Monthly Archives: April 2009

The Future of Presidential Politics: More Democrats? More Polarization?


The United States Census Bureau has evidently released the raw data from its November, 2008 voting and registration survey (I say evidently because I can’t find the actual results on their website – you can see for yourself!), and several scholars (see here) who apparently have access to the data have begun analyzing the results. Because this is a survey based on a random sample comprised of some 50,000 Americans, the findings are particularly useful for detecting broad voting trends. However, they are subject to all my caveats regarding the limits on using survey results to understand the larger population from which the survey sample is drawn.  In particular, some questions in this survey, such as whether the respondent voted in 2008, depend on the accuracy of the individual’s recall, and we know from experiments that people habitually overstate the degree to which they did socially desirable things, like voting.   Keeping this in mind, what did the survey find about voting in the 2008 election and what do the results portend for the future of the two major political parties?

Most scholars have focused on the turnout figures, which suggest that the percent of the voting age population who voted actually decreased slightly by .2 percentage points from 2004 to 2008, from 63.8% down to 63.6%.  This is not inconsistent with the other scholars’ estimates, including those by Curtis Gans at American University and Michael McDonald at George Mason.  All found that the actual (or best estimated) turnout in 2008 did not quite reach the projected figures that the pre-election hype suggested, with the increase/decrease ranging from about 1.6% to -.2%.  Much of the overstated preelection  hype was due to the tremendous increase in the use of early voting, something the Census Bureau survey also measured; it found that a record 29.7% of those voting did so through early balloting, a total consistent with what other sources report.  Many media sources mistook the early voting as a sign that overall turnout would reach record levels.  As we now know, and as the Census Survey indicates, turnout was about what it was in 2004, or perhaps slightly more, but considerably less than what was projected.

Of more interest, however, are the turnout rates among different voting blocs and what this portends for future elections. Consider the following table compiled by McDonald using the census bureau data.  Voting by African-Americans, not surprisingly, increased by 4.9%, to 65.2%, from 2004 levels, while turnout among whites decreased by 1.1%, to 66.1%.  That is a growth in the black vote, from 2004 to 2008, from 11% to 13% of the electorate (according to exit polls; see the NY Times exit poll website here). The Hispanic voting rate also increased from 2004 by 2.7 percentage points.  That translates to 9% of voters in 2008, up from 8% in 2004.

Why are these figures important?  Because (based on National Election Survey data and exit poll data) during the last three decades, nonwhite voters have become an increasingly larger proportion of the Democratic voting coalition in presidential elections, along with liberal white voters.  According to an analysis by Alan Abramowitz, the proportion of nonwhite and liberal white voters in presidential elections increased from 25% in 1976 to 44% in 2008.   What this suggests is that the proportion of voters “naturally” inclined to support the Democratic presidential candidate is on the rise, while the proportion of moderate white voters – who are the swing voters in most presidential elections – is declining.

There is a second trend that should worry Republicans as well: although the youth vote continues to lag behind all other age groups in terms of voting turnout, an increasing proportion of the under-30 age cohort (54% in 2008) is composed of nonwhites and liberals – precisely the voting bloc that tends to vote Democratic.  The most Republican voting demographic age group in 2008, on the other hand, were voters 65 years or older.  Again, McDonald provides a useful summary table:

There are two important conclusions to draw from this demographic snapshot. First, long-term demographic trends may favor the Democratic Party during the next several elections, unless Republicans can field a candidate that cuts across these demographic lines (say, a black woman?  Condi Rice, anyone?) or reversing the voting trends among some groups (can you say immigration reform?)  (I will present an extended post examining these voting blocs, particularly the youth vote, in the future.)

More importantly, perhaps, we see that the electoral coalitions for Republican and Democrats are diverging, with much less overlap in their potential voting support as the proportional size of the white moderate swing vote coalition decreases.   To the extent that governing coalitions reflect voting coalitions (and vice versa), this means we should expect more polarization in our elected leaders and their policy proposals, not less.

My point – in case you’ve missed the theme of the last 31 posts – should be obvious: Obama is unlikely to bring change, in the form of a less polarized political agenda, because his voting coalition and a divided Congress, won’t allow it. Instead, all the demographics indicators suggest that rather than moving to the moderate middle, as he indicated during the campaign, Obama will instead be forced to tack Left and rely almost exclusively on the Democratic Party to push through his governing agenda – precisely the strategy he has adopted so far.

