CEG’s first American Politics Conference brought together young scholars focused on critical issues, from scam PACs to judicial diversity.

After wrapping up a lively group discussion at the Harris School of Public Policy about her research on scam Political Action Committees, Zhao Li took a few moments to assess the experience.

“I was just telling someone that I presented this paper at a few different venues,” said Li, Assistant Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University, “and this group, by far, provided the most thoughtful, engaging feedback.”

Li’s discussion on “Lemons in the Political Marketplace: A Big-Data Approach to Detect Scam PACs” was the final of seven sessions in the two-day American Politics Conference, the Center for Effective Government’s first academic conference focused on critical issues in American politics. Held on June 23-24 in the Sky Suite of the Keller Center, the symposium brought together a unique gathering of about 25 scholars.

William Howell, Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics, serves as director of the Center for Effective Government.

“We wanted to look for scholars who were asking questions of the first order of importance to American politics,” said William Howell, Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics, and the director of CEG, during a break on the second day of the conference. “And we wanted to pay particular attention to younger scholars doing vital work in this space because we care about the growth of the discipline.”

In addition, Howell said, CEG wanted to create a signature event that elevates research on democracy, heightens UChicago’s “fantastic group of American politics scholars” and positions Harris Public Policy and the Keller Center as destinations for showing the best work in the field of policy and government.

Harris announced the creation of the Center for Effective Government in 2019 with the goal of forming an academic research center that could fuel change in government and politics. “Harris is the right place for leaders and scholars to come together,” Howell said at the time, adding that the Center will “bridge the gap between research and policy.”

Though the topics discussed at the gathering are among the largest in the discipline, organizers wanted to keep the event intimate.

“You want a critical mass,” Howell said. “But I’ve been to conferences where there are 150 people in the audience and that changes the dynamics. You lose deliberation and connection.”

The personal connections resonated with Li and others.

“I know a lot of people here,” she said, “and I haven’t seen them since COVID. It’s so great to re-connect as friends.”

In organizing the symposium, Harris Assistant Professors Alexander Fourinaies, Daniel Moskowitz, and Adam Zelizer – who are CEG faculty affiliates – intentionally avoided specifying a theme.

“In a certain sense, it’s very difficult to encapsulate all the papers,” Moskowitz said. “What we focused on was bringing in early- to mid-career presenters doing compelling, interesting, rigorous research. The topics are all over the map – by design – and represent some of the most important, high-quality research related to American politics in the discipline of political science.”

From scam PACs to judicial diversity

Li’s presentation on scam PACs, which present themselves as raising money for a candidate or cause but use most of the funds to enrich PAC creators, noted that alleged scam PACs raised more than $106 million in 2018. Her proposal to discourage scam PACs is a supervised machine learning algorithm that systematically detects scam PACs in federal elections.

Other symposium topics included:

  • Whether elite allegations of election fraud demobilize supporters. Presenter Zac Peskowitz, Associate Professor of Political Science at Emory University, found that supporters of Donald Trump, who promoted unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud, experienced large relative turnout declines of 1.67 percent in the 2021 Georgia runoff election.
  • An analysis of “Latino vote switchers” between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, when Joe Biden received 8 percent less support from Latinx voters than Hillary Clinton four years earlier, the largest drop of any racial or ethnic group. Presenter Bernard Fraga, Associate Professor of Political Science at Emory, reported that conservative, low socioeconomic status and hardline immigration restrictionists among Latinos contributed to the switch, as did newly mobilized Latinos.
  • The impact of judicial diversity on case outcomes in federal courts. Ryan Hubert, Assistant Professor of Political Science at University of California-Davis, reported that assignment of a case to a non-white or woman judge has no statistically significant effect on case outcomes for Democratic appointees but causes more pro-defendant outcomes for Republican appointees.
  • The effect of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby decision, which ended a required federal approval before places with a history of discrimination changed their voting procedures. Presenter Mayya Komisarchik, University of Rochester Assistant Professor of Political Science, found minimal changes in minority registration and voting since the 2013 decision, suggesting that the decision did not suppress minority voter participation.

For Komisarchik, the quality of presenters and discussants—from institutions such as Columbia University, Northwestern, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Wisconsin-Madison as well as UChicago—made a strong impression.

"The first thing that stands out about this conference is the intellectual firepower,” she said after her presentation. “It's also nice that it's intimate. That kind of conference really fosters deep discussions and insight on research."

Peskowitz agreed, calling the presenters “a great group of scholars doing cutting-edge research.” Attendees “gave extremely high-quality feedback,” he added. Peskowitz said he also was impressed by the conference's focus on younger scholars.

Presidential norms have wide support, according to one paper.

Another example of that focus was a roundtable discussion of four University of Chicago graduate students’ research. They included Chandler James, AB, ‘14, MA ‘20, a PhD student in the political science department, who presented “Who Cares? Public Support of Presidential Norms.”

In a nationally representative sample of nearly 800 respondents, James’s research found widespread public support for almost every presidential norm from releasing their financial records to taking the oath of office on a Bible, although that support can depend on the norm and other politically relevant characteristics.

He said the discussion of his work was “careful, detailed, and very constructive.” Throughout the symposium, James said, he “encountered a lot of quality research and discussion of political phenomena and events that affect the real world.”

His friend, fellow political science graduate student Winston Berg, said he appreciated presenters’ and commenters’ efforts to consider how political science expertise could have a more powerful impact on timely, pressing issues.

“As scholarly work becomes more accessible to audiences outside the academy,” Berg said, “it's becoming more and more important to make sure that research is accessible, rigorous, and oriented toward questions that the public is asking about politics. I thought the CEG presenters did a good job keeping one another focused on those goals.”

Plans for annual conference

Howell and the other organizers originally planned to stage the event in 2020. When the COVID pandemic hit, those plans were shelved.

“It feels really good to be back in a room, looking at original research and trying to make sense of it, and doing it in ways that academics do,” he said. “I find that invigorating. I also think that this is desperately needed in a larger political space where concerns about the health of our democracy have a distinct urgency and so many of these issues interrelate. And we’re in a place where we're not rooting for one finding or another. We're just trying to get it right.”

Howell said he hopes to make the unique American Politics Conference an annual event, which would be welcome news to Li from Princeton. Apart from the intellectual and collegial benefits, she was impressed with the surroundings.

“I really like The Study,” Li said with a chuckle, referring to the newly opened hotel next to the Keller Center. “That and the Keller Center, this part of campus, really, is just very nice. I like that too.”