Political scientist tells election story, one blog post at a time

Presidential elections are high season for John Sides.

The professor, one of the media’s go-to political experts to debunk conventional campaign hype, fielded 25 different media requests in the two weeks leading up to the first presidential debate, making him one of the most sought-after voices at GW. TheMonkeyCage.org, Sides’ 5-year-old blog – where he and contributing writers turn political memes and headlines into graphs, tables and analysis to indulge in what he calls “nerd fights” – is more popular than ever.

The site drew 117,000 unique visitors last month – “a flea on the elephant that is the Huffington Post,” he said, but still a success story for a website that made Time magazine’s 25 Best Blogs list last month.

But even with a tight race with rich polls to dig into, he can’t wait for this election to end.

“I’m ready for it to be over. I just find it a bit exhausting to keep track of the conversation that’s gone on,” Sides said.

His frustration – though it’s hard to imagine that his even demeanor could boil over – stems from a mix of the pundits he watches on television, along with journalists who call him for quotes. They want to tell the story of a back-and-forth horse race, but the evidence isn’t there, he said.

“We’ve only had two real instances of change in this election ­– after the Democratic National Convention and after the first debate. But you have all these news stories and tweets and articles saying something’s happening. I get frustrated by that, because people are just conjuring up stories where none really exist,” he said.

His book, “The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election,” will be available online at a real-time pace – unprecedented in a field that favors reflection over immediacy.

That kind of analysis – where data trumps gaffes – has been popularized by a new generation of political scientists like Sides and the New York Times’ Nate Silver, who runs the FiveThirtyEight blog and correctly predicted who would win in 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 election.

Jonathan Bernstein, a political scientist who blogs for Salon.com, said Sides has been the ring leader of a feverish effort to broaden the field’s influence in the media.

“Political scientists have done a much better job over the last few years getting what we know out to the general public, especially to reporters and TV correspondents through the blogs. John has been the lead guy,” Bernstein said.

Sides, 38, has stayed devoted to teaching, picking up large lecture courses like introduction to American politics or Ph.D. classes. He won GW’s highest teaching honor – the Bender award – two years ago, the same year he earned tenure. He blogs in his Monroe Hall office, often wearing short-sleeve button-down shirts and slim-fitting jeans. But he doesn’t match his youth and notoriety with bombast, and while he admittedly sometimes looks for a fight with other analysts on his blog, in person he’s even-tempered and reflective.

His devotion is to his analysis and political science, not to any party or candidate. He’s going to the polls on election day, he said, but he won’t say who he’s voting for. When he watched the presidential debates, he just tracked public opinion and media coverage.

The research that goes into his blogs and books isn’t glamorous, Sides admits.

In his office, which is lined with 27 bookshelves holding titles from obscure to mainstream – “Econometric Analysis” sits two shelves above “Boys on the Bus” – he stared at row after row of polling data on his desktop screen. The numbers showed how people perceived traits of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney like honesty, leadership and intellect after the first debate.

As political polling grows up and calculates intimate voting habits, Sides still is cautious.

“Anything that uses the word Romney or Obama is contaminated by people’s preexisting partisanship,” he said. “So whether you’re asked about a candidate’s plan on Medicare or whether you think they’re intelligent or honest, it’s basically asking, ‘Are you a Democrat or Republican or Obama supporter or Romney supporter?’ ”

But the orderliness of it all, where opinions are tracked on a neat line graph instead of a cable news freak-out, still comforts him. He spends nearly two minutes staring at his computer screen, just to figure out how to color, name and present the graphs on his blog to make them look appealing.

“People who are professional leftists react in a stronger way than people who aren’t, and so I think sometimes when you’ll see this whole, ‘Holy shit, Obama screwed up,’ you know, that’s probably not going to be as strongly reflected in the public as it was with the commentators,” he said. “I want to say something no one else has been able to say. That’s the goal here.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.