UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck is one of 32 winners nationwide of a new, major annual fellowship program from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

As an inaugural recipient of the Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, Vavreck will receive $200,000 to support her study of the impact of super PACs and other sources of so-called dark funding in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Winners were selected from 301 nominations by a jury of 14 evaluators, including presidents or former presidents of major U.S. research universities, leading granting organizations and such scholarly organizations as the National Academy of Science, Social Science Research Council and American Council of Learned Societies. To be considered, a scholar had to be nominated by his or her institution, which could only put forward one researcher. UCLA Chancellor Gene Block nominated Vavreck.

 “Your selection is a great tribute to you and your institution,” said Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation, in a letter notifying Vavreck of her selection. In a separate statement, he said, “My hope is that the work of the Andrew Carnegie Fellows will help inform the American public as well as policy makers.”
Vavreck, who is a professor of political science and communication studies at UCLA as well as a contributing columnist to The Upshot in The New York Times, plans to use the funds to build a “virtual focus room” to study the impact of 2016 campaign ads sponsored by politically active nonprofits that can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals and unions, some of which are not required to disclose their donors, Vavreck said.

“It’s really important to figure out whether the decisions in Citizens United and other associated cases have weakened our democracy as critics maintain, and, if so, how and what steps might be taken as an antidote,” said Vavreck, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court decision that loosened regulations on the use of dark money in political campaigns. “I’m really grateful for — and excited about — the opportunity to delve deeply into these important issues.”
The research will figure into a forthcoming book on the election. In a tip of the hat to Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton’s historic attempt to break the glass ceiling that so far has kept female candidates from securing the U.S. presidency, the book is tentatively titled “Shattered.” The title also refers to the fact that the 2016 campaign is on course to shatter all previous fund-raising records.

At UCLA where Vavreck has been on the faculty since 2001, she teaches courses on and writes about campaigns, elections and public opinion. She is particularly well-known for research on the role that the economy plays in influencing the outcome of presidential elections. She also is a pioneer in the use of the Internet for political polling. Her research on survey methods, sampling and the effects of campaigns has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation. In 2008, the American Political Science Association recognized her and her UCLA co-authors with an award for their research on the rapid decay of the effects of political advertising. 

Vavreck has published four books, including “The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns” (Princeton University Press, 2009), which pollster and political strategist Stanley Greenberg called “required reading” for presidential candidates, and “The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election” (Princeton, 2013), which was described by 538.com statistician Nate Silver as the “definitive account” of the 2012 election. Vavreck has served on the advisory boards of the British and American National Election Studies and is the co-founder of the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project. In 2014, she moderated a discussion with Hillary Clinton at UCLA’s Luskin Lecture on Thought Leadership.

As with “The Gamble,” which was co-written with George Washington University political scientist John Sides, Vavreck plans to publish “Shattered” within a year of the 2016 election. “The Gamble” was billed as the first academic account of a U.S. presidential race to publish at the same time and engage mainstream journalistic accounts of the election; previous academic accounts have tended to lag years behind journalistic accounts, limiting their impact on popular understanding of the races.  Vavreck similarly plans to research and write “Shattered” as the campaign is unfolding. She also plans to discuss her findings in The Upshot.

Named for the 19th century industrialist and philanthropist, the fellowships are designed to encourage research into “current and future challenges to U.S. democracy and international order,” according to a statement from the corporation. Winners include scholars, journalists and authors whose proposals address issues including policing and race, big data and privacy, the impact of an aging population, the safety of generic drugs, and voters' attitudes. A total of $6.4 million will be given to the 2015 fellows, according to the corporation.

To see a list of all the winners, go here.