Just how socialist are Biden’s spending plans?

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell recently characterized President Biden of pursuing a “sweeping socialist legacy” with his budget proposals. Florida Senator Rick Scott has said that Biden is pursuing a platform of “systemic socialism.” How fair are these characterizations? In my view, they’re not, at least if the term “socialism” has any legitimate meaning.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the key difference between American-style “liberal democracies” and European-style “social democracies” in the 21st century is basically the size of the country’s welfare state and how much of the country’s GDP is spent by the government. Since the Cold War ended, “socialist” countries are basically capitalist liberal democracies that spend and tax more. (Not to be confused with authoritarian communist countries like Cuba or North Korea.)

This OECD chart shows that America’s total government output as a percentage of GDP has been around 38% over the past decade or so (pre-COVID; see below). We can also see that “socialist” (i.e. social democracy) countries like France, Belgium, and Scandinavian countries are more in the range of 50-55%.

When looking just at “social protection” programs, the difference is even starker; the U.S. spends around 8% of its GDP on social insurance programs compared to around 20% for France and Scandinavian countries.

This chart compares U.S. and European social democracies in terms of % of GDP spending on all “individual consumption” social programs like healthcare, housing, education, etc. Once again, the U.S. is far below comparable social democracy countries, 6% vs. 16%-20%, respectively.

The centerpieces of President Biden’s 2022 budget proposals are a pair of significant spending bills called the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan. According to the White House’s budget proposal, these would cost 0.18 trillion dollars and 0.05 trillion dollars in 2022, respectively (I use trillions because it’s easier to convert and compare to GDP which is usually expressed in trillions). Right now the GDP is around 22 trillion per year.

If Biden’s plans were to pass in full, it would cost about 0.185 trillion dollars (before tax offsets) in 2022, which is about 0.008% of current GDP. (The highest proposed year of spending for these two plans is 2024 where it would cost 0.453 trillion before tax offsets, around 0.02% of GDP annually.)

In other words, Biden’s spending plans would raise government spending by about one-hundredth of a percent of GDP. This is nowhere near what would need to be spent in order for the U.S. to reach European-style social democracy social spending levels. It barely moves the needle.

Actual socialist commentators have opined that Biden’s proposed spending “will still leave the measly US safety net well behind even the least generous European welfare states.”

In contrast, President’s Trump’s 2020 COVID rescue relief packages (including the CARES Act) cost a total of 3.7 trillion dollars (17% of GDP) and President Biden’s Rescue Plan package cost 1.9 trillion dollars (8.6% of GDP). (As far as I can tell, these were meant to be spent immediately and not intended to stretch over a traditional 10-year budgeting period.)

Collectively, the COVID relief packages provided a temporarily increase of our spending-to-GDP ratio by about 26%, or well into European-style social democratic spending territory. Note, though, that two-thirds of this spending was signed into law by President Trump, hardly a proponent of European “socialism.” Further, this is a one-time spending infusion, not a permanent social spending program.

In sum, Biden’s proposed increases to the U.S. federal budget would be less than a drop in the bucket of our total U.S. government spending, and nowhere near approaching levels seen in European social democracies.

If Biden’s proposals are “socialist” then the word simply means “government spending on social welfare programs” and every country in the world is socialist.

Note: this represents my best efforts to at a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Any errors are my own; please reach out of there are any significant oversights or misinterpretations in the budget calculations.

Legislative implications of the Georgia Senate Election results

Democrats very likely win both Georgia Senate seats, resulting in a 50-50 Democratic-Republican balance in the U.S. Senate, with Vice President Harris casting the tie-breaking vote, making Chuck Schumer the very likely new Senate Majority Leader.

This means Schumer gets to decide what legislation comes to the floor of the Senate (just as Mitch McConnell has for the past several congressional cycles) BUT the Senate filibuster remains, meaning that McConnell (or any other Senator) may require 60 votes (not 50) for anything to be voted on. So Republicans can still stop anything they want, legislatively.

Senate Democrats could, in theory, eliminate the legislative filibuster if they get 50 votes to do so (with Harris’s tie-breaking vote), but there are several Senate Democrats who have previously said that they oppose abolishing the filibuster. So this probably won’t happen, although those Senators might change their minds in the future.

The way that Senate Dems might try to get legislation passed is through the “reconciliation” process that, by law, is not subject to filibuster rules and thus requiring only 50 votes + Harris’s VP tie-breaking vote. This can be used for anything related to the budget, taxation, spending, etc., and in recent years has been used expansively (example: it’s how the Affordable Care Act was ultimately passed through the Senate).

