polls on a knife edge. However, an increasingly ethnically diverse electorate which appears to turning out in high numbers is encouraging news for Clinton. This is the same trend which looks to be delivering Nevada for her.

Such is the nature in which the States are likely to be called over the course of the night, by my prediction the contest will be all but over by 1am GMT when Florida comes in, with Trump's path to victory pretty much closed at that point.

And here's one to look out for: although I'm not predicting it to come in, I have a little bet on Evan McMullin to win in Utah.

Monday, 12 September 2016

New Publication

I have recently had research conducted with the LIVEWHAT research project published by the journal Politics and Policy. The paper investigates what impact the financial crisis had on the discursive behaviour of the Conservative and Labour parties in the United Kingdom. It finds that though the crisis provided an opportunity for the recent history of convergence to break down, that up until 2014 this had not occurred, and the Labour and Conservative Parties were remarkably similar to each other in terms of their framing and narrating of the financial crisis.

The methodology is of interest to any scholar looking to quantitatively analyse data which is in essence qualitative. Or who wishes to connect necessarily theoretical concepts to necessarily empirical data. In our case, we had a collection of newspaper articles spanning nearly a decade which we wanted to transform into data which we could numerically and graphically present and analyse. The method we opted for was a form of Weberian Ideal Type Analysis by the name of Fuzzy Set Analysis. We borrowed the design from Kvist's 2005 paper analysing the fit of modern economies into traditional theoretical economies. Essentially, the analysis allows the researcher to consider the 'ideal type' of phenomena 'x', and then analyse the extent to which an actual 'x' fits into this ideal type. For our research, we slightly adapted the logic of this approach and used the Conservative framing and narrating of the crisis as the 'ideal type', and looked at the extent to which the Labour Party matched it.

The full paper can be found here:

I also contributed to another paper within the same journal, which looks at the extent to which actors during the crisis sought to 'dehumanise' the context of crisis:

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

The Wisconsin Primary - The Results

In my third blog in my series following the US Presidential Primary campaigns, I round up with our visit to the Ted Cruz results watch party in West Allis, just outside Milwaukee, and a summary of a result which had been steadily building over the weekend.

Our journey down began as soon as I had finished visiting campaigners and polling stations across the city. Located in West Allis, this rally was a far cry from the big, bold, and flashy events we had seen yesterday in the Milwaukee centre. Indeed as soon as we arrived at the rally, the very different nature of Ted Cruz's campaign was clear to see. Rather than long queues, street blockades, and tight security, we were able to walk from the street into the centre of the rally in just under 10 seconds. Here, a relaxed crowed were drinking beer and waiting with baited breath for the results to break. 

This isn't a candidate-centric popular movement in the same way that the Sanders and Trump campaigns are, with thousands of supporters pouring in just to get a glimpse of the messenger. This is the campaign of beer drinking, barbecuing, Christian, Mid-West America. A campaign with a totally different feel. 

What followed was a huge night for Ted Cruz (and for Bernie Sanders). One which had been slowly but steadily building over the course of the weekend, and by the time the results were announced, we all knew was coming. 

When Scott Walker endorsed Cruz and introduced him to a rally in Green Bay, we were all but sure that the Senator would be winning the contest by sweeping up votes from Milwaukee up through to the Michigan border. The momentum in the polls was with him, he had the approval of a Senator popular in the state's largest city, and the only mentions among voters here of Donald Trump were made to discredit and dismiss the New York Businessman. 

Equally, Sanders was already set to do well in the majority white, working class rural areas surrounding Milwaukee and Madison, but in our view also appeared to be doing very well with voters in the city itself. This was very significant, as white working class voters in Milwaukee, Sanders' typical base, are very much in minority here with African American and Latino communities making up nearly 70% of the city's population. If Hilary Clinton was not making headway here, there was no way she was making it anywhere else.

