Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I'm still here

Here's a little video from my friend Ben Rusch that I am really enjoying lately.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Human Nature Group

Just a quick note that I'll be cross-posting a lot of stuff at the Human Nature Group blog going forward. It's a cool group Fowler started at UCSD for researchers interested in political science work that leverages tools from the natural sciences. It would be great to get something similar started at Toronto. Check it out.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Hey Good Lookin: Does facial competence actually matter for election outcomes?

Are politicians successful when they are better looking? Todorov and colleagues (here and here) created a stir by demonstrating that election outcomes can be predicted based on very quick evaluations of the “competency” of candidates' faces. Could it be that voters are so superficial that a great share of them are merely persuaded by the attractiveness of candidates?

A recent article in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science takes on this question with a clever study. Atkinson et al. note that previous studies have not accounted for the possibility that candidate selection depends on the competitiveness of a race. They in fact show that challenging parties tend to run better-looking candidates when they have a greater chance of winning.
They demonstrate this in two-steps. First, they develop a survey instrument to estimate the competency of candidates’ faces. The method is clever. They show subjects a randomly drawn pair of papers and ask them to indicate which candidate looks more competent. They then derive a competency score that assumes some transitivity on competence, assumes it is probabilistic and not determinative, and assumes some continuum of competence. They develop their own estimator to score candidates (though using the existing Bradley-Terry method would have been easier!).

Next, they marry these scores to exit poll surveys to estimate the effect of competence on different types of voters, i.e. independents and partisans. They show that there is no competence effect for House races, but small effects in Senate races. These effects are larger for independent voters than for partisans. Finally, they use these estimates to test whether facial competence could have been pivotal in any Senate races. They find it was not.

A few thoughts on this paper and the facial competence literature more generally. First, I quite like that Atkinson et al have noted the selection effects which undermine the bold claims made by earlier papers. There is a general lesson in this: we can elicit large effects in laboratories. We should search for these effects, but we should be sure to test their external validity as close to actual vote choice as possible. What is more, they develop a nice instrument for replicating these findings in other countries. I should hope we could do something similar in Canada and other democracies, though I think a Bradley-Terry estimation could just as easily be used. Second, I don’t quite understand why such studies don’t also test for the effects of whether voters find some faces more “attractive” than others. Or, why not ask voters “Which person looks like they would understand your needs better?” There are any number of qualities we can infer from faces and I see no reason why competence should be the only one, or even chief among them.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Five notes on a Monday morning

1.) George Smitherman has resigned from cabinet and intends to run for mayor of Toronto. He'll most certainly be a formidable candidate. However, he has said he won't resign his seat in the provincial legislature until March. This is almost certainly a bad move. How will Smitherman gain traction criticizing current councillors for accepting pay raises when he wants to hold onto a job which he has said he no longer wants? He can obviously be an effective MPP for this period, especially given great stores of energy and political ability, which he has more of than 99% of politicians. But, he's inviting serious criticism. He should resign and head this off at the pass.
2.) I am participating in a conference on private members' business (i.e. the legislative initiatives of backbench MPs) in Toronto this week. Royce Koop and I have drafted a short paper on the determinants of legislation type in the last two parliaments. It's here if you're interested in reading it. Comments are, of course, welcome.
3.) This is an extremely interesting paper showing how affiliative cues change the behaviour of very young children. In other words, even with 18 month olds, reminders of connections between people lead them to engage in helping behaviour. It's terribly interesting.
4.) Mount Allison has named Peter Mansbridge its Chancellor. It was also ranked #1 in Maclean's last week, for the thirteenth time. It's terribly easy to be a proud alum of Mount A.
5.) The Berlin Wall fell twenty years ago today. Nothing above matters one epsilon as much as this.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

On Tomorrow's Byelections

Four byelections will be contest tomorrow: one in suburban Vancouver, another near Riviere-de-Loup, a third in Montreal, and a fourth in the Nova Scotia riding of Conservative-turned-independent Bill Casey.

This article by Joan Bryden tips the NDP to win one, the Bloc to win two, and the Cons to regain the NS riding. But it also goes on to outline how party strategists are claiming that these elections are a test of the health of official opposition. Is such a claim credible? Do by-elections act as a test of the popularity of the government and other parties?

Fred Bastien and I have an article forthcoming in the Canadian journal which tests this proposition, among others. You can read it here. We find that while the success of government parties in byelections was linked to the government's national popularity (as measured in national vote intentions) until 1993, there is little evidence that it is anymore. We don't have a strong explanation for this, except that the period since 1993 was characterized by a very fragmented opposition, strong regional variation in support for parties, and the lack of a credible national alternative. Accordingly, we are inclined to think that these elections were more likely to turn on local issues. Now, much has changed in our federal politics in the last five years, so this may no longer be the case. But for the meantime, view with caution any self-serving explanations that these byelections provide some measure of the vitality of parties nationally.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009