Patrick Sellers, Cycles of Spin: Strategic Communication in the U.S. Congress

Corwin D. Smidt
Content Type
Journal Article
Political Science Quarterly
Issue Number
Publication Date
Winter 2010-2011
Academy of Political Science
No abstract is available.
Political Geography
United States
POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY Volume 125 • Number 4 • Winter 2010-11 No part of this article may be copied, downloaded, stored, further transmitted, transferred, distributed, altered, or otherwise used, in any form or by any means, except one stored electronic and one paper copy of any article solely for your personal, noncommercial use, or with prior written permission of The Academy of Political Science. Political Science Quarterly is published by The Academy of Political Science. Contact the Academy for further permission regarding the use of this work. Political Science Quarterly Copyright © 2010 by The Academy of Political Science. All rights reserved. The Academy of Political Science 475 Riverside Drive • Suite 1274 • New York, New York 10115-1274 (212) 870-2500 • FAX: (212) 870-2202 • • finance reform) is a significant contribution to our understanding of local politics and of campaign finance. The dataset includes over 700 races, over 2,800 candidates, and more than 1.1 million itemized contributions (pp. 18–19). The data analysis techniques used in this book are not particularly complex, and focus mostly on descriptive statistics, illustrative case studies, and several ordinary least-squares regressions. The stated reason for this is that variation in political context from city to city, and a low number of cases in some cities, makes more-complex data analysis difficult. I suspect that a partial-pooling method such as that recommended by Gelman and Hill (2007) could resolve some of these problems. Nevertheless, the discussion of the data is often interesting and illuminating. Paid advertising and professional staff are key campaign expenses for most candidates (p. 60). Fundraising coalitions look very similar for most candidates— even those on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum (p. 131). And it takes an astonishing $728,000 to win a Los Angeles city council race (p. 53). Adams is motivated by a fear that elite domination of campaign finance may be “crowding out the public's voice” (p. 2), and at times, his normative concerns obscure what appear to me to be some of his most interesting findings. Contrary to scholarly predictions dating from the Progressive Era that local politics should be dominated by quiet technocrats, and that most public preferences are satisfied via people “voting with their feet,” local campaigns seem to look a lot like their state and federal counterparts. Fundraising coalitions are dominated by wealthier residents, but are relatively diverse occupationally. Contribution limits and public financing schemes appear not to make much difference. Over 90 percent of city council incumbents who ran for reelection won, but less than 18 percent ran unopposed, and open seats were very competitive. Local elections look as if they are performing about as well as (if not better than) other elections on most measures. I am therefore skeptical of Adams's conclusion that local elections “fell short of expectations due to the influence of campaign finance” (p. 201). Indeed, the author himself admits that the failure of public financing schemes to increase competitiveness “calls into question whether the cost of elections is the primary barrier for challengers thinking about a run against an incumbent” (p. 174). Instead, this book is a worthy reminder that local politics—although characterized by some distinctive features and methodological challenges—should be taken seriously by those interested in subjects of national importance. BERTRAM JOHNSON Middlebury College Cycles of Spin: Strategic Communication in the U.S. Congress by Patrick Sellers. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009. 240 pp. Cloth, $80.00; paper, $24.99. The nature of congressional deliberation has changed over the years; legislators and parties now often have to debate policies outside Congress and BOOK REVIEWS | 729 in the mass media. But how do parties, which traditionally work to form policy agendas in Congress, effectively create and promote these agendas in the mass media? In Cycles of Spin, Patrick Sellers provides a welcome and needed exploration of the creation, promotion, and effects of congressional party messages within legislative policy debates outside Congress. Seller's work should be commended for both its theoretical insight and its rich and expansive findings. It begins with a persuasive and important account of why message making provides party leaders with a powerful mechanism capable of directing policy agendas within Congress and establishing favorable party images among the electorate. This focus on “spin,” as an area in which leaders of a party work to provide collective benefits to its members, highlights the substantive importance behind these seemingly insipid debates. Sellers also focuses on the entire system of communication efforts