Political scientist teaches students to go 'beyond the sound bite'
by Ann Marie Deer Owens
photo by Steve Green
Summer research he conducted as an undergraduate under the guidance of a supportive political scientist opened Josh Clinton’s eyes to a career path that he had not previously considered.
“As a University of Rochester student, I fell in love with the whole research process while working for professor Jim Johnson,” Clinton said. “He helped me realize that there was an alternative to law school for political science majors.”
Clinton looks forward to having a similar role at Vanderbilt.
“The chance to work with undergraduates at a relatively small university that encourages interdisciplinary collaboration was an important reason for my coming to Vanderbilt,” he said. “I’m excited to draw students into the research process and expose them to a side of political science that is different from the classroom.
“Understanding politics requires going beyond the sound bites and assertions that partisans on all sides typically use to describe the political process and the outcomes of that process,” he said.
This fall, Clinton is teaching a graduate course on research design that helps show students what can and cannot be learned about political phenomena from observable behavior and characteristics. Clinton’s teaching draws from his impressive scholarly credentials.
“Josh is a major figure in the field of political methodology, applying his impressive skills to important problems ranging from Congress to political behavior to terrorism,” said John Geer, Distinguished Professor of Political Science. “Having Josh on our faculty will only continue the many gains the Department of Political Science has made in recent years. Vanderbilt is lucky to have one of the discipline’s rising stars.”
Clinton grew up in the tiny hamlet of Stittville, N.Y., and graduated magna cum laude from Rochester with a double major in political science and economics. He entered the doctorate program in political science at Stanford University, where he also earned two master’s degrees – one in economics, the other in statistics – before receiving his doctorate in political science in 2003. He joined Princeton University’s Department of Politics in 2002 and was tenured there last year. Also coming to Princeton in 2002 was David Lewis, now a Vanderbilt professor of political science. The two have been colleagues and close friends since they met at Stanford as graduate students in 1996.
Clinton’s research uses statistical methods to better understand issues dealing with elections and the conduct of Congress. Clinton has developed one of the leading methods for analyzing legislator roll call behavior and has worked to better understand legislators’ posturing and lawmaking behavior.
He also has several ongoing projects focusing on campaigns. One is researching the impact of the swift boat ads on Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. While the commercials were targeted for small ad buys in only a few states, polls showed that Kerry’s support went down across the nation after they aired.
“Even though the paid ads ran only a few times, cable news kept replaying them for free,” Clinton said. “You have a case where the news media, trying to be the watchdog on truth in advertising, inadvertently magnifies the ad’s effect through the replay.” He noted that during the 2008 presidential campaign, this strategy continued with several ads going straight to the Internet. Clinton’s work attempts to identify how much of an effect this type of advertising strategy has on a candidate’s support.
Clinton also is co-directing Vanderbilt’s new Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions with Geer and Lewis. The newly established center aims to produce and support systematic theoretical and empirical research on questions central to the survival and flourishing of democratic institutions in the United States and abroad.