Category Archives: U.S. politics

My students’ choices for American electoral reform

This semester my POL 330 “Parties, Campaigns, and Elections” class at Centre College has been examining a variety of proposed electoral reforms. At the end of each discussion, we held a vote on whether or not to stick with the status quo on a particular issue (e.g. campaign finance, primary electoral systems, direct democracy, etc.) or go with a proposed alternative. I recorded the plurality winner for each electoral domain, and then the last week of class I presented the batch of reform choices to my class as a single up-or-down “package” of reforms. By a 2-1 margin, my students voted to recommend the following slate of electoral reforms:

  • Abolish direct elections to state judicial offices
  • Promote more state-level direct democracy (initiative, referendum, recall) throughout the country
  • Limit legislative redistricting to once per decade
  • Maximize the number of uncompetitive elections
  • Replace open/closed primaries with a Top-2 primary system
  • Eliminate the current presidential nomination process with a single national popular Top-2 primary vote
  • Eliminate the Electoral College and replace with a direct popular vote
  • Retain the current campaign financing system with the exception of reversing Citizens United

2014 midterm election: results vs. predictions

As of November 14, there are still a handful of Congressional races yet to be called. Nonetheless, if those that are currently leaning toward the GOP end up in the Republican column, we’ll begin the 114th Congress with 247 Republicans and 188 Democrats in the House, a pickup of 13 seats for the GOP. Assuming that Mary Landreiu loses reelection in the runoff election on December 6, the Senate will have 54 Republicans and 46 Democrats, a pickup of 9 seats in the Senate for the GOP.

In October, PS: Political Science and Politics published a collection of forecasts of the 2014 midterm elections. These were forecasts done by political scientists who make predictions based on election “fundamentals” such as presidential approval and economic conditions, and done several months before the election took place. (Notably, these models do not include information on things like campaign spending, candidate competence/appeal, etc.) The average (median) prediction was that the Republicans would pick up 14 seats in the House and 5 or 6 seats in the Senate.

All in all, not a bad showing for the science of political science election forecasting in 2014.

Predicted result Actual result Margin of error (difference / total seats)
House + 14 GOP + 13 GOP 0.2%
Senate + 5 or 6 GOP + 9 GOP 3.5%

Midterm Election Review on WEKU’s “Eastern Standard”

More discussion on the midterm election results: my interview on WEKU’s “Eastern Standard” program hosted by John Hingsbergen. This program also features Dr. Joseph Gershtenson from EKU and Nick Storm from CN2.

Highlights from “Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons in American Politics” (2014)

David E. Campbell, John C. Green, and J. Quin Monson have recently published Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics. This is the first large-scale, in-depth, academic quantitative analysis of Mormon political behavior in the United States. While this book is geared toward a scholarly audience, it is easily accessible for anyone in a general audience who has even a small familiarity with statistics, charts, and graphs. While I certainly recommend interested parties to read the book for themselves, here are some of the highlights that I thought interesting:


  • The Mormon Paradox: they want to be a “peculiar” people but also want to be accepted as mainstream and “quintessentially American.”
  • This chapter contains a brief introduction to Mormon demographics, theological beliefs, and geographic distribution.


  • Are Mormons an “ethnic group”? While some would argue yes and others no, the authors settle on “no” and instead describe Mormons as constituting a “subculture” meaning that they “combine points of contact with, as well as points of distinction from, the broader culture” (30). They are similar to the subculture of modern Evangelicals or Catholics of the mid-20th
  • For purposes of scholarly analysis, Mormons are better understood as an “ethno-religious” group who, despite their internal diversity, still have religious behaviors that lead them to behave similar to how an ethnic group would behave. “To convert to Mormonism means more than joining a church; it means becoming part of a people” (37).


  • Mormons share an unusually high level of cohesiveness in terms of their religious beliefs and practices, as well as a high level of adherence to the tenets of their faith, more so than just about any other religious group with the exception in some cases of Evangelicals or Black Protestants.
  • Ironically, 86% of Mormons say that polygamy is “morally wrong,” a higher percent than say that pre-marital sex is morally wrong (79%).
  • The authors introduce four indices to measure various kinds of “Mormonness”: 1) activity (degree of religious practice), 2) authority (degree of obedience to the institutional church), 3) insularity (degree of social separation from wider society, and 4) identity (degree of self-identification and affinity with the group).
    • Activity: Mormons are almost uniformly on the highest end of this scale. About 75% rank either a 9 or 10 on a 0-10 scale.
    • Authority: most Mormons are on the higher end of this scale, with about 85% being higher than the halfway point, meaning that the vast majority report being obedient to the teachings and mandates of the institutional church. That being said, there’s more variation within the high end than in the activity scale. (Only 10% score a perfect 10 out of 10 on this scale.)
    • Insularity: this is a normal-curve looking distribution. Most Mormons are in the middle in terms of their integration/separation with wider society.
    • Identity: average around a 6 or 7 on a 10-point scale. Most Mormons are proud to identify as such and defend their in-group.
  • “Utah Mormons” are more insular than non-Utah Mormons and are slightly more likely to hold a calling. They are not, however, any different when it comes to other religious activities, levels of belief orthodoxy, or identity commitment.
  • Converts are slightly lower on each of those scores than non-converts.


