EM Summer 2004



Emory Weekend

Alumni in Africa


Alumni Authors

Certain newspaper reporters have Emory’s Merle Black on speed dial.

Pick up almost any news story that has to do with Southern politics, and there’s a fair chance the Asa G. Candler Professor of Politics and Government will be quoted. Co-author of three thick analyses of key political developments in the South dating back more than a century, Black is among those University faculty most frequently seen in print, heard on the radio, and glimpsed on television.

“You have to be able to explain something fairly complex as succinctly as possible,” Black says. “That’s how I teach, so I’m not really doing anything differently. Talking to a reporter is just another way of teaching, only I’m reaching a broader audience. Plus, I can learn as much from a reporter as he or she learns from me.”

With the U.S. presidential election closing in, Black isn’t the only Emory political expert whose telephone is ringing. Alan Abramowitz, Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science, also fields frequent calls from media looking for tips on the political racetrack. Abramowitz is best known for his presidential election forecasting model, which, not surprisingly, has been in high demand in recent months.

Such publicity boosts Emory’s image as well as the faculty’s, according to Nancy Seideman, assistant vice president for public affairs.

“Being an academic star in the political realm means you have to keep up with daily events, you have to have enough knowledge to forecast certain outcomes, but most of all, you have to know your political history cold,” says Seideman. “This is an area where substance matters enormously, and that’s why Merle and Alan are tapped so often. Plus, their availability and their willingness to express an informed opinion are enormous assets.”

Black first found himself on the receiving end of media calls some twenty years ago, when then-North Carolina Governor James Hunt challenged incumbent Senator Jesse Helms for the U.S. Senate seat in an ugly battle that brought Helms’ trademark racial divisiveness to the fore. Black was teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at the time and fast becoming known as a scholar of Southern politics.

“Generally, my research has to do with the politics of the modern South, which has changed more than any other part of the country in its partisan politics in the last decades,” Black says. “The South is the largest region, and when the largest region changes its politics, it has national consequences. So one of the reasons I do a lot of media work is that there is a lot of interest in the impact of the South on national politics.”

Since then, Black has become accustomed to answering the rapid-fire questions of political reporters on deadline. The calls come in waves, he says, depending on the day’s election news; during a hot political season he might give several interviews a week or even a day. Last year, he did some five hundred interviews and media appearances.

“Sometimes it depends on how close a contest appears to be in Southern states,” he says. “If the election is not seen to be close, I’m not as busy. Right now, for instance, Georgia is not perceived to be close, so there is not a lot of media interest in Georgia.”

Usually reporters are looking for very specific information, Black says: who’s winning, who’s losing, and why. He doesn’t typically discuss the issues behind the numbers. “I’m not really an issues person,” he says. “I’m more of a horse race person.”

Abramowitz, too, is looking to pick a winner–or rather, to make a very educated guess. His recent book, Voice of the People: Elections and Voting in the United States, is an analysis of the factors that can determine an election, from unemployment to Ralph Nader.

“Basically, you take a variety of factors–the performance of the economy, the president’s standing in the polls, and in my case, whether a party has controlled the White House for a short or longer time–and try to come up with a statistical model that tells you how those factors can predict the results of a presidential election,” Abramowitz says. “In past years it’s done pretty well and I was able to forecast the correct outcome. In 2000, I predicted the right winner [Gore] in the popular vote, at least.”

For the upcoming November race, Abramowitz won’t make his official prediction until closer to the election, but he hinted the contest may be closer than the GOP would like.

“Generally when you have an incumbent president whose party has been in office only one term, that’s a big advantage,” he says. “But there are reasons to think the time-for-change factor may come into play in this case if there is a combination of poor economic conditions, low job approval, and a very controversial, unpopular war going on in Iraq. A lot will depend on his performance in office in the next few months.”

Abramowitz also has been answering questions about the increasing partisan polarization throughout the country. The media is looking for close competition where often there simply isn’t any, he says. For instance, Abramowitz recently was questioned about the voter category “NASCAR dads” and drew a flurry of attention with his response.

“I said that it really wasn’t a swing voting group,” he says. “Even though they were using it like soccer moms, it really doesn’t make sense to think of NASCAR dads like that. They’re a Southern, white, male group, so they’re pretty solidly Republican.”

Like Black, Abramowitz says the calls he gets fluctuate with the news, but volume is heaviest during the presidential election cycle. “It’s always fun,” he says. “These are usually really smart people who write interesting pieces.”

Being in the media spotlight may be fun for some faculty, but on a higher level, it benefits Emory as well, Seideman adds.

“They perform an incredible service to Emory by spending their time to give their knowledge and research,” she says. “I think it shows the wealth of expertise at Emory. Whenever a faculty member is quoted, it’s a sign of excitement that Emory is up on issues and involved in the world.”–P.P.P.



© 2004 Emory University