Some advice for political journalists and pundits trying to determine who will win the presidential election: After you've digested the latest polls, queried the strategists and perhaps even talked to a few actual voters, check out what likely voters will be watching on television the night before the election.
If more voters plan to tune into "CSI: Miami," that may bode well for John Kerry. But if more expect to be viewing "Monday Night Football," that might be good news for President Bush.
That's one implication of new research by Andrew Holbrook, a graduate student in political science at Ohio State University, and Timothy G. Hill, an assistant professor of political science at Doane College in Nebraska. In three related studies, the researchers found that people who viewed crime dramas were more likely than others to cite crime as one of the top issues -- and often the top issue -- facing the country.
Moreover, those who regularly watched crime programs were far more likely than others to judge the president primarily on the basis of his performance on crime -- and to regard George Bush slightly more negatively as a result of having seen these shows, presumably because as the incumbent, Bush is seen as responsible. The researchers' findings will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Political Communication.
In their first study, Holbrook and Hill randomly assigned 213 students to watch one of two episodes of the crime/fire/paramedic show "Third Watch" or one of two episodes of the political drama "The West Wing." Then the students were asked to name the country's most important problem. Among those who saw a "Third Watch" episode, about one in four -- 27 percent -- volunteered that crime was at the top of their list, compared with 12 percent of those who watched "West Wing."
In a second experiment using episodes of the family dramas "Everwood" and "American Dreams" and the crime dramas "Robbery Homicide Division" and "Without a Trace," Holbrook and Hill confirmed the results of their first test. They also found that exposure to crime programs decreased overall approval of President Bush.
The researchers decided to compare their simulated findings with the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of the real world. They turned to the 1995 National Election Study Pilot Study national survey, which included a question about how often respondents watched "NYPD Blue." They found that regular viewers were significantly more likely to identify crime as the country's number one problem and to evaluate the president based on their perceptions of his handling of the issue, even after controlling for factors that would seem to predispose someone to view crime as a top problem, including age, overall fear of crime and the characteristics of the neighborhood where he or she lived.
Other shows also can shape political attitudes, Holbrook said. His recent analysis of National Election Study poll data found that "weekly viewers of 'ER' tend to be more likely to see health care as the most important problem, and are much more likely to evaluate the president as to the way he is addressing health care."
Interesting. But what about those ghastly reality shows that seem to be all the rage these days? What political effect do they have?
"Maybe they increase the perception that everything is one big competition," Holbrook laughed. "But really, I don't know."
Who says kids grow up so fast these days? Certainly not a team of sociologists whose research suggests that many twenty- and thirty-somethings aren't yet adults. Instead, these young people linger for years in a newly emerging generational netherworld, these sociologists contend.
More than two-thirds of all 30-year-old men and slightly more than half of all 30-year-old women would not be considered adults under traditional definitions of adulthood, claims the group of sociologists, which included professors Frank F. Furstenberg Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania and Ruben G. Rumbaut of the University of California-Irvine.
They seem stuck somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. "Some features of this stage resemble coming of age during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when youth lingered in a state of semi-autonomy, waiting until they were sufficiently well-off to marry, have children and establish an independent household," the sociologists write in Contexts, a journal of sociology.
A century ago, however, most young men and women hovering on the cusp of adulthood were in their late teens, the sociologists reported. Today, many are in their thirties and still not grown up. "It takes much longer to make the transition to adulthood today than decades ago, and arguably longer than at any time in America's history," they asserted.
They acknowledged that the answer to the question, "Who's an adult?," depends on your definition of adulthood. They attempted to answer the question through a battery of questions they developed and added to the 2002 General Social Survey, an opinion poll administered to a random sample of 1,400 people aged 18 and older. The questions measured the importance of seven traditional benchmarks of maturity and their effect on individuals' perceptions of adulthood.
Virtually everyone in the survey agreed on four benchmarks -- completing your education, being financially independent, having a full-time job and being able to support a family. But other traditional markers of adulthood seem less important now than in the past, these researchers believe. Of those surveyed, eight in 10 said it was necessary to leave your parents' house to be considered an adult. Slightly more than half said getting married (55 percent) or having a child (52 percent) is a necessary requirement for being considered an adult. Those circumstances are increasingly seen as "life choices" rather than markers of maturity.
Then the sociologists used census data to see what percentage of 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds had met all seven characteristics in 1960 and in 2000. In 1960, they found that 9 percent of all 20-year-old men and 29 percent of all women met the traditional test of adulthood. But in 2000, only 2 percent of young men and 6 percent of young women met this standard.
The most surprising results were among 30-year-olds. In 1960, 66 percent of 30-year-old men and 75 percent of 30-year-old women were considered adults, compared with just 31 percent of men and 46 percent of women that age in 2000.
But what if we applied a more "modern" standard of adulthood -- one that excludes marriage and kids -- to these data?
The adult gap closes dramatically. "In 2000, 70 percent of men aged 30 had left home, were financially independent and had completed their schooling, just 12 [percentage] points lower than was true of 30-year-old men in 1960," the sociologists reported. Among women, the differences were similarly smaller -- about 75 percent of 30 year-old women met the test for adulthood, compared to 85 percent in 1960.
Millions of Americans have registered to vote this year, and a Washington Post tracking survey suggests that a majority of them plan to cast their ballots for Sen. John F. Kerry -- as long as they can find the right polling place.
Kerry leads President Bush 54 percent to 43 percent among these newly registered voters, the survey found.
But don't count those votes just yet, Senator. Nearly one in three of these voters say they don't have a clue about where to go to vote. A total of 614 self-identified newly registered voters were interviewed Oct. 4-14 for this survey.