Category Archives: Political Science

My advice to Congressional Republicans: fight President Trump’s trade war

GOP Senator John Cornyn recently explained why most Congressional Republicans are reluctant to push back against President Trump’s aggressive economic tariffs:

The (understandable) logic is that Congressional Republicans who defy Trump on these tariffs risk facing his Twitter-wrath which may hurt their reelection chances and/or congressional majority in this November’s midterm election. As a result, they have chosen mostly to keep their heads down rather than to speak out in defense of free trade (with a few notable exceptions), something that has traditionally been a key conservative/Republican priority.

Congressional Republicans should keep in mind, however, that tariffs have historically hurt economic growth. Indeed, the World Bank has recently warned that Trump’s tariffs risk starting a trade war that could cause another global economic recession similar in magnitude to the 2008 recession.

This matters for a variety of reasons, but more to Senator Cornyn’s concern, there is a strong correlation between economic performance and midterm congressional outcomes. When the economy is weak, the president’s party suffers heavy losses. 

Thus, I would advise Republicans who are concerned about maintaining control of Congress in this fall’s midterm elections to do everything they can to oppose President Trump’s recent tariffs. Not only would this demonstrate that their party’s commitment to free-market economic principles is genuine, but it would also help improve their reelection chances this fall.

Further, if President’s Trump’s tariffs do indeed spark a global trade war and a subsequent global economic recession, it will be very, very, very difficult for President Trump to win reelection in 2020, as domestic economic growth during the election year is a key predictor of presidential and election outcomes.

In sum, I predict that congressional Republicans will do more to hurt their chances this November by going along with President Trump’s tariffs than they would by opposing them.

 

 

A qualification to David Deutsch’s argument about proportional representation

In The Beginning of Infinity, physicist David Deutsch channels Karl Popper to argue that the best way to make progress and advance the state of human knowledge is not to seek knowledge from the best oracles, but rather to figure out the best way to “detect and eliminate error” (209), recognizing that all oracles of knowledge are ultimately fallible.

Applying this principle to politics, Deutsch argues that majoritarian plurality electoral systems are preferable to proportional representation parliamentary systems. This is because proportional representation systems produce legislatures with a strong multi-party system in which no one party ever enjoys a majority. Thus, policies from proportional representation systems are inevitably the result of strong compromise, making it difficult for voters to know who to hold accountable when they produce bad policies.

Also, while we commonly think of compromise as a good thing, he argues that:

The key defect of compromise policies is that when one of them is implemented and fails, no one learns anything because no one ever agreed with it. (346)

Instead, he argues that the institutions of a political system should function to make it easy to detect and eliminate error. This is more likely to be the case in majoritarian plurality systems where it is easy to hold the majority accountable for their performance and easier to replace them if that performance is judged poorly.

Following a plurality-voting election, the usual outcome is that the party with the largest total number of votes has an overall majority in the legislature, and therefore takes sole charge. All the losing parties are removed entirely from power. This is rare under proportional representation, because some of the parties in the old coalition are usually needed in the new one. Consequently, the logic of plurality is that politicians and political parties have little chance of gaining any share in the power unless they can persuade a substantial proportion of the population to vote for them. (347)

While this is an interesting argument, in my view it is also somewhat incomplete because electoral systems do not exist in a vacuum. The ability to efficiently replace governments that promote bad policies is also highly dependent on whether the democratic political system has a presidential or parliamentary system.

In the United States, for instance, we have a presidential majoritarian plurality system. In order for policies to be enacted, they must be supported by a majority of the House, Senate, as well as the presidency. In instances of “unified government,” where all are controlled by the same political party, it is indeed easy for voters for determine who to remove if policies are not working: the majority party in power. Such conditions of unified government are rare, however. Much more common is for Congress to be controlled by one party and the presidency to be controlled by another. In these situations, they blame each other for bad policies, making it difficult for voters to know who to hold accountable for poor performance.

In contrast, parliamentary systems combine the executive and legislative powers into a single entity. When policies are bad, voters know who to hold accountable: the coalition government in power. They also know more easily who to replace at the next election. This often produces a system that is often more likely to be responsive to voters who are more easily able to hold the government accountable for bad policies, often incentivizing better outcomes on the part of elected officials.

In sum, judging whether or not proportional representation or majoritarian plurality systems do a better job of detecting and eliminating bad policies requires, in my view, additional knowledge of the context and institutions where those policies are created.

 

Centre College convocation with Julia Azari and Dara Lind

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

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

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

We are grateful for their visit!

How many #nevertrump folks will change their mind?

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

Are Donald Trump Supporters Merely “Unhyphenated Americans”?

One of the most interesting puzzles of this election cycle for both academics and pundits alike has been trying to explain exactly who exactly are all these Donald Trump supporters in the GOP voting base. Answers have focused on a variety of possible answers, including demographics, personality characteristics, and racial/identity attitudes. There is some evidence that there may be another factor at play, however: “American” ancestral self-identification.

The U.S. Census Bureau regularly asks Americans a version of this question: “What is this person’s ancestry or ethnic origin? (For example: Italian, Jamaican, African Am., Cambodian, Cape Verdean, Norwegian, … and so on.)” While most Americans indicate ancestries originating in Europe, Africa, or Latin America, in the 2010 Census about 20 million people (or 6.5 percent of the population) indicated “America” or “United States” as their place of “ancestry or ethnic origin.” Most of these individuals are obviously not Native Americans, but rather white Americans who for one reason or another choose to report that their ancestors came from America. Some have referred to this group as “unhyphenated Americans” as they reject labels such as “German-American,” or “Irish-American.” (See here and here for more information.)

