Friday, June 29, 2012

How can America win this election?

Shorter Howard Schultz ("Let's tell our government leaders to put partisanship aside and to speak truthfully about the challenges we face."):

The effect of health reform on the 2012 election

So, the Supremes have decided in favor of ACA, with John Roberts -- George W. Bush's own choice for Chief Justice -- providing the swing vote and authoring the decision. Will this put the issue of health care reform to rest? Not likely. An important reminder from Eric Patashnik and Jeff Jenkins:
The Social Security Act of 1935 was challenged in both court and at the ballot box. Even after FDR defeated Alf Landon (who had campaigned against the program) and the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of old-age insurance, Social Security struggled to gain legitimacy. The conservative resistance to Social Security persisted until President Dwight Eisenhower signaled his acceptance of the program.
ACA is likely to remain a flashpoint for years to come, and a vow to repeal (and maybe replace) it will likely be a mandatory gesture for would-be Republican nominees for some time. But will the decision have much of an effect on this year's election?

Along with Brendan Nyhan, Eric McGhee, John Sides, and Steve Greene, I did a study looking at the effect of the ACA vote on Democratic House members who ran for reelection in 2010. (Explanatory blog post here.) We found that Democratic House members who supported ACA ran 5-6 points behind those who opposed it, and that this difference may have been enough to cost Democrats control of the House in 2010.

But would this affect the presidential election? My guess is no, at least not much. Obama ran on a very public platform promising to reform health care, and unlike with members of Congress, voters don't need cues like the ACA vote to tell them just how liberal or centrist President Obama is. They have plenty of information to evaluate that already.

Yesterday's decision surely provides a temporary shot in the arm to Democratic activists. At least, it would have been very dispiriting for them if the legislative goal to which they devoted so much energy in 2009-2010 had been thrown out, and that did not happen. Instead, their labors were validated.

But in the end, sentiments about health reform are already baked into people's assessments of the candidates. People know that Obama supports it and that Romney (for all his history) opposes it, and nothing that happened yesterday changes that. Perhaps Roberts' conservative apostasy may cause a few people to reassess ACA (although see here), but my guess is that it mainly causes people to reassess Roberts.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Disappearing Quorum in the House!

In other news, today the House of Reps voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for failing to hand over docu...sorry, just nodded off. I don't care about Rep. Issa's fishing expedition  investigation. I am interested, however, in the Democrats' high abstention rate, which is a revival of a classic legislative tactic: collective nonvoting.

The final vote was 255-67, Republicans voting 238-2 for the contempt resolution, Democrats voting 17-65 (1 present) against, and 108 Democrats not voting.

The nonvoting was completely intentional: the Congressional Black Caucus urged Democrats not to vote and Minority Leader Pelosi joined in. Politico says:
Reps. Jim Clyburn (S.C.) and John Lewis (Ga.), two veteran black lawmakers, gave impassioned speeches to their Democratic colleagues on Thursday asking that they demonstrate their support for Holder. Holder is the first African-American to serve as attorney general.
The nice thing about this tactic is that it is a suitable response to the situation the Democrats found themselves in. The contempt resolution stank of politics (the inquiry was not into the Fast and Furious operation per se, which began during the Bush Administration, but Holder's response to the scandal), so Democratic opposition was a natural response. However, the National Rifle Association was "scoring" the vote, so a "nay" vote would downgrade Democrats on the NRA's year-end evaluation. Nonvoting solves both problems: it expresses not just disapproval, but disrespect for the proposal of the majority party and the legitimacy of the proceedings. At the same time, it gives conflicted members some latitude for how they explain their position. And, depending on how the NRA scores nonvoting on this roll call, it may enable them to avoid a downgrade on their annual NRA score.

There is a general term for collective, strategic nonvoting: a disappearing quorum. During the 19th century, it was a common form of obstruction in the U.S. House, as the minority party would attempt to halt the chamber's proceedings by withholding their votes in the hopes that the majority party could not muster enough votes to form a quorum (i.e. a sufficient number of members to make decisions). More recently, we have seen this in state legislatures: Texas in 2003 and Wisconsin in 2011. In both cases, legislators in minority party fled across state lines to break a quorum without being dragged back to the chamber by state police.

Even when the minority party could not break a quorum, its members can still refuse to vote en masse, and in doing so put the entire responsibility for the passage of some measure on the majority party. In the case of this resolution, the tactic would seem to fit the case.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Political Science as a Vocation, 2012 edition

Since Hans, Seth, Henry Farrell, and others have posted excellent responses to Dr. Stevens's attack on NSF funding for political science, I will focus my attention on another point: why one becomes a political scientist. Stevens's followup on her op-ed explains why she wrote the column:

Q.  Why did you write this?A.  Because  a couple weeks ago I returned from a day in Judge Fletcher Sam's court in Griffin, Georgia and listened to an impassioned speech just outside his court room by Sernita Trice, a one-time political science major at Penn State, that began, "There is no justice here.  No one cares about us."   The details are not relevant here, but she was right and I was embarrassed for my discipline for ignoring a myriad of politically and intellectually gripping questions that are in cities like Griffin and counties like Spaulding and states like Georgia throughout our country.
 As I understand this account, Stevens would prefer that political scientists focus their efforts on overt political activism, presumably with scholarship that complements this function. Anne Norton's book chapter, "Political Science as a Vocation," summarizes this view in more general terms:
[Some scholars contend that] we ought to be scholar activists, conscious of our political roles, and performing those roles conscientiously, in accordance with our political principles. We ought to seek to refine our political understandings and theories, develop political strategies and tactics, and pursue particular political objectives. We ought to keep the faith. We ought to serve. (2004, from Problems and Methods in the Study of Politics)
I predict that, if the entire discipline of political science were to adopt scholar-activism as its mode of behavior, it would result in a sharp decline in NSF funding, public prestige, political science majors, and public understanding of politics and international relations.

