Monday, July 30, 2012

Essential party readings IV

Over at Enik Rising, I started an occasional series called Essential Party Readings. You can view my first three entries here. I'm hereby migrating that series to this blog, starting with this entry, which comes from John Reynolds' book The Demise of the American Convention System, 1880-1911 (pp. 82-3).

Reynolds recounts an 1886 conversation between Colorado gubernatorial candidate Frederick White and his campaign manager, E.B. Sopris. The two are speaking secretly in the ladies room at a state party convention.
Wight complained that he was "green in this business," and wanted to know how to converse with the delegates. "[C]onfine your talk to monsyllables or to the weather or the Cleveland administration or something of that sort," Sopris advised. "Don’t give your views on anything else…. Look wise and be a good listener." "Well," Wight interjected, "suppose I am asked for my views on railway legislation?"
"Be evasive; don’t answer positively pro or con. Say the family is the foundation of the state. Ask your questioner how many children he has, and express the hope that some one of them will live to be president. Then look off very earnestly and find someone whom you must talk with at once, and excuse yourself…. If pressed take a violent fit of coughing and rush off for the glass of water. Some friend will stop you on your return and introduce you to a new delegate."

Friday, July 27, 2012

What do the GDP numbers tell us about the presidential election?

The new numbers on 2nd quarter growth in gross domestic product came out this morning, showing that the economy grew at a 1.5 percent annual rate in the 2nd quarter. They're the sort of economic figures we've come to expect of late -- not a recession, but pretty far from robust growth. But what can they tell us about the 2012 presidential election?

Well, if you average GDP growth over the first two quarters of election years going back to 1948 and use it to predict presidential vote shares, you get this:
Now, this isn't the strongest correlate with presidential vote shares. Real disposable income does a bit better, as do measures that incorporate third quarter growth. But still, by itself, this measure explains 39% of the variation in vote shares.

You'll notice that there's a red dotted line projecting the 2012 presidential vote based on GDP growth this year (an average of 1.75%). It basically hits the trendline right at 50%, continuing to indicate a really, really close contest. Notably, we're experiencing slower economic growth than George W. Bush had to contend with in 2004 or his father faced when he lost reelection in 1992.

Of course, I'm not making a forecast (political scientists are apparently terrible at that). I'm just suggesting that what we've seen so far this year from the economy is consistent with a very close election, and that things with more modest influences on the vote (campaign spending, voter turnout efforts, new voter ID requirements, etc.) could end up making all the difference.

And all of this will matter more than Obama telling you you didn't build something or Romney trying to reprise Billy Bob Thornton's role in "Love, Actually."

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Is politics too important for the politicians?

I was pleased and grateful to read this editorial in Nature in defense of National Science Foundation funding for political science. It's frankly nice to know that someone's got our back at a time when people want to defund political science because we're not sufficiently scientific, or we make lousy predictions, or just 'cuz.

But this passage left me uncomfortable:
The idea that politicians should decide what is worthy of research is perilous. The proper function of democracy is to establish impartial bodies of experts and leave it to them.
Is that really the proper function of democracy? I tend to advocate more responsibilities for elected officials, not fewer. I'd rather see elected officials in charge of things like redistricting, budgeting, nominating judges, etc., if for no other reason than that these activities give elections meaning. Voters should be able to get the government that they want -- or something close to it -- by voting people who believe as they do into office, and if they vote out the incumbents in favor of something different, they should get something different.

Government by "impartial bodies of experts," conversely, is the antithesis of representative democracy. It means, in its purest form, that you'll continue to get the same policies regardless of which party or candidate you vote for.

Now, I'll certainly concede some roles to the impartial bodies of experts. I tend to think that the Fed being in charge of our currency is better than having Congress do that, and having special committees for things like military base closures is probably a good idea. In such situations, the potential for individual political gain causing serious problems elsewhere in the country runs pretty high.

But the NSF situation is different. Members of Congress are certainly competent to judge our work, and  defunding our research, while a bad idea for a number of reasons, is not likely to seriously harm the nation in the near future. Rep. Flake and those who supported his amendment are simply making a political judgment. If that's a bad judgment, people should stand up and oppose it, and if that fails, they should take the struggle to the ballot box. But there's nothing inherent in our line of work that places us beyond politics.  We elect people to make decisions about the use of our money. By all means, let's try to influence those decisions. But let's make sure that those decisions are made by elected officials. That is the proper function of democracy.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Two new blogs

Two new blogs in the MOF blogroll:

Votamatic, by Drew Linzer of Emory, will be tracking the polls for the 2012 election. Linzer is joining the chorus of analysts aggregating polls, but this time, it's different. Linzer is applying a transparent model that will incorporate fundamentals, which we have discussed before, as well as state-level polls. And it's all in the open.

The Math of Politics comes from John Patty of Washington University in St. Louis. Patty will be laying out the math behind various political questions. His first post asks, "How might the federal budget be balanced without increasing revenues?" That is, if you're against raising any taxes in any way, what are your options?

Maybe next, Patty will tell us how we could tell if something is a "recovery."