As far as the federal judiciary goes, Democrats eliminated the filibuster on lower-level judicial nominees during Obama’s presidency and Republicans eliminated the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees during Trump’s presidency. So as long as all 50 Democrats are united in support of a judicial nominee for Supreme Court (or any other judicial nominee) OR can get a combination of 50 Democratic and Republican votes, they can pass whatever Court nominees they like.

It’s also important to note that a president’s political party almost always loses seats in both the House and the Senate in midterm elections. Given that reality, the most likely outcome is that Republicans win both the House and the Senate in the 2022 midterms, stopping any of Biden’s legislative agenda and judicial appointments. Thus, Biden has a realistic window of about 12-18 months to pass any of his legislative agenda or make any judicial appointments.

Which Kentucky Democratic primary candidate is best positioned to challenge Mitch McConnell in November 2020?


Senator Mitch McConnell

There are ten Democrats vying for the honor of challenging incumbent Senator Mitch McConnell this fall. The three most prominent are Amy McGrath, a retired Marine Corps Lt. Colonel who narrowly lost a 2018 challenge to incumbent Congressman Andy Barr in Kentucky’s 6th district, Kentucky State Representative Charles Booker, and Marine Corps veteran Mike Broihier.


Amy McGrath

In a recent debate, McGrath presented herself as an electable moderate who can appeal to Trump voters while Booker and Broihier hammered her for these moderate positions and presented themselves as solidly liberal alternatives. While there is, again, a conspicuous absence of head-to-head polling in this race, McGrath is heavily favored to win due to her name recognition and fundraising advantage, as well as her strong endorsement by the DSCC. That said, Booker’s profile has risen in recent days due to his visible participation in the ongoing protest events in Louisville surrounding the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others.


Charles Booker

All three argue that they are the best bet to beat McConnell this fall, and have drawn attention to the smattering of polls from January that show McConnell and McGrath or a generic Democratic challenger in a statistical tie.


Mike Broihier

The fundamentals are that partisans tend to vote for their party’s candidate in federal-level elections, and roughly 53% of Kentucky voters identify as Republicans or Republican-leaners. Assuming this pattern holds, the Democratic Senate nominee will need to persuade and mobilize the handful of voters who identify as pure Independents as well as a critical mass of Kentucky Republican voters, 90% of whom have a favorable view of Donald Trump, in order to win.

There is some recent precedent for this. Last year, Democratic Governor Andy Beshear won an extremely narrow victory over unpopular Republican incumbent Matt Bevin by, in part, winning 16% of Republican voters. This may not be a “perfect parallel,” though, as Perry Bacon Jr. has written, “because governors races tend to be more localized and Senate races more nationalized. In 2016, every U.S. Senate election was won by the same party that won the presidential race in that state.”

The key question, I think, will be whether Kentucky Republican voters see Mitch McConnell as more like Trump (who they like a lot) or more like former Governor Matt Bevin (who they didn’t like as much). If they see McConnell more likely they see Trump, he’ll probably have a relatively easy path to reelection. If they see him more like Bevin, though, then the Democratic candidate might have a shot if he or she can peel off some Republican voters. Which candidate is best poised to do that?

A 2019 Kentucky exit poll fielded by yours truly and a collaborative of political scientists from institutions around Kentucky showed that among these 16% of Republican voters who crossed party lines to vote for Andy Beshear, 42% said they had a very/somewhat favorable view of Joe Biden and 27% said the same about Bernie Sanders.

Now, Biden and Sanders are not the same people as McGrath, Booker, and Broihier. That said, if Kentucky voters are thinking in terms of ideological lanes and strategy styles, Biden and McGrath both present themselves as pragmatic moderates and Sanders, Booker, and Broihier present themselves as more consistent ideologues.

If (and it’s a big IF) those same Republican-Beshear voters think about the Senate race the same way they did about the governors race last year, this would suggest that McGrath has an edge over Booker or Broihier in attracting Republicans who might be willing to cross party lines, as they more of them view Joe Biden favorably compared to Bernie Sanders.

Digging even deeper, this same exit poll shows that among Kentucky Republicans who have a favorable view of Donald Trump but an unfavorable view of Mitch McConnell, 22% view Biden favorably compared to 16% who view Sanders favorably. Again, assuming that they view the Senate race the same way they did about the governors race last year, McGrath has a very small edge in the likelihood of attracting Republican voters  who like Trump but not McConnell.

