Monthly Archives: April 2009

Some Historical Perspective on Coattails

I noted in my last post that Obama’s “coattails”, as measured by whether he ran ahead of members of Congress in their districts in 2008, were relatively small, casting doubt on media reports immediately after his November victory that he had won an electoral mandate – at least as viewed from the vantage point of Capitol Hill. This raises two questions: how does the length, or lack thereof, of Obama’s coattails compare with those of previous presidents? And what explains their relatively short length?  At this point, I have only calculated (actually, Avery White has calculated) comparative data from 2004 which indicates that Obama’s coattails were not much shorter than Bush’s.  However, according to Rhodes Cook, writing at Larry Sabato’s website (see here), Obama’s coattails are much shorter than those of the previous presidents during the last half-century who might claim, by virtue of the size of their popular and electoral college victory, that they won an electoral mandate. (Note that Cook only provides data on the presidents’ own party members – not how far ahead they ran among the opposition party in the House.) According to Cook, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, and Richard Nixon in 1972, all ran ahead of more than 100 victorious House candidates of their own party. In comparison, Cook has Obama running ahead of 36 fellow Democrats. (I have Obama running ahead of 37 Democrats, and tied with another 4). However, Cook shows Ronald Reagan – who won a huge popular victory in 1984 – only running ahead of 59 fellow House Republicans, which is not in line with the other three big popular winners since 1956.  In 1980, which some view as a realigning election despite the much closer popular margin, Reagan ran ahead of only 38 victorious House Republicans.

The following table by Cook summarizes his data on coattails for presidents since 1956.  (Note: I have not verified this data – I only mention this because there are some discrepancies between his narrative and the data in the table.)

I am still looking at data sources to see how these presidents did in terms of all House candidates, and not just their own party.  But it helps reinforce a point I made soon after Obama’s election: that rather than an electoral mandate, Obama’s election is about average, historically speaking, for the post-World War II presidents.  When it comes to coattails, he is most similar to Reagan in 1980 and Bush II in 2004, although only Bush II had partisan majorities in both chambers.  There are no real surprises here, but it is a reminder that historically winning House candidates are adept at framing elections in ways that insulate themselves from national trends.  Rarely do presidents win more votes in their own party’s congressional districts than does the winning House member.  The more immediate lesson should be obvious by now: when it comes to bargaining with Democrats and Republicans in Congress, the 2008 elections did not place Obama  in a position of commanding strength, despite holding partisan majorities in both chambers.

And the Winner Is….Obama’s House Coattails Revealed


So, how long were Barack Obama’s coattails in the House this past election?  In an earlier post (see here) I challenged you to estimate the percentage of House districts in which Obama ran ahead of the winning candidate, Democrat or Republican. I suggested that the measure is a crude indication of Obama’s political capital in the House.  Members of Congress who have a broader electoral coalition than Obama are less likely to respond to his efforts at persuasion. It is also a useful check on the post-election media narrative that described Obama’s victory as political mandate.

None of you were fooled by my “hint” that the total might be 50%, or higher.  In fact all of you who were brave enough to put your prognosticating powers on public display went – correctly – for a total on the lower end. Careful readers likely noted my statement that in the Senate Obama’s coattails were quite minuscule; he finished ahead of the winning Senate candidate in only 15% (5 of 33) races in 2008.  That gave you a signal that the House percentage was likely to be on the low side.

And it was. Your answers ranged from 1% to 20%, with an average of 7.6%, and a median of 5%.  In fact, you erred on the side of pessimism; according to the calculations of Avery White, who drew on the Swing State project data, of the 435 winning House candidates, Obama ran ahead of 10 Republicans and 37 Democrats, for a total of 47 districts in which he outpolled the winning House member. Rounding off, that’s a coattail of 11%, just a bit worse than he did in the Senate. If we include the 4 races in which he ran even with the winning House member, it pushes him to 12%.

For comparison purposes, John McCain did even worse, running ahead of only 40 (9%) of House members.

