Patterns in political yard signs

A new book by three political scientists look at how Americans have deployed and reacted to yard signs in recent election cycles:

We just started being puzzled about it. We did things like code the amount of traffic on a given street, and we thought maybe people on a street with high traffic would be more likely to put up signs. But you find out that those people wanted to let other people know where they stand- that it wasn’t just about catching the eye of passing traffic [to try to get out the vote for a candidate]. We found out that there’s a combination of expressive and communicative motives…

One of the things that was really clear from our studies is that signs are really important to people who display them. They’re emotionally invested in these dynamics and are more likely than people who don’t put up signs to say that it’s a good thing, or a reasonable thing, for neighborhoods to be doing.

I also think this is why we hear about these stories of theft and vandalism-people going to extremes around signs. At least seemingly, in news reports, it can accelerate fast, from people putting up signs to some kind of an altercation, a police report, a fight on the street. I think it’s because people view it as a real affront when someone messes with their expression of self…

You really notice, when you’re walking around, those places where signs are battling one another. But when we did spatial analysis to look at the clustering of signs systematically, in a way that would cut through those strong anecdotal impressions, we found that, really, there wasn’t much evidence of the intermingling of signs-the famous Sign Wars, where there’s a Biden sign at one house and a Trump sign next to it. Really, it was more about like-minded clustering: pockets of Biden supporters signaling to one another, pockets of Trump supporters signaling to one another. More solidarity than outright conflict.

I appreciate the systematic approach for a phenomenon that lends itself to anecdotes. This is how social science can be really helpful: many people have experiences with or have seen yard signs but unless researchers approach the issue in a rigorous way, it is hard to know what exactly is going on.

For example, I regularly walk in two different places in my suburb and I have been keeping an eye on yard signs. At least in the areas I walk, the signs are primarily in favor of one party in the national election while local election signs are more varied. Furthermore, the number of people who have signs is still pretty limited even in a heated political climate. But, just based on my walks, I do not know if what I am seeing match my suburb as a whole let alone communities across the United States. And unless I interact in some way with the people with (and without) yard signs, I have little idea of what is motivating them.

I wonder how the behavior of putting out political yard signs relates to other political behavior. If a political yard sign is expressive, how much does this carry over to other parts of life? Are these the people who are most active in local political activity? Are they the most partisan? Are they the ones always bringing up politics at family gatherings or among friends?

I would also be curious to how this relates to social class and particular neighborhoods. Lawns, in some places, are sacred: they should be green, free of weeds and leaves. Property values are important in many places. Political signs might mess up particular aesthetics or introduce the idea of conflict when suburbanites just want to leave each other alone.

“Who Governs” the city?

Political scientist Robert Dahl authored the influential 1961 book Who Governs? and here is a quick summary of his work upon his recent death:

His career lasted for more than half a century, but he was best known for the 1961 publication “Who Governs?” Cited by the Times Literary Supplement as among the 100 most influential books since World War II, “Who Governs?” probed the political system of Dahl’s own community at the time, New Haven, which he considered an ideal microcosm for the country: two strong parties, a long history and a careful progression from patrician rule to self-made men to party rule, where candidates of varied ethnic and economic backgrounds – a garage owner, an undertaker, a director of publicity – might succeed.

Dahl wanted to know who really ran the city, and, by extension, the country. Sociologist C. Wright Mills, in “The Power Elite,” had written that wealth and power were concentrated within a tiny group of people. Dahl believed no single entity was in charge. Instead, there were competing ones – social, economic and political leaders whose goals often did not overlap. He acknowledged that many citizens did not participate in local issues and that the rich had advantages over the poor, but concluded that New Haven, while a “republic of unequal citizens,” was still a republic.

Dahl’s conclusions were strongly challenged in the 1970s by sociologist G. William Domhoff, who used research provided in part by Dahl himself to find that he had underestimated the power of the business community and overestimated the divisions among New Haven’s leaders. Domhoof alleged that Dahl relied too much on the people he spoke with.

“It may be that the most serious criticism I can make of Dahl is that he never should have done this interview-based study in the first place, for it was doomed from the start to fall victim to the ambitions and plans of the politicians, planners, lawyers and businessmen that he was interviewing,” Domhoff wrote.

Impressive – many social scientists could only dream of having a book that is named among the most influential.

This debate is related to a leading perspective in urban sociology, the political economy paradigm, which argues that urban development is the result of powerful and politically connected actors. In cities and suburbs, development is often the work of politicians and the FIRE industries – finance, insurance, and real estate – working together to make money. These groups, dubbed growth machines, can access a range of resources not available to average citizens including credit, political influence, and public booster efforts often led by leading citizens and local media. Across cities and locales, the particular configuration of growth machines can differ but the key is to know where to first look when understanding development.

“The Nate Silver of immigration reform”

Want a statistical model that tells you which Congressman to lobby on immigration reform? Look no further than a political scientist at UC San Diego:

In the mold of Silver, who is famous for his election predictions, Wong bridges the gap between equations and shoe-leather politics, said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and a senior analyst for Latino Decisions, a political opinion research group.

Activists already have an idea of which lawmakers to target, but Wong gives them an extra edge. He can generate a custom analysis for, say, who might be receptive to an argument based on religious faith. With the House likely to consider separate measures rather than a comprehensive bill, Wong covers every permutation.

“In the House, everybody’s in their own unique geopolitical context,” Damore said. “What he’s doing is very, very useful.”

The equations Wong uses are familiar to many political scientists. So are his raw materials: each lawmaker’s past votes and the ethnic composition of his or her district. But no one else appears to be applying those tools to immigration in quite the way Wong does.