When I was a teen, I spent too much time watching "Crossfire" on CNN. Two hosts--conservative and liberal--and two guests--conservative and liberal--would spew talking points past each other in loud voices for thirty minutes minus commercials. Nothing was resolved or conceded. "Crossfire" was eventually cancelled but the broader political discourse that it sampled is alive and well: choosing a position before considering the evidence, repetition of talking points coordinated with allies, assertions that are only loosely based on fact. When I was a Congressional staffer the epitome of the Crossfire style was the House's "morning hour" of one-minute philippics, alternated by party, and it continues today in the evening hours of Fox News and MSNBC commentary.

When I left the Hill, I understood that I was leaving the game of politics in order to study it from a distance, like a quarterback moving into the broadcast booth. I did not do so because I don't care about politics or society, but because I believed that I could make a bigger contribution through objective (or as-objective-as-I-can) empirical research than by attempting to participate in ordinary political discourse. There are general patterns, big questions, and institutions that underlie our political system that no reporter, pundit, or politician is equipped to explain, although that doesn't stop them from trying. These include growing economic inequality, partisan polarization, and the declining effectiveness of Congress as a policy-making body. No matter how much we Crossfire-debate these questions (and many others), we will get no closer to answers unless we try something different.

That "something different" is science, which Robert Keohane defines as "a publicly known set of procedures designed to make and evaluate descriptive and causal inferences on the basis of the self-conscious
application of methods that are themselves subject to public evaluation" ("Political Science as a Vocation," PS, April 2009). I would add to this definition some form of empirical basis for testing arguments: my claims are not true because I say so, but because (and to the extent) that they are grounded in an analysis of human behavior. 

Political scientists make real contributions to the extent that their research helps to explain political behavior and institutions. Our research may be used to evaluate institutions (e.g. electoral rules, legislative procedures) or at least to clarify the expected impact of proposed reforms. It can also be used to predict, with the caveat that the human element in political processes ensures that past behavior does not necessarily predict future outcomes. The laws of politics are not as stable as the laws of physics; apples falling from trees don't get to rewrite the rules of gravity, but political actors do get to reshape their rules and strategies. 

Being a scientist does not mean that one is disengaged from politics. As Keohane explains, 
In our particular investigations we need to seek objectivity—a goal that is never realized but that we should strive for—because otherwise people with other preferences, or who do not know what our values are, will have no reason to take our findings seriously. In the absence of a serious culture of objectivity, no cumulative increases in knowledge can take place. But the overall enterprise should never be value-neutral. We should choose normatively important problems because we care about improving human behavior, we should explain these choices to our students and readers, and we should not apologize for making value-laden choices even as we seek to search unflinchingly for the truth, as unpleasant or unpopular as that may be.
The payoff to the hard work of research, however, is that political scientists can do more than engage in Crossfire politics; they can provide a more informed public debate (e.g. by explaining political science research to reporters or summarizing their research for wider audiences) or guide policymakers as they weigh alternatives.

What if the Tea Party were an actual party?

Last week, I had the opportunity to take a quick tour of Canada as part of a State Department speaking engagement. I met with great folks at several universities in Halifax, Toronto and Calgary.

I was asked to go to explain to Canadian audiences what we know about the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, drawing in part on my research with Jon Mummolo and Mike Bailey. So we were talking about American politics.

But what if they had a Tea Party in Canada? As it turns out, there is an "eh"-saying version of the Tea Party: Alberta's Wildrose Party, which became the largest opposition party in the provincial election earlier this year. I got to sit down with Duane Bratt of Calgary's Mount Royal University, and then later with David McLellan, who was active in Wildrose as it moved from a small opposition coalition to a major party.

Wildrose is different from the Tea Party in important ways. McLellan emphasized that at least the element of the party that he was involved in was much more interested in compromise than we think the Tea Party is (Take that, stereotypes of Canadian politeness!). They are also not as extremely conservative (Take that, stereotypes of Canadian leftness!). And his element was not really interested in social issues, although many in the party were. The Wildrose of 2012 built on the exisitng Alberta Alliance party, which was primarily a home to social conservatives. And many candidates in the 2012 election were clearly motivated by social issues, even if Danielle Smith, the party's leader, was decidedly not.

But the real difference is that Wildrose is a party, and the Tea Party is not. The Tea Party is an ideological movement, but it's political force is felt through the Republican Party. For a variety of reasons, Canada's political system is much more open to new and minor parties than ours is. Wildrose represents what could be the right-wing faction in the rightist Conservative Party, but they don't have to compete from within the party. They could have, but they had not been successful in Alberta (in part because the Conservatives are an overwhelming majority in Alberta, and so many moderates and liberals have joined the Conservative Party for electoral purposes, pulling the party toward them). Instead, the more conservative faction formed their own party. Bratt characterizes the division between Wildrose and the Conservatives as the "sons and daughters" of the leaders in the last Conservative split, Red Tories vs. Blue Tories. If you're American, you might compare that to Rockefeller Republicans vs. Goldwater Republicans.

