Category Archives: U.S. politics

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.

About 2.5% of America admits to committing voter fraud… and alien abductions

Henry Farrell applies the list experiment technique (see here or here) to investigate the prevalence of voter fraud:

One of the findings of a new working paper by John Ahlquist, Kenneth R. Mayer and Simon Jackman is that “the lower bound on the population reporting voter impersonation is nearly identical with the proportion of the population reporting abduction by extraterrestrials.” Roughly 2.5 percent of the population effectively admit to one or the other. The rationale for this comparison tells us a lot about how social scientists deal with complex and touchy political issues.

They conclude:

The implication here is that if one accepts that 2.5% is a valid lower bound for the prevalence of voter impersonation in the 2012 election then one must also accept that about 2.5% of the adult U.S. population – about 6 million people – believe that they were abducted by extra-terrestrials in the last year. If this were true then voter impersonation would be the least of our worries.

If the election were held today, Obama would likely cruise to reelection (again)

News came out today that the U.S. economy grew at 2.8% during the third quarter of 2013. This is positive news. It’s also interesting to note that, were the presidential election held this November 7 instead of one year ago yesterday, President Obama still would likely have cruised to reelection, despite his lower-than-average approval ratings.

Why? Because economic growth + presidential approval is a very reliable predictor of the outcome of presidential elections. This tool (link here), developed by political scientists at GW, Yale, and UCLA, predicts that even with Obama’s current 43% approval rating, he would have a 77% chance of reelection given the Q1-Q3 average economic growth rate of 2.1%, if the election were held today.

At this rate of economic growth, Obama’s approval rating would have to be in the low 30s before a challenger would have a good shot of knocking him out in a general election. Should this rate of growth continue for three  more years, it suggests a tentatively positive outlook for Democrats keeping the White House in 2016.

Rand Paul is not the only politician guilty of plagiarism…

To my liberal friends having a field day this week with Senator Rand Paul’s plagiarism mini-scandal, recall that similar charges were made in President Obama’s 2008 campaign and also contributed to Vice President Biden’s failed 1998 presidential campaign.

Just another example of the strength of partisanship as a perceptual filter as well as how short our political memories really are.

“Fine-tuning” of election laws will not solve polarization

Today’s USA Today headline story reports the results of a survey describing how Americans are supportive of a number of “fine-tuning” election reforms that could potentially alter the partisan gridlock which “could make a difference in the kind of government that follows.” These are: 1) put non-partisan commissions in charge of state legislative redistricting, 2) allowing Independents to vote in partisan primaries, and 3) enact voter ID laws.

The headline gives the impression that these proposals would make a big difference in our political system and could potentially assuage the gridlock and paralysis in D.C. Indeed, the deadline on page 6A reads: “Fine-tuning could free D.C. to function.” Although the author says that these ideas have the support of “some political scientists,” there is not much evidence (that I am aware of) that would suggest that any of these reforms would drastically alter election outcomes. To wit:

  • One of the most popular misconceptions about contemporary political polarization in Congress is that it’s caused by partisan redistricting: partisan legislators redraw lines that create lopsided ideological districts. It’s an appealing argument. If that were the case, though, we would expect polarization to be absent in legislative bodies whose district lines never change… like the U.S. Senate. However, the Senate has become hyper-polarized without any partisan redistricting, so it follows that redistricting is not to blame for the polarization. (More here.) To be fair, the author acknowledges such in the article, but only after quoting in some detail individuals who think that nonpartisan redistricting commissions could likely make a substantial difference.
  • The argument for allowing Independents to vote in partisan primaries has logical appeal: victorious candidates would have to appeal to ideological moderates in addition to ideological extremists, therefore the average candidate that emerges from a primary would be more ideologically moderate as a result. This assumes that Independents would vote at the same rates as ideological partisans in primaries, though, which is not the case. (According to the 2012 ANES survey, Independents vote at a rate somewhere around 20-30% lower than partisans.) Even in states were Independents can vote in primaries, it’s usually the more active, enthusiastic, and ideologically extreme partisans who dominate the primary electorate. 
  • Evidence also suggests that voter ID laws don’t substantially alter either voter turnout or partisan outcomes (see also here). 

In sum, the roots of partisan polarization are long and deep, and won’t be significantly altered by tweaking a few institutional rules here and there. The current polarization will end when the partisan ideological coalitions shift to produce more ideological diversity within the two major parties, or we change the Constitution to permit a nation-wide proportional representation system. And neither seems likely in the near future.

How anti-Mormonism affected the outcome of the 2012 presidential election

In previous blog posts I described general public feelings towards Mormons during the 2012 presidential campaign season and also showed how these attitudes tended to vary by partisanship. In general, the American public feels ambivalent, if not mildly negative, toward Mormons and this is slightly more pronounced among Democrats than Republicans.

The natural question, of course, is how anti-Mormon attitudes affected the likelihood of voting for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.

Using a logistic regression statistical estimation procedure, I analyzed how individual-level attitudes toward Mormons affected the likelihood of voting either for or against Romney in 2012. This procedure estimates the effect of a single variable (attitudes toward Mormons and Mormonism) on another variable (likelihood of voting for Romney), statistically controlling for a host of other factors including political ideology, demographics, and socioeconomic status. In these analyses, I used the same four Mormon attitude questions, analyzed previously, that were included in the 2012 ANES survey. The findings included:

  • Republicans who do not consider Mormons to be Christian were about 5% less likely to vote for Romney. Additional analysis revealed that while a few of these Republicans opted to vote for Obama or vote third-party, the majority decided simply to stay home and not vote at all.
  • Democrats who think Mormons are not Christian were 2.5% less likely to vote for Romney. This is less interesting,  however, simply because very few Democrats were inclined to vote for Romney in the first place.
  • I also examined the effect of individual feelings towards Mormons (the “feeling thermometer” measure), perceptions of shared religious beliefs with Mormons, and the number of Mormons you personally knew. None of these variables affected the likelihood of voting for Romney among Republicans, after controlling for other relevant factors (demographics, political opinions, socioeconomic status, etc.).