  • Mormons are the most Republican religious group in America. No big surprise there. 65% are Republican (or Independent-lean-Republican) while only about 22% are Democrats (or Independent-lean-Democrat). This is ironic given that the Republican Party was founded partly on an anti-Mormon platform.
    • Unlike in other religious traditions, younger Mormons are slightly more likely to be Republicans than older
  • The two strongest predictors of Republican identification are authority (belief orthodoxy) and Mormon identity. Activity and Insularity wash out in the multivariate statistical models.
  • This was not always the case. Historically, Mormons were fairly evenly split between the two major political parties. They didn’t veer Republican until around the 1960s and especially the 1980s and onward.
  • Mormons are the religious group least likely to hear overt political messages over the pulpit at church, but they talk about politics a LOT with other Mormons outside of church.


  • Mormons are very conservative and cohesive on many issues, including pro-Israel, opposition to affirmative action, preferring small government, favoring death penalty, opposing Obamacare, opposing government aid to the poor, opposing environmental laws, and favoring preemptive military action.
  • About 75% of Mormons say that it’s better for the husband to be the achiever and the wife to stay at home. Compare this to 43% of black Protestants and 39% of Evangelicals.
  • “The fact that women do not hold the priesthood sometimes bothers me.” 8% of Mormon men say yes, 14% of Mormon women.
  • “Women do not have enough say in the LDS Church.” 14% of Mormon men say yes, 17% of Mormon women.
  • Mormons are more likely than Evangelicals or Catholics to oppose elective abortion, but less likely to oppose abortion in the case of health, rape, or incest.
  • Mormons are the religious group most likely to oppose same-sex marriage in the U.S., but more Mormons favor civil unions than oppose same-sex marriage. (Given the option between same-sex marriage, civil unions, and neither, 49% prefer civil unions, 40% prefer neither, and 11% prefer same-sex marriage.)
    • Interestingly, Mormons have a higher level of support for civil unions (49%) than any other religious group.
  • Mormons are split on immigration, but those who have served a mission and especially a foreign language mission are more favorable toward immigrants than those that have not.


  • This chapter deals with how Mormons can effectively be mobilized by church leaders on a particular cause. They are like “dry kindling” just waiting to be “lit” because they have “tight-knit social networks, extensive civic skills, strong attitudinal cohesion, and a deep respect for religious authority” (135).
  • Mormons vote at higher rates and are more engaged with the community than non-Mormon counterparts from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.
  • Mormons are most likely to follow their church leaders in politics when two conditions are met: 1) “public internal agreement among the leadership”, and 2) “Church leaders offer an official endorsement of a political issue” (142).
  • Three case studies on Proposition 8, the MX Missiles, and Immigration Reform.
  • “LDS leaders are most persuasive when they take a liberal position, given the conservatism of Mormons. Statements that mention a specific political position by the Church are typically more persuasive than general statements of principles. Finally, Mormons who have the strongest adherence to authority are most consistently persuaded by the Church.” (pgs. 155-156)


  • Mormons are among the least-liked religious groups in America, ranking higher than only Muslims and Atheists.
  • Mormons are subject to a mix of positive (patriotic, caring, strong families) and negative (insular, strange beliefs) stereotypes.
  • Old, married Republicans tend to like Mormons while younger, single Democrats tend to dislike Mormons.
  • Mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jews tend to be neutral toward Mormons, while Evangelicals, Black Protestants, and other minority religious tend to dislike Mormons.
  • Mormons are viewed most negatively by the most religious and least religious.
  • Having correct factual knowledge about Mormons tends to increase favorability toward Mormons, and having a close Mormon friend or family member tends to increase favorability.


  • Analysis of general “willingness to vote for a Mormon candidate” on the part of the American public.
  • Case studies of the presidential campaigns of George Romney, Mo Udall, Orrin Hatch, Jon Hunstman, Jr., and Mitt Romney.