Being an actual party may have consequences. Wildrose has to hold its coalition together. On the one hand, they need to accept some ideological diversity to stay large enough to matter. That may be why Smith and other leaders didn't denounce social conservatives on the campaign trail, even when they made embarrassing statements. At the same time, the party needs to be practical. They didn't win a majority, so they don't have to govern ... yet. But they do need to think about what message will help them grow in the next election. If it was the social conservatism that kept the party from winning more, which both Bratt and McLellan suggest, then the party might need to evolve away from that position.

And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between an ideological movement and a party. A party has to be strategic to win votes and win in the legislature. Ideologues do not.

The case against mandatory open primaries

Writing as part of a Slate series on proposed constitutional amendments, David S. Law is advocating mandatory open party primary elections. Specifically, his amendment would state:
No person shall be denied the opportunity to vote in a primary election for the office of Senator, Representative, President, or Vice-President, on account of his or her party affiliation or lack thereof.
He proposes this as a remedy to the problem of excessive party polarization, the logic being that more moderate, independent voters in primaries would tend to produce more moderate elected officials.

I believe such an amendment would be a mistake. I'm actually writing a chapter on this topic right now for CQ's Debating Reform series, so I don't want to give away the store, but I'll provide the basic details of my argument. Mandated open primaries are a bad idea because 1) there's little evidence they would actually reduce partisanship; 2) if they somehow did reduce partisanship, that would actually hurt our political system; and 3) open primaries are fundamentally unfair to those who provide the real labor of parties. I'll deal with these one at a time.

Open primaries don't reduce partisanship
In a study I conducted with Nolan McCarty, Eric McGhee, Steve Rogers, and Boris Shor, we examined the roll call voting behavior of state legislators all across the country over the past two decades based on the openness of their primary election rules. We found no consistent effect of primary rules on legislative partisanship; legislators in open primary states appeared no more or less partisan than those in closed primary states. We even looked at those states (California, Washington, and Alaska) that had blanket primaries (voters can choose among candidates of all parties for any given office) that were forced to change their systems when the blanket primary was ruled unconstitutional. California's legislators only became slightly more polarized; there was no effect in Washington or Alaska.

Why would the primary rules have no effect on partisanship? Well, for one thing, unaffiliated voters tend not to show up for primary elections anyway, even if the rules permit them to participate. For another, party elites have proven very adept at securing the nominations of candidates they like through their allocation of vital campaign resources like endorsements, money, and expertise. They can make sure that a moderate has little chance of winning a primary, even if moderate voters show up to vote.

Now, could a shift in primary rules reduce the partisanship of elected officials? Possibly. Nebraska and Louisiana use a top-two style primary, in which the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, go to a runoff election, and both of those states have relatively low levels of partisanship (although it's hard to say just how much the top-two system is responsible for that). California just had its first experiment with such a primary, and while the initial results were unimpressively different from the past, it is still early to know what kind of effect the system will have on legislative partisanship.

Reduced partisanship has bad consequences
Strong partisanship is admittedly frustrating. But if we could reduce the partisanship of elected officials, would that be a good thing? Not necessarily. Parties do a lot of the important work of a representative democracy for us. Notably, they give voters a opening to weigh in. Most voters have little idea what individual members of a legislature are doing from day to day, but they can evaluate the performance of the majority party, and if they don't like the way things are going, they can vote in a new party. This kind of partisanship brings some accountability to the system. Legislatures with weak or nonexistent parties are often quite collegial, but they do not produce obviously better laws, and they want for accountability and may be more prone to corruption.

Open primaries are unfair
To whom do the primaries belong? Does an independent voter – one who has declined to claim membership in an organized party – have a “right” to pick that party’s nominees? If we were to insist that all states have open primaries, we would be telling all those who have worked for a party, donated to that party, and loyally voted with that party that they have no more claim to picking that party’s nominees than a first-time unaffiliated voter who has no ties to that party at all. Is this right?

Nancy Rosenblum wrote about this debate extensively in her wonderful book On the Side of the Angels. As she notes, our political discourse tends to privilege the independent or unaffiliated voter. Witness, for example, the presidential debates and voter forums to which only independent voters are invited; voters who have made a decision early are deemed to have insufficient standing to participate. But why, in the case of primaries, should the “right” of the independent to participate trump the “right” of the loyal partisan to determine her party’s nominees?

So, to sum up, open primaries don't really do what reforms promise they'll do, it would be bad if they actually did, and they're unfair regardless. Sorry to get all normative.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Family squabbles

The political science blogosphere (hey, there is one!) has been atwitter about Jacqueline Stevens NYT Op-Ed on political science. I agree with most of what has been said, and have even said some of it myself in the past.

But I'd like to make a slightly different observation. It's worth noting that Stevens' piece is really about a divide within political science. Political scientists spend a good bit of time arguing about what kind of evidence we should accept. This divide is more significant than it is in many other disciplines (e.g. economics, physics), but it's not completely unique and it's not necessarily a bad thing.

We are a diverse discipline. I like to say that the difference between say economists and sociologists is that both study pretty much any human behavior, but each discipline has its own set of theoretical approaches, questions and methods. Sometimes they talk past each other. Political scientists, on the other hand, study a narrower band of human behavior -- the political -- but we approach it from every direction. We draw from economics, sociology, history, biology, anthropology, literary criticism, philosophy, etc. And that is a good thing, even if only because it means we have to think carefully about the standards we are using.

There is nothing wrong with "airing this dirty laundry" for the rest of the world to see. It shouldn't be a secret that we have interdisciplinary disagreements, and talking about it might be the only way to get past naive mischaracterizations of social science as not a science. But it should be recognized for what it is. It's a debate within the discipline. Stevens' claim is ultimately that those who are interested in prediction (who are very few), or in quantitative analysis (a much larger group), are too powerful in the discipline, and that those who do work like hers are not as powerful as they should be. Others disagree about both where the power lies, and who should and should not be powerful.