Scholars have offered a variety of causal factors related to this “unhyphenated American” phenomenon among white Americans including education, patriotism and national loyalty, Evangelical religious identification, or a perceived threat to American culture and identity. My own research (forthcoming in Social Science Quarterly) points to a strong influence of racial context and attitudes.

An examination of Census data reveals that the majority of these unhyphenated Americans are concentrated largely in the Southern and Appalachian regions of the United States:

Compare the map in the link above to the geographical distribution of Donald Trump supporters in the GOP electorate:

Trumpmap

Of course, correlation is not causation and this possible connection is based entirely on aggregate data patterns making it impossible to conclusively link ancestral self-identification to voting patterns using only this information… but it is hard to ignore the similarities in the geographic concentration of unhyphenated Americans and Donald Trump supporters.

Donald Trump’s campaign slogan has is “Make America Great Again.” Perhaps this resonates with unhyphenated Americans who actively reject all non-American identities (even ancestral identities) and respond positively to his nativist, authoritarian rhetoric.

Note: this article was originally published in the Huffington Post; this version includes the graphics.

My quick take on the 2016 Iowa Caucus results

Since people are asking me about it today… here’s my quick take on the Iowa Caucus results last night:

The “political science” perspective is that one key way that Iowa Caucus results matter is in driving the media narrative that emerges the week afterwards leading up to the New Hampshire primary. Objective results matter less than results compared to expected results. Those who over-perform relative to expectations get a boost from both media and donors which gives them an additional boost going into the NH primary while those who under-perform suffer from less media attention and fewer donors than they were getting before. (See Why Iowa, chapters 7-8, see also Vox’s write-up.)

Based on this I make the following quick observations:

Marco Rubio is probably the biggest winner from last night: over-performing relative to expectations in the range of 5-8%. I expect that he’ll get a boost in media coverage and that this will translate into a boost in his New Hampshire performance, putting him in a good position for the rest of the primary campaign.

Donald Trump is probably the biggest loser, as all the media hype was about him possibly winning Iowa. By losing (even though he came in a strong second), he under-performed relative to expectations (by about 7-ish%) and this may translate into a lower performance in New Hampshire than he might have otherwise had if he had won Iowa.

Ted Cruz’s performance is maybe a draw, perhaps a slight advantage. He was polling well in Iowa and did about as well as expected in the media narrative leading up to last night’s Caucuses. The real question is whether he can do well in northeast New Hampshire or whether this was his high-water mark like Rick Santorum in 2012 or Mike Huckabee in 2008.

On the Democratic side, I’d say it’s roughly a draw between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, both objectively and relatively, with perhaps a slight edge to Sanders. Hillary Clinton was expected to win by 3-5% leading up to the Caucuses and she ended up barely squeaking out a win of 0.29%. Given that O’Malley dropped out last night, I think that Sanders will pick up most of his 2-ish% in New Hampshire and likely win by a respectable margin. The real test for Sanders will be whether he can come in close in more diverse states like South Carolina and Nevada. If he gets trounced in those two states it’s likely an easy path for Hillary Clinton to the nomination.

Back on the Republican side, my hunch is that it will soon boil down to either a drawn-out Rubio-Trump contest or a Rubio-Cruz contest, depending on which way things shake out in the next few primaries… unless either Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or John Kasich can somehow edge out a very strong second or third showing. If not, it’s Rubio or bust for Republicans who want to win this fall.

Drew Curtis is pulling about even from potential Conway and Bevin voters

Yesterday’s release of the most recent Kentucky gubernatorial election Bluegrass Poll showed Jack Conway 42%, Matt Bevin 37%, and Drew Curtis 7% (MoE 3.8%), meaning that the gubernatorial race is a statistical tie. Given, however, that the same poll two months ago showed virtually identical results, it gives more confidence to the reality of Conway’s lead.

One question that has come up in the gubernatorial campaign so far is the effect of Drew Curtis in the race. Is he pulling more from potential Conway or Bevin voters?

By doing some quick arithmetic with the cross-tabulations on the most recent Bluegrass Poll, we find that 2.5% of likely voters in Kentucky are Republican Curtis supporters while 2.8% are Democratic Curtis supporters[1]. This suggests that Curtis is pulling roughly evenly from Conway or Bevin, which further suggests that he won’t likely play a “spoiler” role for either candidate.

Further, by the same method we can see that 6% of likely Kentucky voters are undecided Republicans while 5% are undecided Democrats. If the undecideds break in favor of their partisan identities (and there’s little reason to suspect that they won’t), this suggests that neither candidate will gain much of an advantage from the “undecided” folks.

All told, the polling evidence is still giving a very slight, but consistent, advantage to Jack Conway in the upcoming gubernatorial election. That being said, it’s still close enough that campaign events might “matter” enough to sway the election one way or another.

[FN1] I arrived at these figures by multiplying the total proportion of the sample in a particular sub-category by the proportion of voters for the particular candidate (or “undecided”) and then adding the categories together. For example, the 2.5% of Republican Curtis supporters is arrived at by multiplying his 1% by the 17% of strong Republicans, adding 9% of the 14% weak Republicans, and 8% of the 13% Republican leaners, for a total of about 2.5%