Centre College convocation with Julia Azari and Dara Lind

On October 6, 2016 Centre College was pleased to host a convocation featuring Dr. Julia Azari of Marquette University and Dara Lind of Vox.com. They spoke for a little over an hour on the 2016 presidential election. Topics included:

  • What explains Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination?
  • What are common misperceptions about the election and what are more accurate ways to think about them?
  • Does this election teach us anything about the politics of gender and/or ethnicity that we didn’t already know?
  • What is the likely direction of both the Democratic and Republican parties going forward after the election is over?

Interested parties can listen to an audio recording of the convocation by CLICKING HERE.

We are grateful for their visit!

My reactions to 2016’s first presidential debate

Since people ask, here’s what I think about the debate last night:
1. “Who won?” is not a very interesting question because it’s highly subjective and borderline irrelevant to wider questions of the effect of debates on the attitudes and vote intentions of potential voters.
2. Obviously, Clinton was better prepared and Trump is easily flustered. No big surprise there.
3. Like debates in previous years, the performance style and “gaffes” of the candidates overshadow the discussion of specific policies and priorities.
4. That being said, in this particular election I think it’s fair to give disproportionate attention to the character and temperament of the two candidates and it arguably makes a bigger difference this time around.
5. On that same note, debates are poor venues for serious policy discussions anyways and are better measures of how candidates perform in situations of intense pressure. I agree with the widespread consensus that Clinton showed that she can perform better under pressure than Trump. Again, no big surprise.
6. I know there are haters out there, but I really like the new debate format that allows for a freer exchange between the two candidates with less regulation from the moderator.
7. Even though debates rarely “move the needle” enough to make a substantive difference in presidential election outcomes, there’s some evidence that they *can* move the needle *a little*, especially if the performance is disproportionately good or bad in one direction or another. Nate Silver is predicting today a small bounce for Clinton given last night’s performance.
8. There are very, very few Clinton supporters who likely decided to support Trump as a result of the debate and even fewer Trump supporters who decided to support Clinton as a result of the debate. I’m more interested to see how many Trump or Clinton supporters move into Gary Johnson’s column and vice-versa. I’m guessing there won’t be very many, though.
9. I’m excited to see the remaining three debates.
10. If you feel like it, read my post from 2012 on the advantages and disadvantages of the modern debate format.

Don’t blame the NRA. Blame the filibuster and primary election voters.

Yesterday the Senate voted down four gun control proposals. This morning there is a good deal of venom directed at the NRA by those who supported these proposals. Many in both the Senate and public are arguing that these bills failed because of the “vice-grip” that the NRA has on members of the Senate. This implies that those individuals who received NRA money would have supported the proposals in the absence of their contributions.

As I’ve written before, political scientists have found very little evidence that interest group contributions directly translate into votes. Instead, interest groups selectively contribute to politicians who are likely to support their causes regardless. This helps explain the strong correlation between interest group contributions and voting patterns. But correlation is not always causation.

Think of it this way: if the NRA could simply buy votes with campaign contributions, wouldn’t they donate to every Democrat as well as every Republican? Then they’d get unanimous bipartisan support of all of their priorities.

Those who support gun control measures should instead blame the Senate filibuster and primary election voters.

Of the four measures that were voted on yesterday, two actually received a majority of the votes in the Senate (53 to 47). But because of the filibuster in the Senate a super-majority (60 votes) are needed to pass anything controversial. For those supporting gun control legislation (or pretty much any kind of legislation at all, really), I would recommend directing your efforts at weakening or eliminating the filibuster entirely.

Many have also pointed out that a variety of gun control proposals have a majority of public support. While this is true, individual Senators are not elected to represent the entire country. They represent their constituent states. And they are responsive primarily to those who show up to vote in their party’s primary elections. Primary voters are, on average, much more motivated, informed, and ideological than the general public. Thus, a majority of the public in the aggregate may support several of these proposals, but a majority of the Republican primary base in the various states oppose these proposals and they routinely threaten to run an ideological primary challenger to any sitting elected official who goes against their wishes.

Given that option, Republican Senators are strongly incentivized to vote as the Republican primary base in their states desire, and they oppose gun control proposals. For those who support gun control legislation, I would recommend directing your efforts toward figuring out a way to motivate more ideological moderates to show up and vote in party primaries in your state to balance out the ideological extremists who currently make up the majority of the primary electorate.