In fact almost as soon as we arrived Clinton appeared completely to drop off, to give up and leave Sanders to rally supporters and voters across the city to his cause. A fundraising event with husband and former President Bill Clinton was the only evidence of the Clinton campaign that we could find by the time we had arrived. And as it turned out, Sanders swept the board across the state and lost by just a couple of points here in Milwaukee itself. 

In short, wins for Cruz and Sanders was a result you could see developing over the weekend. The size of them was the surprising element. 

Our visit to the rally Cruz rally gave an insight into the coalition of hardline conservatives and anti-establishment that the Texas Senator is building. It was very much a family affair, with more than a few groups of children, parents and grandparents all out together to soak in the atmosphere of the victory-party-to-be. Looking around, the crowd was almost exclusively made up of what you would consider your 'Average American' out here in the Mid-West.

In terms of what they were saying, the messages from the Cruz crowd were more direct than those from Trump's. Less slogans, more substance. Along with the words 'Jobs', 'Security', and 'Freedom' projected onto the walls around us, 'values' and 'trust' were buzzwords of the night among supporters. They spoke of great admiration for Cruz's conservative credentials, and support for his tough policies on immigration, protecting the constitution, and on cutting 'wasteful' spending. Donald Trump's name is hardly mentioned. 

When the exit poll results were announced, with Cruz surging ahead of his rivals, the room erupted into cheers and applause. Chants of "Cruz, Cruz, Cruz" followed hurried and excited discussion about the projections. The atmosphere moved up ten gears, as the result which so many had hoped would happen looked like being delivered. A result which three weeks ago looked impossible.

After Wisconsin had been officially called for Cruz (to another round of huge applause and cheers) his victory speech which followed was one which firmly steered his campaign toward November and what he believes now will be his upcoming battle with Hilary Clinton. Indeed, his closing words were "Hilary, get ready. Here we come" and in between, he touched on every core Conservative subject that his crowd wanted to hear. 

Once again he reiterated his position as the only candidate able to beat Donald Trump, calling for unity throughout the Republican Party in his effort to stop the tycoon from winning the party nomination. He now believes he has posited himself as the anti-Trump, and everyone had better now fall in line behind him.

The significance of Cruz's big win here means that the Republican race is now almost certainly going to a contested convention. Mathematically, it now fairly inconceivable that their Trump or Cruz will make it to the 1237 delegate mark necessary to take the nomination outright. For the Democrats, it will at least certainly prolong Hilary Clinton's nomination, at best (for Sanders) take the Democrats too to an open contest at their summer convention. 

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

The Wisconsin Primary - Polling Day

The second post in my three-part series on the Primaries here in Wisconsin comes as voters across the state head to the polling booths to select their Presidential nominees and local representatives.

On the ground in Milwaukee, the only campaigns visible as we walk around are those of Senator Bernie Sanders and local Alderman Bob Bauman. A volunteer for the latter was stood right across the street from where we are staying, and revels in telling me about the representative's local work after we approach him: "I know him personally", he says, "he's a real good man who gets things done". He does a lot for students as well, I'm assured, which is why the Alderman is standing once more to represent the student-dominated 4th district.

It's in this district where the Sanders campaign too is campaigning hard. Right in front of the University Library I find a campaign volunteer from Michigan. He's adorned from above-head to toe in Sanders attire, prompting one student to pose for a picture with him (which I gladly took).

He tells me that they're campaigning here to make sure the students get out vote, telling me "the most important thing is getting students out to vote, many of them don't know actually what they have to do". Changes in local voter registration rules in Wisconsin mean voters now have to bring photo-ID in order to be presented with a ballot card. A deeply unpopular move which critics say will confound turnout issues in both the student and socio-economically deprived communities.

Our volunteer however is confident of "an easy win" in the area, a feeling shared by a second volunteer who comes to join us as we chat. She tells me she's "shifted around 120 voting cards" while at her station, and has come back for more. The interest in their literature is not surprising given the number of students passing us wearing Sanders badges and pledging their support. Predictably, Sanders seems to be sweeping up the student vote here.