The bottom line is that most attitudes toward Mormons did not affect the likelihood of voting for Romney one way or another. However, one key factor did matter: whether or not a voter considers Mormons to be Christian. About 1 out of every 20 Republicans who do not consider Mormons to be Christian decided to stay home instead of turning out to vote for their party’s nominee.

We can do a very rough “back of the envelope” estimation with this information. Romney received about 61 million votes in the 2012 election. We’ll pretend that every single one was a Republican (and the vast majority were). We know that 40% of Republicans don’t think Mormons are Christian, so there were maybe about 20 million Republicans with who considered Mormons to be non-Christian. 5% of 20 million is 1 million Republicans. So an extremely generous estimate would be that as many as 1 million Republicans stayed home instead of voting for Romney because of anti-Mormon attitudes. Romney ultimately lost the election by approximately 5 million votes, so increasing his vote total by 1 million votes would still have resulted in a 4 million vote loss, making a difference of less than 1% of the final vote difference.

It’s interesting that other research has also shown that Barack Obama likely lost a good number of votes in the 2008 (and probably 2012 election) due to racial prejudice (see here, here, here, here, and here, e.g.). And there is further evidence that these votes were lost predominantly from Democrats and Independents. Republicans with racial prejudice were not going to vote for Obama in the first place. In a parallel way, most of Romney’s lost votes came from members of his own party simply because those of the opposing party were not going to be voting for him regardless of his religious affiliation.

The political science explanation is that Mitt Romney lost the election because he was the challenger in an election where the economic and foreign policy conditions were marginally favorable to the incumbent. While I have provided evidence that Romney very likely did lose some votes as a result of negative attitudes toward his Mormon faith, this was ultimately not the determining factor in the outcome of the election.

Partisanship and attitudes toward Mormons in the 2012 election

My last post looked at aggregate attitudes toward Mormons and Mormonism in the general public as per the 2012 ANES study. Now we can dig a little bit deeper and examine how these attitudes are affected by partisanship. On one hand, we might expect Republicans to be more favorable toward Mormons due to their shared conservative social policy agenda and voting patterns. However, there is also a fair amount of anti-Mormonism among the Evangelical wing of the Republican Party. Conversely, Democrats might inclined to see Mormons favorably due to an ideological commitment to multiculturalism and religious diversity. This may be hampered somewhat, though, by opposing policy preferences (notably on California Proposition 8) and other conservative policy priorities. So how do attitudes toward Mormons vary by partisanship?

For the purposes of this analysis, Independent partisans who lean toward one party or another are grouped with the partisans.

Percent who agree that Mormonism is a Christian religion:

  • Democrats: 46%
  • Independents: 49%
  • Republicans: 58%

How many Mormons do you know personally? (Numbers indicate averages, excluding those who know more than 100 to account for outliers.)

  • Democrats: 2.3
  • Independents: 1.9
  • Republicans: 3.2

Mormon feeling thermometer rating (0=cold, 100=warm, 50=ambivalent; numbers indicate averages):

  • Democrats: 41.5
  • Independents: 40.6
  • Republicans: 51.7

How much commonality do you perceive between your beliefs and those of Mormons? (higher values = less commonality perceived, 5-point scale):

  • Democrats: 4.3 (=a little)
  • Independents: 4.2 (=a little)
  • Republicans: 3.7 (=a little/moderate amount)

All in all we see a definite trend: Republicans in the U.S. are slightly more likely than Democrats to view Mormons favorably, report that they know some Mormons, correctly identify them as Christians, and say that they perceive a little more in common with them. 

That being said, approximately 40% of Republicans tend to have generally unfavorable/unfamiliar attitudes while 40% of Democrats tend to have generally favorable/familiar attitudes. So there’s more to the story than pure partisanship. This does, however, gives us some hints into how public perceptions of Mormons differed between Republican and Democratic partisans during the 2012 election.

The interesting question to me is the extent to which this is a result of in-group/out-group effect. In other words, were Republicans more inclined to view Mormons favorably in 2012 than in other years simply because their standard bearer (Mitt Romney) was also a Mormon? And conversely, were Democrats more inclined to dislike Mormons out of a transfer effect from their feelings toward Mitt Romney?

Some helpful debt ceiling negotiation analogies

Obama has a house for sale, and his asking price is $300,000. He is facing an opponent (the hardline wing of the House Republican party) who is offering $1,000 and threatening to blow up the house if there is no deal. Obama isn’t saying he won’t negotiate. He’s saying he’ll only negotiate once the offering price is something plausible, say $200,000, and the threat to blow up the house is off the table.

Full article available here:

Imagine that Putin stepped forward tomorrow morning and announced that Russia had developed a computer virus that would shut down the market for U.S. Treasuries and that he would release that virus unless Obama agreed to a list of Russian demands.

No one would say Russia was asking for negotiations with Obama. They would say Russia was holding the U.S. economy hostage and demanding that Obama pay a ransom. No Republican — and no Democrat — would advice Obama to take that meeting. The sole question would be prevention and, if necessary, reprisal.

This is the core disagreement between the White House and the Republican Party. The Republican Party thinks it’s offering the White House something it wants — the continued creditworthiness of the United States of America — in return for things the GOP wants, like a one-year delay on Obamacare.

But the White House doesn’t see an increase in the debt limit as something that the Republicans are giving them. As Obama put it in his news conference: “Paying America’s bills is not a concession to me. That’s not doing me a favor.”

Full article available here: