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:

http://results.enr.clarityelections.com/KY/61323/168222/Web01/en/summary.html

http://www.nytimes.com/elections/results/kentucky

 

 

 

 

Previewing the Kentucky Democratic primary

DOES KENTUCKY’S DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY MATTER?

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.

WHO IS LIKELY TO WIN?

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.

WHAT IS TURNOUT LIKELY TO BE?

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%.

How many #nevertrump folks will change their mind?

Here is one of my (many) questions this morning: how many of the #nevertrump folks will ultimately change their mind and get behind their party’s presumptive nominee?
 
The usual pattern over the last several decades is this: partisans pick favorites in the primary and are angry when their candidate loses and vow never to support the person who beat them for the party nomination. Then they have a few months to think about it and turn their focus on the other party’s candidate. And then the convention happens and its a week of positive coverage of their party’s candidate and most of them end up saying “well, I didn’t support him in in the primary… but whatever, maybe he’s not so bad and he’s certainly better than the other party’s candidate.” Then the general election happens and 90%+ of Republicans vote for the Republican candidate and 90%+ of Democrats vote for the Democratic candidate.
 
Ordinarily that would lead me to be confident that most of the #nevertrump people will grumble for a few months but by September be on board the Trump train.
 
But Mr. Trump is no ordinary candidate. So my question is to what extent that pattern will hold or will we see something very different happen this time around?
 
I suppose only time will tell…

What are the odds that Donald Trump will win the general election?

A friend asked me today whether I thought there were “any chance” that Donald Trump could win the general election election. The short answer is “yes.”

The long answer is this:

Since the 1950s there have been a few key variables that have done a pretty good job of predicting the outcome of U.S. presidential elections: 1) domestic economic growth during the election year, and 2) incumbent president approval rating. The incumbent party’s tends to win when those things are good; the challenging party’s candidate tends to win when those things are bad. Observe the following correlational graph between domestic economic growth and incumbent party’s share of the vote (source):

economic graph

Using these basic forecasting models as a baseline, we can plug in President Obama’s current average job approval rating of 49% and 2016 GDP forecasts are somewhere in the range of 2%. This would give the Democratic candidate (very likely Hillary Clinton at this point) about an 88% chance of winning, leaving the presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump with about a 12% chance.

That being said, these forecast models make some big assumptions. One assumption is that the national political/electoral system is roughly in the same condition as has characterized the system since the WW2 era in terms of partisan constituencies, the relative equilibrium of the Republican and Democratic parties at the national level, etc. There is some evidence that this system may be giving way to a new system, though, although it’s unclear at this point the extent to which this has occurred (characteristics of the new system include the emergence of the internet, hyper-polarization, etc.). The spectacular inability of the Republican “establishment” to exert any control over this year’s nominating system is another indicator that the electoral system may be undergoing a sizeable shift. The predictive model described above may not be as reliable in an environment that differs substantially from the elections upon which it was based.

Another big assumption is that both parties nominate generally qualified and competent candidates and that they will run about evenly-matched campaigns in terms of resources, strategy, etc. I’ll leave it readers to determine the extent to which “qualified and competent” applies to the current Republican front-runner. To the extent to which one of the two parties nominates a candidate who doesn’t meet this criteria, it may cause the predictive model to over-estimate that candidate’s chances to win the general election.

All in all, my “hunch” at this point is that Donald Trump has somewhere between a 20%-40% chance of winning the general election should he indeed eventually win the nomination. This is based on the evidence that 1) given the prevailing political and economic conditions, any generic Democrat would have an advantage over any generic Republican this year, 2) Donald Trump’s rhetoric and campaign style will likely demobilize a significant portion of the Republican base, and 3) there is a good deal of uncertainty as to the extent to which we are entering a “new party system” and the consequent extent to which the patterns found in previous elections can predict outcomes in current and future elections.

Under normal circumstances, I would say with a good deal of confidence that “all other things being equal, the political science models point to an edge for the Democratic candidate this year.” This year, however, the political science models have done a very poor job of predicting the rise of Trump and the collapse of the power of the GOP establishment. I therefore preface my “hunch” of a 20%-40% odds for a Trump general election victory with a great deal of caution and humility.

A quick analysis of the Kentucky 54th legislative district special election

This week Republican Daniel Elliot won the special election for the Kentucky 54th state legislative seat which comprises Boyle and Casey counties. According to the Advocate-Messenger report, he received 58.4% of the vote compared to the 41.6% received by Democratic challenger Bill Noelker. Noelker evenly narrowed out Elliot in Boyle County with 50.5% of that county’s vote, while Elliot won a clear majority (78.4%) of the Casey County vote.

This morning a friend asked a question about the precinct turnout patterns that prompted us to look at the relationship between turnout and party registration in each precinct. Here’s a quick summary of what we came up with:

Democrat/Republican registration ratio:

  • Boyle County: 1.47
  • Casey County: 0.23

Noelker/Elliot voting ratio:

  • Boyle County: 1.02
  • Casey County: 0.27

This suggests that Noelker underperformed significantly in Boyle County relative to party registration and overperformed slightly in Casey County relative to party registration. Also, the precinct-by-precinct D-R ratio and Noelker-Elliot voting ratios correlations are 0.42 in Casey County and 0.19 in Boyle County which means that partisan registration ratios were more predictive of voting patterns in Casey County than in Boyle County.

This admittedly back-of-the-envelope analysis suggests that Elliot won by turning out Republican voters in Boyle County (or that Noelker was less successful at turning out Democratic voters in Boyle County) and that each candidate did pretty well among their respective party bases in Casey county. It’s also possible that mobilization efforts on the part of campaigns mattered less and that Republican voters in Boyle County were simply more enthusiastic to show up to vote on Tuesday than were Democratic voters. It’s not possible just from the turnout statistics to know definitely one way or the other.

