Category Archives: Uncategorized

My reactions to 2016’s first presidential debate

Since people ask, here’s what I think about the debate last night:
 
1. “Who won?” is not a very interesting question because it’s highly subjective and borderline irrelevant to wider questions of the effect of debates on the attitudes and vote intentions of potential voters.
 
2. Obviously, Clinton was better prepared and Trump is easily flustered. No big surprise there.
 
3. Like debates in previous years, the performance style and “gaffes” of the candidates overshadow the discussion of specific policies and priorities.
 
4. That being said, in this particular election I think it’s fair to give disproportionate attention to the character and temperament of the two candidates and it arguably makes a bigger difference this time around.
 
5. On that same note, debates are poor venues for serious policy discussions anyways and are better measures of how candidates perform in situations of intense pressure. I agree with the widespread consensus that Clinton showed that she can perform better under pressure than Trump. Again, no big surprise.
 
6. I know there are haters out there, but I really like the new debate format that allows for a freer exchange between the two candidates with less regulation from the moderator.
 
7. Even though debates rarely “move the needle” enough to make a substantive difference in presidential election outcomes, there’s some evidence that they *can* move the needle *a little*, especially if the performance is disproportionately good or bad in one direction or another. Nate Silver is predicting today a small bounce for Clinton given last night’s performance.
 
8. There are very, very few Clinton supporters who likely decided to support Trump as a result of the debate and even fewer Trump supporters who decided to support Clinton as a result of the debate. I’m more interested to see how many Trump or Clinton supporters move into Gary Johnson’s column and vice-versa. I’m guessing there won’t be very many, though.
 
9. I’m excited to see the remaining three debates.
 
10. If you feel like it, read my post from 2012 on the advantages and disadvantages of the modern debate format.

Don’t blame the NRA. Blame the filibuster and primary election voters.

Yesterday the Senate voted down four gun control proposals. This morning there is a good deal of venom directed at the NRA by those who supported these proposals. Many in both the Senate and public are arguing that these bills failed because of the “vice-grip” that the NRA has on members of the Senate. This implies that those individuals who received NRA money would have supported the proposals in the absence of their contributions.

As I’ve written before, political scientists have found very little evidence that interest group contributions directly translate into votes. Instead, interest groups selectively contribute to politicians who are likely to support their causes regardless. This helps explain the strong correlation between interest group contributions and voting patterns. But correlation is not always causation.

Think of it this way: if the NRA could simply buy votes with campaign contributions, wouldn’t they donate to every Democrat as well as every Republican? Then they’d get unanimous bipartisan support of all of their priorities.

Those who support gun control measures should instead blame the Senate filibuster and primary election voters.

Of the four measures that were voted on yesterday, two actually received a majority of the votes in the Senate (53 to 47). But because of the filibuster in the Senate a super-majority (60 votes) are needed to pass anything controversial. For those supporting gun control legislation (or pretty much any kind of legislation at all, really), I would recommend directing your efforts at weakening or eliminating the filibuster entirely.

Many have also pointed out that a variety of gun control proposals have a majority of public support. While this is true, individual Senators are not elected to represent the entire country. They represent their constituent states. And they are responsive primarily to those who show up to vote in their party’s primary elections. Primary voters are, on average, much more motivated, informed, and ideological than the general public. Thus, a majority of the public in the aggregate may support several of these proposals, but a majority of the Republican primary base in the various states oppose these proposals and they routinely threaten to run an ideological primary challenger to any sitting elected official who goes against their wishes.

Given that option, Republican Senators are strongly incentivized to vote as the Republican primary base in their states desire, and they oppose gun control proposals. For those who support gun control legislation, I would recommend directing your efforts toward figuring out a way to motivate more ideological moderates to show up and vote in party primaries in your state to balance out the ideological extremists who currently make up the majority of the primary electorate.

The NRA is undoubtedly a factor in this story, but in my view is not the key player.

 

What I will do in response to the Orlando shooting.

There’s a lot of conversation this week about the usefulness of “thoughts and prayers” in response to tragedies like the Orlando shooting. I personally think that thoughts and prayers are appropriate… but I also think that they are an insufficient response.

The reality is that there is not a whole lot I can personally do to prevent similar tragedies in the future. After thinking about it a few days, however, here are some actions that I have decided to take within the small realm of influence that I have:

1) Make a financial donation to gun safety organizations who have far more resources and organization at their disposal than I do.

I fully acknowledge that there is a reasonable spectrum of opinions on the appropriate balance between freedom and safety in a society when it comes to gun ownership. I also am aware that the empirical evidence is clear: whether at the local, state, national, or global level, more guns are associated with more homicides and more gun control is associated with fewer homicides. There is no controversy on this relationship.