across a policy debate's multiple stages, analyzing how issue messages are created by party leaders, promoted by party members, and disseminated and reported by the news media. For each stage, Sellers presents a nuanced and insightful discussion of the various constraints and incentives either leaders, members, or the media face when deciding what type of messages to promote or publish. These various explanations are evaluated using extensive evidence collected from four specific policy debates: the 1997 partial-birth abortion bill, the 1997 supplemental appropriations bill, and the budget debates of 1997 and 2003. Sellers provides a multi method analysis using a collection of first person observations (he worked in Senator Tom Daschle's office during the three 1997 debates), interviews with press secretaries, a collection of party leader communications, 22,000 member public statements from press releases and news conferences, and approximately 1.3 million news stories from local and national news media outlets. For each stage, empirical findings are presented along with descriptive accounts to generally illustrate how party leaders can select messages that benefit members' individual goals, thus coordinating a party's public debate and improving its effectiveness within news media coverage. While certainly a strength, Sellers's broad focus also creates internal tensions within his findings that sometimes are not resolved. For instance, an evaluation of how the specific findings speak across stages is at times lacking. In chapter 3, the author concludes that party leaders select messages that their party members will find favorable, but in chapter 4, it is shown that for some debates, these messages are more popular among the opposing party. His vector auto regression analysis of partisan battles in generating media coverage treats party members as a united block in providing messages, despite his previous chapter showing that members within each party differed in their use of their party's favorable message depending on their policy positions. Finally, while his empirical investigations and descriptive accounts often find the president to be an influential force, his preceding theoretical discussion 730 | POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY does not address the White House's relationship with party leaders and its role as a potential party message creator. Nevertheless, Cycles of Spin remains an impressive and laudable accomplishment for its extensive and lucid analysis of the elements and incentives operating within congressional party message making. Readers at times may not be fully convinced of all of Sellers's conclusions or of what is a valid generalization from these four debates, but they certainly need to reflect upon Sellers's formalization of and valuable perspective on the process's substantive importance to both sharpen their own theoretical understanding of congressional policy debates and potentially guide future analyses. CORWIN D. SMIDT Michigan State University Latino Lives in America: Making It Home by Luis Ricardo Fraga, John A. Garcia, Rodney E. Hero, Michael Jones-Correa, Valerie Martinez- Ebers, and Gary M. Segura. Philadelphia, PA, Temple University Press, 2010. 224 pp. Paper, $26.95. Since Latino Voices (de la Garza et al., 1992), there has been no comprehensive chronicle of Latino lives in the United States. Using the results of 14 focus groups and a representative survey of more than 8,000 self-identified Latinos residing in 15 states and the District of Columbia, Luis Ricardo Fraga, John A. Garcia, Rodney E. Hero, Michael Jones-Correa, Valerie Martinez-Ebers, and Gary M. Segura deliver this long-awaited and overdue contemporary account of Latino lives and their future trends in U.S. society. In recent decades, the Latino population has been characterized by a staunch dynamic growth: Latinos have become the largest minority; their geographic presence has grown extensively throughout the country; their political participation has increased; the number of elected Latino officials has grown election after election; and second, third, fifth, and nth generations are now commonplace in all realms of society. As Fraga et al. rightly and pointedly argue, Latino lives in the United States are marked not only by growth but by change, continuity, community building, and complexity. Latino Lives follows a well-established scholarship that de-mystifies a widespread and ill-conceived imagery of Latino incorporation into mainstream America. Like earlier waves of immigrants, Latinos continue to embrace the American dream and share “the same long-term goals as other Americans in similar socioeconomic circumstances” (p. 181). In contrast to previous immigrants, however, Latinos present a new, complex assimilation canvas partly brushed by class, education, globalization, ease of returning “home,” and new communication technologies. One of the most thought-provoking findings of Latino Lives is that these transnational ties create an ambivalent relationship between the United States and Latinos's countries of origin—a relationship that, BOOK REVIEWS | 731.