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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.

 

My quick take on the New Hampshire Primary results

Let’s say you were to take a hypothetical candidate for a major party presidential nomination and this hypothetical candidate came in a respectable second in the Iowa Caucuses, had a strong first place finish in the New Hampshire Primary, and was currently leading in the polls for the next several primaries. This person would be well on his or her way to locking up the nomination quickly – it would be a no-brainer.

Except this year that person is Donald Trump. For the first time I’m starting to entertain the very real possibility that he just might emerge as the eventual Republican nominee for president. And I agree with Ezra Klein: this is a “terrifying moment in American politics.” The current second-place candidate Ted Cruz is not much better.

Wow. What a choice. This is how Alexander Hamilton must have felt when asked to endorse either Thomas Jefferson or Aaron Burr for president in the election of 1800.

A few days ago I quasi-endorsed Marco Rubio as the best choice in what was then the top three of Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. I still stand by that, although I agree 100% that his Saturday debate performance was bad, bad, bad. The key question is whether a lousy debate performance disqualifies someone for the U.S. presidency? I don’t believe so, as the skills necessary to be a good debater are not the same as those needed to be a good president. However, debates do show us how a person performs under pressure (which is very important for the presidency) and Rubio did not impress on that score.

At this point it looks like the GOP field is narrowed down to five candidates: Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Kasich, and Bush. I’d like to think that Kasich would be able to translate his strong second-place finish in New Hampshire into another second- or first-place finish in South Carolina and beyond, but the odds of that happening are small. Bush’s chances are even smaller at this point. Based on demographics and ideology, I think Rubio has a better shot than Kasich or Bush in South Carolina and Nevada, meaning he’s still the most realistic alternative to Trump and Cruz.

Ideally, Christie would endorse Rubio today and Bush and Kasich would drop out before South Carolina and do the same. That would give Rubio enough of a support base to start winning primaries against Trump and Cruz.

Probably not going to happen, though.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders had a great night for sure. I’m skeptical of his long-term chances, though, given that his support base is geographically limited and he will have a very hard time repeating yesterday’s success in the next several primaries. It’s still Hillary Clinton’s nomination to lose.

NOVEMBER ELECTABILITY

A lot of this discussion boils down to the question of “who is more electable in November?” The “political science” answer for U.S. presidential elections goes something like this: there are a few basic “fundamentals” that determine 90% of presidential election outcomes: party-line voting, economic performance during the election year, and incumbent presidential job approval. Because of party-line voting each candidate is usually guaranteed at least 45-ish% of the vote. It’s the remaining 10% that’s up for grabs, and this is where candidates and campaigns make much of the difference. Trump, Cruz, and Rubio could likely each get at least 45% of the vote just by virtue of being the Republican nominee (as most Republicans will vote for the Republican nominee). My strong personal hunch is that Rubio would do the best of the three getting an additional 2-7%, Cruz maybe another 1-5%, and Trump maybe another 0-2%. But those are purely off-the-top-of-my-head speculations on my part.

Same thing goes for Clinton and Sanders. My gut says that Clinton would get anywhere from 2-7% more than Sanders would in the general election.

Of course… most of these political science predictions are based on some fundamental assumptions, one of which is that both parties nominate an otherwise well-qualified candidate. So far Donald Trump has managed to defy all the political science models and political laws of physics for that matter. Who knows what would happen if he were to get the nomination? On one hand, he might morph into a more-or-less conventional candidate and the election may end up being conventional as well. On the other hand, a Trump nomination might cause an irreparable fissure in the Republican Party resulting in the rise of a third-party candidate which will split the Republican vote, guarantee a Democratic victory, and then cause a monumental realignment over the next few years as the GOP goes through its biggest identity crisis of the last century.

Who knows? If anything, I’ve learned to be more cautious with my predictions this time around.

The 2016 Republican Primary: It’s Marco Time

One has to admit that the Republican primary race has been nothing if not interesting this last year.

The mainstream “political science” explanation of presidential party nominations goes something like this: party elites (elected officials, donors, party insiders, etc.) talk among themselves in the year before the primary elections and usually come to some kind of consensus pick among their party’s candidates. This is called the “invisible primary.” We can get a sense of who’s winning the invisible primary by looking at high-level endorsements from party elected officials. Voters then are usually pretty good at picking up on those elite endorsements (which generate media coverage) and then support tends to funnel accordingly. (See here, here, here, and here for more information.)

This model has done a pretty good job of explaining the Democratic race this year (where Hillary Clinton has dominated the invisible primary) but has not been as useful in explaining what has happened in in the Republican primary. For whatever reason, the GOP establishment elites pretty much declined to come to a consensus this time around. And Donald Trump happened. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out over the next few months.

My personal ideological and temperamental orientations originally led me to prefer more moderate, mainstream candidates like John Kasich or Jeb Bush. I also appreciated Rand Paul’s (from what I could tell) sincere focus on racial issues like criminal justice and police brutality. I also have always admired Paul’s ideological consistency and that he’s less inclined to blatantly pander than most politicians are.

I was also impressed with Marco Rubio early on while watching his one-on-one extended media interviews. When he’s not giving a stump speech or in a political debate he shows hints of a fairly nuanced worldview which I think is an advantage for political leaders.

At this point it’s looking like a three-way race between Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. It is possible (although looking increasingly unlikely) that Bush, Kasich, or Christie will pull an upset and come in a strong second or third in New Hampshire next week. But they might not. And many Republicans seem to find them to be far too moderate anyways.

Given the choice, then, between Trump, Cruz, and Rubio, I would recommend that my Republican friends throw their support behind Marco Rubio. (And I won’t waste precious minutes of my life making a case for why Rubio would be a better bet than Trump or Cruz, either electorally or as U.S. president, or for the sake of the country and planet Earth and human species.)