To put it another way, of the 257 House Democrats, fully 86% garnered as many or more votes than did Obama in their district in the 2008 election. Among Republicans House members, 94% outpolled Obama.

Mandate?  Not from the perspective of Congress!  My point, I hope, is clear: members of Congress in both the Senate and especially the House are acutely sensitive to constituent sentiment, and they are adept at reading election results.  Note that Obama’s performance is only slightly worse than George Bush’s in 2004; Bush ran in front of 51 (12%) of House members.  And John Kerry ran ahead of only 41 House members, a performance that mirrors McCain’s.

So Obama’s coattails, when it came to bargaining with Congress, are almost as long as Bush’s.  This shouldn’t surprise us, given all I have said about the continuities between the two presidencies.  They truly are mirror images, facing a similar set of political contexts, with all that entails for each president’s power (or lack thereof) to bend Congress to his will.

Now we shouldn’t overreact to these numbers – I don’t mean to suggest that Obama lacks support in 89% of House districts.  In fact, in many of those districts he received more than 50% of the vote cast.  But he can’t be expected, based on his district-level popularity, to cow House members into supporting his legislative preferences any more than Bush could.

My broader point is to remind you that ours is a separated system, in which members of Congress respond to different electoral incentives than does the President.  This is relatively unique among modern democracies, and sets the U.S. “congressional” system apart from parliamentary systems in which the prime minister and her cabinet are drawn directly from the legislative body, and respond to the same electoral incentives.  And it means that efforts by Obama to “go public” by trying to leverage his popularity within a particular district to pressure its Representative are, more often than not, likely to fail.

Oh, I almost forgot: the winner is Mike Norris who just about nailed it with his prediction of 12%.  Mike – send me your t-shirt size and you’ll be a proud owner of an “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid” t-shirt.   I expect you to send me a photo wearing it that I can post on the blog.

By the way, Bob and Vijay have an interesting back-and-forth going here on a related issue that is worth reading.

Do You Know What Today Is?

It’s the 84th day of the Obama administration. And do you know what’s significant about this, the 84th day, of the Obama administration? Nothing. That’s right. The 84th day of any administration has no intrinsic significance. Accordingly, no rational person would use the 84th day of an administration as a yardstick by which to assess that administration’s progress. It’s a bit like assessing the manager of a baseball team two games into the season. It’s like evaluating a marriage during the honeymoon. It’s like assessing my presidency course after one class (ok, that’s different – you pretty well know you are doomed after the first class).

And yet the punditocracy will have us believe that the 100th day of Obama’s administration, which is only two weeks away, serves as a meaningful marker for assessing his presidency to date. Consider the following comment in today’s Boston Globe story covering Obama’s Georgetown economic speech (see article here): “The speech came as Obama nears his symbolic 100-day mark in office, important because that has become a traditional marker by which to judge new administrations.”

Really? “A traditional marker”? Says who? Well, the NY Times says so, since they are running a semi-regular featured titled “100 Days Starting the Job from FDR to Obama”. CNN agrees; at their website, they run an ongoing column measuring progress during Obama’s first 100 days (see here). Indeed, more often than not, you will see most major media outlets discussing the 100 days as if it was a significant milestone in any presidency.

The origins of the 100 days yardstick, as I’ve discussed before, date back to FDR’s first term, when he took office in March, 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, however, no president since has come to power under remotely similar circumstances, and so expectations that they will accomplish what FDR and the Democratically-controlled Congress did at that time are historically misleading. Consider how much has changed since 1933. To begin, FDR’s term began several months before that of the newly-elected Congress, which wasn’t normally seated until December, almost 9 months after the president took office. Roosevelt, however, called the new Congress into a special emergency session, where they proceeded to spend the next three months passing a series of legislation that has gone down in history as FDR’s First New Deal. Interestingly, the impetus for calling the special session was the need to pass special banking legislation to avoid a full collapse of the banking industry. Once Congress convened on March 9th and passed the banking emergency act, however, FDR was persuaded to keep the Congress in session, and between March 8th and June 16th together they drafted and passed fifteen major legislative proposals into law. This included the Agricultural Adjustment Act that placed a floor under farm prices and provided farm subsidies, the establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance system, the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority to develop hydroelectric power and help farmers in the Tennessee Valley. Some acts, such as the National Industrial Recovery act that essentially allowed businesses to act in monopolistic fashion to raise prices and set wages, under government supervision, were later declared unconstitutional.

