Category Archives: Political Science

My thoughts on the 2018 congressional election results

How did the polls do?

House Democrats were predicted to win the popular vote by about 9% nationwide. As of about 1 AM  EST, Democrats are projected to win the popular vote by about 7%. Based on these polls, Democrats were predicted to pick up about 39 House seats, not far off from the 30-35 final projected pickups, as of the time of writing). The polls predicted that Senate Republicans would pick up about 1 seat, pretty close to the final projected result of about 2-3 seats (as of the time of this writing). Not a terrible showing when taking a broad view.

How did the political science forecasts do?

An average of political science forecast models of the election results predicted that Democrats would pick up about 36 seats in the House and thus also the majority. As of about 1 AM EST, Democrats were projected to pick up about 30-35 seats or so. These same models also predicted that Republicans would pick up 2 seats in the Senate which seems to be right in line with the likely outcome as of the time of this writing, give or take 1 seat.

These models are based on a few key variables: whether it’s a midterm election, presidential approval/disapproval, and prevailing economic conditions. Right now the economy is generally in pretty good shape and, all other things being equal, the president’s party tends to lose about 25 seats. The 30-35 seat loss for the president’s party is consistent with an unpopular president with a reasonably strong economy.

What do these results mean?

A key question for me is what the results imply about how “normalized” President Trump and his brand of illiberal populism has become in the American electorate. Roughly two-thirds of voters said that their vote was to either express approval or disapproval for President Trump. If the House vote was more or less in line with historical averages (about a 25 seat loss), I’d interpret that as a net neutral outcome as far as a presidential referendum goes and a normalization of Trumpism for voters.

A 30-35 Republican seat loss is somewhat higher than what we would expect given other key variables that tend to correlate highly with midterm election outcomes. In other words, if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio had won the Republican nomination and maintained a 47-48%-ish approval rating with the same economy, we’d likely see more like a 25 Republican seat loss.

Thus, I interpret the additional 5-10 GOP seat loss as a slight-to-moderate “Trump penalty,” or negative referendum on Trump and Trumpism. The slight GOP gain in the Senate moderates that slightly. Also, Trump has a historically low approval rating considering the state of the economy and Democrats just won the national Congressional popular vote by about 7%.

To me, this suggests that Trump and Trumpism has become somewhat, but not entirely normalized among American voters. At the same time, it has not entirely shifted the boundaries of what is considered normal and legitimate in our political system.

What does this mean going forward?

Given that the House will be controlled by the Democrats and Senate by the Republicans, it is unlikely that much substantive legislation will be passed during the next two years.

On the Senate side, the most important implication of continued GOP control is that President Trump will continue to be able to successfully appoint conservative justices to the bench.

On the House side, the most important implication of Democratic control is the beginning of aggressive oversight of the Trump administration: investigations, hearings, etc. For the past two years the Republican House has largely declined to exercise any meaningful oversight over one of the most controversial presidents in modern history. The Democrats are ready to hit the ground running.

What are the normative implications of the results?

I tend to distinguish political actions, policies, and priorities between those that are normal in a liberal democratic political system (e.g. disagreement over taxes, budgets, abortion access, etc.) and those that are abnormal and harmful to a strong democratic system (e.g. using totalitarian rhetoric like “enemy of the people” to refer to free media institutions, referring to Nazis as “very fine people,” alienating democratic alliances in Europe while praising authoritarian dictators around the world, etc.).

President Trump is the legitimately and duly elected president based on our Constitutional Electoral College system. While his judicial appointments are certainly strong conservatives and strict constructionists, these are not outside the boundaries of traditional presidential judicial appointments. For the GOP to maintain control of the Senate means that the president’s judicial appointments will continue to be regularly confirmed. This is, in my view, entirely consistent with proper and legitimate liberal democratic outcomes.

On the other hand, President Trump has also engaged in numerous actions which by any standard are characteristic of illiberal democracies and authoritarian political systems (see here, here, and here, e.g.). That the American electorate produced only a moderate negative referendum on Trump and Trumpism is, in my view, disappointing. It suggests that Trumpism has become somewhat normalized in the public mind. Today’s election results showed that many segments of the American public are willing to tolerate a good deal of illiberal populist Trumpism and, for the most part, do not view the erosion of our democratic institutions and norms as a pressing concern.

In my perspective, the most important national priority right now is to counter illiberal populist Trumpism as strongly as possible, helping steer American conservatism back to its honorable history of support for small government and traditional values while adhering to liberal democratic principles.

At the Congressional level, though, I am more optimistic. Over the last two years the House of Representatives has largely declined to provide any meaningful “check and balance” against any of the illiberal excesses on the part of President Trump. As I have written, I believe that actions that weaken our democratic norms and institutions are a great deal more important than the regular disagreements over policy that are part of a normal and healthy democracy.

Thus, regardless of policy differences between Democrats and Republicans, I view it as a very, very, very good thing that a Democratic majority in the House will begin to exercise meaningful oversight over President Trump for the first time in his presidency. This is perhaps the most important long-term implication of Tuesday’s election results.

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.