My broader point is that the media, and pundits, are frequently guilty of overstating the degree to which individual presidents are capable of charting their own political destiny.  While there is room for some political maneuvering by presidents, and there are differences in presidential skill (and temperament),  these factors are far less consequential than we think.  Instead, the reasons behind the increasing polarization in recent decades has much less to do with Obama or Bush (or Clinton or Reagan) and much more to do with the intersection of a changing policy pool and demographic trends among voters – and the officials they elect to Congress.  I will devote a detailed post on the causes of polarization, but for now, consider this image: somewhere in Dallas, a former president – cowboy boots on the table – is contemplating his political legacy.  I would not be surprised to find him nodding his head in empathy with Obama’s strategic predicament, if not his policies.


Assessing Obama’s Coattails, Part II: A Presidential Mandate?

In an earlier post (see here) I tried to assess media claims that Obama’s election signified a “mandate” from voters for change. One way to measure that mandate is to estimate Obama’s “coattails”, that is, the degree to which members of Congress feel that their own election depended in part on voters who came to the polls to support Obama. In theory, the longer a president’s coattails, the more leverage he has in Congress and the greater the size of his mandate. Historically, presidential coattails have been quite short in the modern era, but based on the initial press reactions that claimed an electoral mandate for Obama, there was some reason to believe that his coattails might extend a good deal longer than those of his recent predecessors.

A simplistic way to assess a president’s coattails is to examine whether Obama received more votes than the winning Senate or congressional candidate in each of the 33 states and 435 congressional districts that held elections in 2008.  If Obama ran ahead of the Senator or member of Congress, then conceivably they will feel a stronger obligation to support his congressional agenda. In contrast, if he ran behind the candidate, then they will be less likely to bend to his will.

Alas for Obama, as I noted in that earlier post, his Senate coattails were quite minuscule; he finished ahead of the winning Senate candidate in only 5 of 33 Senate races in 2008. (The five states in which Obama polled more votes than the winning Senate candidate are: Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Oregon).

Of course, one could argue that Senate races tend to be less responsive to national trends because many states have very heterogeneous populations, Senators serve six year terms, and generally Senators tend to be more moderate ideologically speaking than their counterparts in the House. But what about the House?  Aren’t House elections more susceptible to national trends?  After all, House districts tend to have more homogenous populations, and members serving two year terms have to pay more attention to prevailing political winds. Surely Obama’s coattails are stronger in the House!

Using data gathered by the SwingState project, I recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to see in what percent of the 435 House districts Obama ran ahead or at least even with the winning congressional candidate (Democrat or Republican).

Before putting the numbers up, however, I’m interested in hearing your best guesses.  What do you think?  What percentage of House districts did Obama carry – that is, finished tied or ahead of the winning candidate – in 2008?  Remember, the media proclaimed Obama’s victory to be a “mandate” from the voters – an assessment that many of you shared.   How fully did that mandate impact congressional races?  Did he finish ahead in 50% of the races?  75%?

Give me your best guess (just respond in the comment sections to this post or directly by email to me).  The winner receives an “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid” t-shirt.

Be Careful What You Wish For: Obama and Responsible Party Government

In 1950 a special committee appointed by the American Political Science Association released a landmark report entitled “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System.”  As the name suggests, committee members sought to encourage the development of two ideologically distinct, internally cohesive parties. The Report was issued in response to growing concerns that it was often difficult to differentiate Republicans’ views in Congress from Democrats’; the two congressional parties were akin to “Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum.” Indeed, on important issues such as civil rights, many Democrats were more conservative than most Republicans.  Critics argued that this partisan blurring left voters without any real choice in elections.  Moreover, the lack of distinct party alternatives weakened political accountability and undercut presidential leadership by making it difficult to hold either party responsible for enacting – or failing to enact – the president’s legislative programs. The cure, according to responsible party advocates, was to develop more clearly differentiated, internally cohesive parties characterized by strong party loyalty and distinct party platforms, preferably within the context of unified government.

Today, we are experiencing precisely the type of “responsible party government” that political scientists had advocated more than half a century ago. (My thanks to Bob Johnson whose comments on a previous blog reminded me of this.) A Democratic president, Barack Obama, heads a Congress dominated by his own party, and he has pursued – at least initially – a policy agenda whose passage relies almost exclusively on the support of his party majority.  As is often the case with reforms (think campaign finance, or reforms to the nominating process), however, reforms to the party system have exposed an unanticipated (by committee members) consequence – what I call the “dark side” to responsible party government.

That dark side, it should be clear by now, is the polarization of policy debate, and – eventually – a growing divide within the public forced to choose between two often extreme policy choices.  We saw this happen during the Clinton and Bush administrations, and the early signs indicate a repeat of an increasingly divided public during the Obama administration.  Consider the most recent public opinion polling data from the Pew Research Center which shows that “Barack Obama has the most polarized early job approval ratings of any president in the past four decades.” (See here).  As the chart below indicates, Democrats are 61% more likely than Republicans to approve of Obama’s performance to date.