As I move up past the student bubble and further North into an African American majority neighbourhood, gone are the candidates and campaign teams who are replaced by rows upon rows of signs. Interestingly, they are almost exclusively for local and Supreme Court candidates. On this straw 'sign' poll, Alderman Bauman seems very popular. The only Presidential signs present in the neighbourhood were a handful for Sanders and a five-house cul-de-sac which seemed to be the local hub for Ted Cruz fans. People here seem to be very happy openly backing their local candidates, but keeping tight lipped about their Presidential choices.

Across the City, from downtown to the suburban neighbourhoods, there was a constant stream of voters coming in and out all of the polling booths we visited. An early estimate had turnout in Milwaukee up 600% on the last round of Primaries in the state, and it was evident that there was a certain buzz about the contests around today.

Both the Sanders and Cruz camps are becoming increasingly confident of victory. Both candidates are still here today too, campaigning until polls shut at 8pm. On today's evidence that I've seen, Sanders' campaign team will have much to be cheerful about in central Milwaukee. But Milwaukee is just one city in a large state, where many different battlegrounds will decide the outcome of this important step in the Presidential race.

The Wisconsin Primary - The Rallies

This post is now hosted by the Political Studies Association at:


The 2016 Presidential Primary race has been a fascinating and highly unpredictable affair on all sides. As we approach the business end of the nomination process where frontrunners are expected to begin tying up proceedings, I have travelled out to USA to spend some time in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with local alumnus Dr. Steven Van Hauwaert as the primaries roll into the latest battleground state.
Like much of Wisconsin, Milwaukee is an industrious city and a very friendly place. But demographically it’s atypical of the state in which it sits. Wisconsin is overwhelmingly white (85% of the total population), but in Milwaukee white Americans are in a minority (37%) with African Americans being the largest ethnic group (40%). It’s also home to a large Latino community, who make up nearly a fifth of the city's population. It is an unusual hotbed of multiculturalism in a predominantly white state.
My first glimpse into the mindsets of Milwaukee's citizens as we approached polling day came from one of the city’s African American residents. A taxi driver from the South, she took our fare to the centre of town on a sunny Friday afternoon and was all too happy to talk politics. I asked her who she intended on voting for in the upcoming ballots, to which she replied "Nobody. The way I see it, if they gonna win, they gonna win. But the Presidentials in November? You best be sure to vote in that. Because if you don't, you 'aint got a say."
Her apathy toward the long, drawn out process of selection is no doubt uncommon throughout Wisconsin, which polls 36th in the line of states. This year Wisconsin however is undoubtedly the scene of a crucial period in the campaigns on both sides of the political divide.
For the Democrats, the state is simply a must-win for Senator Bernie Sanders if he has any chance at all of keeping his campaign alive and kicking. Still trailing his rival Secretary Hilary Clinton in pledged delegates (1243 to 980) and super delegates (469 to 31), Sanders needs a solid win here to stay even remotely competitive.
On the Republican side, Wisconsin has been identified as a 'turning point' for the anti- Donald Trump movement, with some arguing that a solid win for Senator Ted Cruz here could be the perfect end for them to a turbulent week for the current frontrunner and send his campaign into a downward spiral. 
Sanders, Cruz, and Trump have all been very active in Wisconsin in the past few days, but both Clinton and Governor John Kasich have been fairly absent, with the former already in a key upcoming battleground: New York.
But the Primaries aren't the only elections currently happening here. In between campaign adverts for Presidential candidates squeeze messages from candidates standing for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. And out on the streets of the fourth district, Alderman Bob Bauman's face grins at you from every other bus stop, and the man himself can be found braving the snow and biting wind to hand out leaflets to passing voters.
And last night, thousands of Milwaukee citizens turned up tonight to simultaneous rallies held by Sanders and Trump. These meets served as flash-points for all bodies political in the city; up and down queues of attendees, local candidates and campaigners were handing out leaflets and stickers and conversing with everyone they could.
"If you like Sanders then you should vote for Chris Larsen for County Executive" one campaigner told me, "he is a real Liberal Democrat". Ironically totally unaware of the rather tainted status those two words have among younger voters in the United Kingdom (or indeed that I was from the United Kingdom).
We managed to get in to Sanders' rally, and from the Press block we could see the crowd, staff and press operation from back to front. A full four-hour extravaganza, the Sanders campaign filled the Wisconsin Centre Ballroom with stages and rigs and a big name warm up act in 3OH!3 (among others).
The crowd itself was made up of the usual suspects: though there was a good mix of ages it was predominantly young, and very much ethnically white. All were in good spirits - so much so that some dancing even broke out by the time the headline musical act took to the stage.
The feeling among the staff we spoke to was very upbeat. Professionally, they couldn't be happier to help. And personally they expressed quiet confidence that their candidate would be taking the majority of the 96 pledged delegates on offer tomorrow. The crowd there would have certainly agreed; the great energy which has followed Sanders’ campaign across America is tangible here in Milwaukee.
When Bernie Sanders stepped up to the podium, it was to rapturous applause and deafening cheers. Many in the room had waited hours to see him speak. His speech moved from topic to topic, reaffirming his progressive credentials, key principals and policies, and generally hit all the right Wisconsin buttons - including getting in a jibe or two at unpopular state Governor Scott Walker.
Not everyone here has been jumping on the anti-Walker bandwagon however; earlier in the day, Ted Cruz had been endorsed and introduced to a rally in Green Bay, just north of Milwaukee, by Governor Walker. Speculation is now mounting here that he will be named as Cruz’s running mate.
After Sanders had finished we hastily made our way over to a location a mere hundred or so metres away where Donald Trump had been speaking, hoping to catch whatever we could of the end. Unlike the calm and quiet queue we had stood in a few hours before, we found ourselves surrounded by a heavy police presence, blockades, and steel fencing. Black-clad men stood menacingly at every corner, eyes scanning for any potential trouble makers as flashing blue and red lights illuminated the streets. A completely different atmosphere.
Trump's supporters sticking around outside the venue paid no notice, and many were more than happy to be interviewed, "I'll be voting Donald Trump tomorrow, for sure. He's the only man who'll do what needs to be done", said one. He wouldn't elaborate on precisely what that was.
Another said he admired Trump for being a self made man, a man with common sense. These are all the usual soundbites from voters who feel that Trump is everything that they wish politicians always were - strong, decisive, and a living testament to the American dream.
Appearing on 'Hannity in Wisconsin' broadcast by Fox News later that evening (in an interview filmed earlier in the day), Trump himself was bullish as ever and promised that he 'had a strategy' to defeat Clinton should the two be facing off later in the year.
As the polls open today, Wisconsin may well have a big say in whether or not he will get that chance.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Closeness to Concepts

