One bored weekend in the fall of 2009, political scientist Justin Buchler was sitting at his computer thinking about the things we think about when we think about Michele Bachmann. He typed the congresswoman’s name into Google just to see what suggested search terms would come up.
“And very quickly I saw that several of the suggested searches were epithets,” he recalled.
More specifically, these were the 10 recommendations: “michele bachmann quotes,” “michele bachmann wiki,” “michele bachmann census,” “michele bachmann photos,” “michele bachmann crazy,” “michele bachmann blog,” “michele bachmann minnesota,” “michele bachmann racist,” “michele bachmann youtube,” and “michele bachmann for congress.” (This is a wonderfully easy experiment to replicate at your work computer, if you want to take a minute to try it out right now.)
Buchler hadn’t intended to embark on serious political science research that day, but he realized that he had stumbled upon a rare analytical tool — a way to measure political infamy.
Infamous officials like Michele Bachmann, he says, are a relatively new breed in politics. There have been colorful characters going all the way back to Aaron Burr, but Michele Bachmann is something different — a politician widely recognized and infamous not for having actually done anything or accumulated any particularly infamous voting record but simply because of the things she says.
“One hundred years ago, somebody like Michele Bachmann never would have been noticed because she’s not an active legislator,” Buchler said. “But now between the cable news programs and the Internet, every inflammatory remark that she makes gets broadcast all over the country and people pay attention to her.”
In fact, making inflammatory remarks on cable news programs seems to have become a substantive campaign strategy for pursing even the presidency. Buchler’s research using his new measure of infamy, however, suggests that Bachmann — or anyone else planning to build a campaign around quotable offenses — should think twice.
Once Buchler realized that suggested Google search terms can reflect widespread disparaging public opinion of politicians — in other words, lots of people have been searching for these memes online — he came up with a list of seven nonpartisan epithets: idiot, stupid, moron, insane, crazy, nuts and batshit.
“The epithets I used,” he explained, “were epithets intended to tap into that general pattern in political dialogue that when you disagree with somebody, you accuse them of being either stupid or crazy.”
He then typed into Google the names of all the members of the 111th Congress and several prominent 2010 challengers, including Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle, and proceeded to pair each with all the epithets. He was looking, in short, to see if Google would come up with “Christine O’Donnell crazy” before he did.
To be clear, Buchler didn’t actually click on the "search" button for each iteration since Googling "alan grayson nuts" repeatedly would skew the results. He just observed what suggested search terms appear in the search box.
Bachmann was the only sitting member of Congress whose name suggested all seven epithets. Shortly behind her in the House are: Alan Grayson (six epithets), Ron Paul (six), Nancy Pelosi (five) and Maxine Waters, Barney Frank, Sheila Jackson Lee and Joe Wilson (four). Most infamous in the Senate are Al Franken (five), followed by Barbara Boxer, Jim DeMint and Patty Murray (all three).
This list looks pretty similar to one that any close Congress watcher might come up with and, in a way, that validates Buchler’s technique. But then he used the results to further examine infamy’s relationship to more traditional areas of political science inquiry: ideological extremism, fundraising muscle and ultimate election results. And it turns out that his epithet measure is a better predictor of campaign fundraising than measures of ideological extremism.
“That was what really sold the measure for me,” he said.
It works like this: Being ideologically extreme makes you more likely to be infamous. And being infamous gives you a boost in raising money. But ideological extremity by itself has no effect on fundraising. In other words, a quiet congressman with an extreme-right voting record who never appears on Fox News probably won’t raise any more money than the next guy in Congress.
Donors, it turns out, are reacting to extreme rhetoric, not extreme voting records. And this discovery is a departure from political science’s conventional wisdom.
All that extra fundraising — Buchler measures the effect at an additional $830,763 per epithet for Republican incumbents in the House — seems like it should give a candidate a decided advantage (that was a lot of money for Michele Bachmann!). And this gets at the crux of the question of infamy: Does it help or hurt a candidate? Is saying outlandish things on talk radio really a winning strategy?
You could plausibly argue both sides of the question. But Buchler concluded, on balance, that Michele Bachmann’s strategists probably have it wrong.
That’s because being infamous also helps your challenger raise money — not quite as much as the infamous themselves raise, but that money goes farther in an outsider campaign than in an incumbent one. And infamy turns off some swing voters. Buchler estimates that Bachmann may have lost as many as seven percentage points in her 2010 re-election bid because her infamy alienated some voters and helped boost her challenger’s spending.
“I would say that it is a dangerous strategy,” Buchler concluded.
His caution assumes that some of the infamous got that way out of intentional calculation. There are, of course, some politicians who become infamous because of their stature, not their style. Nancy Pelosi’s infamy is undoubtedly related to her former role as Speaker of the House. And Ron Paul is infamous not because he says controversial things but because he believes in them.
The lesson of Buchler’s research is more applicable to the Bachmanns, Alan Graysons and Joe Wilsons of the world. Wilson, you may remember (and the half-life of infamy is perhaps a topic for another research paper) was the South Carolina congressman who interrupted a 2009 speech by President Obama on healthcare to yell the bumper sticker-friendly slogan “You lie!”
“And he turned around immediately after that, and used it as a fundraising appeal,” Buchler said. “In the case of Joe Wilson, very clearly he was trying to become a polarizing figure because he thought it would help him electorally.”
Wilson disputed this at the time. But, over the next few days, he raised more than a million dollars (and was eventually re-elected). Now we know politicians shouldn’t draw the wrong conclusions from that episode.
“I think that anybody thinking about doing what Joe Wilson did as a way to raise money,” Buchler said, “should read [my] paper.”