The political power of humor

Way back in the Texas Tech days I started some work on a political humor project with my friend Cherie Maestas.  Never quite went anywhere– mostly out of my laziness, I presume.   Back then, of course, it was simply looking at the power of viewing late night comedy, i.e., Letterman, Leno, and SNL on political attitudes.  No youtube clips.  Nothing shared on Facebook.  Because, of course, these did not yet exist.  When I think of all that comes through my FB feed, I think the potential influence (mostly Jon Stewart and Colbert these days) has the potential for so much more.

Anyway, glad to know that had I followed through, this would’ve proven a fruitful line of research.  Wonkblog’s Sarah Kliff highlights a recent study that demonstrated the power of Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression:

Political scientists Jody Baumgardner, Jonathan Morris and Natasha Walth draw an interesting connection between late night television and electoral politics. They find, in a forthcoming Public Opinions Quarterly paper, that watching Tina Fey’s impressions of Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live” was associated with young Republicans and Independents becoming less likely to support the 2008 Republican ticket.

“When all other variables in the model are held at their mean, those who watched the SNL clip had a 45.4 percent probability of saying that Palin’s nomination made them less likely to vote for McCain,” they write. “This same probability drops to 34 percent among those who saw coverage of the debate through other media. Exposure to the clip had no significant effect on the likelihood of voting for Obama.”

When you think about how many people actually think Sarah Palin said, “I can see Alaska from my backyard” it’s not surprising that this had an impact.  Still, sometimes it’s nice to see political science confirm things that intuitively make sense.  And, of course, it also lets us know that political humor can really matter.

Health care vote-apalooza

So, I’m sure I mentioned sometime back my research with Seth Masket on the impact of the roll-call vote on Democratic members of Congress in the 2010 elections.  Well, at the 2011 MPSA Conference, Seth and I got together with John Sides, Brendan Nyhan, and Eric McGhee who had also done some work on this to form what Seth calls an “Asia-like supergroup” but I think of as more akin to the Travelling Wilburys (I see myself as the Jeff Keltner).  Anyway, this collaboration produced a super-awesome piece (and I can say that without arrogance as I am deservedly fifth author) just coming out in American Politics Research.  Seth, Brendan, and John all blogged nice pieces on the matter yesterday and it went big.  Got a rather harsh rebuttal from Chait (that made me feel special and gave me the rare opportunity to disagree with him) and a post on Wonkblog and some other prominent places.  Pretty cool.

Why summarize myself when smarter people (no, not false modesty, I know these guys, they are) have already done so?  Exactly.  Seth includes a handy graph, so we’ll go with him:

Consistent with the earlier research, we found that those House Democrats who voted in favor of ACA ran around six points behind those Democrats who voted against it in the 2010 midterms. We conducted thousands of simulations and found that, in the majority of simulations, Democrats retained at least 25 additional seats if they had all voted against ACA. That’s enough for them to have held the majority.

Politicians and political observers often talk about the demands of party (“Sometimes party loyalty asks too much,” said John Kennedy), but it’s rare that we see such an explicit tradeoff. Nancy Pelosi actively pushed to pass this bill, achieving a goal that the Democratic Party had been pursuing for decades. And the price of the goal was that she lost her speakership and a few dozen of her colleagues lost their jobs.

Now, how exactly did this happen? Why did a vote for ACA cause a Democratic House members’ voters to turn against her? We examine this at the level of the individual voter using a CCES survey. The findings suggest that voting for health reform caused voters to perceive a member as being more liberal, even controlling for the members’ overall voting record. In the graph below, respondents were asked to evaluate the ideology of their member of Congress. The solid line represents voters in the districts of Democratic House members who voted against ACA; the dotted line represents those in the districts of ACA supporters:

That one yes vote had an enormous effect on voters, causing them to perceive their representative as being substantially further to the left. And as numerous studies have shown, being ideologically extreme tends to reduce one’s vote share.
Chait does a bit of a straw-man caricature of our argument and defends his long-standing take that it would have been worse for Democrats to not pass health care at all.  He may be right, but we were certainly damn thorough in testing all the counter-factuals we actually could and were quite measured in our conclusions, i.e., the health care vote may have cost the Democrats the House.  And (speaking for myself, of course) if it did, it was damn worth it.  As good political scientists, we go where the data takes us– even if it makes conservatives happy– not where our ideology would prefer we go.
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