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reed magazine logoWinter 2009

In the Eye of the Media Storm by Zach Dundas


Reed political science professor and early-voting expert Paul Gronke was asked to appear on dozens of news shows and answer questions for hundreds of articles during the 2008 presidential election. What does it take to make the transition from social scientist to talking head?

The transformation of Paul Gronke’s career began with—of all excruciatingly dull life-change agents—a referendum on a state income-tax surcharge.

It was 2001. Gronke, a newly minted political science professor at Reed, was getting his Oregon bearings and found himself besieged by campaign propaganda from opposite sides of a tax ballot measure. He and his wife did the proper Oregonian thing and voted by mail well before the appointed Tuesday. Then he noticed something: the calls and mailings stopped cold.

Gronke mused aloud about this at school, and a student filled him in. “He told me: well, it’s because they know you already voted,” recalls Gronke. “I found that fascinating. I started to think about how it must change campaigning. And that made me think that looking at early voting would be an interesting academic exercise.”

Good call. Seven years later, early voting has changed the process of American politics—and, given the huge early turnout for Barack Obama, arguably at least one historic outcome. Gronke, a 47-year-old father of five who came to Reed from Duke University, has established himself as the nation’s most prominent expert on the subject. And that, in turn, has changed both the scope of Gronke’s job and his role as an academic.

Before early voting piqued his curiousity, Gronke wrote peer-reviewed articles with titles like “Concordance and Projection of Representatives’ Roll-Call Votes.” Now, in addition, he serves up interview quotes for All Things Considered, the New York Times, and the Guardian. Much of his writing has shifted from the scholarly realm to the mass media and political blogosphere; Gronke has drafted op/ed articles for the Los Angeles Times and posts for CNN star-host Anderson Cooper’s 360 blog and Portland’s own BlueOregon.

For such a wonky subject, it’s a highly public role, pulling Gronke out of the thickets of raw data where social scientists thrive. He now must translate his academic work into sound bites simple enough for journalists and politicians to understand them. Given the tortured recent history of American elections, he also finds himself at the center of some of the nation’s most fundamental policy issues.

“I’ve gone from an academic to a reformer,” Gronke says. “I’m talking to secretaries of state or legislators. A public official is interested in how something changes how elections work tomorrow. They’re not very interested in the underlying theory or data. It’s intimidating. A lot of what I’ve learned is how to respond to this audience.”

The Early Voting Information Center (EVIC), a specialized research center that Gronke started at Reed, commands an awesome amount of information about how Americans go to the polls in the early 21st century. Largely funded by grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts, EVIC tracks and dissects the ever-growing fraction of the electorate—over 30 percent in November ’08—that now skips the ritual of Election Day.

Gronke founded EVIC because soon after he developed a fascination with early voting, he discovered that not many people knew much about it. “At the beginning, the problem was that the core information on this phenomenon didn’t really exist. So I had to consider, how do we position our–selves to get this data?”

reed magazine logoWinter 2009