The bottom line? This November, most Kentucky Republicans will vote for McConnell and most Kentucky Democrats will vote for the Democratic candidate, regardless of whoever wins the primary election this month. All three leading Democratic primary candidates would have a shot of peeling off the Republican votes that they would need to win, but the exit poll shows some evidence that, all other things being equal, Amy McGrath might be able to peel off a few more than either Charles Booker or Mike Broihier.


The varieties of racial bias: a brief overview of academic definitions and concepts

The events of the past week have intensified the ongoing and much-needed discussions about racial prejudice and racism in American society. From my vantage point as a social scientist who studies public attitudes and behavior, I’ve frequently noticed that these important conversations are stymied by differing ideas of what “racism” means and in which contexts. Here I briefly define and discuss some of the most common definitions and conceptualizations of racism used by academic social scientists. Of course these are not the only ways to think about and define racism, but they’re the ones most commonly used by political scientists and sociologists who study individual-level public attitudes.


First, “old-fashioned” or “Jim Crow” racism is the belief that blacks are simply inferior to whites due to an in-born deficiency or difference. Social scientists measure this type of racism with questions like: “Do you think there should be laws against marriages between blacks and whites?” or “On average, blacks have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people. Do you think these differences are because most blacks have less in-born ability to learn?” Whereas this type of racism was common in the United States through the mid-20th century, it has steadily decreased to where now less than 10% of the American population indicates agreement with statements like these (see links).

On one hand, we can look at these patterns and be glad that “old-fashioned” racism is relatively rare compared to half a century ago. On the other hand, that somewhere between 5% and 10% of Americans (tens of millions of people) continue to say “yes” to questions like this helps explain why we still see thousands of hate crimes every year in the United States.


Second, “modern,” or “symbolic” racism is a type of resentment toward blacks (or other racial groups) on the part of whites. In this sense, “resentment” means “anger over a perceived disadvantage due to someone else’s advantage.” Racial resentment, then, means being bothered by a perceived unfair advantage or consideration given to blacks to compensate for past or present discrimination.

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild, based on dozens of interviews with white folks in Louisiana, thought it best described in terms of a “deep story”:

Think of people waiting in a long line that stretches up a hill. And at the top of that is the American dream. And the people waiting in line felt like they’d worked extremely hard, sacrificed a lot, tried their best, and were waiting for something they deserved. And this line is increasingly not moving, or moving more slowly [i.e., as the economy stalls]. Then they see people cutting ahead of them in line. Immigrants, blacks, women, refugees, public sector workers. In their view, people are cutting ahead unfairly.

This type of racism is generally measured in public opinion surveys by agreement with survey questions like these: “Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.” or “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”

Why is this defined as a form of racism instead of a principled belief in the importance of hard work and fairness? It is because it manifests in a stereotype being applied systematically to an entire group.

According to the 2018 American National Elections Study survey of over 50,000 Americans, somewhere between 50%-60% of white Americans possess at least a moderate degree of symbolic racism (i.e. either “somewhat” or “mostly” agreeing with statements such as those above). This includes sizeable proportions of just about every demographic and political group.


Third, “implicit racism” or “implicit bias” is a type of racial bias that manifests itself unintentionally, unconsciously, and uncontrollably. Others have described it as negative “thoughts about people you didn’t know you had.” Implicit racism is often formed at a young age based on the messages, attitudes, and stereotypes we pick up from the world we live in which usually tend to line up with existing social hierarchies.

Social scientists measure implicit bias using an “implicit association test” or (IAT) (which you can try out for yourself here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html) and research has revealed that somewhere between 50% and 70% of Americans have a moderate or strong degree of implicit racial bias (depending on the study). A 2015 Pew study found that about 50% of white Americans have an implicit bias for whites over blacks (but interestingly, so do about 30% of blacks). Conversely, only about a quarter of both whites and blacks have no strong implicit bias toward one group over the other.

It is easy to be defensive when someone suggests that we might have an “implicit bias” against this group or that, but we should remember that by its very definition, this is a type of bias that we are not consciously aware of. Every human on the planet has implicit biases toward some groups and against others: it’s how our brains are hard-wired. That said, these implicit biases exert a significant effect on our social attitudes and behaviors, most often without us even realizing it. To the extent we can become aware of it, then, we can consciously do our best to acknowledge and reduce it when we’re making decisions or forming opinions.