Some of the legislation has particular relevance today. More than 40% of the nation’s 4 million homeowners faced foreclosure when FDR took office. To prevent a housing meltdown, FDR and Congress created the Homeowners Loan Corporation. It was charged with making loans, and refinancing existing mortgages, often by replacing risky mortgages with longer, fixed rate ones to reduce the foreclosure threat. This led to the establishment of the Federal Home Administration (FHA) and the Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA) which helped provided a secondary market for mortgages and led to a vast increase in home ownership in this country. Finally, the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and the PWA (Public Works Administration) were established to create government-back employment opportunities

But it would be a mistake to view this as a “legislative program” developed through careful design (despite FDR’s fireside chat arguing the contrary – see here). Instead, Roosevelt and his “brains trust” largely played without a playbook, tackling problems one by one as they needed to be addressed, but without an overarching philosophy beyond the willingness to try anything. Often FDR pursued policies – as in cutting the veteran’s benefits from the federal budget while at the same time increasing expenditures on emergency spending programs – that can only be viewed as contradictory. In the end, if the First New Deal did not succeed in ending the economic depression, it did at least appear to right the foundering ship of state. More importantly, as I’ve argued elsewhere, he forever changed the public’s expectations regarding the government’s role in maintaining economic growth and a social safety net.

Here’s a timeline of FDR’s 100 Days, using documents at the Presidency Research Project (see here).

March 4th 1933 FDR Inauguration

March 6th Bank Holiday

March 9th Emergency Session of Congress. Passage of Emergency Banking Act.

March 10th Economy Act sent to Congress

March 12th First Fireside Chat

March 13th Banks begin to reopen

March 16th Farm Bill sent to congress to remedy lack of purchasing power of farmers.

March 20th Economy Act Passed into law cutting Veteran’s benefits (a huge chunk of the federal budget at the time) by 50%. Although FDR’s budget director was pleased with this, Roosevelt later began moving away from balanced budgets as a way to combat the Depression.

March 21st Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) bill sent to Congress.

March 22nd Beer-wine revenue bill sent to Congress.

March 27th Farm Credit Administration created by Executive Order. (This essentially merged 9 separate agencies.) Farm Mortgage Relief Act proposed.

March 31st CCC passed into law. Initially designed to create 250,000 jobs among unemployed young adults. Created more than 2 million by the end of the program in 1942. CCC workers worked in largely rural areas, clearing deadwood, establishing trails and shelters, working on flood control and fire suppression and stocking fisheries.

April 5th Farm Mortgage Relief passed into law.

April 7th Beer sales were legal for the first time since Prohibition began in 1920. Tax revenues began flowing into government.

April 10th Congress sent legislative proposal for Tennessee Valley Authority.

April 19th In reaction to the slumping value of the dollar, FDR takes the US dollar off the gold standard.

May 7th Second Fireside Chat. Reviews progress after 60 days.

May 12th To combat unemployment the Federal Emergency Relief Act creates FERA, with $500 million, ½ directed to the states, ½ available as matching funds for state programs. This later became the Works Progress Administration.

Agricultural Adjustment Act and Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, to reduce $200 million worth of surplus production (accomplished by ploughing crops under, set acreage aside to lie fallow, and livestock reductions).

May 18th Passage of TVA: 650 mile navigable water way to be built from Knoxville TN to Paducah KY, with construction of dams, power plants, fertilizer production, intended for direct economic benefit on 7 state area affected.  Often hailed as a model of a new public/private partnership.

May 27th Federal Securities Act passed, established the Securities and Exchange Commission, headed by Joseph Kennedy, father of future president John Kennedy.

June 5th Senate and House by Joint Resolution abrogate the gold clause in private and public contracts, and back paper currency as legal tender.

