Field Studies

If you want to learn how electoral politics really works, you can get answers from professional political strategists or from social scientists who study campaigns. But don’t expect the same answers. 

Although they are interested in many of the same questions – such as how do voters decide which candidate to support or how can a campaign motivate people to vote – academics and political practitioners rarely collaborate and rarely have the same perspective.

For one thing, what constitutes knowledge and evidence is not the same for the two groups. Given how quickly they must make and execute crucial strategic decisions, strategists hired to win campaigns often feel they don’t have the time and resources necessary to rigorously test alternative treatments using the kind of controlled experiments that scholars believe is essential to knowledge discovery. Furthermore, they question whether controlled experiments are really viable – or the findings generalizable – in the rapidly changing, uncontrollable world of politics.

So, to guide their decisions, political strategists most often draw on their years of experience in the political trenches and on data that must be obtained through methods that do not meet the standards of rigor and control demanded by academics.  

Meanwhile, scholars, who are able to conduct their investigations and publish their findings without regard to the pressures of the election cycle, believe rigorously controlled experimentation and research is essential to gaining an accurate understanding of the electoral process. Furthermore, they argue that it’s worth the time and money for campaigns to engage in properly conducted research because doing so would enable them to make wiser resource allocation decisions that could benefit not just the campaign and candidate, but also the voters they are trying to reach.

“I think both sides have some respect for what the other is saying,” says one Democratic strategist. “The problem is we are just moving through the universe at two very different speeds and with very different constraints.”

In an effort to bridge the gap, the Center for Survey Methodology at Chicago Harris recently invited some of the nation’s leading experts from both sides of the divide and both sides of the political aisle to share their insights at an initiative entitled “How Voters Think: Lessons From Science and Practice.” Sponsored by the Center with support from the Population Research Center and the UChicago Institute of Politics, the first conference, held in Chicago May 27-28, brought together 10 prominent Democratic political practitioners and six of the nation’s top political scholars to share their perspectives on the inner workings of electoral politics. 

This conference was followed by a parallel event on October 10–11 featuring the same scholars and 10 of the nation’s top Republican strategists. The conferences were convened by Harris Professor and former Dean Colm O’Muircheartaigh, Stanford Professor Jon Krosnick, and Marc Farinella, executive director of the Center for Survey Methodology.

Both events included six presentations about research findings followed by open dialogue on the issues raised. Topics for discussion included the causes of turnout and candidate choice, the impact of political advertising, the effectiveness of mobilization efforts, and more. At the close of both events, Harris Assistant Professor Anthony Fowler, whose work focuses on causal questions about political representation, led a discussion on open questions and future research opportunities.
“I think both the academics and practitioners saw broad value in being around each other,” Fowler said of the events. Fowler pointed out that the dialogues are already bearing fruit in the form of research opportunities, as several practitioners have reached out to their new academic peers to discuss future collaborations.

“Campaigns by their nature are short-lived and don't allow for much thoughtful examination as to which practices are more or less effective,” said Beth Myers, a conference participant who managed Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign. “Collaboration between academicians and practitioners is extremely valuable because the cross-pollination of different approaches yields new ways of looking at the political experience. What may seem obvious to the academics may not hold in the field, and what seems problematic on the campaign trail may be clear as day to the academic with distance from the emotions of a frenzied campaign.” 

Democratic strategist Monica Dixon also regarded the discussions as mutually beneficial and sees advantage in future collaboration involving real-world campaigns in real time. “There is a unique opportunity for academic leaders to bring their expertise to bear in the moment-to-moment decisions that are happening in campaigns,” Dixon explained. “And the academic leaders can walk away from that experience having lived through a campaign in the way that we do each and every day, so that it will better inform their research.”
O’Muircheartaigh, who serves as academic director of the Center for Survey Methodology, believes the conferences helped advance one of the center’s primary goals. “The Center for Survey Methodology aims to bridge the divide between political practitioners and the academy through the exchange of ideas, perspectives and knowledge,” O’Muircheartaigh said. “By sharing knowledge and experiences, disseminating research findings, and helping campaigns better incorporate the use and proper analysis of data in their decision-making, the Center can help improve the health and functionality of our democracy.”

“At the end of the day, that’s what we are striving to do,” said O’Muircheartaigh. “Ultimately, this kind of sharing of knowledge and exchange of perspectives can help make political campaigns more relevant and meaningful to voters, and government more accountable them.”