Obamacare Team Update and Looking Back on my time in SNaPP

Well the semester has come to a close, and the Obamacare Team is happy to report we had a very productive semester. Between myself, Joanna, and Will we completed our article collection project, collected troves of new data, and made lots of headway on our individual projects.

As we reported before we spent much of this semester collecting new data for use in group and individual research. This data includes three categories of variables: policy (collected by Joanna, measures what states did in response to the ACA), health/demographics (collected by Will, includes a number of measures on the health and characteristics of state populations), and political (collected by me, and includes measures on the ideological climate of states).

Once we completed that we set about working on our individual projects. Will and Joanna will report on theirs more in the future, as both are spending time this summer on their projects. As a senior, however, I completed my project on measuring state ideology (see my earlier post for more details).

My departure from the SNaPP Lab (and from W&M) has made me want to reflect on my time in the lab. I don’t want to just take this opportunity to tell you I learned a lot though, or that I completed some really interesting research projects (even if they were super interesting). Instead, I want to encourage all current and future liberal arts students out there with a will to learn and a topic they’re passionate about to get out there and find research to do! Even if your final product/result isn’t what you expected (and trust me, it usually isn’t), you can learn so much about your field and about scholarly work in general by rolling your sleeves up and doing research. The transferrable skills you learn are invaluable, and you may find your efforts turning into an honors thesis, published article, or even a job.

I also want to encourage those students doing research now or in the future to stick with it. There were times these past few years where I ran into giant brick walls I was sure were insurmountable. I remember distinctly the day this past summer I learned that my project as I had designed it was completely infeasible. Yet I stuck with it, adapted to the challenges I ran into, and ended up learning so much about research and more.

Finally, a word of advice to my future and current Government/Public Policy lovers: do research! I know there is a temptation amongst students in our field to avoid methods courses and research work like the plague. Oftentimes we would rather read Politico articles and talk about Democrats and Republicans than sit down and complete a research project. The benefits of doing projects like these, however, are tremendous, and even if you don’t please consider taking as many methods courses as you can. I am so glad that I took the research courses and completed the projects I did because they taught me an immense amount about not just research, but also how to approach complex problems more methodically and successfully.

So if you know a favorite professor of yours is looking for research assistants, or you have the opportunity to apply for a summer research grant, don’t hesitate because you’re worried it would be too hard or that you wouldn’t learn from the experience. If you approach your research with enthusiasm and dedication you will learn an incredible amount, I promise.

Measuring State Ideology and My Research Journey this Semester

My research journey this semester was one full of twists, turns, and surprises. I began the semester finishing up on article collection for the Obamacare media project, and before long had transitioned into collecting group data for my team’s project. My original intention was to pursue a project investigating framing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by elites and average Americans but terminated that project when I ran into the brick wall of unavailable data.

Then Professor Settle steered me towards a new project, one that I embraced and made my focus for the semester: measuring the ideology of states.

This subject was one I had experience with. Throughout the Obamacare team’s quest to identify a coherent research focus we kept stumbling across the need to figure out how to measure the ideology of states. I had read several articles on the matter and found the subject interesting. To me the challenge of measuring the political climate of a state represented a fascinating opportunity to test my ability to take a complex phenomenon and condense it down into working measure. I embraced the challenge and ran with it.

 

The first step was to look at how scholars had operationalized state level ideology in the past. My review of the literature turned up, among others, two landmark studies that coincide well with the competing theories on how to develop a good measure. The first of these studies was published by Robert Erikson and his colleagues in September 1987 issue of the American Political Science Review. This article laid out an approach that relied on disaggregating national polling results to get state-level indicators of partisanship in states. The second, published in 1998 in the American Journal of Political Science by William Berry and his colleagues, presented a methodology focused on aggregating various indicators of elite ideology within states. These indicators include interest group evaluations of elites, partisanship of the state legislature, and more. I chose to follow a methodology modeled after Berry and his colleagues, largely because of the data available and the kind of analysis I wanted to conduct.

Having determined my procedure, I gathered my data. I chose to focus on four indicators of state ideology: party of the governor, partisan makeup of each state’s upper and lower houses, and the average DW-Nominate score of each state’s U.S. Senators (all data was from August 2009, the time frame for the articles collected by the Obamacare team). I had collected data for these variables earlier in the semester, and they seemed to be relatively strong predictors of ideology. The way these measures were structured/operationalized, each score was between -1 and 1 with -1 (exception: the party of governor was coded such that a state with a Democratic governor received a -.25 and a state with a Republican received a .25).  I then aggregated the four measures for each state and divided by four to arrive at my ideology score for each state.

To verify my results I compared them with my comparison variable, Presidential vote share for the 2008 election (as this election was closer to the 2009 time frame for my other data). My comparison variable was coded such that states that went blue in 2008 would receive a negative score between -1 and 0, while those that went red would receive a positive score between 0 and 1. The scatterplot, which I unfortunately was unable to upload, showed a strong positive correlatino between the two variables.

