Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Deep partisanship

I spend a good bit of my academic life thinking about partisanship. What does it mean to be a partisan? How do partisans differ from other partisans and from non-partisans? What are the behavioural consequences of partisanship?

Our understanding of partisanship has changed over time. Beginning in the 1960s, academics understood partisanship to be a deep attachment to a party formed early in life which subsequently acted as a perceptual screen on the political world. Think of it as similar to religious affiliation. Individuals may stray from their familial religious affiliations, but for the most part these act as an anchor throughout the lifecycle and serve to influence how we experience and perceive the world.

This understanding of partisanship was later challenged by a 'running tally' perception in which partisanship was taken to be an active evaluation of the parties on offer, where an individual 'updated' their partisanship as new events unfolded and changed it as their affection for one party increased over another.

I think it's fair to say that the first view has better stood the test of time, both inside American and outside. Principal in the defense of this view is a great book by Green, Schickler, and Palmquist called Partisan Hearts and Minds.

My own work has examined the behavioural and material foundations of partisanship in Canada. For example, I've shown that revealed material concern for the well-being of other partisans explains much of the decision to vote in Canada. I've also shown that material concern for others varies with our own and others partisanship. Finally, I am working on a larger (though still very preliminary project) on whether behavioural differences characterize different partisans. My own contribution is very small.

The most important contribution in recent years, and this is the point of this post, has just been made by Alan Gerber and Gregory Huber in this paper. Here's the story: for a long time, we've had survey evidence that partisans have more positive economic expectations when their preferred party is in power in Washington. In other words, Republican partisans say they expect the economy to perform better when there is a Republican president than when there is a Democratic president. The same applies (in reverse) for Democrats. However, this could merely be an artefact of surveys. If partisanship really matters in a deep way, then what is needed is evidence that partisans behave differently when their preferred party is in office. Gerber and Huber provide evidence of this. They demonstrate that changes in the rate of expenditures at the county level following an election correlate with the partisanship of the county. So, more Democratic counties would increase their rate of spending more than Republican counties (or more accurately, decrease it less quickly, as spending is generally lower in the winter than in the fall) following the election of a Democratic President. The same applies for Republicans.

This is an extremely important finding as it shows that partisanship has deep behavioural consequences. It is not simply a tally of one's preferences, but instead an affiliation which influences how one approaches not only the political but also the commercial world.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Stephenson and Tanguay on electoral reform. Or why you need multiple methods.

Yesterday afternoon, Dan Rubenson forwarded on to me Laura Stephenson and Brian Tanguay's IRPP research paper on electoral reform in Canada. It's a nice piece in a lot of ways. It charts the path to electoral reform very comprehensively. It draws the link between the decline in turnout and calls for electoral reform (even though the latter will do next to nothing to change the former). And then it presents a series of results on why citizens of Ontario voted against reform 3 to 2.

This is where their piece goes off the rails a little bit.

S and T take a very conventional approach. They survey 1000 Ontarians on a battery of items, including attitudes on things they may have never thought about. In particular, they ask lots of questions about whether citizens value fairness and proportionality, and whether they feel that election results under the current FPTP system are unfair. This is fine as far as it goes. I don't have too much trouble with the idea that citizens can hold more or less sensible opinions on things about which they know nothing and have thought very little. The more damning objection is that they miss a central fact about electoral reform.

Here it is: electoral reform, especially away from a FPTP system, is not about being for proportionality or against proportionality. On principle, I can't imagine many people are against fairness. It's about trade-offs between two largely irreconcilable goals. In the case of PR, the goals are responsiveness and policy that reflects the preferences of as wide a swatch of the population as possible. For plurality systems, like FPTP, it's about effective governance and accountability. It's about being able to effectively identify the rascals and show them the door if you dislike their actions in the years prior. This argument has been made by people a lot smarter than me. Powell, for instance, makes this argument very clearly. Yet mention of him is entirely missing from this piece. Asking about only one aspect of electoral reform largely misses these contours. As a result, S and T's study sheds dim and incomplete light on why electoral reform failed. It doesn't make it wrong, just not as right as it could be.

