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Faculty Spotlight: Mary McGrath

Examining political decision making

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If you ask Democrats about the state of the economy when a Democratic administration is in office, Democrats are going to give rosy reports. Republicans are going to give bad reports.”

Mary McGrath
Assistant professor of political science and an IPR fellow

Mary McGrath
Political scientist Mary McGrath investigates how regular citizens make political decisions.

“Some of the most important decisions that we make as members of the public are political decisions,” explained IPR political scientist Mary McGrath. “I’m interested in decision-making not in terms of who we normally think of as political decision makers—policymakers and political elites—but how do regular people make these decisions they’re faced with?”

McGrath’s own decision to enter academia and study decision making was more “roundabout.” Her first job at a law firm dealing with energy regulation piqued her interest in environmental policy, and another as a middle school science teacher got her thinking about how people form opinions on scientific issues like climate change.

These led to a master’s in environmental studies and a PhD in political science, a field where she is helping to refine and overturn current thinking on some of “the most important questions we face as regular citizens.” 

Early Voting

Voting is one of the most recognizable forms of political decision making. Throughout the United States, between one-quarter and one-third of people who vote make their decision before Election Day, casting their ballots early.

For a study in the Election Law Journal, McGrath and her colleagues examined the demographics of those who vote before Election Day. They assembled daily snapshots of early voting records across the United States during the 2012 election, confirming that partisans and older voters disproportionately take advantage of early voting. In states where 50–80 percent of older registrants are voting early, only about 20–40 percent of younger registrants are. 

Taking a closer look, the researchers find that political independents and younger registrants who do vote early tend to do so much later in the early voting window. On October 24, two weeks before Election Day, 14 percent of registered voters over age 60 had already voted, compared with just 3 percent of those under 30. Almost 50 percent of younger registrants who voted early cast their votes after November 1, while fewer than 25 percent of older voters cast a ballot that late in the early voting window. 

Some policymakers have proposed lengthening the early voting period to increase participation among young and politically independent voters. The study shows, however, that extending voting windows much earlier likely would not do much to increase turnout.

“People who are otherwise less likely to vote are more likely to use the voting window closer to the election,” McGrath explained.

Voting for Extremists 

In other work, McGrath tackles whether ideologically extreme candidates “pay” for their extremism by losing votes. She examines the landslide defeats of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972, which scholars often cite as evidence that U.S. voters are unwilling to cast their ballots for extremist presidential candidates.

But McGrath and her colleagues find little evidence of a relationship between candidate extremism and how the public decides to vote, based on data from the 17 presidential elections between 1948 and 2012.

In The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the researchers note that Goldwater and McGovern were not only extremist candidates, they were running against incumbents whose parties had been in the White House for only one term during a strong economy. While Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama were rated almost as extreme as Goldwater and McGovern, the fact that they were challenging incumbent party candidates with poor economic records might have worked in their favor.

How does this evidence on extremism hold up after the 2016 election?  

“[Donald Trump] is certainly not a traditional conservative, but he is in many ways an extremist even if it’s not in the traditional way we think of liberal and conservative ideology,” McGrath said. “This goes along with our finding: It doesn’t seem like voters are scared away by extremist statements and extremist campaigns.” 

Partisans’ Economic Behavior 

“If you ask Democrats about the state of the economy when a Democratic administration is in office, Democrats are going to give rosy reports,” McGrath said. “Republicans are going to give bad reports.”

This is well-known based on survey data, but McGrath said these biased responses lead to more questions. 

“Do they actually believe that the economy is great or in the toilet, depending on their partisanship, or are they just using it as a way to say whether or not they like who’s in office?” she asked. 

Her most recent study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science, re-analyzes data on the first field test of the “perceptual screen” hypothesis, or whether partisanship seeps into how people perceive the same facts, reaching a decidedly different result from the initial study.

A 2009 study by Yale University’s Alan Gerber and Gregory Huber tried to test whether partisans “put their money where their mouth is” by examining data on taxable sales. The researchers looked at changes in local consumption after a presidential election, discovering that economic activity differed between areas with opposing political beliefs.

However, McGrath’s re-analysis of the original dataset, with added data from the 2008 and 2012 elections, did not find evidence of this type of varied economic activity. She explains that her study suggests that economic perceptions are not being filtered through partisanship, although more research is needed.

To that end, McGrath is now extending this study to other countries to determine if they exhibit any evidence of partisanship affecting economic decision making.

“Just because we don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there,” McGrath said. “We might not have data that’s fine-grained enough, or we might not be looking in the right place.”

Mary McGrath is assistant professor of political science and an IPR fellow.

Published: October 24, 2017.