Research News

Vanderbilt undergraduates present research at national political science meeting

Two Vanderbilt University undergraduates had the rare opportunity to present their research findings on the influence of patronage on presidential appointments and government performance at the 2010 Midwest Political Science Association Conference.

Nick Gallo, a graduating senior and political science major, and Gabe Horton, a junior with a double major in political science and religious studies, were mentored by Vanderbilt Professor of Political Science David Lewis.

“This has been incredibly impressive for two undergraduate students to produce and then present research findings at a national political science conference,” Lewis said. “About 99 percent of the other presenters there were either faculty or graduate students,” Lewis said.

Horton’s research was funded through the Vanderbilt Undergraduate Summer Research Program while Gallo received support from the College of Arts and Science.

Horton and Lewis are the co-authors of “Turkey Farms and Dead Pools: Competence and Connections in Obama Administration Appointments.” Turkey farms and dead pools are colloquial terms for government agencies where presidents tend to make appointments based on political connection, rather than job competence. “The assumption was that almost all presidents make patronage appointments,” Horton said. “What we wanted to know was in which agencies the upper-level campaign workers and big contributors tend to land.”

Using the 2009 State of the Union address as a reference point, they looked at which agencies carried out work high on the president’s list of policy priorities. They used the findings of a previous survey conducted by Lewis and Associate Professor of Political Science Josh Clinton to see if various agencies where Obama made political appointments had a liberal or conservative culture. In addition, they considered the complexity of an agency’s tasks. Horton said that the results were generally what they were expecting.

“Appointees going to agencies not considered big on the president’s agenda had lower marks for competency and higher marks for political connection,” Horton said. “Also, agencies with a lower percentage of technical employees and those with a more liberal culture tend to house more of Obama’s political appointees. These are the agencies that would be more likely to carry out the president’s viewpoints regardless of the competency of those in charge.”

Gallo wrote “Patronage and Appointee Management Performance,” which focuses on the impact of patronage appointments during the Bush administration on various agencies’ effectiveness. “My interest was sparked by the controversy over Michael Brown, former head of FEMA, who had no prior experience with emergency management,” Gallo said.

Gallo used the Federal Yellow Book to determine who was in charge of each government agency during the Bush presidency. He also utilized the Federal Human Capital Survey, which polls government employees, to see how employees rated their managers in various agencies on leadership and management performance. A person who either worked or donated to the Bush campaign and was appointed to a management position by Bush was considered a patronage appointee.

“My paper found that the appointees who worked on the Bush campaign performed worse on these surveys by their employees than those who were not patronage appointees,” he said. “I definitely think this could be the beginning of a longer research project that looks at Obama and future presidents.”

Gallo and Horton will submit their research to peer-reviewed academic journals for possible publication at a later date.

Media contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, 615-322-NEWS