I arrived at the conclusion that my methodology, while not perfect, was a step in the right direction in terms of measuring ideology within a state. Granted there is significant room for improvement in this research design. For instance, my analysis relies on the assumption that Presidential vote share in 2008 serves as a valid comparison measure for the ideology scores I came up with. I believe, however, that my work this semester can serve future members of the SNaPP Lab and the Obamacare team specifically with future research.

How the Obamacare Team is looking to the Future

For the past several months the Obamacare Team has been working on a massive data-collection project. The goal of the endeavor is to compile every state-level media piece discussing health reform in the month of August 2009. These articles are to be processed via automated content analysis to produce meaningful summaries of media coverage during this important part of the saga that was passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). We are making slow but steady progress with this endeavor, and plan to have it completed by the end of Christmas break.

In the meantime, however, our team has already laid the groundwork to use this data to investigate areas of interest to us.

For instance, our very own Joanna Borman is planning on potentially spending time next semester investigating connections between the news media data we are collecting and Senate election results for 2010. Her goal is to determine if state media coverage prefaced any interesting statewide election results, particularly given the rise of the Tea Party movement around this time.

Team member Will Evans, on the other hand, has made plans to potentially study ties between state media coverage and newspaper readership/issue framing. His goal with this project is to identify trends in the data that may be caused by who is reading what sources of news and how key issues are framed in articles discussing Obamacare.

I myself plan on spending a significant amount of time next semester gathering data on key policy outcomes and healthcare indicators to compare against media coverage and state-level public opinion of Obamacare. Policy outcomes includes state decisions on whether or not to expand Medicaid, join the multitude of lawsuits against the ACA, set up their own insurance exchange, and much more. These factors are important because they have the potential to significantly influence how citizens perceive and react to the health reform law. In terms of healthcare indicators, I want to collect data on various measures of the quality and cost of medical care within states, as well as how healthy states’ populations are. I then hope to run these data against state media coverage to see if there is some connection between media coverage and the quality of healthcare in a state.

While each member of the team has made tentative plans for what to study next semester, the reality is that these plans are not set in stone. We understand that we will have to react and adapt to obstacles that arise in data collection and analysis. Yet, on the whole, the descriptions above describe where our team wishes to go in the spring, and we are excited to get started.

Framing on Facebook: A Summer Research Project

This past summer I took advantage of a research grant opportunity to look into something of personal interest to me. The idea of elite framing, where leaders (both political and non-political) talk about major issues in such a way as to change how the public perceives them, has fascinated me ever since freshman year. In one of the first classes I took here at W&M, we read about opponents of the estate tax proposed in the early 2000’s framed the tax as a “death tax.” By doing so, they changed public perception of the tax and got people the tax would never have effected to come out against it. I wanted to study this framing phenomenon more. I picked a policy issue of interest to me (the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare”), submitted a proposal (with guidance from my project advisor, Professor Jaime Settle in the Government Department, and was awarded the grant.

 

Armed with funding, 3 months off of school, and a kitchen fully stocked with my mom’s home-cooked food, it was time to hit the ground running.

 

I began my project by defining my research question. To make the endeavor feasible, I limited political elites to Congress (House of Representatives and Senate), since I am personally interested in Congress. I then narrowed framing down to social media, and specifically Facebook (because of how much data is publically available), because these media were underrepresented in the literature on elite framing. Having chosen Obamacare as my issue case study, I further condensed my research to look at the period of July 18-August 18, 2009, a month-long period with significant data available because of the August recess town halls. Finally, I established public opinion on three dominant “frames” in the Obamacare debate (cost, choice, and quality of care) as the dependent variable side of my analysis.

 

Data collection came next, and with it some tedium unavoidable in these kinds of projects. I first collected data on every Facebook post made by Senator/Representative on Obamacare between July 18-August 18, 2009. I used this data (as well as the partisan leanings of each state) to choose three case studies: Texas, California, and Florida. For these states, I determined how many of the Facebook posts made by the state’s Senators and Representatives were focused on each of the three frames in my independent variable (cost, choice, quality). Finally, I pulled polling data from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Health Tracking Poll (HTP) on how people in three case study states felt about Obamacare in terms of those three frames over the course of the summer of 2009. I concluded by conducting trend analysis to see if people became more/less polarized on issue questions related to those three frames.

 

In the end, I did not find evidence to support the hypothesis that increased focus by elites on a particular issue frame would make the public in their state more polarized along that dimension of the issue. I did, however, find evidence suggesting that citizens in the three case study states became more polarized on all three of the frames over the course of the summer, which suggests the media storm surrounding health reform across those 3 months significantly influenced the public’s attitudes towards Obamacare.

 

Looking back, there are many ways I or someone else could improve this project. The relationships I found were likely muted for a number of reasons ranging from the possibility that few people care about what their Congressional delegation says on Facebook to the limits of using on Facebook to conduct my analysis. These were also numerous obvious shortcomings like hand-coding Facebook posts, the high number of Representatives/Senators with no Facebook profiles at the time, and the fact that I only used two iterations of the Health Tracking Poll. Yet in the end, I’m satisfied with how the project turned out. It taught me so much about how to design a research project, collect appropriate data, and present findings. I am very thankful I had the opportunity to complete this project.