What does this have to do with the NSF? Well, if quantitative analysis is favored by the NSF, then the debate about what makes for good social science has had a different outcome there than Stevens would like. Some of us actually like the kind of work that is being funded, but it's legitimate to challenge it. This ought to be different than deciding whether we fund anything, though. That we sometimes disagree on what makes for good work does not mean that there is no good work, or that a roll of the dice is the way to determine which work gets done.

Are we prognosticators?

I don't wish to provide a detailed rebuttal to Jacqueline Stevens' article in today's New York Times, as Henry Farrell has already done this extremely capably. But I do wish to focus on one of Stevens' central points: that political scientists are primarily prognosticators. As she writes,
[I]n terms of accurate political predictions (the field’s benchmark for what counts as science), my colleagues have failed spectacularly and wasted colossal amounts of time and money.
In other words, we are at our most scientific when we act as soothsayers. As Henry noted, prediction is simply not what we do. Thumb through any of our scholarly journals, and you will find almost no forecasts of future political events. We are in the explaining business, not the predicting business. The one notable exception is the round of scholarship that generally comes right before a U.S. presidential election, where a small number of us use a few different models to anticipate the outcome.

And the point of these forecasting articles is not to offer predictions so much as to test theories of how elections work. The claim being made is not "I can predict elections!" but "I can predict elections with just two variables!" There is an enormous difference between those two statements. The first claims the magical powers of a seer. The second makes an argument that elections turn on just a few key factors, and that other things that political observers tend to dwell on prior to elections (charisma, narrative, spending, etc.) may be just noise. Further, by providing those variables or explaining how they can be obtained, it invites other researchers to check their work and offer their own conclusions. The first statement is a boast, the second is scholarship. To the extent we do engage in forecasting, we are almost entirely engaged in the second form.

Obviously, I disagree with what Stevens wrote, and I find the piece disheartening on several levels. Of course, political scientists are not required to march in lockstep with their colleagues. We're free to disagree with each other -- and often do -- about the best ways to conduct our profession. My concern here, though, is that this piece will be used as a justification to cut support for political science, even though it is based on what I perceive to be a serious misinterpretation of just what our discipline does.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Foie gras: the unaligned issue?

One of the consequences of strong partisanship is that most, if not all, issues eventually become partisan ones. As recently as the early 1980s, abortion and handguns, to give two prominent examples, were not strongly partisan issues; Republican legislators and voters were no more likely to support access to them than Democrats were. But over time, they became absorbed into the party dimension, and today you can know a politician's stance on these and other issues just by knowing their party affiliation.

So it's always interesting to catch an issue that hasn't yet become a partisan one. Note the state of California's impending ban on foie gras (fattened goose liver), which goes into effect on July 1st. (I blogged about this at Enik Rising the other day.) Now, notably, the ban, which was authored by a Democrat and originally passed the state Assembly and Senate on strong party-lines votes (with Democrats supporting the ban and Republicans opposing), was signed into law by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Currently defending the ban is Schwarzenegger's fellow Austro-Californian Wolfgang Puck. I don't know Puck's party affiliation, but he recently took part in a huge Hollywood fundraiser for Obama, so that should tell you something. State Democratic Party chair John Burton, who originally authored the ban as a state senator, continues to defend it.

So you could say this is largely Democrats in favor of banning animal cruelty, and Republicans in favor of protecting businesses, with Schwarzenegger leaning left, as he sometimes does. But note the flavor of this delightful piece in the Atlantic: chefs that serve foie gras are the little guy, and they don't have the kind of money to defend themselves they way, say, the beef industry does. And I have no doubt that many of these chefs who are organizing in defense of foie gras lean Democratic. Anthony Bordain, for example, seems to lean strongly left, and Thomas Keller has donated exclusively to Democrats in recent years.

It may be that in the years since the ban worked its way through the legislature, the issue has transformed somewhat, particularly as liberal-leaning chefs have embraced artisanal organ meats. I don't know that this will ever rise to the level of a fully partisan issue, especially since the level of interest and appeal to the masses is extremely limited here. But if you're eating at a California restaurant in the days leading up to July 1st and a protest starts outside, look to see who's participating and if you can tell whether it looks more like a Tea Party or an Occupation. I'm curious.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Should we punish non-voters or peer-pressure them?

Presidential election years have a way of focusing attention on voter turnout.  Each season there seems to be renewed focus on voting participation rates in America and recognition that they tend to be quite a bit lower than in other democracies (e.g., America ~50-60%; Australia ~80%, Malta 94%, Iraq 58%).

What if everyone voted?  Would election outcomes be different?  Research is somewhat divided on this.  Some say no, some say yes. Peter Orszag argues that regardless of the effect on outcomes, voting should be mandatory and punishable.

Peter Orszag rightly points out the “paradox of compulsory voting” is that it could only be enacted if it could be shown to have a null effect; in other words, both parties would have to support it and if one party was seen to have an advantage, then the reform would fail to be enacted.  Orszag suggests that compulsory voting is a sensible reform that would “make democracy work better, in the sense of being more reflective of the population at large.”

Orszag’s argument correctly assumes that elections, or the outcomes they produce, are a public good—no individual has any incentive to contribute to them (via voting) because an individual’s action can make no difference; yet, collectively we are all better off if everyone participates.  Almost by definition, democracy can only work if its citizens participate in selecting representatives.  If no one participated, democracy would cease to exist.

