A Conversation with Gabe Lenz

gabe lenz
April 19, 2016

Gabe Lenz is an Associate Professor of Political Science at UC Berkeley. His research interests include elections, public opinion, political psychology and political economy. Lenz is member of the IGS Faculty Advisory Committee and a contributor to the IGS Poll. Here, he discusses his research and forthcoming work.  

What are some of the larger themes and questions that inform your work?

My research is broadly about trying to understand the decisions voters make when they are electing politicians. In particular, what kinds of errors voters tend to make when they try to hold politicians accountable ... and then helping them fix those mistakes.  

I think one of the most important areas of my research is on how voters retrospectively assess politicians' performance. There is lots of evidence that voters tend to focus on the end of experiences and not the overall experience. That creates incentives for politicians to ensure things are really good at the end of their terms regardless of how good they are overall. This can lead to potential problems with holding politicians accountable on the economy, on crime, on school performance, and another performance domains.

What are some of the most surprising or interesting findings that you have seen in your research?

I have a book project that tries to examine how much voters judge politicians based on their policy positions and assessments of their policy performance.  And that turns out to be a surprisingly tricky question to answer. Do people pick politicians based on their own policy views, or are people picking politicians for some other reason? The surprising finding is that when you are really careful about causation you find that voters are mostly just following politicians. So the broad takeaway there is that people tend to follow politicians — at least according to these estimates — more than they lead politicians. 

Is that because they think of politicians as experts? 

I think the main explanation would be that voters have much more important things in their lives, like their jobs and their families and politics just doesn’t interest that many people.  

What do you think it takes for the average voter to get more informed?

Having voters that know about politics is important; especially about the performance of politicians. People who work on this topic often talk about television in the late '50s, '60s up to the late '80s when we had three or four TV stations in most areas and at 6 pm they almost all had the news on. Most people didn't turn the TV off when the news came on even if they won’t be particularly interested in it so they would be exposed to political information that they don’t get anymore. 

Currently, neither the Federal Communication Commission nor redistricting processes consider the overlap between electoral districts and media markets ... when they overlap voters learn about their representative and the representative seems to behave like someone’s watching them. 

What do you enjoy most about the type of work that you do?

Discovering new things. It’s thrilling. Getting access to new data or running a new experiment is the most exciting part of this job. When I have a new dataset to analyze, the whole day can go by without me noticing.

What are some of the challenges you face?

I would love to run large field experiments – the equivalent of clinical trials.... I would love to inform voters about what’s happened to the economy under presidents or under governors, or get better data to voters about crime, and observe how they vote. It’s hard to convince interest groups or funding agencies to develop the resources, and doing these experiments properly is expensive.

Can you talk a bit about some future projects and forthcoming work?

A project on crime and mayors is probably the most interesting and exciting project I have in the pipeline. It’s still in the early stages ... but it looks like mayors are engaged in shenanigans with crime numbers in election years including upping the number of police in an election year and manipulating crime statistics, maybe even the murder rate.  

Another forthcoming project examines why voters' views on policy issues seem so unstable. When researchers first interviewed the same person on more than one occasion, they were surprised to find that people's views just changed dramatically, so much so that they thought they might be interviewing the wrong people.... There’s been a lot of debate about the source of that instability. Our findings suggest that it’s not just ambiguous interview questions but that many people’s views are deeply unstable. This is probably because they don’t think about politics very much and they want to come up with answers for the interviewer, and they answer based on what comes to mind during the interview.

Can you talk about what you have done with the assistance of IGS?

A lot of my recent projects have been funded through IGS including the study about candidate appearance where we randomly showed voters ballots that had no pictures or had pictures on them and found that voters tended to vote for the candidates that looked better when they could see the pictures compared to the ballots when they couldn’t. We also have a fascinating project that IGS funded on primaries where we found that on new-ish open primary in California voters were not rewarding moderate candidates, not crossing party lines to vote for moderate candidates. I’ve also been involved every year in the IGS survey which is about California politics. Besides all that research support, IGS supports graduate students I work with.  

 Photo by Farrah Kazemi