June 13th Homeowners’ Loan Corporation enacted, empowered to refinance mortgages, make loans, and advance cash for tax payments and repairs.

June 16th Several key pieces of legislation passed, including:

-The Banking Act of 1933, aka “Glass-Steagall” Act passed into law. This legislation created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and protected bank deposits up to $5,000, separated commercial from investment banking, forced banks to get out of the business of financial investment, banned the use of bank deposits in speculation. It was the repeal of portions of this act during Clinton’s presidency that some believe contributed to the current economic crisis.

-The National Industrial Recovery Act, including Title 2 creating the Public Works Administration. The NIRA had three parts. Title I suspended the provisions of anti-trust legislation on price fixing, and a enacted a tremendous boost to industrial trade unions by promoting collective bargaining. Title II allocated $3.3 billion for public works, to build and repair federal buildings, roads, bridges, and dams. Title III consisted of a list of Congressionally-initiated projects.

-The Farm Credit Act. Legislation which concluded the process begun when FDR issued an executive order establishing the Farm Credit Administration. This provided easier refinancing of farm mortgages, and brought foreclosures to a halt.

When this special session of Congress ended, someone compared the period of legislative productivity to Napoleon’s celebrated 100 days after he left exile in Elba and briefly regained power in France in 1814. And so FDR’s “100 Days” were immortalized, with the unfortunate result that every successive president’s first 100 days is inevitably compared to FDR’s. But what president since Roosevelt has taken office with unemployment at 25%, with the banking system on the brink of collapse, with deflation threatening farmers’ livelihood, the nation’s housing system near a total meltdown? – well, you get the picture. There existed a real possibility that the nation’s economic – and by extension the political – system was on the verge of collapse. Even the most dire descriptions of the current economic crisis pale in comparison.

We can see (I hope) that measuring Obama’s progress using the 100 days yardstick is an utterly asinine exercise, and worse – it is counterproductive because it creates unrealistic expectations for what presidents can reasonably hope to accomplish three months into their presidency. More often than not, presidents set themselves up for failure by promising – as Clinton did with health care reform in 1993 – to pass major legislation within 100 days of taking office. When they inevitably fail to succeed in meeting the artificial timetable, they are taken to task by the media (never mind that the yardstick is wholly a media creation!). And yet in two weeks, we will be inundated with “100 days” stories comparing progress (or lack thereof) during the Obama administration with progress during previous presidencies. And the Obama White House, while ostensibly downplaying any significance to the day, will nonetheless dutifully roll out talking points demonstrating just how much has been accomplished on his watch so far.

Well, such foolishness may suffice for the Times or CNN, but I’m warning you now – come the 100th day there will be none of this nonsense on this blog. You deserve better. And you’ll get it here. I expect to devote that entire day to a discussion of Mark (‘The Bird”) Fidrych’s short but spectacular baseball career. Let me begin by noting that he graduated from my high school.

Now that’s something to celebrate.

Cap-and-Trade Legislation: A Chance for Bipartisanship?

One of the virtues of teaching at an upper-echelon liberal arts school is that I am surrounded by very smart people doing interesting research. One of those is my colleague Chris Klyza, whose research spans the fields of environmental and political science. Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to hear Chris present a paper summarizing a portion of his latest book (co-authored with David Sousa) titled American Environmental Policy, 1990-2006: Beyond Gridlock, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008).  In this paper Chris cast a critical eye on the status of the environmental movement in the United States.  In contrast to many recent polemics sounding the death knell of environmentalism, such as the highly publicized paper by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus titled “The Death of Environmentalism,” Chris argues that the “green state” is alive and well. The reason why, he argues, is that the foundation of environmentalism is too deeply situated in our political and cultural context to be removed by those who oppose this movement. That foundation was laid down in a series of legislative acts in the 1960s and ‘70’s that established the first national curbs on air and water pollution, and protected endangered species. With the development of  interest groups devoted to protecting and building on that foundation, environmental interests now occupy a privileged space that resists opposing efforts to scale back environmental policy. Moreover, Chris suggests that additional – albeit incremental – gains in environmental policy are almost inevitable given the durability of this green state.

