With all due respect, I don’t think this has been an election about nothing. Instead of a nationalized midterm election, we’ve had many elections about many issues. High levels of polarization were with us in 2006 and 2010 and those elections were deemed to be about issues because of foreign policy failure (Iraq) and massive partisan policy change (Obamacare) and the continued national effects of the housing crash. Polarization is not the reason nothing big happened to nationalize around and create a feeling of a single election.
During a midterm, it’s hard to appreciate that the relative calm on the surface probably hides ripples below. Our media coverage is built for the big national campaigns for the presidency. Not having big national themes makes them confused. Pundits are too lazy (and/or political reporters are too thinned out) to dive into the state and local races. Why bother when the polls show their aren’t many of those anyways? And of course, lack of competition doesn’t imply a lack of issues.
But even someone wanting to dig into sub-national politics has it rough. By many accounts campaigning has been shifting from broadcast and into personalized mailings, phone calls, GOTV-oriented door knocking, and targeted internet advertising. For instance just today, Derek Willis reports:
Spending on digital platforms like Facebook is now normal; nearly 500 federal candidates and committees reported direct payments to the social media company this cycle, and the national party committees paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for advertising on it. But other, smaller services that have sizable audiences are attracting attention, and money, from political campaigns.
Social media advertising and other targeted campaign techniques are all hard for pundits and researchers to see and almost certainly less likely to generate the appearance of big issue debates even if they are going on.
Also the Republicans found some self-respect (or common sense) and clammed-up about Obamacare and Benghazi and whatever else. But that seems like it has only happened in the last couple months. Clearly the GOP of June was trying to tackle policy issues the “Seinfeld view” would assure us have been settled. I’d agree that the Democrats don’t seem to have galvanized around a positive agenda but why should they when…
On the supply-side, it seems like a campaign season based on a realization that no result will move the needle very much. Divided government (particularly in the age of the filibuster) with a “Republican Senate” just isn’t that appealing to at least some or many activists. Better to keep the powder dry for 2016 when things will really matter and some of the advantages of the last redistricting are starting to wane. That’s ambition keeping issues down, not polarization.
Theoretically, I don’t think the authors have made a case that polarization nationally (and dimensional collapse) implies that Riker’s heresthetics are dead. Quite pointedly, Riker would probably argue the opposite should be happening. Which again makes me think the ambitious are waiting for 2016. That doesn’t explain the behavior going on in say the individual senate and gubernatorial races, but it could easily be the case that whatever is going on in the 8-10 interesting ones does in fact look like heresthetics and not merely turnout games.
With respect to Wisconsin I’d never call Walker/Burke a campaign about nothing and I doubt anyone in Wisconsin would either. It would belittle Walker’s tangible accomplishments at changing the status quo to do so. It’s a fair point to say this election might not be about new issues though. And that’s what the media wants (new new new), but it’s not clear the electorate needs to be fed something novel every two years. But since the Walker/Burke contest is about old issues, I’ve seen more national coverage about the Walker/Ryan ambition dynamic than the ideological struggle going on inside the state. And again, covering presidential politics is more fun for the national media or a pundit than picking through each states’ political debates to find all of the different campaigns about issues.
John Patty was on to something when he mentioned social choice problems, but he really strikes a chord in the discussion of the recent judical election experiment controversy in his post Ethics, Experiments, and Election Administration:
[A]n experimental manipulation of an election is–in practice–equivalent to a “reform” of election administration.
If the implementation of field experiments can be considered changes to electoral institutions (and I think they certainly could be in many circumstances), then we should admit that experiments are potentially threatening to electoral outcomes as well.
Discussions of election experiments aren’t really about preference neutral scientific ethics, they are about election outcomes with everything that entails. It doesn’t matter how much IRB approval is granted or how much agreement political scientists share on the value of experiments; there is no ideology-free, politically frictionless safe space for us to play in.
Thrown-in a healthy dose of risk aversion on the part of voters, interest groups, parties, candidates, non-voters even and admit the fact that plenty of people don’t like to be messed with by scientists – social or otherwise. It’s no wonder that the Montana controversy has stirred so much strong resentment. The seemingly botched use of the state seal compounds the problems, but didn’t create them all.
Scholarship generated by field experiments conducted during elections (and also on elected officials) has been incredibly useful, interesting, and enlightening, but there is no reason to think that the public appreciates being a part of that process as much as political scientists enjoy the fruits of this research.
To date, researchers have benefited from ignorance. Going forward, they may very well be forced to either pause while they persuade more people of the value their interventions produce for society as a whole, or develop methods which more closely resemble the opt-in nature of a clinical drug trial which presumably leave no doubt about subject consent.
In the short-run, it may be difficult to implement an experiment, but hopefully in the long-run, political science will have benefited from such a public discussion of research.