One of the classic tenets of political science is that public goods result in collective action problems, and that we can traditionally use institutions to solve these dilemmas. For example, we can prevent car crashes at intersections using traffic lights; we can create safe drinking water by regulating polluters; we can create safe places for children to play and learn by using tax dollars to build parks and schools; we can create safe communities and perhaps prevent military actions against us by having police and national defense systems.  When individuals defect from participating in these public goods (by, for example, refusing to pay taxes), we punish them (by, for example, charging fines or sending them to jail). Our laws and system of sanctions act as institutions that solve the collective action problems created by the desire for public goods—this is what we teach in political science 101.

Orszag’s argument is in direct line with this type of approach to governing. Create an institution (mandatory voting) to solve the collective action problem (non-voting) that results from the desire for the public good (elections). But Orszag himself notes that it might be “unpopular” and difficult to enact. In light of this problem this blog is a good place to point to recent research on the causes and consequences of citizens’ participation in politics (especially voting behavior), which suggests that other tactics might be more effective, easier to enact, or perhaps more welcome by a citizenry increasingly suspect of government.

For example, Meredith Rolfe shows that voting is a social exercise. People tend to vote when they are active in large social circles where others vote. Likewise, in a large-scale experiment using Facebook, James Fowler and collaborators found that when an individual believes his/her friends have voted, the individual is more likely to vote. Also, Betsy Sinclair shows that many types of political behavior, including voting tendencies, are influenced by one’s peer network and their perceptions of their friends’ inclinations toward voting. Simple positive social messaging, such as “people like you have voted today, will you?” have a meaningful positive impact on voter turnout.

This is consistent with the mission of new organizations like Votizen, which aims to reduce the role of money in campaigning by activating individual’s social networks to help encourage their friends to vote.

So, mandatory voting laws would likely increase participation in elections in America, but it is unclear whether such reforms are feasible, and whether the benefits of increased participation would outweigh the costs of enforcing the law.  Rather, social media, social networks, and peer influence may be inexpensive and perhaps more effective ways of increasing political participation. Political parties and candidates have already been figuring this out. The use of social media in modern political campaigns has quickly become a standard tactic, rather than a novelty. Perhaps the government in general, or those who champion higher turnout rates, should take this research to heart and deploy a more systematic system of encouraging voter participation through social networks and their media.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Smoke-Filled Room

We are pleased to welcome a new political science group blog to the blogosophere. A group of intrepid graduate students have begun a blog called The Smoke-Filled Room (nice name, btw). Their inaugural post is here, and they've kicked off the week with some interesting pieces on Egypt. I don't know how much overlap there will be with the work we do here at Mischiefs, but given their blog's name, I'm hopeful.


The United States of Nebraska

Via Alex Pareene, an interesting tidbit from Matt Bai's recent interview with Bob Kerrey:
One of his central proposals calls for a constitutional amendment that would ban party caucuses in Congress and establish nonpartisan elections for the House and Senate, much like the unusual system that has governed Nebraska’s Legislature since 1934. The amendment, as Kerrey envisions it, would also eliminate the unlimited campaign donations made permissible by the Supreme Court. Practically speaking, what all of this would mean, he says, is that there would be no “party line” to follow but rather coalitions based on ideology or shared interests.
Now, as Pareene notes, "We already have coalitions based on ideology or shared interests and they’re called 'political parties.'" This is true, but that doesn't mean that these coalitions would look quite the same under a nonpartisan system. Let's just assume for a moment there's be enough support within the Congress and the state legislatures to pass such an amendment. (And yes, we'd have to assume that legislators elected through a partisan system would be willing to vote away the parties that got them into office and help keep them there.) What would American politics look like if it adopted the Nebraska model?

Notably, while Nebraska's state legislature is officially nonpartisan, it is not without partisanship. No, most voters probably do not know the party affiliation of their legislators, but the more politically active Nebraskans do, and the legislators, lobbyists, and journalists who hover in and around the statehouse certainly do, as do those who donate to the candidates for state legislature. As Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty have noted, the Nebraska statehouse has been polarizing rapidly in recent decades, and it is currently more ideologically polarized than 17 other state legislative chambers (which, of course, have parties).

All this is to say that there would certainly still be a "party line" in the Congress, even under Nebraska rules. Would such rules reduce the incidence of party line voting? Almost certainly. But keep in mind why this would happen: because it would be much harder for people outside of Congress to follow what's going on and to assign rewards and punishments. Most voters, even the politically interested ones, generally don't follow what individual members of Congress are doing. Votes on committee reports and legislative amendments and procedural rules are often strategic and inherently confusing for outside observers. What voters can observe, however, is the behavior of a party when it's in power. If they don't like the way things are going, they can vote in another party and get a very different result. The knowledge that voters will reward them if things go well and punish them if things go poorly creates an important (if limited) constraint on legislative parties. It helps make them responsible.

This responsibility is greatly attenuated under Nebraska's electoral rules. To be sure, it probably creates a nicer work environment for state legislators; it's easier for them to get along without the partisanship. But creating a nicer work environment for 535 people in Washington would carry with it a great price in terms of responsibility and accountability.