2) Contact my elected officials who have power to do something about it and let them know my preferences on the relevant issues. It’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s something and is better than nothing. I’ll also commit to pay more attention to candidates’ positions on gun issues in choosing between various primary and general election candidates in the future.

3) Make a financial donation to LGBT advocacy/support groups such as the Human Rights Campaign or Affirmation (an LGBT support organization within my home religious community).

4) Continue to offer thoughts and prayers as best I can.

Republicans are falling in line for Trump

One of my big questions this year is to what extent this will be a “normal” election in the sense that it follows the same basic patterns of previous elections.

Normally Democrats and Republicans who didn’t support their party’s nominee in the primary grumble for a few weeks or months but then eventually fall in line and support their party’s candidate because of the incredibly strong pull that partisanship exerts on presidential vote choice. I was curious to see if that same pattern would hold this year or not, especially given the ‪#‎nevertrump‬ activity and the strong loyalty in the Bernie Sanders crowd.

This article from FiveThirtyEight reports:

“In the last four live interview polls that broke down results by partisanship, Trump averaged 85 percent support against Hillary Clinton among respondents who identified as Republicans. Clinton won just 7 percent among GOP respondents. Trump’s share of the Republican vote at this point in the campaign is right in line with past nominees.”

This suggests that, so far at least, voting behavior is conforming to “normal” patterns for presidential elections. Most Republicans are falling in line behind Trump quickly and without much fuss, it seems.

We are still five months out, though. It will be interesting to see what other patterns hold or not this election cycle.

What are the odds that Donald Trump will win the general election?

A friend asked me today whether I thought there were “any chance” that Donald Trump could win the general election election. The short answer is “yes.”

The long answer is this:

Since the 1950s there have been a few key variables that have done a pretty good job of predicting the outcome of U.S. presidential elections: 1) domestic economic growth during the election year, and 2) incumbent president approval rating. The incumbent party’s tends to win when those things are good; the challenging party’s candidate tends to win when those things are bad. Observe the following correlational graph between domestic economic growth and incumbent party’s share of the vote (source):

economic graph

Using these basic forecasting models as a baseline, we can plug in President Obama’s current average job approval rating of 49% and 2016 GDP forecasts are somewhere in the range of 2%. This would give the Democratic candidate (very likely Hillary Clinton at this point) about an 88% chance of winning, leaving the presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump with about a 12% chance.

That being said, these forecast models make some big assumptions. One assumption is that the national political/electoral system is roughly in the same condition as has characterized the system since the WW2 era in terms of partisan constituencies, the relative equilibrium of the Republican and Democratic parties at the national level, etc. There is some evidence that this system may be giving way to a new system, though, although it’s unclear at this point the extent to which this has occurred (characteristics of the new system include the emergence of the internet, hyper-polarization, etc.). The spectacular inability of the Republican “establishment” to exert any control over this year’s nominating system is another indicator that the electoral system may be undergoing a sizeable shift. The predictive model described above may not be as reliable in an environment that differs substantially from the elections upon which it was based.

Another big assumption is that both parties nominate generally qualified and competent candidates and that they will run about evenly-matched campaigns in terms of resources, strategy, etc. I’ll leave it readers to determine the extent to which “qualified and competent” applies to the current Republican front-runner. To the extent to which one of the two parties nominates a candidate who doesn’t meet this criteria, it may cause the predictive model to over-estimate that candidate’s chances to win the general election.

All in all, my “hunch” at this point is that Donald Trump has somewhere between a 20%-40% chance of winning the general election should he indeed eventually win the nomination. This is based on the evidence that 1) given the prevailing political and economic conditions, any generic Democrat would have an advantage over any generic Republican this year, 2) Donald Trump’s rhetoric and campaign style will likely demobilize a significant portion of the Republican base, and 3) there is a good deal of uncertainty as to the extent to which we are entering a “new party system” and the consequent extent to which the patterns found in previous elections can predict outcomes in current and future elections.

Under normal circumstances, I would say with a good deal of confidence that “all other things being equal, the political science models point to an edge for the Democratic candidate this year.” This year, however, the political science models have done a very poor job of predicting the rise of Trump and the collapse of the power of the GOP establishment. I therefore preface my “hunch” of a 20%-40% odds for a Trump general election victory with a great deal of caution and humility.

My two cents on the current Supreme Court drama

My two cents on the Supreme Court drama occasioned by Antonin Scalia’s passing this weekend:

1. It’s a shame that we as a country couldn’t take at least 24 hours to publicly recognize and honor a Supreme Court justice who passed away unexpectedly before jumping right into a rancorous political battle.

