For this edition of 10 Questions, the California Aggie sat down with Walter Stone, a political science professor who has taught at UC Davis since 2001. Stone’s current research interests include parties and elections and electoral behavior.
What made you choose political science as a discipline?
I didn’t choose it as my first major as an undergraduate. I switched from business to political science in my freshman year. I had no intention of becoming a political scientist; I was certain that I would go on to law school all through my undergraduate years. I only came to my senses after I graduated. I was interested in politics, not so much as an activist, but really just as to how societies manage conflict.
Do you find it difficult to not incorporate your own political beliefs into your lectures?
No, in fact, most often, the students don’t know what my beliefs are. That’s because I emphasize the discipline of political science. When I talk about politics, it’s to illustrate principles and theories from the discipline of political science, and these theories and the evidence that we have don’t have a partisan [slant].
In studying elections and voting patterns, have you been able to discern a pattern that might predict the outcome of this election?
I think I can predict the outcome of this election, but at this point it isn’t terribly interesting. Anyone who looks at the polls can predict the outcome, unless something dramatic happens between now and [Nov. 4], those polls are going to be accurate. You don’t need a degree in political science to be able to read national polls! They are predicting a Democratic victory by 53 percent. I would be very surprised if Senator [Barack] Obama loses.
Do you think that national polls are accurate?
They are fairly accurate. The problem with polls isn’t that people will misrepresent their vote…. [It’s that] pollsters have to do the survey very quickly, so they have to draw the sample very quickly.
For example, one of the problems is that telephone polls routinely under-sample cell phone users. People that only use cell phones, like college students and young professionals, are harder to reach because they don’t have a landline. Also, polls have a problem predicting who will actually vote. The average error in prediction in the weekend polls right before the election is about 2.5 percent.
How can students best prepare themselves for the voting booth?
Well, if a voter came in and asked me advice on how to prepare them to vote, I would tell them to go on to the different candidate’s websites and look at their stances. But that’s just unrealistic.
Whereas the effort that you put into your political science class determines your grade, the effort that you put into voting has no real effect on the outcome of the election. That’s why [political parties are] important because if you decide which party you belong to, you can make a pretty good approximation of how you would vote.
Do you think that we have to worry about voting ballot problems again, or have we worked out all of the kinks in the system?
You always have to worry about it because the proportion of fraud is as serious as the reality. A lot of politics is about perception; if there is a huge percentage of the population [that] believes that the candidate stole the election because of fraud – even if it’s not true – then that’s a problem. Democracy is ultimately dependent on the legitimacy of the system and the notion of fairness. Personally, I don’t think there’s much fraud out there.
Do you think that you could describe political science in one sentence?
It is the systematic study of the organized resolution of conflict.
What do you think of the latest Saturday Night Live political skits?
I always get a kick out of them. It’s fun to watch people imitate people in power. The Clinton imitations were a blast. I don’t always stay up to watch them, but I get a kick out of them. I’m a sucker for political cartoons, too.
If you had to become an expatriate, which country would you go to and why?
I don’t think that I would leave because I was fed up with the country, but if I had to leave, like I was kicked out, I would probably have to go to an English-speaking country.
I’m not sure that I would want to end up in one place; I’d look for the opportunity to take an adventure … [to] take the opportunity to drive on the wrong side of the road for a while.
Why do they call it the World Series if America is the only nation that takes part?
Because Americans have always been a little bit ethnocentric. We have a tendency to do that, it’s probably not that unusual, but we have a tendency to think that if it happens here, it’s the top of the world.
MEGAN ELLIS can be reached at email@example.com