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Compared to What?

- January 14, 2009

Many of the articles in this week’s Forum draw on historical data or make historical comparisons (see, e.g., David’s post on the Caesar and DiSalvo piece). So for example, they pick a starting point (some earlier election year), take the range of data from that starting point to the present, and then put 2008 in the context of that range.

A frustrating thing about these articles, as well as other political science and much political commentary, is that they don’t discuss why that starting point and the resulting historical epoch is the best one, or correct one, or relevant one. Indeed, in political commentary, you often see authors picking the starting point that confirms their argument. Want to portray the Democrats as down-and-out? Well, they’ve lost 7 of 11 presidential elections since 1968. Want to portray the Democrats as more dominant? Start in 1992. To quote from the Klinkner and Schaller article, “For the fourth time in the past five cycles, the Democratic presidential nominee won the popular vote.” Want to portray things as evenly divided? Start in 1928. You get my point.[1]

Let me give you some examples of various starting points employed in these articles:

* Michael McDonald examines voter turnout from 1948-2008. Thus, the recent increase in turnout looks significant because it returns us to the high point of this period in the early 1960s. But if we go back beyond 1948, when turnout was much higher, the recent increase in turnout might look different.

* David Walker’s forecasting model encompasses 1920-2004.

* James Campbell’s analysis of election history begins in 1868.

* Caesar and DiSalvo’s analysis of election history begins in 1896.

* David Kimball compares interest group activity in 2004 and 2008. (Shafer and Wichowsky also do some comparisons of 2004 and 2008, as do Klinkner and Schaller.)

In some cases, data limitations impose constraints. But in other cases, the choice of comparison is clearly at the author’s discretion.

In all cases, there is little if any attempt by the authors to justify the particular period they are considering, whether data considerations are a factor or not. It would be better if political scientists provided such justifications and, in so doing, set an example for pundits.

The authors are free to defend their choices in comments or guest posts.

fn1. I recently had a similar debate with a colleague. He was teaching students about the “dealignment” of people from parties. But, I said, party identification has arguably become more relevant — i.e., a more potent predictor of vote choice (see here). But, he said, is it as potent as it was in the era of strong party organizations and machines? I said that it was hard to know. In any case, the underlying question here was, “Compared to what?”