The New Yorker magazine a couple months ago had an article about what political science can tell us about politics. Turns out, for people interested in voter turnout, it can tell us quite a bit. The classic study is called The American Voter, reissued every couple years since its original publication in 1960. It’s a must-have for every grad student who studies American politics and every political consultant. I bet Karl Rove has a dog-eared copy by his bedside. I don’t study American politics, so I don’t really know anything more than most of the rest of you do about this election. I’m particularly bad at elections. Whenever I try to think about voting, I keep coming across the question of why anyone would ever vote. The probability that your vote actually is the decisive vote is so small, and the opportunity cost is so high. But nevertheless, we vote.
Despite my own ignorance, I do happen to know several students of American politics of varying ideological persuasions, and I have been fortunate to receive emails from a bunch of them regarding the recent election, and what we do and do not know about it. There has been some discussion about whether or not Bush’s electoral victory can be attributed to the existence of anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives in 11 of the states. This seems to have been a big idea among various liberal groups who seem to believe that homophobic red-staters carried Bush to victory. Several of them raised the point that if this were true, then you’d expect the change in Bush’s percentage of the two-party vote from 2000 to 2004 to be higher in states with the ballot initiative than in other states. This is not the case. In fact, Bush experienced, on average, a bigger vote rise in states without the ballot initiative, although the statistical significance of this change is probably low. What this means practically, for all you liberals out there fussing about anti-gay marriage amendments, is that you need to look a little harder to find out why Kerry was less popular than Bush. More precisely, another friend has noted, this does not mean that anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives were not the reason that Bush fared so well, because indeed Bush may have gained a ton of votes for this reason and lost a ton of votes (but not so many) for some other reason like the economy. This case may become more plausible when you take into account that turnout increased 1.4% since 2000 in non-initiative states, but increased 6.14% since 2000 in states with the initiative. All that this means is that liberals should not fall into the trap that David Brooks has pointed out of trying to find some simplistic scapegoat for why the Democratic Party did relatively more poorly this election than last time. It’s very easy to blame someone you think you can feel morally superior to–remember, as Brooks does, "Willie Horton-bashing racists"–and ignore what the true reasons for electoral defeat are.
The other subject, which has had less discussion but which I believe to be fairly important, is why the exit polls were so wrong. A friend who has an ear to the American Association of Public Opinion Research has reported that the short answer is that no one really knows, but they really want to know why. Another friend has raised the point that disparities may arise even if the exit polls are unbiased because people vote at different times in the day. The 2pm polls measured people who tend to vote early in the day, which include both women voters and so-called "angry voters," the former of which have been proven, and the latter of which are believed, to vote earlier in the day.
So, the answer to the question of what political science tells us is not so much that is not available to anyone else in this case, but political scientists are good for synthesizing information and pointing out what is wrong with other arguments.