How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Rachel Bitecofer Breaks the Rules

Here’s one way to break the rules in research:

  • Be a woman in a male-dominated field.
  • Have a big, easy-to-explain framework that purports to explain and predict what legions of your fellow researchers (and pundits) have struggled to explain and predict for decades.
  • Be not at all shy about promoting that framework on Twitter and in the media.
  • Call out other researchers and pundits when they say stupid things.
  • Be brightly and routinely immodest (not to mention obscene) while doing so.
  • Eat your critics and assorted trolls for breakfast along the way.

Introducing political scientist Rachel Bitecofer — who is having a moment, as well she should.

Very few people outside political forecasting knew Bitecofer’s name two weeks ago — before she wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times asserting Donald Trump’s November re-election loss is “already set in stone,” before Politico ran a long profile of her last week.

Now Bitecofer is writing quick-and-dirty primary analyses for The Guardian and getting booked on The Daily Show. The Politico profile put Bitecofer’s big idea right in the headline: “An Unsettling New Theory: There Is No Swing Voter.”

ICYMI: The conventional view of politics is that about 15% of the 55% of eligible voters who vote in the United States are “swing voters,” who vacillate between voting Republican or Democrat. These swing voters decide elections and are the focus of most campaigns.

Bitecofer calls this theory bullshit. (Actually, she’s much funnier: she calls it the “Chuck Todd theory of American Politics.”) Bitecofer’s research tells her instead that the American electorate has transformed over the last few election cycles and that there are very few “swing voters” left. What decides elections today is “negative partisanship” — which group of voters feels more strongly negative about the other party and will turn out in greater numbers to defeat it. (It’s why, she writes in the Times, “a person accused of sexual misconduct against teenage girls and young women can run for and win upward of 90 percent of his party’s vote — as the Republican Roy Moore did…in the special Senate election in Alabama in 2017.”)

David Freelander, the author of the Politico profile, nicely sums up the threat Bitecofer’s idea presents to the political science, polling and political horse-race journalism establishment:

If she’s right, it wouldn’t just blow up the conventional wisdom; it would mean that much of the lucrative cottage industry of political experts—the consultants and pollsters and (ahem) the reporters—is superfluous, an army of bit players with little influence over the outcome. Actually, worse than superfluous: That whole industry of experts is generally wrong.

Nobody would be giving Bitecofer (a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University) air time if she didn’t have a big kill under her belt, which she does. While almost all other analysts were flailing, Bitecofer nailed the 2018 congressional midterm results months before the election, missing the exact total of the massive Democratic pickup by just one seat.

Now she is arguing that the Democrats’ structural advantage (a bigger base than Republicans’ combined with the negative partisanship Trump will fuel in that base) means that “we’ll spend the next 21 months captivated by an election whose outcome may already be determined because of polarization and negative partisanship.” That uber-confidence (owning a question everyone is asking) plus the Politico profile have put a target on her back, which she is eager to acknowledge. “I am arguing radical shit, OK?” she tells Freelander. But it’s not just that — it’s also the way she’s making sure we all hear her argument which is so foreign and distasteful to her fellow researchers.

Bitecofer might be proven wrong about the rise of negative partisanship and the primacy of turnout. But she’s right that science is part of the world of competing narratives, not apart from it — and that it’s now fair game to use extra-scientific ways and channels to get your science and ideas heard. She understands how outsider researchers (wrong sex, small university, big contrary ideas) can still attract an audience through a) the deft use of social media to court conventional media and relentlessly poke holes in status quo thinking, b) well-placed opinion pieces, c) being fearless in promoting your ideas and what your expertise is telling you about the world, and d) getting it right.

Rachel Bitecofer isn’t just predicting elections. She’s embodying the future of research authority.