(h/t Jonathan Ladd)

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Light posting here this week, as the Mischiefs are all gathering at the Political Networks conference in Boulder. But you can follow all the action at the Political Networks Twitter feed, or on the hashtag #polnet2012.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Senate Update: Doing Nothing Fast

Last week in the Senate, the big political event was a vote on whether to discuss the Paycheck Fairness Act. This vote occurred on Tuesday when its visibility was obscured by the Wisconsin recall election, but by a 52-47 vote senators decided against invoking cloture (which requires 60 votes) on the motion to bring this bill to the floor (more on this vote later). The outcome was not a surprise, nor the fact that it was almost a perfect party-line vote: Democrats* 52-1, Republicans 0-47.

Who is the lone Democrat? Harry Reid, who is not off-message as much as on-process. Reid voted "nay" so he can later move to reconsider the vote, i.e. bring up the same vote again. One can only do so if on the winning side.

In the short term, the Paycheck Fairness Act was a complete waste of the Senate's time if you think that legislators are trying to improve public policy. There is no way this bill will get past a Senate filibuster and the Republican-majority House in its current form. So why do it? More broadly, why do legislators hold these "message" votes?

1)  obviously, the goal is to clarify party distinctions for the next election. Even if a proposal is doomed in this Congress, it is worthwhile to know which party supports it and which one opposes it. In this case, the Paycheck Fairness Act vote buttresses the Democrats' claim that the Republicans are waging a "War on Women." Thus the expected defeat was followed by Democratic press conferences on Capitol Hill and the White House and press releases highlighting the vote:

Sorry, America, no equal pay for you, but the DNC made you this lovely infographic.
2) a "show" vote like this provides information about individual legislators as well. Their opponents can use this vote as fodder for campaign ads, and interest groups can target their most vulnerable opponents in an effort to build a majority for their proposals for the next Congress.

Of course, if the majority party is using the legislative process as an extension of its campaign machine, there are a couple caveats. First, while I think it's fair for the majority to have real procedural advantages to enact its policy agenda and keep the country running, it's also fair for the political time of Congress to be equally divided. Luckily, in this case, the House is more than keeping up its end of the political game, but it would be even better if the minority party in both chambers had a chance to play too.  Second, like the rest of us, Congress shouldn't get to play until they have finished their work. And there's a lot to be done: a highway bill, immigration reform, appropriations bills, and tax + entitlement reform.

With that in mind, what else did the Senate do last week?

  • approved two district court judges by roll call vote
  • passed eight Senate resolutions without a roll call vote (example: "designating June 7, 2012, as `National Hunger Awareness Day''')
  • passed two Senate bills, two House bills, and one Senate concurrent resolution sans vote, all minor
The real legislation for this week was supposed to be a reauthorization of farm legislation. The committee draft is quite bold: it ends payments to farmers in exchange for a much cheaper system of crop insurance subsidies. But there was little action on this bill until Thursday morning, when the Senate voted 90-8 for cloture on the motion to take up the bill. After some debate on the motion, the Senate Democratic leaders took to the floor to blame Eric Cantor for Congressional inaction. So ended another week.

* Bernie Sanders is a Democrat. I will call him an Independent when he stops going to Democratic meetings, accepting committee assignments from the Democratic caucus, and getting support from the DSCC.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Did the Party Decide event at the University of Denver

Last Friday, the authors of The Party Decides (Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller) gathered at the University of Denver for a two-hour discussion entitled, "Did the Party Decide? What the 2012 Presidential Nomination Tells us about American Politics." Peter Hanson and I moderated. It was a rich discussion, covering the history of presidential nominations and some specific reflections on this year's events. (Hans posted some of his thoughts here.)

A video of the entire panel can be seen below. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Would More Money Have Helped Mayor Tom Barrett?

It's no surprise that Gov. Scott Walker won the recall.  Polls had shown him ahead for some time. The question here is: did the spending make a difference?  In such quandaries, a counterfactual is the best way to demonstrate causality. For example, would Walker have won....if he had raised less money? ...or if he had raised a higher proportion of his money from in-state donors? ...or if Barrett had raised more?  Seth's attempt to capture such a counterfactual using the 2010 election is reasonable, perhaps because it some of the only evidence we have.  I think some readers have found this unsatisfying because the implication is that the two years of intervening political turmoil were, perhaps, meaningless (at least in terms of affecting political change in the form of an election outcome).

My colleague in Wisconsin, Nils Ringe, pointed out an intriguing observation: Barrett received about as many votes as there were signatures on the Walker recall petition (around a million signatures and votes).  It seems that nearly everyone who voted for Barrett, perhaps, signed the petition to recall the Governor.  There are two ways to read this, with respect to our question above:  1. If Barrett had spent more money (equal to Walker) he could have mobilized more voters--those who supported him but hadn't signed the petition--and surpassed Walker.  Or, 2. Barrett successfully mobilized all the voters he possibly could have to support his cause.

Do we have any evidence for either of these?  Turnout may be a good indicator of which interpretation is more valid.  If turnout was low, then interpretation 1 may carry more weight.  High turnout might indicate that interpretation 2 is more plausible.  Turnout in Tuesday's election was near 60 percent.  In historical terms in Wisconsin, this was not record breaking (in 1960 it is estimated that 72 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the Kennedy-Nixon race), but it is quite high, and much higher than typical, non-national elections in the United States.  I find this evidence more consistent with the claim #2 above: just maybe Barrett was able to maximize the mobilization for his candidacy, both in the petition phase and the ballot phase of the recall effort.  This does not mean that more money wouldn't have mobilized even more voters, but given the other evidence discussed in prior posts, it seems Barrett may have maxed out his total support (financial and otherwise).

Not Using Wisconsin to Test Anything.

At the risk of undermining the united front we have here at Mischiefs of Faction, I want to cast some doubt on Seth's thoughtful piece comparing the two back-to-back Wisconsin gubernatorial elections.

