Dissertation* / Book

*In the US, for the Master's degree (and possibly as an undergraduate) you do a thesis and for a PhD you do a dissertation. In the UK, that's reversed: the thesis is the PhD, and you even do a dissertation as part of the BA degree. Wherever you're reading from, the thing to know is this page is about the research I did that earned me a PhD. 

My dissertation was titled Packaging Democracy: How Campaign Professionals Reproduce Political Inequality, and was supervised by Mike Hout (Co-Chair), Loic Wacquant (Co-Chair), Marion Fourcade, Laura Stoker (Political Science).  I'm working on a book based on the dissertation; the summary is below.  The book is tentatively titled The Politics Industry and Why We Get Campaigns Nobody Likes.  

Every two years, when national elections come around, Americans are inundated with campaigns’ communications: they see political advertisements on television and online, hear speeches and more ads on the radio, get countless flyers in the mail, receive robo-calls and live calls, and may even find a canvasser knocking on their doors.

Political campaigns are a key way people are connected to politics; they are the moments in a democracy when politicians and their parties have the most incentive to communicate directly with potential voters, and when voters must make a decision about whom to support. What campaigns do informs not only how people see the subjects of those campaigns; it also constitutes a large part of the political culture through which individuals come to understand democratic politics more broadly.

Citizens, journalists, and scholars have noted that the content and character of contemporary American campaigning raise serious concerns about the quality of our democracy. Campaigns’ messages are often shallow, negative, and misleading, which contributes to Americans’ increasing disaffection with politics. They also target those already likely to vote, which exacerbates inequalities in political participation. Moreover, many campaign tactics have been shown to be essentially irrelevant to election outcomes. Why, then, do American campaigns do what they do? This question is essential for understanding contemporary American politics.

To most journalists and political scientists, the answer is obvious: campaigners must be trying to win; if not, they must be trying to get rich. Both of these explanations of campaigners’ motivations, however, are wrong. Despite wide-ranging interest in campaigns by both scholars and the media, there has been no systematic study to date of campaigning and campaigners, of the people who make campaign decisions, their world views or the context within which they work. This book aims to fill that gap.

American campaigns are not, in fact, the purely tactical affairs imagined by most observers. What campaigns do is driven by campaigners’ interactions with and evaluations of each other; these evaluations are, at best, only tenuously related to a whether a campaigner has contributed to increasing his or her candidate’s vote share, and essentially unrelated to financial incentives. American political campaigns are produced amid a great deal of uncertainty on the part of campaigners about the relationship between their choices and election outcomes, in the context of an intensely competitive and exclusive work world. The uncertainty, intensity, exclusivity and competition in campaigns together produce a reliance on handed-down campaign wisdom over knowledge or techniques developed outside politics, and a focus on other politicos’ perceptions of campaign effectiveness over the actual responses of voters.

These features of the campaign world make campaign professionals reluctant to innovate too much. Instead, they reproduce tactics widely believed by their peers to be effective, but which contribute to many of the problems with American politics today. For example, campaigners believe they have to “hit people over the head” with campaign messages, and so create sensationalistic, negative and shallow advertising that has been shown to have little effect on vote choices, but can turn people away from politics[1]. Campaigners also believe it is nearly impossible to get people who never or rarely vote to do so, despite evidence to the contrary [2], and so focus their mobilization efforts on regular voters who are disproportionately educated and well-off, exacerbating inequalities in political participation. Campaigns end up working to maintain political alienation and disengagement, rather than serving as a way to connect people to the democratic process.

This book draws on a wealth of original data to reveal what’s really going on in the politics industry. Research included in-depth interviews with 57 campaign professionals, four months of full-time work on a presidential campaign, an original dataset containing demographic and career trajectory information for over 4,000 campaign professionals, and over 60 hours’ attendance at trainings and conferences for political consultants.

[1] Erika Franklin Fowler and Travis N. Ridout, “Negative, Angry, and Ubiquitous: Political Advertising in 2012,” The Forum 10, no. 4 (February 9, 2013): 51–61; Richard R. Lau, Lee Sigelman, and Ivy Brown Rovner, “The Effects of Negative Political Campaigns: A Meta-Analytic Reassessment,” Journal of Politics 69, no. 4 (2007): 1176–1209, doi:10.1111/j.1468-2508.2007.00618.x.

[2] Lisa Garcia Bedolla and Melissa R. Michelson, Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate Through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns (Yale University Press, 2012).