  • How did attitudes toward Mormons affect Mitt Romney’s performance in the 2012 election? “While Mitt Romney’s Mormonism mattered a lot to very few voters, it mattered little to most voters. The net result is that, on Election Day 2012, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism turned out to be the dog that didn’t bark” (227).
  • Mormons themselves were no more or less likely to vote for Romney after factoring in their partisanship. Democratic Mormons voted for Obama and Republican Mormons voted for Romney (lack of significance in “Mormon” variable on page 252).
  • While Mormonism did not much affect Romney’s chances in the 2012 campaign, it mattered much more during the 2008 primary campaign. This is because it was “new” and a little strange in 2008, but “old news” in 2012.
  • In the 2008 primary campaign:
    • Personal familiarity with Mormons had an interesting pattern: those who did not know a Mormon or who had a Mormon family member or friend were more likely to vote for Romney than someone who had a Mormon acquaintance.
    • “Framing Mormonism as a non-Christian religious had a negative reaction among voters” (240).
    • “The More people knew about Mormonism, the less it concerned them” (240).
  • People were no better able to answer factual questions about Mormonism in 2012 than in either 2010 or 2008. People learned that Romney was Mormon, but they didn’t learn much about Mormonism due to his candidacy.
  • Romney’s candidate produced no discernable effect in the average level of favorability toward Mormons. However, Republicans became more favorable and Democrats less favorable (partisanship at play). It remains to be seen whether this effect is permanent.


  • The Mormon Church has tried different strategies to address the original paradox: how to remain a “peculiar people” but also be accepted as mainstream and normal. After ending polygamy in the early 20th century, they veered mainstream in the first half of the 20th century then “retrenched” in the second half of the 20th There are advantages and disadvantages to each strategy.
  • There are signs that the Mormon Church is currently adopting a strategy of “alignment, increasingly allying themselves with other religious and social conservatives” (259).
    • While this may produce some results that the Mormon Church sees as advantageous, there are serious drawbacks to such an approach. 1) Within the Church, it risks marginalizing Democrats, minorities, and moderates who may become less active and potentially just leave. 2) Outside the Church, it risks alienating Democrats, minorities, and moderates, limiting the potential pool from which to draw converts to only strong religious and political conservatives. It also can alienate the younger generation of Mormons who are leaving the Church similar to Millennials in other faiths. It can also “limit the effectiveness of the LDS leaders’ voices in the public square. Prophetic voices are most likely to be heard and heeded when they rise above the partisan fray” (261).

Open primaries don’t necessarily result in more moderate elected officials

NPR recently featured an interview with Nolan McCarty of Princeton who has recently compared states that have open primary systems (where everyone can vote) or closed primary systems (where only partisans can vote) and found that there is no discernible difference in the ideological extremity of candidates from either system. They both tend to produce ideologically extreme candidates. This is because moderates do not tend to take advantage of the opportunity to participate in open primaries which are instead dominated by ideological partisans, just like closed primaries.

I recommend taking 5 minutes to listen to the interview.

Once again, voters have only themselves to blame for the massive amount of polarization in Congress. If ideological moderates were to participate more, we might get more more moderate politicians elected to office. Instead we have a political system where only the ideologically extreme partisans participate, and lo and behold, we get an ideologically extreme set of politicians representing us.

This also has implications for Utah’s “Count My Vote” initiative that is trying to change Utah’s caucus-based partisan primary system to a more open primary system. There are very good reasons to support such an initiative (increasing the opportunities for access and participation being chief among them) but thinking that it will result in less ideological candidates coming out of Utah should not be one of them.

Great TED talk on political polarization

I highly recommend the following TED talk on the causes and consequences of contemporary political polarization by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

My only critique is that he puts a bit too much emphasis on and faith in the likelihood that a few institutional tweaks (like open primaries) will dramatically change the current state of partisan polarization. Most political science research has shown that the causes of polarization are wide and deep and likely won’t be reversed by looking only at institutional changes. (See here, here, and here.)

Other than that, I highly recommend this TED talk.

People care more about the results than the process

This morning in my Introduction to American Politics we discussed the various arguments for and against the Constitutionality of the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act. This included an examination of the history of the individual mandate as a policy idea, considering arguments from attorneys who argued both for and against the ACA in district courts as well as some of the arguments made against by Tea Party Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah. 

By the end of the class, only about 10% of my students thought that the individual mandate was Constitutional. However, about 80% of those who thought it was unconstitutional still said they supported the individual mandate and thought it was a good idea worth keeping.

For me, I interpret this as further evidence that most people don’t seem to care as much about the process of how government policy comes about, they care about the results and outcome.