What can we learn from the US presidential election? - Blueboard by Arjan P. Aguirre
Last month’s presidential election in the United States created a buzz over the disappointing failure of Political Science to predict the triumph of the Republican candidate, Donald Trump. For many people, this electoral upset revealed the inadequacy of field of political science to provide a credible and convincing way to predict the outcome of one of the most stable elections among modern-day democratic societies. For others, this election provided an opportunity for Political Science to reaffirm its role in electoral politics. What can we learn from this debate about Political Science vis-à-vis elections?
The distrust toward Political Science is a mere indication of the pervasive misunderstanding about the discipline of Political Science and the ‘professionalization’ that it undertakes especially in the area of electoral politics. This misunderstanding strikes at the essential and instrumental worth of Political Science in elections.
So what does Political Science, Political Science professional or political scientist exactly do in elections?
As seen in the last US election, 70-80% of the people who staffed campaign teams come from the social sciences field (like Sociology, Communication, Economics, Public Policy, among others). Majority of these people are men and women who proudly represent the discipline of Political Science.
Political science practitioners are usually found holding important positions in a campaign organization or a political party. In the US elections, political scientists are usually appointed as ‘Campaign Managers’ or head of the campaign team where they make important decisions that concern the campaign organization, scheduling, messaging, strategy, to name a few. The successful campaigns of President Barack Obama and President-designate Trump were handled by known professional political operatives or political consultants who have Political Science degree: David Plouffe, Jim Messina and Kellyanne Conway. Conway, in fact, is the first woman to ever run a successful US presidential campaign.
Political Science professionals are also tapped as consultants during elections. As consultants, they are considered experts on areas such as campaign strategy, political communication, policy analysis, among others. Political operatives such as David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs played an important role in the strategy and messaging of the Obama campaigns. For Trump’s campaign team, David Bossie, Roger Stone, Michael Glassner, to name a few, were significant in pulling Trump’s numbers through targeted negative campaigning and strategic mobilization of voters.
Apart from partisan work, political scientists (together, this time, with professional statisticians, mathematicians, among others) also work as pollsters during elections. Pollsters are the ones who give objective projections and guesstimates to media networks, candidates, political parties, and voters on political opinions, voter preference and behavior, candidate winnability, to name a few.
Going back to US election, only a small number in the polling industry have predicted Trump’s upset win. While the economists got it right from Arie Kapteyn’s (University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times Election Poll) positive forecast for Trump and Nate Silvers’ (FiveThirtyEight) conservative projection of 71% Clinton winning the election, it is worth noting that Political Science also has a few who approximated it right: Robert Erikson, Christopher Wlezien, and Alan I. Abramowitz.
Lastly, Political Science, as a field of study or academic discipline, offers the best and credible frameworks and tools that make sense of elections through its theories, methods, and approaches. Major stakeholders often use it to better understand the complexities and nuances of electoral systems, political parties, voting behaviors, campaign tools, electoral management, electoral outcomes, election patterns, campaign strategies, to name a few. ‘Comparativists’ usually participate in elections through their expertise in party politics, campaign management, party strategies, among others. ‘Theorists’, on the other hand, usually lend their skills and abstractions to candidates and parties especially on policy prioritization and agenda, campaign messaging and most importantly, party ideological refinements. International Relations experts are usually hired as advisers in the areas of foreign relations, international trade and national security.
In the recent US election, the field was to provide theoretical grounding for understanding the political positions of both Clinton and Trump. Scholars and academics were very helpful in clarifying issues such as US foreign relations (with Russia, China and the developing societies such as the Philippines), terrorism (like the war on ISIS), budget (especially on government spending), environment (role on global warming), immigration (regulating the flow of immigrants), etc. The guidance that it gave allowed candidates to have an informed and critical understanding of issues that eventually facilitated a more political stand on controversies that are close to the voters’ interests.
Going back to the Philippines and perhaps even other democratizing societies, the recent US elections is an opportunity to rethink our biases and prejudices towards electoral politics and the role that Political Science plays in elections. Political scientists and professionals should be given more roles in elections by not limiting them to ‘political analysts’ work for media coverages and independent pollster work for major opinion survey firms. Political parties and campaign organizations should start recruiting experts on electoral politics to strengthen their party and campaign works. Most importantly, academic institutions should begin fostering innovative scholarly initiatives and research-oriented undertakings to allow future political scientists to have needed disposition for their future professional work.