Samuel Popkin — 2019 Ithiel de Sola Pool Award Recipient

The American Political Science Association (APSA) will present the Ithiel de Sola Pool Award and Lectureship to Dr. Samuel Popkin at the 2019 APSA Annual Meeting & Exhibition, the world’s largest gathering of political scientists and source for emerging scholarship in the discipline.  The award honors a scholar whose research explores a broad range of fields pursued by Ithiel de Sola Pool. including political theory, political behavior, political communication, science and technology policy, and international affairs.  The recipient delivers a lecture at the APSA Annual Meeting. 

Samuel Popkin is professor emeritus of political science at the University of California San Diego. Prior to that he taught at Yale, Harvard and the University of Texas.  For the past three years he has taught in the Schwarzman College Scholars Program at Tsinghua University.  He received his B.S. in Mathematics and Political Science and his Ph.D. in Political Science from MIT.  He has been on the editorial boards of the APSR, the Journal of Theoretical Politics, and Public Policy, and on the Academic Advisory Board for the Pew Research Center.

Here is what the Award Committee had to say about their decision:

It pleased us greatly to make the award to Professor Popkin as he is a former student of Dr. Pool, having studied under him at MIT.  Professor Popkin’s scholarly career – much like Pool’s – has impacted multiple subfields of the discipline and proven influential both within the academy and the broader practitioner community.

Professor Popkin’s dissertation used survey data, well before the use of such data was commonplace, to predict the outcomes of presidential elections.  As described in Candidates, Issues, and Strategies: A Computer Simulation of the 1960 and 1964 Presidential Elections (1964), the authors (Pool, Abelson and Popkin) developed a typology of voters based on their distinctive demographic attributes (e.g. upper-income versus lower-income).  They next merged the demographic profiles with voters’ preferences on a variety of salient political issues.  Drawing from social psychological theory (Abelson was an eminent psychologist), the authors derived a series of theoretical expectations concerning the vote choices of the demographic and issue clusters they had identified.  Finally, they used the combination of the demographic and issue-based typology to simulate the outcome of the 1960 and 1964 elections.  Remarkably, their simulations provided more accurate than pre-election polls.  This book is generally recognized as path breaking in its inter-disciplinary orientation and innovative methodology.

Popkin’s next project led him to Vietnam, to study the behavior of Vietnamese peasants.  In The Rational Peasant (1979), Popkin used ethnographic methods to document the importance of economic self-interest in peasants’ decision making.  The book introduced a “political economy” perspective to the study of comparative politics in general and the study of peasant mobilizations in particular.  Popkin, who based his interpretations on several years of interviewing in Vietnam and then scouring historic documents, noticed that peasants often took advantage of opportunities for personal advance.   To test his argument, Popkin analyzed the strategies used by groups – both religious and political – that mobilized peasants during the colonial period.  What they shared was not a vision of restoration, but an organizational structure that provided peasants with an opportunity to break from their feudal past.  Markets do not enslave peasants, Popkin concluded, they enable peasants to escape from oppression.

Popkin is best known for the next phase of his career, including landmark studies of political campaigns and their effects on voters.  In The Reasoning Voter (1991), Popkin synthesized insights derived from cognitive and social psychology, mass communication research, and the by now burgeoning field of political behavior to develop a theory of “low information rationality.”  In essence, Popkin demonstrated that despite their general naiveté concerning the details of public policy, voters are naturally adept at using the snippets of information they encounter over the course of a campaign to derive a sense of where the candidates stand on the matters of concern to them.

The Reasoning Voter is recognized as a tour de force.  It profoundly impacted the academic study of political campaigns, as well as the behavior of campaign consultants themselves.  James Carville, the architect of Bill Clinton’s upset victory over President George Bush in 1992, had this to say about the book:  “If you’re preparing to run a presidential campaign and only have time to read one book, make sure you read Sam Popkin’s The Reasoning Voter. If you have time to read two books, read The Reasoning Voter twice.”

On the basis of his inter-disciplinary research trajectory, his multiple contributions to the study of political campaigns and voting, and his intellectual connections to Pool, the committee is confident that Professor Samuel Popkin is a truly deserving winner of the Ithiel de Sola Pool Award.

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