October 30, 2006
59, Number 9
October 30 , 2006
Emory's own election connection
by kim urquhart
The Emory community and the national media are not the only ones interested in Alan Abramowitz’s predictions for the November midterm elections. The Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science was recently invited to Iceland to speak on the same topic. Though he ultimately had to forgo the trip to the “Land of Fire and Ice,” the invitation illustrates Abramowitz’s far-reaching reputation as an expert on political parties, elections and voting behavior, and the worldwide impact of U.S. politics.
The phone in Abramowitz’s office has been ringing more than usual these days because the midterm election could result in significant changes in the makeup of the House and Senate—his statistical forecast predicts a Democratic gain of 29 seats in the House of Representatives. If his prediction holds true, it would be a power shift not seen since Republicans regained control of Congress in 1994.
It is for these electoral forecasting models that Abramowitz is perhaps best known. His track record is impressive: he has correctly predicted the winner of the popular vote in every presidential election between 1992 and 2004.
“I have done pretty well in terms of predicting the national popular vote percentage,” he said, adding the disclaimer that the model does not predict the outcome of the electoral vote.
Abramowitz began studying political science as an undergraduate at the University of Rochester. After earning his Ph.D. in political science from Stanford University, he went on to teach at the College of William and Mary and later at the State University of New York at Stony Brook before coming to Emory in 1987. It was his early work on congressional elections during the late 1970s that first attracted attention.
“I think that there was a somewhat simplistic view at the time about the nature of the advantage of incumbency in congressional elections, that it was seen as largely a matter of simply name recognition,” he said. “I tried to argue that one had to look at a variety of tools that incumbents were able to use to cultivate their constituencies and create a positive image beyond just name recognition.”
Abramowitz also is known for pioneering work on Senate elections. His research showed that, despite some differences, the local and national factors that influence House elections also influence Senate elections.
Abramowitz’s subsequent work has focused on U.S. elections and voting behavior and has included examinations of both the national and local level factors that influence House and Senate elections.
He has authored more than 50 articles and books on everything from campaign spending in U.S. Senate elections to the impact of a presidential debate on voter rationality. His current research at Emory involves party realignment in the U.S. and its consequences for presidential and congressional elections.
Politics and teaching are interests he shares with his wife Ann, a clinical psychologist who also teaches at Emory. High school sweethearts from Long Island, N.Y., they have been married for 37 years.
“My wife and I are both very involved in local campaigning right now for Kevin Levitas, a Democratic candidate for the Georgia state house, whose father was Elliott Levitas, an Emory alum and former U.S. Congressman,” Abramowitz said. Ann, in fact, is the campaign coordinator, “so it’s like she has two full-time jobs right now.”
In his free time—something he has precious little of during election season—Abramowitz enjoys running, hiking and reading. An avid sports fan, he likes to apply the same techniques he uses in his political models to create statistical models for baseball games and other sporting events.
He considers himself a political activist, doing consulting work for political campaigns and contributing to blogs such as DonkeyRising.
“Certainly I have strong political views, and certainly my research informs what I do in the political world as an activist, but I try to keep those realms separate,” he said. In forums with a particular partisan or ideological slant, he said, “I try to use my research skills to contribute to the debate.”
At Emory, in his course on American politics, elections and voting behavior, Abramowitz teaches students how to interpret and evaluate political science research, and how to apply research to political questions without regard to personal bias.
How does Abramowitz balance his personal views with his work in and out of the classroom?
“I don’t think it’s necessary to conceal what your own political preferences are at all times—I think most students can figure that out—but I think that should not affect the way you present the research and the way that you apply that research to American politics,” he said.
“This year, or in any year, I try to talk about how our models and our theories help us to understand what is going on in American politics,” he said. “That yields certain predictions that we may like or not like, but we have to go wherever our data lead us.”
“In doing my research I have to try to be as objective as possible,” he added. “Using statistical forecasting models forces you to be objective, because the goal is to be as accurate as possible.
“If you allow your biases to influence the models that you develop, if you always predict that the Republicans are going to win or the Democrats are going to win, nobody is going to listen to you.”
Abramowitz is also active with the University, having chaired the College Tenure and Promotion Committee last year and this year serving as vice chair for the Social, Humanist and Behavioral Institutional Review Board committee. He also works with student groups and other departments, such as participating in the recent Journalism Reunion.
Instead of Iceland, Abramowitz spent the past week in New York and Washington, D.C. There he joined a panel of Emory experts at two alumni events to discuss the outlook for the election, what factors influence midterm elections and how this election is developing.
His advice to voters? “The decisions made by our elected officials have a big impact on our society and in the lives of the American people. Your vote really does matter.”