It is a strange political season indeed when Marco Rubio is perceived to be a “safer” mainstream Republican alternative for the presidency given his Tea Party-driven election to the Senate and ideological voting record, but stranger things have happened I suppose and such is the state of the modern Republican Party. Make no mistake, Marco Rubio would likely be a strong ideologue as president and given that the House of Representatives will likely be controlled by the Republicans in 2017, the only thing standing in the way of a Republican nirvana would be the Democratic use of the filibuster in the Senate (assuming that it’s not abolished by a slim GOP majority).

It’s true that Marco Rubio’s experience and resume leaves something to be desired, but so did Barack Obama’s in 2008 and I think he did about as well as any Democrat could have been expected to do given a similar set of circumstances. Thus, I don’t see this as a major impediment for Rubio who I perceive to have the skill set, temperament, and intelligence to potentially excel as U.S. president. I urge my Republican friends to support him in the primary campaign.

 

Bernie Sanders vs. Hillary Clinton on the role of money in politics

Last night provided a clear contrast between the two Democratic front-runners when it comes to the pervasive influence of money in politics. Bernie Sanders has staked his campaign (if not his entire career) on the assumption that money is the single most corrupting influence in the American political system and that many (if not most) of the woes of the working class are due to the influence of large, wealthy donors and special interests group in the political system. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is more measured in her critique of the role of money in politics and seems more willing to work in a mutually tolerant relationship with Wall Street than strictly against Wall Street.

Coming from a political science perspective, most of the research tends to indicate that money certainly matters in politics, but not nearly as much as people often assume. Bernie Sanders (and many/most Americans) assume a model that goes like this: Interest Group A gives to Politician B and so Politician B in turn supports policies favorable to Interest Group A. In contrast, much empirical evidence seems to indicate that the arrow often goes the other way: Politician B is already ideologically predisposed to support issues favorable to Interest Group A and so Interest Group A donates to Politician B to help that person get elected or reelected so that Politician B can continue to support those issues (which Politician B would likely do anyways even in the absence of the donations from Interest Group A). (For more information and detail on this argument, I highly recommend listening to the first segment of a recent podcast by Vox’s The Weeds: http://www.vox.com/2016/1/22/10815228/weeds-campaign-finance.)

I emphasize that political scientists do not argue that money makes no difference in politics, but rather it matters a lot less than is often popularly perceived to be the case.

For the political science academic community, the cause of polarization and governmental dysfunction is due less to the influence of money and special interests and more to the driving effect of political polarization and party sorting in contemporary American politics. In short, this perspective argues that government is paralyzed because the voters that elect that government are paralyzed themselves between starkly contrasting views about the appropriate role of government, religion, and morality in American society. Two very different groups of voters go to the polls every election and elect politicians who support two very different pictures of what politics should be. No wonder they can’t agree on anything. (More on this here: http://www.vox.com/cards/congressional-dysfunction/what-is-political-polarization.)

My heart sympathizes strongly with Democrats who support Bernie Sanders and his call for a political revolution in the United States. I understand the appeal and where they are coming from. Ultimately, though, there is less evidence to support Sanders’ diagnosis of the problems with the political system. Because he fundamentally misunderstands the causes of the problems (or at the very least discounts the strong effect of other clear causes), it makes me skeptical as to how effective he would be in fostering solutions for the problems.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, seems to me to have a clearer understanding of the strong role that identity and ideology play in driving political behavior in both the American public and elected government. Thus, I believe that she would ultimately be more effective in achieving her goals if elected president than Bernie Sanders would be. True, a Hillary Clinton presidency would be a win for the status quo and the “establishment,” and again, my heart sympathizes with the sentiment among Sanders supporters who desire the revolution. But a century of voting behavior and a strong scholarly consensus gives us very, very little reasons to expect that the revolution is coming in the near future. The House of Representatives will almost certainly be controlled by Republicans in 2017, making it necessary for a Democratic president to have to cut deals and bargain with a Republican congress just as President Obama has had to do the last several years.

Hillary Clinton would probably get Democrats some of what they want. Bernie Sanders would likely get them close to nothing.

 

Why gender equality matters

When my six-year-old daughter saw Hillary Clinton’s recent announcement for the presidency, her first response was to say, very innocently and matter-of-factly, “Oh! I didn’t know that women were allowed to be president.”

While I don’t mean this as an endorsement of Clinton’s candidacy (far from it – I strongly believe that an uncompetitive presidential primary and an assumed “coronation” is not a healthy thing in our electoral democracy), I’ll admit that my daughter’s response surprised and shocked me just a bit. My first reaction was to think “where did she get the idea that women were not allowed to be president?”

Is it the implicit signals from the “American presidents” dinner place mat she sometimes uses that features the faces of an all-male presidential line-up?

Is it the messages from the culture she’s growing up in where, despite great strides made over the several decades, women are still less likely to be in positions of leadership, prominence, and visibility?

Is it the patterns she internalizes at the church we attend were women are not eligible to serve as the chief pastors in our congregations or in the highest governing councils of the worldwide organization?

Of course much of the responsibility is ultimately my own. After all, it’s my job as her father to teach her about the world. I suppose I’ve dropped the ball by never explicitly explaining to her that “women are of course eligible to serve as U.S. president but no one ever has yet for a variety of reasons…” So my immediate response was to make it clear that YES women are eligible to be elected president and then I showed her on my smartphone pictures of other female heads of state around the world (e.g. Angela Merkel, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Dilma Rousseff, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, etc.).

In a few weeks my wife and I will be welcoming two more twin girls into our family. I hope that by the time they’re six years old that their environment will have more egalitarian messages and signals about the role of women in society than is the case today.