Benjamin Toff — 2018 E.E. Schattschneider Award Recipient

The American Political Science Association (APSA) will present the E. E. Schattschneider Award to Dr. Benjamin Toff at the 2018 APSA Annual Meeting & Exhibition, the world’s largest gathering of political scientists and source for emerging scholarship in the discipline. The $750 prize the best doctoral dissertation on American government. Elmer Eric Schattschneider, for whom the prize is named, served as APSA’s President from 1956 to 1957.

Benjamin Toff is an assistant professor at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota where he studies news audiences and political engagement, public opinion, and changing journalistic practices. His research has been published or is forthcoming in the Journal of Communication, Perspectives on Politics, Political Communication, the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, and Journalism. He is currently working on a book manuscript entitled The Blind Scorekeepers: How Public Opinion Gets Defined in American Politics, which examines the role played by quantitative survey data in news coverage of American politics. He received his PhD in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2016 and a BA in social studies from Harvard in 2005. From 2016-2017, he was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford where he remains affiliated as a research associate. Prior to entering academia, he worked for several years as a journalist and researcher at The New York Times.

The best research in political science both invigorates the scholarly understanding of politics and yields invaluable insights — accessible to academic and broader audiences alike — into matters of central concern to the polity.  Such an achievement often escapes even the most distinguished scholars of long careers.  Benjamin Toff, in his dissertation, “The Blind Scorekeepers,” has already met that mark.

Toff offers a riveting analysis of two intersecting and dramatically transforming “industries” that play symbiotic high-profile roles in American politics—the news media and public opinion polling. Joining his insider perspective gained from an earlier post at the New York Times with an array of analytical tools reflecting his advanced training in political science; employing the triangulation of penetrating informant interviews with scores of editors, reporters, commentators, analysts, pollsters, and consultants with original and methodical large-scale data collection, multivariate analysis of surveys and news stories, and social-cueing experiments; and crafting unusually artful and pristine prose, Toff has produced a comprehensive, informative, rich, nuanced, and troubling window into two complex institutions that are thought to be pillars of democracy.  It is far more than a study of political communications.

Americans depend on media, polling, and the reporting on opinion surveys to inform them about issues, candidates, and the working of government.  Toff shows that the confluence of news media and public opinion polling reinforces partisan scorekeeping rather than nurturing the kind of “responsible electorate” once applauded by V. O. Key due to the emergence of resource constraints, incentives that drive reporting practices, the increasingly challenging environment for conducting representative surveys, and the psychological dynamics of opinion formation and rigidity.