This type of racism isn’t an individual-level attitude, but rather a bias that is produced in societal and political systems. This type of racism “includes the policies and practices entrenched in established  institutions, which result in the exclusion or promotion of designated  groups. It differs from overt discrimination in that no individual intent is necessary. It manifests itself in two ways: institutional racism, or discrimination that derives from individuals carrying out the dictates of others who are prejudiced or of a prejudiced society, and structural racism, or inequalities rooted in the system-wide operation of a society that excludes substantial numbers of members of particular groups from significant participation in major social institutions” (source).

This type of racism manifests itself in societal patterns like:

  • Blacks are 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite roughly equal levels of use between the two groups (source).
  • “Black boys raised in America, even in the wealthiest families and living in some of the most well-to-do neighborhoods, still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds” (source).
  • “The infant mortality rate for Black women’s babies was more than twice that of all races … and Black women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes compared with their white counterparts” (source).

This is called “structural” racism because when comparing people in the same economic and social position, blacks still consistently have poorer outcomes. It’s not “individual” racism because it’s not usually the result of one racist person saying or doing a racist thing, but rather a result of the collective biases that have been baked into our economic, health, educational, religious, and political structures over the course of many decades and centuries.


It is extremely important here to note that while these four types of racial bias are related, they can exist independent of one another and in different degrees in different people. Someone who sincerely abhors old-fashioned racism can still have high levels of implicit racial bias operating outside their conscious awareness. Someone with low levels of symbolic or implicit racism can still contribute (unintentionally or otherwise) to a racist structure or institution.

I’ll also note that “symbolic racism,” “implicit bias,” “structural racism,” etc. are academic “ivory tower” definitions of different types of racial bias. In talking about these different types of bias among individuals and society, it’s often helpful to be able to briefly clarify a concept in non-technical language before getting too far into a conversation.

In my experience, many (but certainly not all) debates over racial issues in contemporary society and politics are often one long exercise in people talking past one another due to a different default idea they have of what racism means when brought up in conversations.

Example: I’ve seen people labeling something as “racist” when referring to structural racism (“look at the racist health care system we have!” when they mean “wow look at the way that the health system consistently produces these disparities in outcomes for black women!”), but then their conversation partner assumes this is an accusation of old-fashioned racism (“are you implying that that doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals all have secret swastika tattoos?” instead of assuming one of the other forms of racism based on the conversational context). “No, of course not!” “But you said the health care system was racist!” “It is, even if individual doctors aren’t!” “What!?” And so it goes.

This is, in my experience, why many conversations fall apart: people have different ideas in their minds of what is meant when the word “racism” is used in important discussions and conversations. If there’s no agreement on definitions, it’s hard to make any meaningful progress. This is why it’s important to have an understanding of the different types of racial bias and racism and how they manifest in different situations, especially as we work toward our goal of a society where all forms of racial bias are eliminated.


Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals by Kinder and Sanders

Racialized Politics: The Debate about Racism in America by Sears, Sidanius, and Bobo (eds)

Post-Racial or Most-Racial?: Race and Politics in the Obama Era by Tesler

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Banaji and Greenwald

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Rothstein

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Alexander

The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap by Baradaran

Kamala Harris has an edge in the Veepstakes, according to political science research


The 2020 Democratic “Veepstakes” is now officially underway. Given that Biden often refers to himself as a “transitional” candidate, his choice of vice president is all the more important given that his running mate will be seen by many as the “heir apparent” to succeed him as president a stronger degree than is normally the case. Also, if elected Joe Biden will be the oldest president ever to assume office and Social Security actuarial tables say that he has roughly a 1 in 4 chance of not making it to the end of his first term in office (so to speak) which may affect his decision to run for a second term in office. So who will Biden choose as his running mate?

Political scientist Jody Baumgartner has studied the vice presidency selection process at length. Looking at veep choices since 1960, he found that there are five key factors that tend to predict who “wins the Veepstakes” from the initial shortlists for both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates alike:

  1. High media exposure: all other things being equal, those who are more prominent and visible in the media for a year or more before the nominating conventions tend to be tapped as a running mate.
  2. Previous experience in the federal government by way of the Senate, House of Representatives, or other federal-level appointment.
  3. Military experience tends to give potential candidates a boost.
  4. Age: all other things being equal, younger veep candidates tend to have an edge over older candidates.
  5. Gender/racial/ethnic balance: if the presidential nominee is a white male of northwestern European ancestry, veep candidates who are not one of those three things tend to have an edge (and vice versa).