The NRA is undoubtedly a factor in this story, but in my view is not the key player.


What I will do in response to the Orlando shooting.

There’s a lot of conversation this week about the usefulness of “thoughts and prayers” in response to tragedies like the Orlando shooting. I personally think that thoughts and prayers are appropriate… but I also think that they are an insufficient response.

The reality is that there is not a whole lot I can personally do to prevent similar tragedies in the future. After thinking about it a few days, however, here are some actions that I have decided to take within the small realm of influence that I have:

1) Make a financial donation to gun safety organizations who have far more resources and organization at their disposal than I do.

I fully acknowledge that there is a reasonable spectrum of opinions on the appropriate balance between freedom and safety in a society when it comes to gun ownership. I also am aware that the empirical evidence is clear: whether at the local, state, national, or global level, more guns are associated with more homicides and more gun control is associated with fewer homicides. There is no controversy on this relationship.

2) Contact my elected officials who have power to do something about it and let them know my preferences on the relevant issues. It’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s something and is better than nothing. I’ll also commit to pay more attention to candidates’ positions on gun issues in choosing between various primary and general election candidates in the future.

3) Make a financial donation to LGBT advocacy/support groups such as the Human Rights Campaign or Affirmation (an LGBT support organization within my home religious community).

4) Continue to offer thoughts and prayers as best I can.

Republicans are falling in line for Trump

One of my big questions this year is to what extent this will be a “normal” election in the sense that it follows the same basic patterns of previous elections.

Normally Democrats and Republicans who didn’t support their party’s nominee in the primary grumble for a few weeks or months but then eventually fall in line and support their party’s candidate because of the incredibly strong pull that partisanship exerts on presidential vote choice. I was curious to see if that same pattern would hold this year or not, especially given the ‪#‎nevertrump‬ activity and the strong loyalty in the Bernie Sanders crowd.

This article from FiveThirtyEight reports:

“In the last four live interview polls that broke down results by partisanship, Trump averaged 85 percent support against Hillary Clinton among respondents who identified as Republicans. Clinton won just 7 percent among GOP respondents. Trump’s share of the Republican vote at this point in the campaign is right in line with past nominees.”

This suggests that, so far at least, voting behavior is conforming to “normal” patterns for presidential elections. Most Republicans are falling in line behind Trump quickly and without much fuss, it seems.

We are still five months out, though. It will be interesting to see what other patterns hold or not this election cycle.

Q&A with the Kentucky Democratic Primary

Answers to commonly-asked questions about the May 17 Kentucky Democratic presidential primary:

Q. What was voter turnout?

A. Official election returns are currently showing a turnout of 20.65% of registered voters (which is different than eligible voters, mind you). This is about the same rate of turnout in previous Kentucky primaries over the last several years and just about what the Secretary of State’s office was predicting in the days leading up to the primary.

Q. Was voter turnout different between Republicans and Democrats?

A. Yes. Republicans had a non-competitive Senate primary (Rand Paul and two challengers) while Democrats had the presidential primary and also a Senate primary (in addition to various local and state-level primaries).

The election returns indicate that 199,519 registered Republicans voted in the Senate primary, which is 9.2% of the 1,295,392 registered Republicans in Kentucky, as per the Sec. of State’s website. On the Democratic side, 454,573 registered Democrats voted in the presidential primary which is 26.9% of the state’s 1,688,472 registered Democrats. This is a little better than the 18% or so of Republicans who turned out in the Kentucky GOP caucus back in March.

This is not terribly surprising given that Republican primary was non-competitive and the Democratic presidential primary had received a great deal of attention in the last few weeks, including multiple visits by both Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders.

Q. Who won the Democratic presidential primary?

A. Secretary Clinton, by a margin of less than 1%: 46.76% for Clinton vs. 46.33% for Sanders.

Q. How did the race go in Boyle County?

A. Hillary Clinton won 50% to Bernie Sanders 44%.

Q. How does this translate into delegates?

A. More or less a straight tie: most media outlets are estimating that both candidates will receive 27 pledged delegates to the DNC convention. Kentucky Democrats also have 5 super-delegates, at least 2 of which have already announced support for Secretary Clinton.