It was after listening to Chris present his paper that I argued, in a previous post, that one area in which Obama has an opportunity to enact bipartisan policy is in the current debate in Congress regarding the use of a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gases.  This may not seem intuitively obvious, given the polarizing views that often seem to characterize environmental debate on issues such as climate change. But if one looks back at the origins of the use of cap-and-trade systems, one sees clear evidence of an environmental learning curve that suggests the possibility of developing a bipartisan consensus to pass current legislation.

Cap-and-trade systems were first advocated by economists during the initial debate over clean air legislation in the 1970’s.  The idea is simple in principle: the government issues limits, or “caps” on how much air pollutants (such as greenhouse gases) individual polluters/companies can emit.  These companies must purchase permits in order to emit pollutants – say, $15 for every metric ton of pollutants produced. Or, the permits can be issued initially for free, or auctioned off, by the government (different proposals exist) with revenues either returned to the public, or to companies (again, there is ongoing debate on this issue).  Over time, the government gradually tightens the total amount of pollutants allowed under these permits. Now, some companies – due to better technology, cleaner fuel, etc. – may emit fewer pollutants than their allowable amount.  If so, they can sell their unused portion to other companies who may need the extra allotments in order to meet government-mandated limits.  In effect, then, a market for reducing greenhouse emissions is established, creating incentives for companies to reduce the amount of pollutants they produce.

Ironically (in light of later events), it was environmentalists who initially opposed the use of cap-and-trade systems, arguing that they in effect gave businesses a “license to pollute.”  And many environmentalists remain opposed to them today.  As it became clear, however, that the environmentalists’ preferred policy of relying on mandatory curbs on air pollutants simply led to endless litigation without much progress in reducing those pollutants, Congress finally overcome environmental resistance and implemented a version of a cap and trade system in the 1990 Clear Air Act amendments, designed to reduce the sulfur dioxide that caused acid rain. It proved remarkably successful at reducing the acid rain more quickly and at less cost than even its stronger supporters had predicted.

With that initial success, much (but not all!) opposition to the use of cap-and-trade systems in principle evaporated, and similar systems have been put in place both in the American northeast with a regional compact among 10 states, and in Europe (with admittedly mixed success).  In the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama campaigned in support of a cap and trade system to reduce greenhouse gases, and climate legislation recently introduced in Congress incorporates a cap-and-trade system as part of the overall effort to reduce climate change.

So, given the fact that climate change is a lightening rod for controversy, why do I suggest that cap-and-trade legislation might be ripe for bipartisan support?  In part, for the reasons Chris lays out in his paper:  the public is in favor of clean air – it’s a nonpartisan issue – and politicians recognize this. And, because of the durability of the “green state”, the question is not whether greenhouse gas legislation or regulation is going to pass – it’s the form that it’s going to take that’s still to be determined.  But if Congress doesn’t act, the courts – prodded by environmental groups – likely will.  And almost everyone would prefer that the courts not get involved since judicially-imposed solutions are almost never very efficient or practical, and often simply lead to more litigation. Second (and this is my point, not Chris’), although extremists on the Right and the Left still oppose cap-and-trade systems, there is generally support among moderate legislators for a system that relies on flexible market mechanisms for reducing pollution, as opposed to strict emission limits or the implementation of a broad-based carbon tax.   If you look at the swing voters in Congress, many of them, such as Olympia Snow and Susan Collins in Maine, or Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, represent states that have strong constituent support for reducing greenhouse gases but which also don’t want to impose a carbon-based tax on major employers.  And several of these moderates, including John McCain and Joe Lieberman, sponsored versions of cap-and-trade legislation in the 110th Congress.  (By my count, there were at least 7 different climate bills incorporating cap-and-trade provisions submitted to Congress in the last congressional session.)