All together, Baumgartner found that these five factors reliably predicted vice presidential selections about 70% of the time from 1960-2016.

What is surprising from Baumgartner’s analysis is what does not tend to consistently predict someone getting the vice presidential pick, given how often these factors are brought up by media pundits: candidates who will provide geographic balance or are from a what is considered to be a “swing state” in hopes of delivering the state’s electoral votes. Similarly, veep nominees tend to come from smaller and larger states alike and are no more likely than not to have had state-level government experience (governor, state legislature, etc.). They also tend to be about as likely as not to be among the presidential nominee’s competitors in the primary, and the idea of “ideological balance” makes a different about as often as it doesn’t.

How does Biden’s shortlist this year stack up against these five key factors? I looked at the six shortlist candidates most frequently brought up over the past month: Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Val Demings, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and former state Rep. Stacey Abrams.


Harris Klobuchar Warren Demings Whitmer Abrams
New York Times mentions 01/01/2019-05/29/2020 1583 1415 3574 241 347 244
Prior service in Senate/House/other federal appt Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
Military experience? No No No No No No
Age 55 60 70 63 48 46
Gender balance? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Racial/ethnic balance? Yes No(?) No(?) Yes No Yes


Biden has pledged that his vice president will be a woman and none of the leading candidates have military experience, so all six candidates are equal on those two factors.

Stacey Abrams has a clear edge when it comes to her age and adding racial/ethnic balance to the ticket but has no federal government service experience and relatively low media visibility compared to some of the other candidates.

Gretchen Whitmer’s only key advantage (in terms of Baumgartner’s factors described above) is that she is younger than most of the other candidates, but also lacks federal government service and does not add racial/ethnic balance to the ticket.

Val Demings has an edge when it comes to adding racial/ethnic balance to the ticket and she has previous federal government experience. She is also the least visible of the six candidates here, at least as measured by NYT media mentions.

Elizabeth Warren has a strong edge when it comes to visibility and prior federal government experience. Her DNA test showing some Native American ancestry notwithstanding, she is no longer emphasizing a non-white ancestry and so wouldn’t balance the ticket in that respect. She’s also older than the other five candidates by at least ten years.

Amy Klobuchar is about middle of the pack on these factors: she has previous federal government experience and is younger than some of the candidates but older than others as well. She has a high-ish level of media mentions/visibility. According to Baumgartner’s research, “racial/ethnic” balance is defined as not being of “northwest European” ancestry, so technically Klobuchar’s Slovenian ancestry would qualify, but similar to Elizabeth Warren, this is not something she is emphasizing and so likely would not boost her chances here.

On balance, Kamala Harris seems to fit Baumgartner’s veep selection model the best of these six candidates. She has relatively high visibility/media mentions, she has previous federal government experience, she’s a notch younger than the average age of the six candidates, and adds clear racial/ethnic balance to the ticket.

It’s interesting to note that the strongest candidates, according to Baumgartner’s model, are the same as are currently leading the betting markets: Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Comparing the two, Warren has the edge when it comes to visibility but Harris has the edge when it comes to age and racial/ethnic ticket balancing.

Given these considerations, I’d say that Harris has about a two-in-three chance of getting the nod as Joe Biden’s running mate this year, and perhaps even odds of being the  Democratic presidential nominee in 2024 given Joe Biden’s advancing age.

Strategic voting in a presidential primary after a presumptive nominee is selected

So for those who haven’t still voted in the spring primary presidential election, how are you all thinking about the voting choice?
At this point both parties have presumptive nominees and that very, very, very likely will not change regardless of whom we cast our vote for. How does that factor into your voting choice?

National convention delegates are allocated both state-wide and by congressional district. A candidate has to get 15% of the vote either state-wide or in a district to get a delegate to go to the convention. In Kentucky where I live, Biden is projected to get about 2/3 of the vote in Kentucky and Sanders 1/3 of the vote, so they’re likely the only two to get delegates from Kentucky.
One option is to vote for either Biden or Sanders, regardless of who your original preference was. This way you get a voice in sending delegates to the convention who generally correspond to your vision of the direction you’d like the Democratic Party to go over the next four years (as delegates help write the platform and rules).
Another option is to vote for whoever was your original preferences (if not Biden or Sanders) with the idea that a higher popular vote (even if no delegates) corresponds to more visibility and sends a signal to Biden about which candidates/platforms were popular, and potentially also popularity as a potential VP pick or cabinet position nominee.
National convention delegates are allocated on a winner-take-all basis. Whoever wins the most wins all of the delegates. The two options on the ballot in Kentucky will be Trump and “uncommitted.”
For most Republicans the obvious choice is to vote for Trump as he’s the only candidate on the ballot.
For the few Republicans that are dissatisfied with the way that Trump has changed the Republican Party over the last 4 years, do they vote for “uncommitted” on principle even though “uncommitted” will almost certainly not get any delegates? Or is this worth it to rack up the “uncommitted” vote just to send a message?