The strategy Seth employed in that post makes some sense. It's what we might call a "most similar case design," in which we take two observations that differ on very little except for one important thing, and then we consider the apparent consequences of that one thing. Since the cases are so similar, differences in outcomes might be due to the very small differences we do observe. In this case, spending differed, first with a 2:1 Walker advantage, second a 7:1 advantage. But the outcome did not much differ, suggesting that the spending difference didn't have much effect. It's not a perfect design, but lacking much else, it's a good thing to look at.

The problem with a most similar case design is that even very similar cases can differ in important ways. In this case, the recall election was very different, even if it featured the same candidates in the same state. It was (a) a recall, (b) spurred by very intense and high profile conflict that (c) probably made a lot of people aware of things they were not aware of in the first election. The very nature of a recall implies that at least someone thought things were different enough that another election was in order. So it's not so similar after all.

For instance, I think it's reasonable to infer that the recall petition process itself mobilized and energized a lot of Wisconsin voters who may have been less excited about Barrett the first time, if only because it was a more routine election. If so, it might also be reasonable to infer that the money Walker spent was necessary to create a similar mobilization and energizing of those who were probably less excited about Walker the first time, again because it was routine. In general, I tend to think that campaigns matter mostly insofar as they bring voters around to where they would have been anyway. But that has to happen. The well-known relationships between party ID and the vote, and between economic conditions and the vote, might not exist without any campaigns. In the short-time-frame recall, maybe all that Walker spending was necessary to do that.

This is not to say that I think Walker bought the election. I think spending is a lot less important than most people do. But not because of this example.

Using Wisconsin to test the effects of campaign money

The main complaint I'm hearing from the left with regards to the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election is that Governor Scott Walker "bought" the election. He outspent Tom Barrett 7 to 1, and if it wasn't for that huge spending advantage, Walker would have been recalled. Observers seem to be using the recall as a textbook example of the idea that money determines elections. Note this exchange yesterday on NPR between Audie Cornish and Mara Liasson:
CORNISH: Now, supporters for Gov. Walker, Republicans outspent Barrett and the Democrats by about 7 to 1. And a lot of the GOP money came from large, out-of-state donors - you were talking about PACs there. And any lessons here for November? 
LIASSON: Well, this is the biggest story in the campaign so far: Money matters. Republicans have it.
Is that the right lesson to draw? What this election gave us is a rare and precious thing: a gubernatorial rematch. Walker and Barrett faced each other less than two years ago. Walker beat Barrett by five points back then, after raising $11 million to Barrett's $6 million. That is, Walker raised 65% of the funds raised by the Republican and Democratic candidates that year and he won 53% of the two-party vote. This week, Walker raised about 88% of the funds raised by the two candidates and he won -- wait for it -- 54% of the two-party vote.

So there's your money effect, folks. Go from a 2:1 money advantage to a 7:1 money advantage, and it could increase your vote share by a full percentage point! Woo hoo!

I don't mean to sound snide, but I'd say in general that if you pair the same candidates up against each other for the same office, you'll probably get similar results. And I'd say that the real lesson here is how little the electoral results changed after a vast change in financing. That is, the biggest story here is that money didn't matter all that much.

Update 1: Levitt (1994) used re-matches in congressional races to calculate the effects of spending on elections. The logic was that if you're just looking at the same candidates, you remove all the candidate-specific attributes of the race (notably, candidate quality) from the equation. He found that each additional $100,000 (in 1990 dollars) in challenger spending produced roughly 0.3 additional percentage points of the vote. Additional spending by incumbents produced no detectable effect.

If we apply that to this race, Barrett's spending fell by $2 million between 2010 and 2012. That's roughly $1.1 million in 1990 dollars. Following Levitt's findings, Barrett's vote share should have dropped by about 3 percentage points. In fact, his vote share only dropped by one point, suggesting that Barrett actually overperformed (at least by these two-decade old standards).
(h/t Brendan Nyhan)

Update 2: This post seems responsible for some degree of polarization, so allow me to revise and extend my remarks. I certainly wasn't asserting that nothing happened between the 2010 and 2012 elections in Wisconsin. Obviously, a great deal did. But it's not obvious whether those intervening events should have made things better or worse for Walker on balance. The union standoff probably hurt him, but that was a while ago, and the economy has improved there recently, which has probably helped him. The existence of the recall surely galvanized Walker's supporters as well as his opponents. Yes, Walker's approval ratings were in the low 40s last year and they've improved, but are we to believe this is all because of campaign spending?

My main point was that if you're going to claim that Walker bought the election or that his spending binge distorted the vote, you need to give us an idea of what his vote share should have been if not for all the spending. I don't really know what it should have been, but his vote share from less than two years ago against the same guy (plus an incumbency advantage?) struck me as a good place to start.

It's Worse Than It Looks

Yesterday, I attended a session on Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein's new book, It's Worse Than it Looks, hosted by the National Capital Area Political Science Association. Participants included Mann, Matthew Green of Catholic University, and David Karol of the University of Maryland.

Mann and Ornstein's argument, in brief, is that there is a mismatch between our constitutional institutions and our "extreme" political parties. Our institutions are designed to make it hard to change policy, and to require broad support to do so. They are designed to defend against factions. But our political parties today are like parliamentary parties, and so they want to govern as a majority. Since the institutions make that difficult, they obstruct and battle, to little end.