This is a slightly larger partisan gap than Bush experienced at a comparable time in his presidency, and much larger than any other president has experienced dating back almost 4 decades to Nixon’s presidency.  Note that independents were as likely to support Bush in 2001 as they are to support Obama today, and Democrats are as likely to support Obama as Republicans were to support Bush in 2001.  But Republicans are about 9% less likely to support Obama than Democrats were to support Bush in 2001.

Partisans on the Left are blaming the partisan gap on Republicans for their failure to support Obama to the same degree that Democrats supported Bush early in Bush’s presidency.  The problem with this argument, however, is that it ignores the reasons why Bush enjoyed stronger support among Democrats than Obama has among Republicans.  In fact, Republicans DID support Obama in much higher numbers early in his presidency – more strongly than Democrats supported Bush – as the following Gallup Poll makes clear.  However, Republican support for Obama has dropped some 14% since his inauguration, while support among Democrats remains steady.

What happened to cause the drop in Republican support?  In large part, the stimulus bill – and its passage with almost no Republican votes – is what happened.  A CBS/NY Times poll showed a clear public preference for a bipartisan stimulus bill.  After the bill passed, a majority of those polled believed that neither Democrats nor (especially) Republicans in Congress were working in bipartisan fashion, although a strong majority (71%) felt that Obama was attempting to work in bipartisan fashion.  But the number of those who thought Obama was working in bipartisan fashion dropped 7% from before the stimulus bill’s passing.

Clearly, what we are seeing to date is the mirror image of what we saw under the Bush administration: the gradual polarization of the public in response to the perception of partisan fighting in Congress, and the passage of policy based primarily on single-party support. To regular readers of this blog, of course, this is no surprise; the growing split in public support for the Obama administration is precisely what I predicted during the first heady post-inaugural days of the Obama administration, when I cautioned that Obama’s best intentions notwithstanding, we were likely to see a continuation of the polarized politics that characterized presidential-congressional relations during the Clinton and Bush II presidencies.  The roots of that polarization extend deep into the political soil, and they resist half-hearted, rhetoric-based efforts at eradication.  Obama missed his first and so far best opportunity to translate rhetoric into deeds when he proved unable to bridge the differences with Republicans on an acceptable bipartisan mix of tax and spending proposals in the stimulus bill.  That sent an early signal to the public that polarization, and not bipartisanship, still dominated congressional debate.  First impressions matter, which is why I think Obama may have missed an opportunity to push his Democratic party more to the center, particularly when a narrow plurality of Americans seemed to believe that more tax cuts, and less spending, would produced more job growth. As a CBS/NY Times poll after passage of the stimulus bill found: “In principle, Americans favor tax cuts over government spending as a means of job creation. 50% think that tax cuts for businesses and individuals would do more to protect or create jobs, while 41% think increasing government spending on infrastructure, health care, education and other areas would be more effective.” The problem, of course, is that even if Obama wanted to move in the direction of more tax cuts, as the public seemed to prefer, he would have confronted an ideologically unified Democratic party, supported by partisan pundits on the airwaves and in blogs, who would have excoriated him for trying to compromise with Republicans.  For their part, moderate Republicans faced a similar ideological backlash from the Right.  Caught between these forces, Obama took the easy, partisan route. If he is to fulfill his campaign pledge for a post-partisan presidency, he simply has to bite the bullet and risk alienating those on the Democratic Left.   It won’t be easy.

Nonetheless, there are some issues, I believe, on which Obama can govern in bipartisan fashion.  One of those issues is climate change and the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions.  In my view, the situation is ripe for a bipartisan effort to pass a stringent, but moderate, climate bill.  To do so, however, Obama will need to resist pressure from both conservatives and the left wing of the environmental movement and avoid adopting procedures, such as using reconciliation to pass a cap and trade bill, that are sure to alienate moderate Republicans and Democrats. In my next blog I’ll discuss this issue more fully.

In the meantime, however, the lesson for Responsible Party advocates should be clear: be careful what you wish for.  We have now endured almost two decades of responsible party government, and it is not clear that its purported benefits have outweighed the costs.


Those Were The Good Old Days…

I will be off line for the next several days, doing the college tours, but wanted to briefly follow up on several emails I’ve received regarding polarization in Congress.  Some of you have asked if things really are more polarized today than in previous years.   The short answer is “yes”.   As evidence, consider the following chart, which compares the ideology of members of Congress at the end of the Clinton administration with those serving during the Kennedy administration. (Again, all calculations based on DW-Nominate scores, as explained in previous posts.)

As you can see the moderate middle has gradually disappeared. During the Kennedy Administration, maybe 30 Republicans and more than 100 Democrats had essentially overlapping ideologies, based on their voting records.  The situation, as you know from my previous posts, has only worsened since then.  How (and why) did this happen?  That will be the topic of my next post.