How are you all thinking about this? What factors are relevant to your primary vote now that the nominees are set?

The “Revolution” will probably not help Bernie Sanders win the General Election. It might even hurt.


One of the most common arguments in favor of the nomination of Senator Bernie Sanders as this year’s Democratic presidential candidate is that he gets people excited, especially younger voters, and that this will result in a “Revolution” of voter excitement and participation that will sweep him and like-minded Congressional candidates into the White House.

As a Bayesian thinker, I will allow that this outcome is possible, but very, very improbable. This is why.

First, Sanders’ key base right now includes younger Millennials and GenZ voters (with whom Sanders did very, very well in the Nevada primary). Based on this, the argument is that Sanders can motivate younger voters to turnout at higher rates than in previous elections.

Consider this chart of voter turnout since 1984 by age:


For decades, people under age 30 consistently show up at low, low rates in both midterm and presidential election years. Sanders is arguing that his charisma and revolutionary appeal will be enough to suddenly boost turnout among young people to historic highs. Is that possible? Sure. Is it probable? I don’t think so.

Observe that in 2008, where there was a young, charismatic Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama on the ballot. Young voters indeed turned out at higher rates than in previous elections, but not much more so than was the case with older voters.

In general, turnout in the aggregate between age groups is remarkably consistent from election to election, regardless of the candidates on the ballot.

Second, one could argue that turnout has been so consistent because Bernie Sanders, with his unique charisma and revolutionary appeal, has never before been on a national presidential candidate before. This is true. At the same time, he ran a nation-wide primary campaign in 2016 against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. How did turnout do in 2016?


Voter participation in the 2016 managed to excite roughly 14% of eligible voters to participate: lower than the 20% who participated in 2008 between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In fact, participation in 2016 was roughly average for Democratic primary voters compared to the last few decades.

Bernie Sanders is arguing that his presence on the ballot will produce the Revolution that will turn out voters in droves. The last time he was on the ballot for a presidential primary election, however, turnout was… roughly average. On what basis should we predict, then, that this presence on the general election ballot will increase turnout beyond what is usually the case?

Third, an extremely detailed analysis of voter preferences recently examined potential trade-offs between nominating Bernie Sanders vs. Joe Biden. As would be expected, most Democrats will vote for the Democratic candidate no matter who it is. That said, there were some differences in their coalitions of support:


Sanders does better than Biden specifically among younger voters and perhaps a teensy bit better among lower-income voters. Biden does better among older, wealthier, and better-educated voters.

Decades of voting patterns have consistently shown that older voters and those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds vote regularly and at rates much, much higher than younger voters and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Given this reality, the evidence seems to suggest that, if anything, a Sanders nomination would likely result in somewhat lower turnout than would be the case with another generic Democratic nominee.

(Now, I would be the first to cheer higher turnout rates among younger voters. Given that they consistently choose not to show up on Election Day, year in and year out, decade in and decade out, I’m not holding my breath that a Sanders candidacy will suddenly change the basic patterns of the American political universe.)


Generally speaking, the results of U.S. presidential elections tend to track pretty closely with prevailing economic and domestic conditions and turnout remains remarkably consistent election to election. So, if the economy and other conditions are in bad shape, any Democrat (including Sanders) will probably win the fall. If, however, the economy is booming this summer and Trump maintains his 45%-ish approval rating, he’ll probably be reelected comfortably regardless of whoever the Democrats nominate.

All indicators right now, though, point to a very, very close election this fall, which means that it might make a difference who the Democrats nominate in terms of this year’s general election outcome.

In that case, nominating Sanders is a gamble. Having him on the ballot in the general election will very likely not result in a voter turnout Revolution that will sweep him and other like-minded Democratic Socialists into the White House.

If anything, his nomination might produce a slightly lower level of turnout in the general election than other Democratic nominees (because his core base of younger voters tend consistently to vote at lower rates than just about every other voter demographic).

There are times when political parties have the luxury to take a gamble. Given the stakes of this year’s presidential election, this is not one of them.

Alexander Hamilton’s Constitutional Convention Speech: paraphrased and modernized

For my January 2020 course I took the liberty of paraphrasing Alexander Hamilton’s constitutional convention speech of June 18, 1787 so as to be more readable to a modern audience. The paraphrase as an approximate 8th-grade readability level.


Hamilton convention speech paraphrased modernized 01-19-2020


Ranking the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates: Round 3


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr.com

This is the third in my series of 2020 Democratic candidate rankings. The first is here and the second is here

From my previous post:

A reminder that my personal preferences lead me to prioritize candidates who: 1) have strong foreign policy expertise/experience and recognize global democratic backsliding as one of the most alarming international trends of the current moment, 2) display a nuanced approached to analyzing complex issues, 3) eschew populism, both right-wing nationalist/racial populism and left-wing economic populism, 4) have previous electoral experience and a background that helps understand the life experiences of those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and 5) have a realistic “plan of action” for enacting a policy agenda that takes into account the reality that they have to pass stuff through Congress, which is hard. (More detail on each of these is available in my earlier post.)

I fully admit I’m a pragmatist. As a scholar who studies American politics, I tend to favor incremental but achievable progress over pie-in-the-sky idealism that has almost zero chance of actually becoming political policy based on the bottom-line realities of the current American political system.

I’m limiting my ranking to the seven who qualified for the December debate. Otherwise I’d include Cory Booker and Julian Castro on the same tier as Amy Klobuchar. I’m also disappointed that Kamala Harris had to drop out. Otherwise she’d still be my #1.


1. Amy Klobuchar

  • PRO: she has a realistic set of expectations about what is and what is not achievable as U.S. president and focuses on the things that she would likely be able to achieve. She emphasizes the importance of democratic institutions like the freedom of the press and NATO. She would be a highly-visible and honorable role model to young women and girls around the world.
  • CON: she has almost zero foreign policy experience, which is problematic because presidents have much more ability to influence American foreign policy than domestic policy.


2. Pete Buttigieg

  • PRO: as I’ve written about previously, he’s one of the only ones who seems to have a more accurate diagnosis of the causes of dysfunction in the American political system: the way we organize our political and electoral systems. He’s a deep thinker with strong training in data analytics and has served the United States honorably as a military veteran.
  • CON: for Democrats to win in 2020 they’ll need to mobilize Latinos, blacks, and other racial/ethnic minorities to turn out. So far Mayor Pete is not showing much evidence that he can effectively connect with these constituencies.


3. Joe Biden

  • PRO: he unquestionably has, by far, the most extensive foreign policy experience of any of the candidates and would be a strong voice against democratic backsliding in the global community. Also, the fact that he enjoys strong support among the African-American community counts for a lot.
  • CON: as I’ve said before, he’s the wrong candidate for the #MeToo era. Also, if he becomes the nominee, his son’s connections with Ukraine will be Hillary Clinton’s emails, but on steroids. And while he’s served the United States honorably as a U.S. senator and vice president, his performance in debates and other public settings suggests that he’s slowing down a little. The presidency requires being able to make snap decisions several times a day for several years on very little sleep. What will his abilities be in five years? 


4. Elizabeth Warren

  • PRO: she’s smart as hell, she sweats the details, does not suffer fools easily, and is a policy-wonk. Like Klobuchar, she would be a highly-visible and honorable role model to young women and girls around the world.
  • CON: In brief, I disagree with her principal diagnoses and recommended solutions to America’s most pressing issues and am wary of her populist rhetoric and “fight fire with fire” approach to political change if elected.
  • A lengthy treatment of my thoughts on Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy is here.


5. Andrew Yang

  • PRO: like Elizabeth Warren, he’s smart and engaging and sweats the policy details. 
  • CON: what’s his plan to get any of his plans through Congress?


6. Tom Steyer

  • PRO: he’s a better option than Bernie Sanders.
  • CON: Why in the world is he on the stage? Because he has a lot of money and that’s about it.


7. Bernie Sanders

  • PRO: he’s less of a risk to American democratic institutions and norms than Donald Trump.
  • CON: the “revolution” isn’t happening, and thus neither is his agenda.

Kentucky exit poll suggests more warning signs for Mitch McConnell than for Donald Trump in the aftermath of Tuesday’s gubernatorial election


There has been no small amount of punditry this week on what implications, if any, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin’s narrow loss to Democratic challenger Andy Beshear might have for President Trump or Senator McConnell in 2020 next year.

