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Blogging from the Ivory Tower

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Typing on a laptop.

There are plenty of political blogs, of course, but most either focus on strategy or espouse a specific ideological viewpoint.

While those are undeniably valuable, the University of California, Los Angeles is taking a different approach with its new Election 2008 blog, "The Sprint." It features posts from a wide variety of faculty members, many of whom riff on relevant academic research findings to provide enlightened commentary on the race.

Participants include Frank Gilliam, dean of the School of Public Affairs; Dr. David Zingmond, an assistant professor of medicine and practicing physician who will blog on health issues; and Mark Sawyer, director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics. Sawyer is openly pro-Obama; the others, to date, are providing neutral analysis.

A high percentage of the initial blog posts – which are not edited or endorsed by the university – are quite fascinating. In a Sept. 9 post, Gilliam notes that by using Alan Abramowitz’s “elegant” predictive model of voter behavior, “Obama should win the election handily.” So why do polls suggest the race is essentially tied?

“It’s because these models don’t adequately account for the ‘fourth quarter’ effect,” he writes. “You see, people aren’t sure if Obama really can handle the job of head coach. They aren’t sure if the plays that worked in the first half are solid down the stretch.”

I suspect the models may be off this year because of two factors we can’t calculate: How many of the newly registered young voters will actually go to the polls, and how many voters won’t pull the lever for a black presidential candidate. But Gilliam’s analogy is a good reminder that even in a “change” election, “experience” can’t be counted out.

In a provocative Sept. 13th post, Ryan Enos, a Ph.D candidate in political science, asks: “Does it matter if smart people are in the White House?” He concedes that one can’t really measure presidential intelligence. But you can look at which presidents went into the most selective and prestigious schools – presumably ones that don’t admit dummies – and compare that with how they rank historically, in terms of the successfulness of their presidencies.

“Presidents that attended Ivy League universities are, on average, far more highly ranked (by historians) than presidents overall,” he concludes. “Presidents that either did not attend college or went to obscure colleges do worse than the average president.”

This year, we have Naval Academy graduate John McCain vs. Harvard Law School graduate Barack Obama. Not too shabby. Of course, George W. Bush graduated from Yale and earned an MBA at Harvard.