Friday, October 06, 2006

What is an Expert?

Lately, my phone on campus has been ringing off the proverbial hook. You see, our biennial election season is upon us once again, and reporters from seemingly everywhere (even places where they speak French!) want to know what this little political scientist thinks.

For those of you scratching your heads, here's what's going on. All 435 seats in the US House of Representatives and about one-third of the 100 seats in the US Senate will be up for grabs on election day. The Republican majorities in both chambers are in jeopardy of being replaced by new Democratic majorities. No matter where you stand ideologically and no matter what issues you hold nearest and dearest to your heart, there is a lot at stake. So pay attention!

(Steve jumps off his soap box...)

Here's where me and my phone enter the story. Journalists these days are writing lots of stories about the battle for control of Congress, as well as specific races that are particularly salient to their reading audiences.

Like any kind of writing (even blogging!), there is a tried-and-true formula to newspaper reporting. One aspect of this formula is the "expert opinion". What is going to happen in Connecticut now that Lieberman is running as an independent? Why are there so many negative political ads on TV in Virginia? Why is the Maryland senatorial race at all competitive? You need to answer these questions for your readers? Bring in the experts!

So what makes me the expert they call? Well, who better to turn to than a political science professor. But that begs the question, doesn't it? What specifically is it that I bring to the table that others do not? Frankly...not much!

You see, I study politics and public policy in the aggregate. I can tell you, for example, what kinds of factors tend to accurately forecast election outcomes. (At the presidential level, it is the strength of the economy and the popularity of the incumbent.) But ask me to predict particular races? On that score, your guess is probably is good as mine.

Here's a case in point. All along, I have been saying that the Republicans are likely to hang onto the House. Why? Gerrymandering. Simply put, both political parties have done such a good job of drawing congressional boundaries that, today, very few districts are regularly competitive. It really takes a tidal wave/avalanche (fill in the blank with your choice of natural disaster metaphor) of bad will against the majority party for its fortunes to take a serious turn for the worse.

So does all of the Republican bad news of late amount to a political earthquake? Here's where my "large-N" orientation does me little good. I'm sticking to my original guess that the Republicans will indeed retain their congressional majority, but truthfully that's all it is...a guess.

So much for my so-called expertise, eh?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Halloween Costume Horrors

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. In the past I've had a little "Twiddlebug," a spider and Miss Muffet, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker, and even an angel and "Blue Devil" running around the house and the neighborhood on that special day. Of course, my favorite costumes were made for Julie and Z by Grammy but since homemade costumes are not an option right now, I've been reduced to venturing out to the land of Halloween and Party Shops.

Oh, how I long for the good ol' days (like last year!) when costumes for Julie included pretty, poofy princesses and storybook characters and for Z, bugs, animals and superheroes. Now, as per Party City, we've been subjected to selections such as "Devilicious" and the "Family Guy."

The choices of costumes for pre-teen girls are totally outrageous. Every costume is either goth or provocative. I have never seen a more inappropriate display (until, of course, I stepped into the Adult section....that will have to wait for now). Not to mention the youth boys' costumes which are either extremely violent or extremely scary. Call me "not with it," if you will, but there is just no way that I'm adding to the deeper societal issues by purchasing one of these.

Venturing down the adult aisle is actually an embarrassing experience at these stores these days. I am amazed by the way in which seemingly every private body part can be portrayed in a costume or by a costume. When Z asked his first question about what he was seeing, I did not wait for a second question to quickly escort him and his sister out of that aisle and out of the store.

Well, I'm not quite sure what we're going to do about costumes this year. Whatever we decide on, though, you can bet that Devilicious and the Family Guy (the special version with the protruding rear end), won't be found in our closets. I hear that black leotards, black tights and cat ears can make a fine costume in a pinch (right Sharon and Donna???).