Now, the shameless self-promotion. Daniel and I ran a couple of studies during the same referendum. We ran them a lot differently than most of our colleagues who rely solely on survey based methods and lots of post-hoc modelling assumptions and simulations. First, we conducted an actual field experiment in which we exposed voters to varying levels of campaign materials from either or both sides of the campaign. You can read a paper about it here. (Of course, you can also send comments). What do we find? So far, we've completed failed to find a persuasion effect. Neither side was much good at convincing voters that their system was better; those who received mail from either side did not hold opinions any different from those who received no mail at all. If you want an exogenous and uncorrupted measure of information, this is a lot better than a quiz on a survey. Second, we found a small mobilization effect, such that those who received more mail from either side were more likely to vote in the referendum. But the effect is very small. Those in the heaviest treatment condition only voted in rates about 1.4 percentage points higher (Table 4). These effects are much smaller than any that would be estimated according to some information coefficient in a regression model. It's just hard to believe that increased information in the referendum would have increased turnout or support for MMP.

Why is it hard to believe? In another paper with Arthur Spirling, Dan and I investigated the power of arguments for and against reform (the paper is under R and R, so it's not public. But I am happy to send it on request). By power, we mean the ability of an argument to illicit agreement with its preferred position in the face of an argument from the other side. To measure the power of arguments, we gave respondents in a survey experiment one of six arguments for FPTP and one of six for MMP. We then asked them which system they supported. We ignored all individual level aspects, and instead focussed on the charactersitics of arguments. Through something called a Bradley-Terry model, we are able to test which arguments are most powerful (or convincing) and why. The picture below demonstrates our key results.

Here's the main story: there is a lot that is convincing about MMP, namely that it provides for much greater proportionality. But, there are two things that hurt it. First, it weakens local representation.* Second, it gives a central role to political parties. Voters like proportionality, but they don't like the other two factors. Unfortunately, you can't argue for MMP without mentioning these other factors. Likewise, you can't invoke proportionality when arguing for FPTP.

The figure below shows the effects of an argument invoking some feature of electoral systems on its probability of winning an argument in our experiment. As can be seen, an argument that invokes fairness experiences an almost 14 point advantage. But as soon as political parties are mentioned, a hit of about 7 points is incurred, cutting the fairness advantage in half.

And what of FPTP? It's advantage came from a small built-in bias for the status quo. All FPTP arguments enjoy about a 7 point kick. And then arguments which invoke local control get a 9-10 point kick. So, FPTP has small but consistent advantages over MMP.

The real story is that both systems have elements which make them attractive but which also draw away from them. If you want to explain why a referendum issue falls, you should take a full account of the dimensions of the choice at hand. And one should think about more than just conducting a survey.

*I know, I can hear howls in some departments that it doesn't, but I think the consensus is that it does. I've got a clever experiment in the works to test this proposition.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Various and sundry, v N.

It's been some time since I have posted. To those of bated breath, you can now exhale. Here are three unrelated items:

i) I recently completed the first public draft of a paper with my great colleague, Chris Dawes. The paper is titled "The CHRNA6 Gene, Patience, and Voter Turnout." It's a straight-ahead behavioural genetics piece showing the relationship between a gene that regulates impulsivity and voter turnout. We rely on Fowler and Kam's clever observation that voting relies on patience, since you pay a cost today for benefits in the future. We then show that those who have versions of the CHRNA6 gene that are associated with lower impulsivity are more likely to vote. Comments are welcome, of course.

ii) This is not good news for Michael Ignatieff. But it's hardly the end of the world. Turning around the Liberal ship should take time, however talented a leader. Liberals need to focus on fighting an election a year from now and not tomorrow. By my lights, this means avoiding silly gimmicks, building up riding associations (especially the more amateur ones, on which my colleague Royce Koop is doing great academic work), and preparing very convincing post-recession policy. It's not the time for panic, for unnecessary bemoaning of a lack of strategic acumen, or for seemingly reflective interviews.

iii) I recently flew to India for a wedding. Indian weddings are long, and the flights seem longer. But they are, without question, worth every wasted jet-lagged day on return.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Dear Canada Post

Did you really mean it when you said my package would arrive the next day before noon? Or were you just telling me that? 'Cause it's Monday afternoon. And that was Thursday afternoon. That's more than twenty-four hours, no?

Ok. Thanks.