Why the US 2012 election's real story is the academic study of politics
As soon as Ohio was announced as going for Obama, the number of Tweets congratulating Nate Silver went through the roof, I even think #natesilverisgod was a hashtag I saw a few times. For those of you unfamiliar with the name, Nate Silver is a statistician who correctly predicted which way all 50 states would fall. This is an improvement on his record from 2008 when he got 49 out of 50 right. His website fivethreeeight.com is worth checking out but if you're a geek like me, put aside a couple of hours to do so.
His methods are to not only examine state by state polling data, but to weight the polling information based on how accurate the poll has been in the past. His success has been described as ushering in a new level of credibility for statistical analysis in politics. When held up against the rise and accessibility of fact-checking reports, and a new low in trust in the mainstream media, the furore around Mr Silver is one plank of this demand for credibility and numbers.
The other big news story from Tuesday was the significant number of women elected to Congress for the first time and 2012 is being touted as the 'new year of the women'. There were several states where women won seats for the first time. These included close races in Massachusetts, Nebraska and Wisconsin, and the high profile elections of Elizabeth Warren, Deb Fischer and Tammy Baldwin, who also became the first openly gay senator.
It might true to say that these elections are the result of changing opinions of women in leadership positions, or declining outright prejudicial sexism. There are a number of theories floating around the media at the moment as to why this week's election deserves such a title. But when you look into it, there's a political science answer as to why more women have been elected and why particularly in this election. Polling tells us that the majority of voters aren't actually sexist. They do make different assumptions about female candidates but they don't discriminate purely on the basis of gender.
The original year of the women was in 1992, when a record number of women candidates were elected to the US Congress. A number of these were in seats created or modified by the redistricting process, which took places following the census in 1990. As the American government counts its people every ten years, the most recent census was 2010 and the redistricting process was completed in time for the 2012 election cycle. Political science tells us that women candidates are more likely to run when they have the opportunity to do so in an open seat. Unless women run, they can't win.
Political science also explains why we didn't see this pattern in 2002, following the 2000 Census. After 9/11, the voters looked for executive leadership, national security experience and a number of 'masculine' qualities not associated with women candidates. The national and international rhetoric was that of war, terrorism and fear, and the other thing political science tells us is that women candidates also do better when the discourse is domestic rather than foreign policy.
That was something present in this election as well. Despite the economy being the central issue to both campaigns, a high profile was given by the media to issues around rape, reproductive rights and the rest of the GOP's War on Women. Political science also tells us that when the national conversation is focused on these and other domestic issues, women candidates do better.
The next time we'll get the opportunity to test this theory will be in 2022. Maybe we'll be discussing a Warren Presidency. And I know that has no impact on the political science that will explain how or why this happens, but my fingers are crossed anyway.
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