‘Closeness to concepts’ in terms of social science research is something I’ve been talking about a lot recently when discussing papers and research proposals to the point now where the phrase is finding its way into forthcoming publications. With that in mind, I thought I’d write out exactly what this phrase about as something of a reference point for this upcoming work. 

In short: ‘Closeness to concepts’ is a progression of what we mean by ‘validity’ of our measurements when testing concepts and theory using empirical data (see Brewer 2000). 

When we are working with empirical data, we of course seldom ever have the luxury of data that gets to exactly the concept or attitude that we want to investigate. By and large, we use proxies or adapt the data available in order to produce measurements of whatever it is we seek to test. We do this for both independent and dependent variables.

For example, we might want to know the effect of a certain attitude on what type of party one might vote for. Surveys don’t ask questions about ‘what type of party are you going to vote for’, but we recode data reported voting intention according to our definition of types of parties in order to test this (for example incumbent parties, populist parties, far right parties, and so on). 

While that is a (relatively) simple case of finding and manipulating existing data to connect with a concept that you are looking for, many studies employ more complex methods and particularly so when dealing with attitudes. 

For example, what method would we employ to investigate xenophobia using survey data? Most surveys ask questions wanting respondents to judge the impact of immigrants on the culture and economy of the host country. They also ask questions pertaining to a respondent’s desire to have immigrants as neighbours. In these situations with this sort of data, how do we operationalise testing for xenophobia?