Q. How does Kentucky’s primary affect the Democratic presidential race?

A. Mathematically speaking, it is nearly impossible for Bernie Sanders to win enough pledged delegates (not counting super-delegates) to win the Democratic nomination at this point. To make any dent in Hillary Clinton’s lead would have required a massive landslide win in Kentucky which did not happen. That being said, by continuing to keep the delegate count close, the Sanders campaign is motivating the Clinton campaign to continue to be responsive to Sanders voters and their interests and ensures that the Sanders coalition will have an important influence on the Democratic platform going forward and possibly even an influence on who Hillary Clinton chooses as a vice presidential candidate.

Q. What explains the election results?

A. Hillary Clinton won by racking up large margins in Louisville and Lexington. Bernie Sanders kept it close by dominating in coal country in eastern Kentucky and also in far western Kentucky. It was pretty evenly split throughout the rest of the state.

Academics and data journalists have identified a few basic factors that have done a pretty good job explaining the Democratic primary election results so far:

  1. Closed vs. open primaries: Clinton does better in closed primaries and Sanders does better in open primaries.
  2. Primaries vs. caucuses: Clinton does better in primaries and Sanders does better in caucuses.
  3. Demographics: Clinton does better with minorities while Sanders does better with whites.
  4. Geography: Clinton does better in the south while Sanders does better in the north.

Based on those factors, statistician Nate Silver predicted Hillary Clinton winning by 2%. Given that this estimate was off by only about 1.5% it suggests that she won because: 1) Kentucky has a closed primary (not an open primary or a caucus), 2) she racked up bigger margins in urban areas (Louisville, Lexington) with larger minority populations, and 3) Kentucky is south-ish where Clinton has done better.

One interesting pattern is that Bernie Sanders did very well in eastern Kentucky which is dominated by the coal economy and Appalachian culture. Democrats in this part of the state are very likely not “social democrats” as Bernie Sanders identifies as. Thus, it is likely that they were not voting for Bernie Sanders out of an affinity for his policy views. Rather, they likely voted for Bernie Sanders as an anti-Clinton “protest vote” as they perceive Hillary Clinton very unfriendly to coal interests and disapprove of the direction that the Democratic establishment has gone in recent years, similar to what happened in West Virginia.

Q. Where can I find nifty election statistics and maps?

A. Here are a few:







Previewing the Kentucky Democratic primary


At this point Hillary Clinton is a clear favorite to win the 2016 Democratic nomination, but that doesn’t mean that next week’s Kentucky Democratic primary election is unimportant. The question now is how many pledged delegates Bernie Sanders will accumulate before the summer convention. The more pledged delegates the more influence he will be able to exert on the party platform and potentially also having some input or influence on Hillary Clinton’s VP pick. If Bernie Sanders wins next Tuesday, he’ll be in a stronger position to influence the party platform and future direction of the Democratic party, even if he (likely) does not win the  nomination.


Until a few weeks ago, I would have confidently said Hillary Clinton. She won the 2008 Kentucky Democratic primary by more than a 2-to-1 margin against Barack Obama (65% to 30%). Kentucky also voted for Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

Kentucky Democrats are generally not near as liberal as Democrats in other parts of the country. Given that Hillary Clinton is clearly the more ideologically moderate of the two, it would be entirely reasonable to assume that moderate/conservative Democratic primary voters would choose Clinton over Sanders (a self-described Democratic Socialist).

But then this week Bernie Sanders won neighboring West Virginia 51% to 36% and West Virginia is culturally and demographically similar to Kentucky in many ways (especially Eastern Kentucky). Jeff Stein argued that Sanders voters in West Virginia did not choose him because they agree with him ideologically, but instead because it was an “anyone but Clinton” protest vote against the policies of the Obama administration which they perceive as entirely antagonistic to the coal and energy industries that are the lifeblood of many West Virginia communities.

So next week’s primary will likely turn on whether Kentucky’s Democrats decide to vote based on ideological similarity or protesting the energy regulatory policies of the Obama administration. Clinton will win if the former, Sanders will win if the latter.


A few months ago about 18% of the registered GOP electorate showed up to vote in the caucus where Donald Trump won, which was not all that different than the usual primary turnout rate in Kentucky of around 16-19%.

Given that the Democratic primary race is even less competitive than the Republican primary race was back in March, I would be surprised if turnout tops 20%.