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A parties timeline

Susan Schulten has a new blog called Mapping the Nation, which is a companion to her new book of the same name, forthcoming from University of Chicago Press. In a recent post, she highlights Walter Houghton's mesmerizing timeline called "Conspectus of the History of Political Parties," made in 1880. You can see an image of it below, but there are more detailed images on Susan's blog. It was an attempt to show all the key details of the federal government in its first century. (I have a copy up on my office wall.)

The details are great, but one of the things that stands out to me is that the idea of a government permanently divided between Republicans and Democrats was a pretty new concept at the time this was drawn up. Parties had come and gone, with the major ones usually only lasting a few decades. That the parties warring for power in 1876 would be the same ones (more or less) doing so in 2012 would likely have seemed pretty remarkable to political observers at the time.

Who's getting primaried, and why?

Hans wrote two interesting posts recently (here and here) on the subject of asymmetric polarization. That is, he wondered why DINOs (Democrats in name only) aren't singled out for retribution by liberals the way that RINOs (their GOP equivalent) are by conservatives. I share Hans' impression that there's a difference across the parties here, and that this almost certainly has something to do with the fact that Republican officeholders seem to be moving right far more quickly than Democratic officerholders are moving leftward.

I wanted to point out, however, the work of Robert Boatright, who has a book coming out on congressional primaries. As Boatright notes, contrary to much speculation, primaries aren't becoming more common in congressional races, and ideology is only one of many motivations for primarying an incumbent. Primaries, he notes, are most common within a party that is having a good year; the same things that motivated Republicans to challenge Democrats in 2010 also motivated Republicans to challenge sitting Republicans.

Perhaps most interestingly, he finds some important differences between the parties in terms of ideological primary challenges, and not in the expected direction. Below is a scatterplot of Republican House members from 1972 to 2008, plotted by the ideological makeup of their districts and their ideal point on congressional roll calls. Those who were challenged in primaries are highlighted. The important thing to note is that some incumbents who were primaried were too liberal for their districts, but some were too conservative:

Here's the same graph for Democratic House members. Interestingly, basically every primaried Democratic incumbent was too conservative for her district. This makes it look like Democrats are more the party of ideological purity than Republicans are.
Now, this dataset encompasses the 1970s and ends in 2008. It is quite possible that the roles have reversed in recent years, with Republicans embracing ideological purity and Democrats becoming more tolerant of moderate behavior by incumbents. But there seems to be nothing endemic to the Republican Party that would make them more obsessed with the purity of their officeholders.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Extreme Democrats?

On Monday, I asked why there does not seem to be a systematic effort to identify and replace moderate Democrats the way that conservatives and especially the Tea Party has targeted "Republicans in Name Only." There's a sense of ownership in that label. To be a Republican is to be conservative. Progressives seem disappointed in Democrats, but not taking control.

I've heard a variety of interesting responses, from the claim that progressives make themselves heard in different ways, to the suggestion that Democrats are just playing the smarter strategy. But several people have also claimed that the reason the left doesn't primary Democrats is that they don't have to -- Democrats are homogenous and very liberal.

That is almost certainly incorrect. Quantitatively, we have these findings from Keith Poole, Howard Rosenthal and Nolan McCarty that Democrats have not become more extreme in the last several decades (follow those links for more info and larger images. Images originally from

Additionally, by these measures, Barack Obama is the most moderate president in recent history. More moderate than Carter. More moderate than JFK. More moderate than Truman.

Now, maybe we don't believe these quantitative results. Maybe the agenda has shifted or something. But they ring true. Obama, far from being moderate, is widely criticized by the left, for everything from unmanned drones to selling out on health care. He's been called a moderate Republican from the 1990s, and a close look at his record continues to reveal a lot of pretty moderate stuff. The claim that Democrats are spineless in the face of Republicans is a common one.

So I don't think it's accurate to say that Democrats are all ideologically pure progressives/liberals. At best, I think, the Democrats are at least no more ideological than Republicans. But this stuff is hard to assess. The country as a whole, including Republicans but especially Democrats, has moved to the left on gay rights. And the country as a whole, especially Republicans but definitely including Democrats, has moved to the right on economic intervention. Nixon made use of price controls. Obama would never dream of it. But these shifting agendas aside, at the very least, I don't think we can say that Democrats are far to the left.

So the question still stands.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Do issues matter?

I was recently giving some lectures on the topic of presidential elections at a family summer camp in the Sierras (great gig, by the way). I was trying to give the audience a sense of what actually affected votes (i.e.: income growth in the election year, wars) and what didn't (i.e.: pretty much everything else). Several audience members, however, wanted to know why I hadn't mentioned issues. Surely the candidates' stances on things like abortion, birth control, gun access, gay rights, etc. affect people's votes, right?

To be sure, the candidates spend a good deal of staff time developing public positions on a broad array of issues. (Obama's issue positions are here, Romney's are here.) But do those things actually affect votes? The basic answer is no. But it's not that issues don't matter, it's just that they're already rolled into people's impressions of the major parties.