2. Like most people, I didn’t agree with Justice Scalia on a number of issues, but I respected him as a brilliant and sophisticated thinker who eschewed bumper sticker politics. I regularly assign some of his writings and essays to my political science students when we talk about Supreme Court issues. Of course, I also understand and sympathize with members of minority groups who are shedding few tears at his passing.

3. This:

4. Reasonable people can and do disagree about what is appropriate in political matters. Even  most objective analysis, though, can produce little support for the rationale of many GOP senators that the Senate should filibuster any Supreme Court nominee that President Obama appoints and instead wait until after the election for the next president to nominate a replacement. One one hand, the GOP proposal is not technically illegal and it does not break any letter-of-the-law interpretation of current Senate rules. On the other hand, to delay an entire  year before considering a presidential appointee to the Court is 100% without precedent in American history. The longest it has ever taken is about four months (the appointment of Louis Brandeis in the Woodrow Wilson administration). For conservatives, who claim to respect tradition, to say that a Supreme Court confirmation should take three times longer than it has ever taken in the history of the entire United States simply because it is an election year is completely outside the boundaries of “traditional” of American politics and is philosophically inconsistent at best and 100% self-serving at potentially damaging to our entire political system at worst.

How long are we as a country really going to keep playing this “Constitutional hardball” game of chicken every time a controversial issue comes up?

Reality check: what will the next president be able to accomplish?

At this point in the presidential primary race it’s good to pause and remember a fundamental fact about our current American political system: the U.S. president is not as powerful as we often think and is certainly less powerful than presidential candidates claim that they will be once they are elected and assume office.

In our hyper-polarized political system, presidents simply don’t get their way on most big things unless a super-majority of Congress agrees with them. And despite what they will say about the ability to compromise and “bring people together” and to be a “uniter” during the campaign season, presidents are rarely successful at persuading Congress to agree with them. Also, presidents generally do not cause polarization, so they will be able to do very little to “fix” it.

For more details on this, read this primer on the “Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency.”

Does that mean it doesn’t matter who emerges from the primary campaign or ultimately elected president? Of course not. What it means is:

  • Right now during the campaign season the candidates are promising the moon and beyond. A good rule of thumb is to expect that they will be able to accomplish maybe 5-10% of what they are promising in terms of their domestic agenda, perhaps more if they focus on small incremental goals instead of major world-changing goals.
  • Because the U.S. House (and very possibly the U.S. Senate) will continue to be controlled by Republicans in 2017, a Democratic president will not be able to bring about many drastic changes. She or he would basically prevent a Republican Congress from pursuing their major policy goals just as they will prevent her or him from pursuing her or his major policy goals. A Republican president, on the other hand, will be similarly blocked by a Democratic filibuster in the U.S. Senate unless 1) Republicans manage to win 60+ seats in the Senate and/or 2) the Senate filibuster is eliminated.

While presidents are not omnipotent and may not be able to accomplish their major policy objectives in our hyper-polarized climate, they still have a number of important powers. For example:

  • Because they have more ability to act unilaterally in foreign affairs, they will have more influence in international matters than domestic matters. So their foreign policy proposals are important. (But we should remember that even then their ability to control world events is not absolute.)
  • Presidents have the ability to nominate Supreme Court justices which have long-term effects on the future and direction of American politics.
  • Presidents have the ability to act through Executive Orders which are becoming an increasingly popular option for presidents to use to bypass Congress in our hyper-polarized climate. The Courts have curbed this power to some extent, but expect it to continue to slowly grow regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican is in office.
  • Presidents may not be able to get everything they want, but they can control what they talk about and what they focus on. This, in turn, affects what the media talks about which affects what society talks about. Presidents have a lot of influence to “set the agenda” and shape our national conversations. This is an important power. They don’t have the power to change our minds about political matters, but they have a lot of power to determine what is is that we talk about.

So here are some important “reality check” questions to ask ourselves during the heat of campaign seasons:

  • What is each candidate’s plan to accomplish his or her objectives given the realities of a hyper-polarized Congress? How realistic or feasible is that plan?
  • Given that these candidates will not be able to accomplish everything that they are proposing, what are their “smaller scale” back-up Plan B’s? What might they do after their initial attempts to follow through on their campaign proposals fail?
  • What does each candidate talk about? What do they focus on? What is his or her worldview? What are his or her fundamental assumptions about the political world? That will influence what we as a country talk about for the next four to eight years and how we talk about it.