Public Opinion in the Bluegrass: Three Types of Kentucky Voters


What are the major public opinion coalitions among Kentuckians? Is it as simple as blue voters vs. red voters, Democrats vs. Republicans? Or is there more nuance among Kentuckians when it comes to their political policy views?

The 2019-2020 Nationscape Survey fielded nationally-representative surveys on a weekly basis throughout the 2020 presidential election cycle, resulting in over 315,000 completed surveys. Over 6,000 of these respondents were Kentuckians. This is one of the largest surveys of American public opinion ever fielded and allows for an unprecedented level of in-depth analysis of American political attitudes and behavior, with a margin of error for the Kentucky sample of approximately ±1.3%.

I analyzed this survey to identify different “clusters” of policy opinion coalitions among Kentuckians. This analysis is based on Pew Research Center’s “Political Typology” research that identified a variety of consistent groups into which Americans tend to fall in terms of their political opinions. Pew’s Political Typology identified, for instance, differences between “core conservatives” who hold consistently conservative views across a range of different political and social topics and “market skeptic Republicans” who are socially conservative but are generally in favor of stricter regulations on financial institutions and economic transactions. (In all, Pew identified eight different political groups in their analysis of American public opinion.) To analyze whether there are any similar dominant public opinion groupings in Kentucky specifically, I used the same statistical approach employed by Pew and identified three key public opinion groups.[FN1]

The three groups, their political views, and their demographic characteristics are shown in the tables below:

About one-third of Kentuckians
About one-in-five Kentuckians
About half of all Kentuckians
Four-in-five identify as Republicans and over 90% voted for Trump

Tend to be older, economically affluent, white, Evangelical, and straight  

Consistently conservative policy views

Over half regularly watch Fox News

Half are gun owners
Two-thirds identify as Democrats

Strongly opposed to Trump

Tend to be younger women, economically affluent, racially/ethnically/sexually diverse, and less religious

Consistently liberal policy views, especially on issues of race, sexuality, and culture  
Tend to split between Democrats and Republicans

Liberal economic and environmental policy views but conservative social policy views  

Tend to be women, more racially/ethnically diverse, moderately religious, and straight  

Most are lower class or middle class

Political attitudes and behavior among Kentucky public opinion groups

 Core Conservatives   37% of KentuckiansSolid Liberals   20% of KentuckiansPragmatic Moderates   46% of Kentuckians
Things in U.S. are generally headed in the right direction55.613.928.7
Things in U.S. are off on the wrong track38.273.158.8
Viewed MSNBC in past week14.834.731.1
Viewed FOX in past week51.928.237.5
Somewhat/strong Trump approval rating79.720.443.7
Voted for Trump in 201686.915.647.5
Support Trump’s Jan 2020 impeachment5.556.840
Plan to vote Trump in 2020 election against Joe Biden78.318.940.2
Agree that Blacks should work way up without special favors69.728.854.4
Disagree that slavery and discrimination make it difficult for Blacks to leave lower class58.917.436.7
Agree that there is a lot/great deal of anti-Black discrimination in U.S. society2373.751.3
Conservative 58.1 6.5 36.9
Someone in household owns a gun48.724.429.4
Ban assault rifles23.859.653.8
Build a wall on southern U.S. border68.310.537.8
Cap carbon emissions23.175.263.0
Raise taxes on families making more than $250K/year28.953.356.5
Allow abortion only in special circumstances26.370.546.6
Legalize marijuana37.071.368.8
Medicare for All16.561.971.2
Raise minimum wage to $15/hour26.277.379.6
Ban travel from Muslim countries36.88.024.2
Allow transgender in military30.679.959.8
Note: All the figures reported above include the proportion who fit the survey question option indicated, including those who reported “don’t know” or “not sure.”

Demographic characteristics of Kentucky public opinion groups

 Demographic % of all KentuckiansCore Conservatives   37% of KentuckiansSolid Liberals   20% of KentuckiansPragmatic Moderates   46% of Kentuckians
Less than high school14.212.11314.8
High school degree26.324.91829.6
Some college36.938.340.436.9
Post-grad degree10.810.412.69.6
Lower class (less than $50K/year)43.631.839.751.7
Middle class ($50K-$125K/year)38.846.543.230.9
Upper class (more than $125K/year)17.721.717.116.4
Other race/ethnicity21.12.53
Evangelical Protestant34.245.214.634.8
Non-Evangelical Protestant21.320.321.121.1
Latter-day Saint0.610.80.3
Other religion3.
“Nothing in particular”16.213.719.916.6
Congressional District 1 (western KY)16.918.31316.8
Congressional District 2 (central-west KY)17.818.314.418.9
Congressional District 3 (Louisville)14.58.717.718.2
Congressional District 4 (northern KY)18.519.922.915
Congressional District 5 (eastern KY)17.518.812.919.3
Congressional District 6 (Lexington/Frankfort)14.81619.111.9
Pure Independent138.515.914.5
Note: All the figures reported above include the proportion who fit the survey question option indicated, including those who reported “don’t know” or “not sure.”


The first group can be characterized, following Pew’s labels, as “Core Conservatives” and are strongly supportive of President Donald Trump (recall that this survey was conducting during 2019-2020 during the Trump Administration). These make up a solid third (34%) of all Kentuckians. Politically, 78% identify as Republicans compared to only 14% who identify as Democrats and only 9% who identify as Independents. Most identify as ideologically conservative while a quarter identify as moderate. Nine in ten voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election and nearly four years later, four in five approved of his performance in office and planned to vote for him again in the 2020 election, while only 6% thought he should be impeached over his overtures toward Ukraine to get involved in the 2020 election. Over half say they watch Fox News on a regular basis to get their news. Two thirds (68%) support Trump’s border wall and half (49%) support Trump’s travel ban on those from majority-Muslim countries. They strongly oppose most liberal priorities, with only 23% supporting a carbon cap, 24% supporting an assault rifle ban, 26% supporting conditional abortion rights, 21% supporting Medicare for All, and 26% supporting raising the minimum wage to $15/hour. They also show consistently high levels of racial resentment and are skeptical of claims that there is widespread discrimination against Blacks in contemporary American society.

Demographically, Kentucky’s Core Conservatives tend to be older (about a third each are GenXers and Baby Boomers). There are equal numbers of men and women in this group, and they tend to be more economically affluent, with two-thirds being either middle or upper class. They are also racially homogenous (89% white) and mostly heterosexual (94%). They are also most likely to identify as Evangelical Protestants (45%) with another 31% identifying with some other Christian denomination. Geographically, they tend to be found in all parts of Kentucky, although relatively fewer tend to be present in Congressional District 3 (Louisville). Also, nearly half (49%) report that they own a gun.


Again borrowing Pew’s labels, the second group can be described as “Solid Liberals” and comprise one in five (20%) of all Kentuckians. Two-thirds of Kentucky’s Solid Liberals identify as Democrats, while the remainder are split evenly between Independents and Republicans. Half identify as ideologically liberal and a third as moderate (only 7% identify as conservative). Solid Liberals are most strongly characterized by their opposition to President Trump—only 18% voted for him in 2016 and about as many approved of his job performance and planned to vote for him in 2020. A full 76% approved of Trump’s January 2020 impeachment. During 2019-2020, they were also very pessimistic about the direction of the country, with 73% saying that America was “off on the wrong track” and only 13% saying things were going “in the right direction.”

In terms of policy views, Solid Liberals in Kentucky can be characterized as consistently liberal. About three in five support an assault rifle ban and enacting Medicare for All. Somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters are in favor of carbon emission caps, permitting abortion in cases other than rape, incest, or risk to health of the mother, legalizing marijuana, and raising the minimum wage. Four in five support allowing transgender people to serve in the military. Only one in ten support Trump’s border wall and a Muslim-majority country travel ban. Only about a quarter show racial resentment attitudes and three-quarters believe that there is a great deal of anti-Black discrimination in American society.

Demographically-speaking, Kentucky’s Solid Liberals are a little more likely to be women (57%) and skew younger, with more than half (51%) in the GenZ or Millennial generation. Similar to the Core Conservatives, three in five are either middle or upper class. Nearly a quarter are racial/ethnic minorities, with 6% identifying as Latino, 10% Black, and 5% Asian. One in five identify as LGBTQ+ and among all three groups they are least likely to identify as Evangelical Protestants (15%) and most likely to identify as atheist/agnostic (21%) or “nothing in particular” (20%). A majority of Kentucky’s Solid Liberals live in Congressional Districts 3, 4, or 6, the traditional “northern triangle” of Kentucky comprising Louisville, Lexington, and northern Kentucky.


The final political group we might call Kentucky’s “Pragmatic Moderates” and constitute nearly half (46%) of Kentuckians. They are split in their party loyalties, with 46% identifying as Democrats and 39% as Republicans. They are similarly split in their ideological identification, with 38% claiming a “moderate” label, 37% conservative, and 19% liberal. Their views of Donald Trump are similarly mixed—half voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and in the lead-up to the 2020 election, 43% approved of his job performance and 40% planned to vote for him again, while 47% supported his January 2020 impeachment.

What distinguishes these Pragmatic Moderates from either Solid Liberals or Core Conservatives is that they tend to support liberal economic and environmental policy but are more moderate when it comes to social and identity issues. For example, they are about as likely as Solid Liberals to support Medicare for All (71%), legalizing recreational marijuana (69%), and raising taxes on high-income Americans (57%). They also tend to be skeptical about some of President Trump’s signature policies, with only 38% supporting the U.S.-Mexico wall and 24% supporting the ban on Muslims traveling to the U.S. More similar to Core Conservatives, however, they are mixed on supporting broad abortion access (47%) and have more moderate levels of racial resentment; only half agree that there is a lot of discrimination against Blacks in today’s society.

In terms of demographics, Kentucky’s Pragmatic Moderates skew a little toward female (similar to Solid Liberals) with women comprising 58% of the group. They are similarly diverse when it comes to race/ethnicity, with 77% identifying as white, 8% as Latino, and 10% Black. Similar to Core Conservatives, however, they are largely heterosexual (93%) and 35% identify as Evangelical Protestants, with another third claiming some other Christian identity. What is unique about this group in terms of demographics, though, is that more than half (52%) are lower class, earning less than $50,000/year, and only 19% have a college degree (compared to 25% of Core Conservatives and 29% of Solid Liberals). They also tend to be found all around Kentucky, perhaps a little less so in Congressional District 6 (Lexington). Essentially, what characterizes Kentucky’s Pragmatic Moderates is that they are more financially insecure, possibly leading them to support more liberal economic policies while exhibiting measured views toward social policies.

As always, though, demographic indicators are often strongly correlated with one another, making it unclear which characteristics have independent correlations with other factors of interest. Using a more sophisticated statistical analysis that identifies unique correlations between the various political and demographic variables as well as which of the three clusters discussed above (once controlling for the overlapping correlations of all the factors simultaneously including partisan identity) we find that the strongest demographic predictor of a Kentuckian’s public opinion cluster group is religion, specifically whether or not someone identifies as atheist/agnostic.[FN2] Secular Kentuckians make up about 9% of Kentucky’s population and are most likely to be in the Solid Liberal group—58% are Solid Liberals while 29% are Pragmatic Moderates and only 13% are Core Conservatives.

Another key factor revealed by this analysis is race/ethnicity. Blacks, Asians, and “other” identifiers in Kentucky are more likely to be Pragmatic Moderates and less likely to be Core Conservatives than their partisanship would suggest. A full 62% of Black and “other” race/ethnicity-identifying Kentuckians are Pragmatic Moderates, with only a quarter as Solid Liberals and about one in ten Core Conservatives. Similarly, Latinos are less likely to be Solid Liberals than their partisanship would suggest, with only 17% of Latinos being Solid Liberals, 55% Pragmatic Moderates, and 37% Core Conservatives.