The simple answer is to code anyone over a midpoint of a scale and towards a normatively ‘negative’ answer about any question regarding immigrants as xenophobic. If Question A asked about the impact of immigrants on the national culture of Country X on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being very bad and 10 being very good, then this would mean anyone scoring 0/4 would be classed as ‘xenophobic’, with anyone elsewhere on the scale coming in as ‘non-xenophobic’. Simple? Yes. Correct? No.

It is in these circumstances where empirical investigations often disconnect from concepts. This is where validity breaks down. Too often theory is discussed at length in literature reviews and following research designs, concepts drawn out ready to be applied or tested, but then the data used does not quite properly connect to it. Rather than considering the nuances of how individual questions (and indeed response items) are framed and exactly what element of the broader topic they are placed in that questions are getting at, researchers too readily select empirical data based loosely topics or literatures without ever achieving real proximity to their concepts (a paper I recently reviewed did exactly this). 

The same is also true of survey design, with questions designed with the purpose of getting at a particular attitude or belief actually end up measuring something else by blurring concepts together. A good example of this is questions which ask respondents to make judgements about immigration’s effect on the economy - is this purely a judgement about immigration, or does it capture as much about perceptions of the economy as it does immigrants?

In our example above the concept we are aiming to get at is xenophobia. This is quite a specific concept; it is not racism (a deep rooted prejudice), but is something less sister and altogether more difficult to find - fear of the unknown. 

Rather than classify all individuals on the normatively negative side of a scale about attitudes towards immigrants as xenophobic, our research design in this case requires us to take a nuanced approach at finding something specific. We need a design which can isolate xenophobia without picking up genuine racial prejudice. 

The exact answer to that question will depend entirely on the data available. But essentially, researching xenophobia will always require a multi-track approach to isolate respondents who have both negative attitudes towards immigrant but who also do not have much knowledge, understanding or experience of immigration and immigrants. 

To isolate these effects we could operationalise ‘political knowledge’ variables perhaps as a proxy of a respondent being ‘tuned in’ to the political world around them, testing for interaction effects between this and negative attitudes towards immigrants. 

Or better still we could take a ‘domicile’ based approach. We could isolate respondents living in cities (much more likely to have contact with immigrants) and split them them from those dwelling in rural areas (unlikely to have high levels of contact with immigrants).

Considering our ‘closeness to concepts’, we should take rural respondents (less likely to have ever had immigrants as neighbours) indicating that they would not like immigrants for neighbours as far closer to the concept of being xenophobic than urban dwellers (more likely to have had this experience) indicating the same. We we are doing here is hoping to split out genuinely racist attitudes from those which are truly xenophobic and achieve ‘closeness to concepts’.

We should add as many layers of cross-sectionalitey into the picture as the data will allow - we could use educational (to find University graduates) and occupation (finding those in professional classes) variables to further strip away those who are more likely to have had substantial contact with migrants. Anything we can do to tighten the link between our variable(s) and the concepts we are applying/investigating, we should do.

This also applies to testing models of voting behaviour, for example economic voting (see Lewis-Beck and Paldam 2000 and the associated special issue papers). How can we operationalise economic voters using survey data? Is it just a case of looking for voters having strong attitudes about the economy and seeing whether this correlates with voting against governments? Absolutely not - we should be using a multi-faceted approach to track blame, satisfaction, and relative deprivation to likelihood of voting for incumbents. Everywhere there is a theory or a concept, we have to think long and hard about the steps that take us from A to B and what data to use to get closest to that process.

The exact approach for achieving ‘closeness to concepts’ in each circumstance should depend on whatever data is at hand. But we should always be considering our theory and our concepts, the true nature of them and the processes and steps they go through, and how best to get truly close to it using what empirical evidence we have. Rather than just seeing validity as a binary measure of whether the data we have covers the concepts we are investigating or employing, we should always be finding ways to get as close to our concepts as is possible.