Emory Report
January 17, 2006
Volume 58, Number 15


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January 17, 2006
A political departure

BY Rachel Robertson

There was a time when Andra Gillespie, assistant professor of political science, thought she was done with the scholar’s life. It was her last year in graduate school at Yale and her degree was nearly complete, but instead of looking for an academic position, she decided to dive into real politics and work as a Washington pollster.

“I didn’t think I had any more questions,” Gillespie said of her (short-lived) flight from academia. “I had done my dissertation. I could say, ‘I’ve accomplished this and it is a great goal to have achieved in life, but I don’t really have anything else to say and I’m not sure I really want to publish.’

“But as soon as I got to D.C., I was like, ‘Wow, OK, what I’m doing in my job raises this particular question and it raises that question—wouldn’t it be neat to answer them?’”

New to Emory this academic year, Gillespie plans to expand on her graduate work by using field research to examine ways of improving voter turnout. The field-research method (common in the 1920s and 1950s and more recently revived by her graduate advisers, Donald Green and Alan Gerber) has an advantage over the more typical broad-based surveys in that it allows testing of different techniques of reaching voters; researchers can establish intervention and control groups, then look at voting records to see who actually makes it to the polls.

Previous experiments have shown (“rather intuitively,” Gillespie noted) that walking through a neighborhood and talking to people is the best method of increasing voter turnout. Phone calls are less effective, but—if made by a live person—they’re still better than pre-recorded calls.

“The interesting departure for my work,” Gillespie said, “is that I started to observe there were organizational reasons why certain strategies were implemented; [thus] there were organizational impediments to increasing voter turnout.”

In a study on black voters that measured the effectiveness of phone calls against canvassing, Gillespie witnessed in several cities disorganized campaigns that also ruined the canvassing portion of the experiment by ignoring the experimental procedure. Her observations raised important issues, however, and motivated her next study in 2002 focusing on a campaign to increase voter turnout in a large Southern city.

“There are a lot of very well-meaning organizations that want to get people out to vote, but they make a couple of mistakes,” she said. “They either bite off more than they can chew and try to canvas a region that’s too large for their work force, or they have an adequately sized but poorly trained work force because they literally just picked them up off the street.”

Part of the problem, Gillespie argued, is the decline in civic participation and lack of social capital by institutions such as churches, which were extremely influential during the civil rights movement, for example. As a result, political groups no longer have easy access to an educated, motivated work force and must rely instead on hired help who are often poorly trained, sometimes illiterate, and—in the worst cases—already known in their canvassing neighborhoods for problems such as drug abuse.

“[Potential voters] immediately block out the source if it is not credible,” Gillespie said. “Especially in communities of color, it’s sending a negative message to voters: ‘We really don’t care, we are just out here to get your vote, and we are not [concerned] about any sort of community change.’”

To help her tackle the challenges of how best to approach and present messages to potential voters, Gillespie has assembled a team of six undergraduate political science majors who will conduct their own research projects under her guidance. She selected the students based on how their own interests fit into her larger project. For example, a student interested in young women voters might focus on that particular population and test hypotheses relevant to Gillespie’s theories.

Her students have committed to a three-course sequence starting this spring, and Gillespie designed the courses to follow the sections of a research paper: introduction and literature review during the first semester, research and methods (including data collection) during the second, and results and discussion during the third course.

“By the end of the project,” Gillespie said, “everybody should have something that’s publishable and co-authored with me on various aspects of political participation.”

Voter turnout is not Gillespie’s only line of research, however. Watching the 2002 mayoral election in Newark, N.J., which pitted two black Democrats (incumbent Sharpe James and newcomer Cory Booker) against each other, inspired more questions for her, this time about African American politics.

“The wedge issue was this question of authentic ‘blackness,’” she said. “Who could more ‘authentically’ represent the interests of black Newarkers?” Gillespie plans to examine this question in her research as well as in another course she is teaching this spring on 21st century African American politics.

Finally, the increased prominence of evangelicals in the political world also has captured Gillespie’s attention. She is interested in the message that evangelicals use and the way in which churches can mobilize their members for a political cause. To explore these issues, she is analyzing ethnographic data from a recent “evangelistic crusade,” as she described it, in Connecticut.

Although she is back in academia, Gillespie still keeps an eye on the outside world. “I think I’m part of a larger mission, a new generation of academics who very much want their work to be relevant to the outside world—not just something that is very heady or theoretical and that only 10 people will read,” she said. “So whether I’m studying political participation or young black politicians or the role evangelicals play in the American political system—the point is to actually create work that other people can use beyond the 10 or 20 or 100 people actively engaged in my subfield.”

As for Gillespie’s return to the lectern from Washington polls and politics? “It’s really, really good to be back,” she said.