In the nearly six years that I’ve lived in Kentucky, I’ve observed that Republicans have been trending more and more successful at the state and local level in the state of Kentucky. Over the past several decades “ticket splitting” has been declining, meaning that voters have become more and more consistent in voting patterns between national and state/local elections. Kentucky has resisted that trend for a long time: continuing to elect Democrats at the local level while electing Republicans at the national level. The federal and state elections of 2012, 2014, and 2015 have generally trended more and more Republican at the local level here in Kentucky. My hunch is that Daniel Elliot’s victory this week is part of the broader on-going trend of the decrease in “ticket splitting” among Kentucky voters who are becoming more consistent in their Republican preferences at the local as well as state and national levels.

My two cents on the current Supreme Court drama

My two cents on the Supreme Court drama occasioned by Antonin Scalia’s passing this weekend:

1. It’s a shame that we as a country couldn’t take at least 24 hours to publicly recognize and honor a Supreme Court justice who passed away unexpectedly before jumping right into a rancorous political battle.

2. Like most people, I didn’t agree with Justice Scalia on a number of issues, but I respected him as a brilliant and sophisticated thinker who eschewed bumper sticker politics. I regularly assign some of his writings and essays to my political science students when we talk about Supreme Court issues. Of course, I also understand and sympathize with members of minority groups who are shedding few tears at his passing.

3. This:

4. Reasonable people can and do disagree about what is appropriate in political matters. Even  most objective analysis, though, can produce little support for the rationale of many GOP senators that the Senate should filibuster any Supreme Court nominee that President Obama appoints and instead wait until after the election for the next president to nominate a replacement. One one hand, the GOP proposal is not technically illegal and it does not break any letter-of-the-law interpretation of current Senate rules. On the other hand, to delay an entire  year before considering a presidential appointee to the Court is 100% without precedent in American history. The longest it has ever taken is about four months (the appointment of Louis Brandeis in the Woodrow Wilson administration). For conservatives, who claim to respect tradition, to say that a Supreme Court confirmation should take three times longer than it has ever taken in the history of the entire United States simply because it is an election year is completely outside the boundaries of “traditional” of American politics and is philosophically inconsistent at best and 100% self-serving at potentially damaging to our entire political system at worst.

How long are we as a country really going to keep playing this “Constitutional hardball” game of chicken every time a controversial issue comes up?

Reality check: what will the next president be able to accomplish?

At this point in the presidential primary race it’s good to pause and remember a fundamental fact about our current American political system: the U.S. president is not as powerful as we often think and is certainly less powerful than presidential candidates claim that they will be once they are elected and assume office.

In our hyper-polarized political system, presidents simply don’t get their way on most big things unless a super-majority of Congress agrees with them. And despite what they will say about the ability to compromise and “bring people together” and to be a “uniter” during the campaign season, presidents are rarely successful at persuading Congress to agree with them. Also, presidents generally do not cause polarization, so they will be able to do very little to “fix” it.

For more details on this, read this primer on the “Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency.”

Does that mean it doesn’t matter who emerges from the primary campaign or ultimately elected president? Of course not. What it means is:

  • Right now during the campaign season the candidates are promising the moon and beyond. A good rule of thumb is to expect that they will be able to accomplish maybe 5-10% of what they are promising in terms of their domestic agenda, perhaps more if they focus on small incremental goals instead of major world-changing goals.
  • Because the U.S. House (and very possibly the U.S. Senate) will continue to be controlled by Republicans in 2017, a Democratic president will not be able to bring about many drastic changes. She or he would basically prevent a Republican Congress from pursuing their major policy goals just as they will prevent her or him from pursuing her or his major policy goals. A Republican president, on the other hand, will be similarly blocked by a Democratic filibuster in the U.S. Senate unless 1) Republicans manage to win 60+ seats in the Senate and/or 2) the Senate filibuster is eliminated.

While presidents are not omnipotent and may not be able to accomplish their major policy objectives in our hyper-polarized climate, they still have a number of important powers. For example:

  • Because they have more ability to act unilaterally in foreign affairs, they will have more influence in international matters than domestic matters. So their foreign policy proposals are important. (But we should remember that even then their ability to control world events is not absolute.)
  • Presidents have the ability to nominate Supreme Court justices which have long-term effects on the future and direction of American politics.
  • Presidents have the ability to act through Executive Orders which are becoming an increasingly popular option for presidents to use to bypass Congress in our hyper-polarized climate. The Courts have curbed this power to some extent, but expect it to continue to slowly grow regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican is in office.
  • Presidents may not be able to get everything they want, but they can control what they talk about and what they focus on. This, in turn, affects what the media talks about which affects what society talks about. Presidents have a lot of influence to “set the agenda” and shape our national conversations. This is an important power. They don’t have the power to change our minds about political matters, but they have a lot of power to determine what is is that we talk about.

So here are some important “reality check” questions to ask ourselves during the heat of campaign seasons:

  • What is each candidate’s plan to accomplish his or her objectives given the realities of a hyper-polarized Congress? How realistic or feasible is that plan?
  • Given that these candidates will not be able to accomplish everything that they are proposing, what are their “smaller scale” back-up Plan B’s? What might they do after their initial attempts to follow through on their campaign proposals fail?
  • What does each candidate talk about? What do they focus on? What is his or her worldview? What are his or her fundamental assumptions about the political world? That will influence what we as a country talk about for the next four to eight years and how we talk about it.