Suffice it to say that the vast majority of Americans will never visit the above web pages and will never comb through newspaper coverage to find out what Obama and Romney feel about particular issues. Overwhelmingly, they will rely upon the "D" or "R" label that appears next to the candidate's name and just infer the candidate's beliefs from that. And that's actually pretty reliable! Especially in a period of strong party polarization, the candidate's party affiliation tells you just about everything you need to know about his or her issue stances. Parties very rarely nominate someone who's less than doctrinaire about major party commitments, whether they're running for president or governor or just about any other office.

Now, once in a while, there are exceptions. Barry Goldwater was probably more conservative than the average Republican nominee in 1964 on a few key issues (notably, the use of force abroad), and that may well have cost his ticket votes. George McGovern was probably more liberal than the average Democratic nominee in 1972, and that probably cost his ticket some votes, too. And issue stances undoubtedly matter in primaries. That's how party leaders and activists develop a sense of which candidates would be good for the party and which wouldn't. Those issue stances on the candidates' websites in the general election mainly serve to signal to the candidates' supporters from the primaries that the candidates haven't betrayed them.

But it's rare that those issue stances communicate any information beyond "traditional Democrat" or "traditional Republican." Issues matter, but only because the parties already care about them.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Why are there no DINO's?

The Tea Party, and the conservative movement more broadly long before it, has tried to take ownership of the Republican Party. When a member of Congress is insufficiently conservative, the movement targets them, perhaps through primaries. They call these candidates "RINO's" or "Republicans in Name Only." While there is diversity within the Republican Party on many issues, it's clear that to the conservative base, being Republican means being conservative.

The movement has no qualms about targeting Republicans for ideological deviation. It's the exception to Reagan's 11th Commandment. The movement pays close attention to votes in Congress. And there is some evidence that the movement has been successful in electing like-minded legislators, and in keeping them in line.

The modern progressive movement also has no qualms about criticizing Democrats for too much compromise. Obama has almost as many critics from the left as from the right, notably on Obamacare (too watered down) and foreign policy (unmanned drones).

But liberals/progressives/the left do not take ownership of the Democratic Party. They seem to recognize that the Democratic Party is the party that they should like, but they put the onus on the party to come to them. It's the Democrats' fault because they have no spine. The Tea Party never lamented that the Republicans didn't have a backbone. The Tea Party decided it was the party's backbone. The Tea Party didn't wait for the Republicans to come to them. They put a rope around the party and pulled.

If there is any truth to the characterization that polarization today is mostly a consequence of the Republicans moving to the right, this must be a big part of the explanation. There is a movement invested in moving the Republicans, while the equivalent movement on the left, which I think it just as vibrant, seems like it has given up on moving the Democrats.


Monday, July 9, 2012

The fundamentals favor the incumbent

In case you didn't know, the theory that says economic fundamentals explain most presidential election outcomes predicts that Obama will win. From The Monkey Cage.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Cause and effect

I was asked to write about the impact of the the Supreme Court ruling on the PPACA on the 2012 election for the RWJF's Human Capital blog. My answer, consistent with Seth's, is not that much.

Of course, the opposite is probably not true. That is, the 2012 election, both for president and for members of Congress, will likely have significant effects on the future of the legislation, and the future of health care in the United States.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A reason to celebrate

Want a reason to celebrate this Independence Day? Try this: elections. Yes, elections can be annoying, and if you live in a swing state, you are undoubtedly already being hammered with mind-numbing attack ads, with Republicans claiming that everything that Democrats do is craven or evil and vice versa.

But what's the alternative? I've spent far too much of my leisure time in the last year listening to the History of Rome podcast and watching "Game of Thrones," and one thing those tales drive home is the challenge of succession. Many (perhaps most?) of the battles fought by soldiers of the Roman Empire were fought against other Roman soldiers, either putting town a rebellion or taking the throne from a usurper. Passing power along by bloodline can help -- at least it's some sort of system -- but it can create just as many problems when an heir proves incompetent or there are multiple legitimate claimants. One of the reasons for the successes of the Roman emperors of the 2nd century AD was that most of them did not have male children -- they were able to choose qualified successors and groom them for leadership. Marcus Aurelius, of course, did produce a male heir, and he turned out to be an insane Joaquin Phoenix, ending the empire's century of competence.

I find this important because the Roman Empire was pretty much the most advanced civilization the world had ever seen. It had sophisticated systems of currency and trade, an advanced legal system, a functional bureaucracy, not to mention its amazing military capabilities. But they were never able to resolve the problem of succession of power.

And yet this is something we take for granted today. Elections are fought fiercely, but they end. The results are rarely disputed, and basically never with violence. We do not fear for our lives if we pick the wrong presidential candidate, and we do not waste blood and treasure putting down rebellions and ousting usurpers.

No, we're not the only nation to figure this out, but it's nonetheless something to be proud of, especially since so many advanced societies before us failed on this point. So this Independence Day, let's celebrate by volunteering for a candidate, donating money to a campaign, or just watching an attack ad.

Happy Fourth.