Of course, this is a far cry from suggesting that cap-and-trade systems are without controversy.  The devil is in the details, particularly regarding whether permits should initially be given out for free, or instead allocated through auctions, or something in between.  Electrical utilities and other manufacturers, not surprisingly, want the permits issued for free, at least initially.  Obama campaigned on the promise of auctioning off all emission permits at the outset of implementing a cap-and-trade system, but sources suggest that he is now willing to back away from that if necessary in order to get the legislation passed. My guess is Congress will come down somewhere in the middle. And there is also the issue of where to send the revenues from the auctioning of permits. Again, my guess is Congress will in the end rebate some of the revenue to states hardest hit by a cap-and-trade plan.  Legislators also disagree on how to establish an overall ceiling on pollutants, what that ceiling should be, and how quickly to lower it in subsequent years.

My point, however, is that the larger issue regarding whether to use a cap-and-trade system is no longer a sticking point for most participants in this legislative battle.  Instead, the battle is over the details of implementation – who pays the initial costs?  Who gets the revenue benefits?  What caps will be implemented, and when? But these are the types of issues that Congress is ideally suited to address, through logrolling and compromise.  As long as the debate doesn’t get bogged down in ideological issues, but instead centers on the nitty-gritty of costs and benefits, Congress is capable of resolving these differences and producing cap-and-trade legislation. Not surprisingly, the Obama administration seems to have ceded debate on these issues to the key congressional committees in the House and the Senate, while keeping a watchful eye on its progress.  Of course, given the current economic climate, any legislation that appears to impose costs on businesses is going to face rough sledding in Congress.  And cap-and-trade legislation may still get tripped up in the larger debate over a climate bill, of which it is a part.  Finally, there is always the worry that Congress simply can’t digest this bill while also chewing on health care reform, entitlement reform and the host of other policy initiatives Obama has indicated he wants Congress to address.

Nonetheless, I think this is an issue that has the potential to attract the support of a bipartisan coalition in Congress.  As such, it may be an area in which the Obama administration is willing to invest some political capital to produce legislative agreement.   If so, Obama may yet be able to claim that he introduced a modicum of bipartisanship to the 111th Congress.

Independents and Obama: How Polarized is the Public?

In the last several posts I have been presenting evidence indicating that rather than the “post-partisan” presidency promised during his campaign, Obama has in fact proved every bit as polarizing as his immediate predecessors.  With hindsight, some of you are now arguing that there was no reason to expect Obama to be anything but a partisan president, but a careful read of his campaign speeches clearly indicates that he held out hope for a change in the tone of Washington politics, in addition to a change in policy direction.  And, contrary to what many of you are now saying, at the time of his election not a few of you believed he would in fact bring not just a new policy direction, but also a new more civilized mode of political discourse on Capitol Hill.  Indeed, if I heard a variation of the following refrain from colleagues and students once, I heard it 100 times: “I’m really optimistic that Obama’s election will finally end the partisan bickering in Washington.”  Admit it – you were one of those who believed, weren’t you?  (You know who you are!)

Of course, this was never likely to happen, as I quietly tried to suggest in my earlier blog postings and talks during the transition and aftermath of the inauguration.  My goal in harping on this theme is not to cast myself as a latter-day Cassandra. Instead, it is to make three broader teaching points. (After all, that’s the point of this blog!)  First, there was an inherent tension in Obama’s promise to bring policy change AND to lower the degree of partisan bickering on Capitol Hill.  He was unlikely to accomplish both objectives and, in the end, not surprisingly chose partisanship and policy change over bipartisanship. To do otherwise – to pursue a more bipartisan strategy – would have required an enormous expenditure of political capital. Second, the polarized politics that have characterized presidential-congressional relations are not due primarily to the actions of any single president, but instead are largely the result of the confluence of several long-term trends in American politics. By understanding why polarization exists, we are less likely to be disappointed by Obama’s failure to change that tone – it really has little to do with his skills or style of leadership.  Similarly, once we understand the sources of polarization, we are better able to adopt a more realistic assessment of previous presidents’ culpability for the current state of affairs.  Third – and this is one of the main reasons why I write this blog – Obama’s failure to usher in the era of the post-partisan presidency reminds us that presidents possess much less influence than pundits and journalists would have us believe. Ours is not a presidential form of government so much as it is a congressionally-centered system.

