Yesterday I complained that very few political scientists, the people who actually study nominations and confirmations, were invited onto television coverage of the Sotomayor hearings. Since not too many of you had watched that coverage, I thought another example of the same phenomenon would be helpful. During the 2008 election, we also saw very few political scientists interviewed about the campaign. This campaign, like all campaigns, was covered as a kind of breathless serial narrative on the 24 hour news cycle. Reporters expected us to believe that any given day’s news was the crucial turning point in the election – that Obama’s bitter Pennsylvanians “clinging to guns” comments would throw the election to McCain, or McCain’s embarrassing “the fundamentals of the economy are strong” comment after Lehman Brothers collapsed was the end of his campaign. Coverage of the Palin pick swung both ways – first the press told us that she was generating so much excitement that Obama was doomed, then that her actual campaign trail performance cost him the election. In reality, none of these things probably affected the outcome of the election. Obama won 53% of the vote, *exactly* the average percentage predicted by political science models long before the election. In fact, if memory serves, pretty close to the percentage predicted before the nominees were even chosen.
What does the election have to do with Supreme Court nominations? This piece about the 2008 election by Gelman and Sides lays out pretty nicely the case for political science over pundit commentary that I was trying to make yesterday. What they say about the election pretty much covers Supreme Court nominations as well. That Sotomayor would be confirmed was a foregone conclusion from the moment she was nominated (barring some scandal coming to light) but we got months of excited hyperventilating press commentary (much of it from “experts” who didn’t know squat) about whether she would or wouldn’t confirmed.
Press coverage of major Supreme Court cases is often pretty good on the outcomes – reporters can count liberal and conservative justices just as well as anyone and predict votes. We’ll look at some of this coverage during the term as the Court begins to hear oral arguments in October and can discuss whether they are covering the whole context of important cases as well as they should.
By the way, Gelman and Sides write the Monkey Cage political science blog – it focuses mostly on American politics (with a bit of baseball) but the issues they take up are interesting, and they present recent academic research in a very accessible way.