Five questions for Ken Bickers

Professor and former chair, political science, CU-Boulder

Ken Bickers

It is August – still months away from the November general election – and while some Americans already have tuned out the political machinations and negative ads, Ken Bickers is in his element. The University of Colorado Boulder political science professor often is called on to offer expert commentary for the media as the campaign season progresses.

The presidential race gets most of the attention, but Bickers’ research looks to the roots of candidate success. He likens his study of politics to that of a geologist interested in mountain formation.

“You can’t look at it from the top of the mountain. You have to start where the rocks are being formed,” he said.

Bickers didn’t set out to be a political scientist. During undergraduate years at Texas Christian University, he enrolled in a dual-degree program in social science and engineering. But he became involved with issues of discrimination in the Greek system at the university, and that became a “life-changing experience.” At the same time, he served as an intern in the Senate in Washington, D.C., where he saw how exciting politics could be. He considered his options, including going into politics as a staffer, but instead pursued graduate work and earned his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

After chairing the Department of Political Science for the past five years, he recently stepped down to focus on an internship program – CU in DC – that places students in jobs in Washington, D.C. He’s switched offices, but his walls are still adorned with aviation-related photos. He earned his pilot’s license some 20 years ago, and has flown a variety of aircraft, including a hot-air balloon.

“As chair, whenever I felt frustrations, I would think longingly about flying and look at the photos,” he said. “It’s a diversion on those days when I could use a break.”

1. Some of your research looks at local campaigns and elections, including “first wins.” What have you found?

The rationale for studying local campaigns and elections is because that is where politics starts. Nobody becomes president and decides that he or she will run for mayor. As a geologist, you can’t look out from the mountain top and try to understand what’s going on. You have to look at the layers of rocks and how they’ve been broken up and folded and twisted. In American politics, if you only focus on what happens in Washington, you miss the plate tectonics. Hundreds of thousands of people are making decisions every two years about running for office and organizing campaigns, raising money, and going out and asking people to support them. The vast majority of our politics exists in local communities, school districts, counties and state legislatures.

There is a “first win” debate among political scientists who are trying to explain how people win office then move on to other seats. Is it something about the experience of organizing a campaign or are they better at choosing the right time to run? The research out there mostly looks at congressional elections, but the problem is that by the time a person runs for Congress, it’s not their first win. We looked at the very beginning, at people’s first win for office. Mostly we found that people who won were better at making a probability estimate at what office to run for and then making a bid. The interesting part is that some people are recruited to run by another elected official who can transfer some of the knowledge about what’s going to work in a campaign. So that person’s success was not about their probability estimate, but about being recruited. It was a kind of tapping on the shoulder that puts people on the track for upward mobility.

Another thing we found is that if you are recruited by party officials, you should run, but you should run away. Your chances of success are terribly low because parties need to fill out the dance card so that every contest has someone from the party running. So if you’re being recruited by the party, and not by another elected official, it’s a sure sign you are being set up for failure.

2. As a swing state, Colorado is being bombarded with ads from presidential hopefuls. Can these 15-second or 30-second ads sway voters or do most people tune them out?

There is a huge amount of research on this, but the answer is not clear exactly because we don’t get to study this in a lab setting in a meaningful way. Typically, studies use a few exposures to an ad, not constant exposure. Constant exposure comes with many variables, including the competing candidate’s responses.

What has been found is that negative campaign ads have a slight mobilizing effect that tends to increase the turnout at the margins. Also, some research shows negative ads tend to suppress interest in politics, especially among independent voters. But no one can really say whether the ads have an effect on swaying the vote. Independents tend to be affected more by debates and last-minute appeals by candidates often on issues that are not central to what the campaign is about. So for most people, constant ads are just a complete annoyance. Truthfully, I don’t like to walk into a room with a TV unless I have my mute button. But no campaign is willing to take the risk that ads don’t matter: The more one side escalates, the more the other side feels like they have to reciprocate.

3. In the 2008 election, the youth vote played a significant role in President Obama’s election. What segment of the population is likely to play an important role in the general election this year? Does a victory ever come down to a campaign manager/PR machine or the party machine?

Students are still going to be important, but it may be their nonparticipation that makes a difference. Signs are that that cohort is much less interested in politics than they were four years ago. Nonparticipation is likely to have an impact on the outcome of the vote and that’s why Obama made a visit to the (CU Denver and CU-Boulder campuses) -- he’s worried about the student vote.

The minority vote is not one vote, but is actually multiple votes. Minorities in California, for instance, tend to be more liberal concerning social and economic issues, while minorities in Texas are liberal on economic issues but more conservative when it comes to social issues. The swing vote in some ways will be the white working class, which, although it is shrinking, still is three times as large as the Hispanic population. The white working class – those adults without college degrees – will play a huge role in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania, which have lots of Electoral College votes.

The party machine can make a big difference if it’s doing the “get out the vote” thing. Of course, that backfired in 1984 when Walter Mondale worked hard to get union members to turn out. It worked; union voters went to the polls but they cast their votes for Ronald Reagan. The effect of campaign managers and the operation is overstated. It’s like football games. They are won or lost because of players. If you have a lousy coach, it might make a difference, but at the elite levels, all the coaches are good. The campaign manager and campaign itself becomes secondary to the candidate and the context in which they are running, such as whether or not the economy is strong.

4. What worries you about American politics? What do you find heartening?

It’s the gridlock; I don’t know what to make of it in the bigger scheme of things. It could be temporary. There was a period similar to what we’re in now after World War II, where for 10 years, there was a stalemate between parties and lots of obstructionism. It was solved by elections, which reshaped both of the parties in such a way that it was possible to assemble majorities. But we’ve also had periods – one was from 1840-1860 – where there was no electoral resolution to the gridlock and that led to war. I don’t know whether to be heartened and say this is what it’s all about: You go through stalemates then the voters decide and we just need to let elections happen. Or, maybe the system is broken. Clearly, the problems out there are huge – the economy is stagnant and people’s expectations far exceed what their current resources are going to permit.

5. What is an accomplishment(s) of which you are most proud?

I served as chair of the department for the past five years, and I think the department is stronger and better. There are people in the department who are intellectually curious and take teaching very seriously. I’m really proud that over the past five years, we’ve grown despite economic problems facing the university.

One of the things that made me think about going into this career was my Washington internship. This new program that we’re developing and which I am now directing – CU in DC – is a year-round internship opportunity available for any major on all CU campuses. We’ve not had a year-round internship opportunity before for our students, and I think it will be as life-shaping for them as it was for me. There’s no telling where those kids will end up. Some might end up as governors or senators or professors or social workers, but they’ll all be interesting people as a result of having that experience. We’ve run pilot programs the past three summers, so this year, we’re really getting it off the ground. We’ll have a class of about 25 students in D.C. next fall. There will be all kinds of internships available on the Hill, at agencies and think tanks, at the Smithsonian and in science labs. We’re also looking at some technology to bring DC to CU, allowing guest lecturers to come to our classrooms virtually.