So is there something extra in the models that others don’t have or is Wong extra good at interpreting the results? The article suggests there are some common factors all political scientists would consider but then it also hints there are some more hidden factors like religiosity or district-specific happenings.

A fear I have for Nate Silver as well: what happens when the models are wrong? Those who work with statistics know they are just predictions and statistical models always have error but this isn’t necessarily how the public sees things.

Is Charles Murray really a sociologist?

I’ve seen a number of news stories about Charles Murray’s latest book and one thing caught my eye: the claim that Murray is a sociologist. (See examples from the Philadelphia Inquirer, BusinessWeek, and the National Catholic Reporter.) Is he really?

Murray’s page at his current scholarly home, the American Enterprise Institute, says he is a “political scientist, author, and libertarian.”

Wikipedia’s main entry for Murray clearly calls him a political scientist and records his PhD in political science but this list of sociologists includes Murray.

Perhaps the confusion comes from the fact that Murray is working with a lot of topics that are commonly covered by sociology such as race, social class, and family life. Even the New York Times describes his work as sociology:

Few people today would dismiss the idea that values, culture and intelligence all play a role in economic success. But it is hard to know what to make of some of Murray’s findings. As with David Brooks’s “Bobos in Paradise,”Murray’s sociology depends a lot on his own, sometimes highly idiosyncratic, fieldwork. To demonstrate that the elite are more likely to drive foreign cars than domestic ones, Murray notes the makes of automobiles in a couple of mall parking lots. In an otherwise persuasive chapter arguing that Ivy League graduates tend to live near one another, Murray quotes a remark by Michael Barone, the conservative commentator, complaining about the profusion of Harvard and Yale graduates on his former block. If Murray believes that wealthy yuppies suffer from creeping nonjudgmentalism, I invite him to spend an hour on

This quote suggests that Murray’s work is sociology because he is explaining sociological phenomena, not because he is working within the sociological tradition, utilizing sociological theories and methods, or even thinking like a typical sociologist. Practicing sociology (sometimes termed “pop sociology”) is quite different from being a sociologist. Is this simply lazy journalism or a bigger problem in that people don’t know how sociologists actually go about their work?

In a related question, how many sociologists would claim Murray is a sociologist? First, this could be tied to whether he is practicing good sociology. Second, this could be about whether he is espousing ideas that fit with sociological theories and data (and they generally don’t). How many sociologists would want to add libertarian as a descriptor of their image?

Politicial scientist uses social science skills to dissect soccer statistics

Social scientists do venture out of the ivory tower. Here is an example of a political scientist (who also teaches political sociology and has reviewed for several sociology journals) who uses his analytical skills to examine soccer numbers:

Chris Anderson found himself keeping goal for a West German fourth-division club at 17. He managed to hold on to the starting position for a couple of seasons, earning a few Deutsche Marks and watching the game from up close. Today he’s an award-winning professor at Cornell University, where he teaches political economy and political sociology. He consults with clubs about football numbers and his writings appear on his Soccer By The Numbers blog and other football publications, including the New York Times’ Goal blog…

I am primarily an academic who just happens to know a little about both soccer and about statistics. I was born and raised in Europe, so soccer was everywhere when I was growing up. Not to date myself, but the 1974 World Cup in Germany was a formative experience for me. That’s when I started playing. Eventually, I quit and became an academic, but fortunately, the analytical tools I use in my “day job” as a social scientist can easily be applied to soccer data. I read Soccernomics (by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski) and was hooked. So last year during the World Cup, I started playing around with some data and writing about them on Since then, it’s taken on a life of its own. Together with a colleague from another university, I am currently in the process of writing a book about the game using statistical evidence.

It is sabermetrics for soccer! It would be very interesting to hear whether Anderson uses similar techniques in his political science and soccer work and how the soccer works help him keep up on statistical analysis.

A bonus: since Anderson has “been sworn to secrecy” regarding whether he has done detailed analyses for specific teams, we can assume that statistical skills can also lead to getting paid by a sports team.

American female legislators are more effective than men

A new study in the American Journal of Political Science suggests females are better lawmakers than men:

according to a forthcoming study in the American Journal of Political Science—because women also rank as the most effective lawmakers in the land.

The research is the first to compare the performance of male and female politicians nationally, and it finds that female members of the House rout their male counterparts in both pulling pork and shaping policy. Between 1984 and 2004, women won their home districts an average of $49 million more per year than their male counterparts (a finding that held regardless of party, geography, committee position, tenure in office, or margin of victory). The spending jump was found within districts, too, when women moved into seats previously occupied by men, and the cash was for projects across the spectrum, not just “women’s issues.”

A similar performance gap showed up in policy: Women sponsored more bills (an average of three more per Congress), cosponsored more bills (an average of 26 more per Congress), and attracted a greater number of cosponsors than their colleagues who use the other restroom. These new laws driven by women were not only enacted—they were popular.

Two interesting findings. Some might argue these days whether pork is a good measure of “effectiveness” but sponsoring and passing laws seems pretty important.

The next question is why this is the case. Here is what the study concludes:

So are women just innately better politicians? Probably not. More likely, say Berry and Anzia, female politicians are better than men because, as in other fields, they simply have to be. More than 90 years after the first woman was elected to Congress, female politicians still hold less than a fifth of all national seats, and do only slightly better at the state level. In order to overcome lingering bias against women in leadership positions, those women must work that much harder to be seen as equals.

The authors seem to think this effect will go away in coming decades as more women are elected to office. One way to test this idea now that female American legislators have to be better in order to get elected to office is to look at similar measures of effectiveness in national legislatures with greater proportions of women. In countries where the number of men and women are more equal, is there still an effectiveness gap? Did other nations experience a similar pattern as women increased in numbers in the legislature?

It will be interesting to watch the discussion about these findings.