Of course, a key question, especially for statewide political candidates, is how many of each of these groups show up on Election Day and who they (might) vote for. This table shows the overall percentage of Kentuckians who said that they voted in the 2016 election who fall into each public opinion group, separated by their political partisanship:

Proportion of regular voting Kentucky electorate, by partisanship and public opinion group

 Core ConservativesSolid LiberalsPragmatic Moderates
Democrat/leaner5.6 (46%)15.8 (10%)20.3 (10%)
Pure Independent1.2 (77%)1.1 (62%)1.7 (62%)
Republican/leaner35.1 (98%)1.7 (72%)17.5 (95%)

This table shows us, for instance, that the largest voting bloc in Kentucky are Core Conservative Republicans who make up 35% of the electorate—Donald Trump received 98% of the two-party vote from this group in 2016. The second largest is the Pragmatic Moderate Democrats who make up 20% of the electorate—Hillary Clinton received 90% of their two-party vote in 2016. Pragmatic Moderate Republicans, for their part, are about 18% of Kentucky’s electorate and voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, although not at the same rate as Core Conservative Republicans. Solid Liberal Democrats are 16% of Kentucky’s electorate and Hillary Clinton won 90% of their two-party votes in 2016.

Republicans hoping to win statewide office in Kentucky, then, really only need the support of Core Conservative and Pragmatic Moderate Republicans to achieve a comfortable majority of the regular Kentucky electorate (53%). Democrats, on the other hand, have an uphill battle to get a majority. Securing the support of Solid Liberal and Pragmatic Moderate Democrats puts them at 36% of the electorate, but even then about 10% of this group tends to cross party lines and vote for Republicans (at least at the national level), putting Democratic candidate votes at closer to 33% of the electorate. They would need to win all Core Conservative Democrats, all Independents (regardless of their ideological group), all Solid Liberal Republicans, and peel off about a quarter of the Pragmatic Moderate Republicans to get to a majority statewide, a challenging task indeed. (Of course, the bar may be a lower if there is a competitive third-party candidate who draws votes away from the Republican candidate.)

This may explain how Republican candidates have won statewide elections in recent years in Kentucky, even though Democrats had a lock on statewide offices for most of the 20th century and Kentucky Democrats are still a sizeable portion of the electorate. The 2019 vote totals for Republican candidates for Agricultural Commissioner, Treasurer, Auditor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General were 58%, 61%, 56%, 53%, and 58%, respectively. This also helps explain Kentucky’s patterns in statewide votes for federal office, including Mitch McConnell’s 58% and Rand Paul’s 57% share of the vote in the 2020 and 2016 U.S. Senate elections, respectively, and Donald Trump’s 62% and 63% attainment in the 2020 and 2016 presidential elections, respectively.[FN3]

FN1 Specifically, this analysis used a k-means cluster analysis data reduction procedure that identifies correlation patterns among various indicators across multiple cases. The goal of the procedure is to identify groups that are consistently homogenous across selected variables. In this case, the clustering procedure was performed among Kentucky respondents only in the Nationscape dataset. Political attitudes included in the analysis were a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, building a wall on the Southern U.S. border, racial resentment, gender resentment, carbon caps, assault rifle bans, eliminate estate tax, raising taxes on those making more than $600,000/year, eliminating debt for graduates of public colleges, conditional abortion access, public option for health insurance, and subsidizing health insurance premiums with taxpayer dollars, preferences for small government with fewer services vs. larger government with more services, and the extent to which the government should try to preserve traditional values. For more information, see here: Pew Research Center. 2017. “Appendix 2: About the Political Typology.”

FN2 Specifically, using a multinomial regression analysis to generate predicted probabilities of belonging to each of the three public opinion categories, using Pragmatic Moderates as the reference category and including gender, age, education, economic class, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, and Congressional district as the independent variables.

FN3 At the same time, Democrat Andy Beshear managed to win an extremely close gubernatorial election in 2019, but this will likely be an outlier going forward given incumbent Matt Bevin’s tenure as governor had sparked numerous controversies, including alienating key constituencies as well as many Republicans in the state legislature, see Cizmar, Anne. 2019. “The Democrats’ Kentucky Win Is an Outlier Which Tells Us Little about 2020.”

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: 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,

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.