Some have argued that Bevin’s loss was “a smack at both Mitch McConnell and the president, sending up a cautionary note” while others have said that Bevin’s loss “tells us nothing about McConnell’s chances in 2020.”

The 2019 Collaborative Kentucky Exit Poll (CKEP) surveyed nearly 4,000 voters in Tuesday’s gubernatorial election. The results offer some clues into what Bevin’s loss might mean for 2020 for both Trump and McConnell.

President Trump

Partisan identity is the strongest and most consistent predictor of presidential voting patterns in modern American elections. The CKEP survey showed that Republicans (and Republican leaners) made up about 53% of Kentucky voters in this Tuesday’s election. The survey also showed that 88% of Kentucky Republicans say that they have a very/somewhat favorable view of Trump as well as roughly half of Kentucky Independents (who made up about 6% of all voters). If these patterns hold through next year, Trump is on track to win roughly 55% of the vote next year, give or take.

But what about the Kentucky Republicans who crossed party lines to vote for Andy Beshear last week? The CKEP survey showed that one in six Republicans (16%) voted for Beshear. Given the similarities of their campaigns and the governing styles of Trump and Bevin, would those same 16% be persuadable to vote for a Democrat for president in 2020?

Not necessarily. It turns out that Trump has a 55% favorability rating among those Republicans who voted for Democrat Andy Beshear for governor. Among that same group, only 42% view Biden favorably and 34% view Warren favorably.

Does favorability, though, translate into voting? The Boyle County portion of the KCEP asked voters whether they believed that various elected officials deserved reelection or whether it was time to give someone else a shot. Among Boyle County voters, 92% of those who view Trump favorably believe he deserves reelection compared to only 5% among those who view him unfavorably. So it’s fairly safe to assume that for President Trump, favorability and intention to vote are virtually interchangeable.

Let’s say roughly half of the Republican-Beshear voters (8% of all voters in Kentucky voters on Tuesday) who have an unfavorable view of Trump (45% of them) defect to the Democratic candidate in 2020. That’d put Trump somewhere around 51%-52%. This is definitely close, but still enough to win the state.

The bigger takeaway, in my view, is that Kentucky voters did not end up linking their views of Donald Trump and Matt Bevin in Tuesday’s election as strongly as either of them had intended and hoped for.

Mitch McConnell

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be running for reelection as Kentucky’s senior senator next year. The CKEP survey revealed that McConnell is not as popular as Donald Trump in his own home state. McConnell is viewed either somewhat or very favorably by 46% of Kentucky voters on Tuesday compared to 55% who say the same about President Trump.

Also, the link between favorability, partisanship, and reelection is a little weaker for Mitch McConnell than it is for Donald Trump.

For example, McConnell enjoys only about a 74% favorability rating among Kentucky Republican/leaners, 44% among Independents, and 11% among Democrats/leaners. Also, when we drill down into opinions on reelection among Boyle County voters specifically, a full 19% of those who view McConnell favorably think he should not be reelected. Also, one full third (31%) of Boyle County Republican/leaners think he should not be reelected.

As far as the link between attitudes toward McConnell and Trump, only 81% of those who view Trump favorably see McConnell favorably while 92% of those who view Trump unfavorably also view McConnell unfavorably.

Looking again at those Republican-Beshear voters which made up about 8% of the electorate on Tuesday, McConnell has a 62% unfavorability rating. If that same group is willing to cross party lines again next year (emphasis: a big ‘if’!), that’s potentially 10% of Kentucky Republicans (or 5% of everyone who voted this past Tuesday) who might be persuadable to support a Democrat in next year’s Kentucky senate race.

Of course, the odds are still in McConnell’s favor given that Kentucky is a red state and that he outperformed the October polls by about 6% in his last Senate race in 2014. It’s still an uphill battle for any Democrat looking to take on the nation’s Senate Majority Leader.

At the same time, McConnell’s support among Republicans and those who approve of President Trump is weaker than he would prefer going into an election year. Kentucky Democrats will be strongly motivated to knock him out and will likely turn out en masse to vote against President Trump as well in 2020.

This suggests that one good strategy for Kentucky Democrats might be to focus their efforts on the 16% of Republicans who were willing to cross party lines to vote for Beshear last week. The CKEP survey showed that nearly two in five of these (38%) were under age 40. It may be a smart move for the eventual Democratic nominee to focus his or her appeal on Kentucky’s younger voters.