Monthly Archives: October 2013

“Fine-tuning” of election laws will not solve polarization

Today’s USA Today headline story reports the results of a survey describing how Americans are supportive of a number of “fine-tuning” election reforms that could potentially alter the partisan gridlock which “could make a difference in the kind of government that follows.” These are: 1) put non-partisan commissions in charge of state legislative redistricting, 2) allowing Independents to vote in partisan primaries, and 3) enact voter ID laws.

The headline gives the impression that these proposals would make a big difference in our political system and could potentially assuage the gridlock and paralysis in D.C. Indeed, the deadline on page 6A reads: “Fine-tuning could free D.C. to function.” Although the author says that these ideas have the support of “some political scientists,” there is not much evidence (that I am aware of) that would suggest that any of these reforms would drastically alter election outcomes. To wit:

  • One of the most popular misconceptions about contemporary political polarization in Congress is that it’s caused by partisan redistricting: partisan legislators redraw lines that create lopsided ideological districts. It’s an appealing argument. If that were the case, though, we would expect polarization to be absent in legislative bodies whose district lines never change… like the U.S. Senate. However, the Senate has become hyper-polarized without any partisan redistricting, so it follows that redistricting is not to blame for the polarization. (More here.) To be fair, the author acknowledges such in the article, but only after quoting in some detail individuals who think that nonpartisan redistricting commissions could likely make a substantial difference.
  • The argument for allowing Independents to vote in partisan primaries has logical appeal: victorious candidates would have to appeal to ideological moderates in addition to ideological extremists, therefore the average candidate that emerges from a primary would be more ideologically moderate as a result. This assumes that Independents would vote at the same rates as ideological partisans in primaries, though, which is not the case. (According to the 2012 ANES survey, Independents vote at a rate somewhere around 20-30% lower than partisans.) Even in states were Independents can vote in primaries, it’s usually the more active, enthusiastic, and ideologically extreme partisans who dominate the primary electorate. 
  • Evidence also suggests that voter ID laws don’t substantially alter either voter turnout or partisan outcomes (see also here). 

In sum, the roots of partisan polarization are long and deep, and won’t be significantly altered by tweaking a few institutional rules here and there. The current polarization will end when the partisan ideological coalitions shift to produce more ideological diversity within the two major parties, or we change the Constitution to permit a nation-wide proportional representation system. And neither seems likely in the near future.

How anti-Mormonism affected the outcome of the 2012 presidential election

In previous blog posts I described general public feelings towards Mormons during the 2012 presidential campaign season and also showed how these attitudes tended to vary by partisanship. In general, the American public feels ambivalent, if not mildly negative, toward Mormons and this is slightly more pronounced among Democrats than Republicans.

The natural question, of course, is how anti-Mormon attitudes affected the likelihood of voting for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.

Using a logistic regression statistical estimation procedure, I analyzed how individual-level attitudes toward Mormons affected the likelihood of voting either for or against Romney in 2012. This procedure estimates the effect of a single variable (attitudes toward Mormons and Mormonism) on another variable (likelihood of voting for Romney), statistically controlling for a host of other factors including political ideology, demographics, and socioeconomic status. In these analyses, I used the same four Mormon attitude questions, analyzed previously, that were included in the 2012 ANES survey. The findings included:

  • Republicans who do not consider Mormons to be Christian were about 5% less likely to vote for Romney. Additional analysis revealed that while a few of these Republicans opted to vote for Obama or vote third-party, the majority decided simply to stay home and not vote at all.
  • Democrats who think Mormons are not Christian were 2.5% less likely to vote for Romney. This is less interesting,  however, simply because very few Democrats were inclined to vote for Romney in the first place.
  • I also examined the effect of individual feelings towards Mormons (the “feeling thermometer” measure), perceptions of shared religious beliefs with Mormons, and the number of Mormons you personally knew. None of these variables affected the likelihood of voting for Romney among Republicans, after controlling for other relevant factors (demographics, political opinions, socioeconomic status, etc.).

The bottom line is that most attitudes toward Mormons did not affect the likelihood of voting for Romney one way or another. However, one key factor did matter: whether or not a voter considers Mormons to be Christian. About 1 out of every 20 Republicans who do not consider Mormons to be Christian decided to stay home instead of turning out to vote for their party’s nominee.

We can do a very rough “back of the envelope” estimation with this information. Romney received about 61 million votes in the 2012 election. We’ll pretend that every single one was a Republican (and the vast majority were). We know that 40% of Republicans don’t think Mormons are Christian, so there were maybe about 20 million Republicans with who considered Mormons to be non-Christian. 5% of 20 million is 1 million Republicans. So an extremely generous estimate would be that as many as 1 million Republicans stayed home instead of voting for Romney because of anti-Mormon attitudes. Romney ultimately lost the election by approximately 5 million votes, so increasing his vote total by 1 million votes would still have resulted in a 4 million vote loss, making a difference of less than 1% of the final vote difference.

It’s interesting that other research has also shown that Barack Obama likely lost a good number of votes in the 2008 (and probably 2012 election) due to racial prejudice (see here, here, here, here, and here, e.g.). And there is further evidence that these votes were lost predominantly from Democrats and Independents. Republicans with racial prejudice were not going to vote for Obama in the first place. In a parallel way, most of Romney’s lost votes came from members of his own party simply because those of the opposing party were not going to be voting for him regardless of his religious affiliation.

The political science explanation is that Mitt Romney lost the election because he was the challenger in an election where the economic and foreign policy conditions were marginally favorable to the incumbent. While I have provided evidence that Romney very likely did lose some votes as a result of negative attitudes toward his Mormon faith, this was ultimately not the determining factor in the outcome of the election.