Some of you are now arguing that partisanship may be a good thing, or at least less worrisome, as long as policy change occurs.  I will devote a separate post examining this question, in part by looking at the production of legislation under various partisan permutations. But note that partisanship is not without its costs.  Eventually, a polarized debate on Capitol Hill will filter down to the public, and we will see Obama’s popularity approval ratings exhibit the same polarized division that characterized Bush’s support.  Indeed, this is already happening; in the aftermath of congressional passage of the economic stimulus bill followed by the first budget resolution – both of which took place with almost no Republican support – we already see Obama’s popularity exhibiting Bush-like characteristics.  According to Amy Walter at the National Journal the latest Diageo/Hotline poll shows that just 19 percent of Republicans thought more government involvement in the economy is a good idea, compared with 79 percent of Democrats. “Asked if they think the stimulus plan will be successful in turning the economy around, 72 percent of Republicans said no while 86 percent of Democrats said yes” (see article here).

Of course, it may not be surprising that Republicans – only 9% of whom supported Obama in the election – are registering disapproval of Obama in increasing numbers, based in large part on his economic policies, while Democratic support remains high.  But what of the key swing group, the independents? By the end of Bush’s presidency, only about 30% of independents approved of his job as president. Obama won the independent vote in November by 52-44, and so far, his support among this group remains strong. According to the March 30-April 5 Gallup Poll (see table below),  his approval among independents is 60% – almost exactly what it was on inauguration day and pretty much where it has remained ever since.

However, Walter, citing the Diego poll, notes that those independents who said they “strongly” approve of the job Obama is doing dropped 13 points between the end of January and the end of March. She also notes that that independents’ support for Congressional Democrats is softening as well: “From the beginning of March to the end of the month, the approval ratings of congressional Democrats among independent voters dropped 10 points, from 48 percent to 38 percent. Same goes for the generic ballot test. In our most recent poll, independents gave a slight edge to Republicans (26 percent to 23 percent) — a 6-point drop for Democrats since early March.”

As yet, the drop in independents’ support for Democrats has not translated into an increase in their support for Republicans now in Congress. Walters notes that, “Just 26 percent of independents approve of the job Republicans are doing in Congress (a 4-point drop since early March). The 26 percent that Republicans are getting in the generic matchup is unchanged since early March as well.”  We see, then, that among independents, support for Obama is strong, but potentially softening.  However, most of the erosion in independent support seems focused on the Democrats in Congress.  Whether and to what degree that will extend to a loss of support for Obama depends, I believe, in large part on perceptions regarding the economy.  Polarization within the public becomes a major problem, I argue, when it includes a loss of support among independents, and not just Republicans.

So, why does polarization exist? One reason is the efforts by well-meaning reformers to reduce the influence of money on elections. Many of you will recall that in his 2004 run for the Democratic nomination for president, Howard Dean trumpeted the fact that a huge proportion of his campaign contributions came in small amounts, often under $200.  In 2008, Barack Obama picked up on this theme, arguing that he was broadening popular participation in elections by attracting financial support from those who represented the “average”, less wealthy voter, rather than the “fat cats” who typically funded campaigns.  In their view, the internet was “democratizing” presidential campaigns. As my colleague Bert Johnson’s research reveals, however, this is not what was happening – at least not in the way that the Dean-Obama campaigns would have us believe. Their fundraising strategy did not mobilize the less partisan, middle-of-the-road voter.  In fact, it benefitted from – and may actually have contributed to – the increased partisan polarization that characterizes American politics today.  To understand why, and to appreciate some really innovative research, I want to devote the next post to Bert’s research on campaign finance.  He tells a fascinating – and counterintuitive – story that merits a full discussion, and helps illustrate two of Dickinson’s three laws of politics: “Money always finds its way to candidates” and “For every positive benefit from a political reform, there is an equal and unanticipated negative reaction.”