Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Five notable books on how Americans vote

Andrew Gelman is a professor in the Departments of Statistics and Political Science at Columbia University, director of the Applied Statistics Center, and also the founding director of the Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences program.

His books include Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.

One of five top books on how Americans vote that Gelman discussed with Sophie Roell at The Browser:
Fire on the Prairie
by Gary Rivlin

You mentioned the politics of race. This is a big part of your next book, Fire on the Prairie, about Chicago’s first black mayor. Do you want to tell me a bit about it?

This is just an amazing story. It’s written by a journalist from Chicago who was clearly very sympathetic to Harold Washington, who was mayor of Chicago in the 1980s. He was an African-American, he’d been a member of Congress, and after the end of the old Daley machine in Chicago he ran for mayor. Actually there are several amazing stories. First that Chicago is a majority white city and he won the Democratic primary election and then the general election. He took advantage of divisions among his opponents. It was a very racist campaign. Washington was saying his opponents were corrupt and that they needed new leadership; his white opponents were saying that he couldn’t be trusted, that he was corrupt and that you should stick with what you have.

Then, after he became the mayor, there was just this amazing battle. The city council had 50 members and they were divided between supporters of Washington and supporters of his white opponents with a couple inbetween. Over the next couple of years, through a series of deals and elections, Washington and his allies ended up taking control of the council. It wasn’t just about winning the election, but this Stalingrad-type block-by-block battle afterwards. It’s just a very exciting story. And he won. You just don’t expect to see that. They managed to replace this alderman, then they managed to get this person to vote on their side, and eventually they twisted enough arms and did what they needed. Then Washington died of a heart attack.

It’s a fascinating book because it’s not only about the election but also about the political manoeuvrings. I’m an expert on public opinion and elections but I don’t really have much understanding of political manoeuvrings. In university politics I always managed to piss people off. This is a readable book, very fascinating, and then at the end when he dies, it’s very sad.

From the reviews I’ve read, it does seem like a bit of a potboiler.

It’s got good guys and bad guys, and unexpected twists. Washington was a very tough guy. It would have been very tempting for him to just have given up, and say, “Well, I did what I could.” But he didn’t.

In terms of the politics of race, what do we need to know about how race affects voting in the US?

At the national level, close to 90% of African-Americans vote for Democrats. For Obama it was about 96%. I think a lot of white people feel Democrats are the black party and don’t support them for that reason.

This is particularly in the Southern states?

Yes, though obviously it was also a big deal in Chicago. The assumption has always been that a black candidate could not win most of the white vote, so at first he was just not considered a serious candidate. It was just assumed that white people weren’t going to vote for this guy.

Were you incredibly surprised when Obama was elected?

No. He was in the lead, and the economy had not being doing well, so that meant the Democrat would do well. The stronger the partisan cues are, the less important other things are. People do argue about this. Some people claim – which may be true – that Obama maybe didn’t do as well as he would have done if he’d been white. He did about as well as predicted, based on the economy, but he outspent McCain. You could argue that Obama should have done a couple of percentage points better than forecast, because of the unequal campaign. It’s hard to say. People did some surveys where they claimed that some percentage of white people were less likely to vote for Obama because he was black. This kind of thing came up with Romney too. There were some people who said they wouldn’t vote for him because he’s a Mormon. People say all sorts of things in the abstract, but then when it comes to the election, they vote for him. I don’t really believe a lot of these things now, when people say “I won’t do x or y”. They won’t do it right up to the second they do it, and after they do it, they try to explain why it didn’t count.

These uniform partisan swings you mentioned, don’t they go against the whole notion of increasing partisanship in the US?

There is increasing partisanship, but it’s something that is happening gradually. Things that are happening in the timescale of a week or a month or a year, are pretty uniform. Long-term, though, the parties have been moving apart. Democrats are more and more distrustful of the Republicans and Republicans are more and more distrustful of the Democrats. So that is happening at the same time. You have the local uniform swings, within the context of the entire topography changing.
Read about another book Gelman tagged at The Browser.

Learn more about Andrew Gelman and his work at his website and blog.

Writers Read: Andrew Gelman (September 2008).

--Marshal Zeringue