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Reading the tea leaves: a Q&A with Costas Panagopoulos

In a matter of months, federal elections in the United States will enter full-swing. I recently asked Costas Panagopoulos, a professor at Fordham University and an expert on political campaigns, a few questions about the important elections recently conducted in the United States and what we might learn from those recent campaigns.

Recently there have been three important elections in the United States with potential national implications: the special election for New Jersey’s US Senate seat, and gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. What are the lessons that can be learned from these three important elections?

One of the main lessons to come out of the 2013 election results is that voters are fed up. Against the backdrop of gridlock, shutdowns, and showdowns in Washington, many voters are simply alienated, as record-low, like-cycle turnout in places like New York City, New Jersey, and elsewhere suggest. In New Jersey, turnout was about 38%, roughly ten percentage points lower than the prior record-low turnout rate of 47% set in the gubernatorial race in 2009. Confidence in government—politicians and institutions—is at an alarmingly low level, implying incumbents have their work cut out for them in the midterm cycle next year. There is even some evidence that the public may be (finally?) reacting against extreme partisan polarization (as Tea Party-favorite Dean Young’s loss in Alabama’s solidly conservative 1st Congressional suggests). Even Christie’s win in New Jersey cannot be pinned up as a triumph for the far right given his more moderate views.

United States President Barack Obama with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and members of his staff in Chief of Staff Jack Lew's office in the West Wing of the White House on 6 December 2012. Photo by Pete Souza. Courtesy of the White House.
United States President Barack Obama with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and members of his staff in Chief of Staff Jack Lew’s office in the West Wing of the White House on 6 December 2012. Photo by Pete Souza. Courtesy of the White House.

Social media and other new electronic communication technologies are becoming prominent political tools (for example, Cory Booker currently has over 1.4 million Twitter followers). How have recently campaigns used these new tools? Are there emerging best practices for the use of social media in campaigns?

Political campaigns are adapting rapidly to the changing social media landscape and learning to leverage these technologies to mobilize and persuade voters. Campaigns at all levels are pouring considerable resources into tapping social media opportunities. The Obama examples (in both 2008 and 2012) still stand out as exemplary models, but Booker and others in subsequent cycles have risen to the occasion. In many ways, it is still way too early to speak of “best practices” when it comes to social media given how quickly the technology is changing and evolving, but campaigns are learning to experiment, to think outside the box, and to run integrated campaigns that blend new and traditional forms of outreach and communication to maximum effect.

Looking ahead to the 2014 congressional elections in the United States, what new trends in campaign practices do you see emerging?

The social dimensions of voter participation and engagement are becoming increasingly potent. Campaigns are finding that top-down, hierarchical communication may not be as effective and peer-to-peer communication. There is a great deal of emphasis on honing strategies that target voters and that take advantage of social networks.

“Big data” analytics have been pointed to as one of the reasons for Obama’s victory in 2012; to what extend do you believe that conventional wisdom is correct, and do you see that either political party has a lead in the use of “big data” analytics going into the 2014 congressional and 2016 presidential election cycles in the United States?

“Big data” is an integral part of any modern campaign, and it is here to stay. We’re living in an age in which most politicians have more information about voters than voters have about politicians. This will only intensify in the years ahead. Although Democrats may be slightly ahead of the curve on big data (given the Obama teams’ efforts in 2008 and 2012), Republicans are not oblivious to these developments, and they are quickly catching up. It’s also unclear how much access Democrats more generally will have to resources and data that the “Obama for America” team assembled in past races. One thing is for sure, big data analytics will be a part of any modern campaign strategy.

Costas Panagopoulos is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy and the Master’s Program in Elections and Campaign Management at Fordham University. His research has been published in the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics and Political Analysis. He is currently working on a book about modern campaigns titled Political Campaigns: Context, Choices and Consequences (Oxford University Press).

R. Michael Alvarez is a professor of Political Science at Caltech. His research and teaching focuses on elections, voting behavior, and election technologies. He is editor-in-chief of Political Analysis with Jonathan N. Katz. Read his previous articles on the OUPblog.

Political Analysis chronicles the exciting developments in the field of political methodology, with contributions to empirical and methodological scholarship outside the diffuse borders of political science. It is published on behalf of The Society for Political Methodology and the Political Methodology Section of the American Political Science Association. Political Analysis is ranked #5 out of 157 journals in Political Science by 5-year impact factor, according to the 2012 ISI Journal Citation Reports. Like Political Analysis on Facebook and follow @PolAnalysis on Twitter.

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