This amounts to laying the blame for the problem at the feet of the parties. They are behaving badly. That sort of characterization bothers me, but more on that below. Mann and Ornstein go on to suggest that the Republican Party is especially to blame, because they, in particular, have become particularly ideologically "extreme"

In response, Matt Green argued that the institutions of the House of Representatives are actually quite well suited to parties such as these. It's the Senate that's the problem. If the Senate requires 60 votes to pass any legislation (because of the threat of a filibuster), and if holds mean that even one senator can block legislation, then a majority party cannot pass its program. In the House, when the majority fails to pass legislation (as has happened, Green points out, both for Democrats and Republicans in recent Congresses), then what we need are stronger, more parliamentary parties.

David Karol expanded on this point on Green's. It's time to concede, he argued, that ideologically distinct parties are "the new normal," which is really the old normal. The period when parties were undisciplined collections of disagreeable members was brief, in the middle part of the 20th century. Otherwise, here and everywhere in the world, we have programmatic parties. So we should design institutions to fit them, not the other way around. Karol praised suggestions to reform or even end the filibuster, but reforms that were designed to blunt the parties rather than fit them are not such a great idea.

I couldn't agree more with Karol on this point. Political parties are endogenous institutions. They respond to the institutions they face, and they will respond. What we should be doing is not complaining that the parties are behaving badly. That's never a solution. We should find ways to change the their incentives, so they do not behave badly, or so that their behavior has better consequences. Since it is impossible to entice policy-motivated people not to fight for policies that they want, we should instead try to design institutions that, judo-like, direct those passions in positive ways.

To make a bold if impractical suggestion, if Mann and Ornstein are correct that we have "parliamentary parties," then perhaps what we need is a parliamentary political system.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How to be Nonplussed by Citizens United and Exorbitant Campaign Spending

I’m thrilled to commit some of my own mischief to this faction.  My research on interest group involvement in American politics is directly relevant to the topics discussed here and when I speak to students and groups about these topics, I generally find a great deal of misunderstanding and false memes in the area of group influence in American elections and legislative politics. The purpose of my first post here is to recognize the recent trends in campaign finance and the increase in participation in this game by outside groups, and to question how, or whether, it matters.

In blogs, as in all things in life, it’s better to tell stories with pictures, so I’ll start by putting some campaign finance data into perspective with the following graphs.

First, if we look only at money donated to candidates, and their various supporting fundraising committees, over time, we can see that recent campaigns have become much more expensive than in the past (data compiled by author from Center for Responsive Politics and adjusted for inflation, reported as millions of 2008 dollars).

In addition, what gets the ire of many people is the increase in outside expenditures in recent years.  Since the 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United vs. FEC, and the follow-up Federal Appeals Court ruling in Speechnow v. FEC, the landscape that regulates campaign spending by people, groups, unions, and corporations not coordinated with a campaign has completely opened up.  Prior to these court decisions, corporations and unions could only contribute to electioneering through PACs, which have limited impact (despite their demonization), especially in the post McCain-Feingold (BCRA) era.  Now, corporations, unions, and anyone else claiming to be a “group” (read: Madisonian “faction”) has the protection of First Amendment free speech rights and can campaign in an unlimited way, for or against candidates, parties, or whatnot.  The caveat is that their efforts cannot be coordinated with candidates’ campaigns, or else they’ll be considered a campaign donation which has strict limitations. (But see the Colbert-Stewart farce on this topic which seriously questions the reality of being uncoordinated.)  See the next graph for perspective on the increase in expenditures by outside groups.


The pace of increased expenditures by outside groups is impressive.  It’s possible that outside groups will spend as much on electioneering in 2012 as candidates will (but maybe not—as we’ve seen, candidates can spend a lot).

If you add in all the money spent in congressional elections and so forth, Americans are spending quite a lot of money on campaigning.  For many, it’s not the actual amount that is alarming, but the rate of increase from election to election.  If we look at total spending on the last three presidential elections (below) we can see that the rate of increase is impressive.  However, some perspective might be helpful here.  Even if we spend about $6 billion on total election expenditures this year, it will equal the amount Americans spend on Halloween, Christmas decorations, fast food, and laundry detergent.

So perhaps whether these things are a lot of money is in the eye of the beholder.  Certainly as a percentage of the federal budget, or of GDP, $6 billion is a drop in the bucket (literally < 1%).

But even if $6 billion is a lot of money, the question still remains, does it matter?  There has been much lamenting about the price of campaigns and the over-reach of outside groups.  However, if the objective of elections is to determine a winner, and the concern is that the high price tag or the increased participation by non-candidate, non-party spenders may unduly influence the process, the alarms may be falsely rung.  Political science has repeatedly shown that elections, especially presidential elections, are not typically decided on campaigns.  Campaigning may help voters focus their attention (see this), be persuasive in some cases (see this), and help deliver successful message (see this). Frequently, macro-economic trends are the best predictors of presidential elections.  History tells us that all that money spent by outsiders may not affect the outcome of the election—because campaigns (generally) don’t matter (see political science research here, here, and here, for example).

Even if the high-level of spending doesn’t affect the election outcome, there may be other reasons to be concerned about election spending, or the imbalance in the sources of election financiers.  This shall be the topic of another post. 

To sum up, the pace of spending on elections has increased in recent years and the total sum of spending on campaigning, to some, is alarmingly high.  Recent legal shifts have opened the door for outside groups to engage in unlimited “uncoordinated” spending on campaigns, but all this money may only contribute to election outcomes under specific circumstances. Typically, the rate of change in third quarter GDP or unemployment are likely to be much better predictors of the election outcome than any amount spent by any group on campaigning.