Monthly Archives: May 2009

Viewer Mail: Murray Dry, Specter and the Future of the Party System

It’s viewer mail time. As most of you know, ever since this blog went on the air in the late 1950′s I’ve periodically taken the opportunity to catch up with your comments and questions, which are often more illuminating than the blogs to which they refer.  Let me begin by noting my colleague Murray Dry’s mild objection to my criticism of New York Time’s reporter Jeff Zeleny’s question at Obama’s last press conference.  In case you missed it, Zeleny asked Obama, “During these first 100 days, what has surprised you the most about this office, enchanted you the most about serving this in office, humbled you the most and troubled you the most?”  Obama responded in a half-humorous, half serious manner, dutiful responding to each of Zeleny’s four miniquestions. My initial reaction was that the question was a perfectly good waste of a precious opportunity. Far better that someone had pushed Obama on torture, or Afghanistan, or health care than ask this, “If you were a tree, what kind would you be?” type question.  Upon reflection, however, I think that’s too positive a reaction – the question was worse than that – it was completely asinine and Zeleny should have his press accreditation revoked.

Murray disagrees.  He writes,   “When I first read this I was not sure if you were referring to the question I thought you were, which, I confess was the one that most interested me. Now I know that it was and I want to reply. Zeleny’s was the only question, I believe, that elicited a spontaneous reply and I found that both refreshing and informative.  Assuming that we do not disagree on that, I am guessing that your interest in the press conference is more like that of an umpire in a chess match: what moves are put on the President and how ably does he reply, which is to say, how effectively does he manage to “stay on message” without necessarily telling us anything new. Is that about it?”

I understand and empathize with Murray’s reaction.  Like all professors, we appreciate, I think, “students” (especially former Harvard Law students!) who demonstrate that they can think on their feet when thrown a curveball.  It’s how we test our grad students, or senior honors candidates, during their oral defense.  I confess, however, that I don’t think there’s much correlation between being able to react to an off-script question and being an effective president.  Indeed, I am tempted to argue that if there is a relationship, it is inverse – those presidents who demonstrate a type of “lawyer’s skill” at thinking quickly on one’s feet and who can score debating points or engage in skillful repartee at press conferences often make the worst presidents. The reason is because they approach decisionmaking, and leadership more generally, as if it is a logic problem that can be solved through sheer intellect. More generally, I worry that academics (and I’m not pointing the finger at Murray here) generally focus on the wrong attributes in assessing presidents – we should care less about verbal reasoning and SAT scores, and more about political instincts, prior experiences and deeply-held values – none of which would be exposed by Zeleny’s question. I’m speculating in the absence of clear-cut data, of course. My more immediate reason for criticizing Zeleny’s question is that press conferences are most useful if they force presidents to explain policy decisions.  It’s not supposed to be an oral exam (if you can even call Zeleny’s softball question an “exam”.)  Students who do well on their oral exams should become professors – not presidents.

When the Arlen Specter story first broke, Jack Goodman wondered about a Ridge-Specter matchup.  I speculated that Ridge would be a tough opponent for Specter.  We now have two more polls suggesting that is the case.   A Susquehanna automated interactive poll (one in which respondents press numbers on the phone keypads in response to an automated voice) has Ridge beating Specter, 39-38% (within the poll’s margin of error, so essentially a tossup), but Specter beating the more conservative Pat Toomey 42-26%. A Public Opinion Strategy (a Republican polling firm) survey taken at about the same time had similar results; Specter beats Toomey 49-40, but loses to Ridge, 48-41%.

More interesting, perhaps, the POS poll also indicates that Specter would trounce the more liberal Democrat Joe Sestak in the Democratic primary, 57-20% and – somewhat surprisingly, perhaps – Ridge would handily beat conservative Toomey in the Republican primary, 60-23%.  These results provide additional ammunition for my initial claim that Specter’s voting patterns as a Democrat aren’t likely to vary much from when he was a Republican since his primary electoral opposition isn’t likely to come from the Left – it’s from the moderate Right.  The results have also, if news reports are to be believed, encouraged Ridge to consider tossing his hat into the ring.  All this has to make Democrats think they were better off if Specter had remained a Republican, which might have kept Ridge out of the race altogether and opened it up for a true Democrat to defeat Specter in 2010.

Reacting to my blog on changing partisan affiliation among the general public, Andrew suggests that as national politics have become more polarized, people have moved from being weak partisans to self-identifying more as leaning independents – that is, they’ve become less wedded to the parties.  I’ve graphed that movement here.  The upper trend line shows the decline in “weak partisans” and the lower trend line shows the increase in “leaning independents” (I’ve included linear trend lines as well).  The middle line shows the curvilinear trend of the strong partisans, revealing a gradual decline from the high in 1964 to its low point in 1978, where it begins increasing again.

Andy seems to be correct that there’s an inverse relationship between the number of weak partisans and those self identifying as leaning independents, but the relationship seems to predate the gradual increase in strong partisans beginning at the start of the Reagan presidency in 1980.  In other words, weak partisans began switching to leaning independents even before the uptick in the number of strong partisans in the public.  A superficial read would suggest Andy has the causal relationship backward – that as a subset of the public became less wedded to parties, another portion reacted by strengthening their party attachments.  I’m not quite sure what to make of that pattern – thoughts?  Of course, it may be that the two patterns are not related at all.

Finally, if you get a chance take a look at Marty’s very thoughtful comment regarding my previous blog on changing partisan attachments. I want to respond more fully to his warning re: the potential “dark side” to malleable partisan attachments; that parties’ use of fear as a framing strategy can swing support their way.  This is really a fascinating issue that deserves a more complete response.  As a tease, however, let me offer a somewhat different take:  that a significant subset of people doesn’t hold “coherent” ideological views that correspond closely to a single party platform. Instead, they mix and match policy views without regard to ideological consistency.  As a result, they are quite willing to switch party allegiances (and candidates) depending on the issues du jour.  That’s what I tried to suggest when I argued that there is a core of “moderate” Americans who tend to be quite pragmatic in their policy views and moderate in their ideological leanings.

As always, keep those comments coming!  We are here to serve…

The End of the Republican Party?

The release of several recent surveys tracing trends in partisan affiliation in this nation, including two by the Gallup and Pew survey organizations, provides a timely opportunity to respond to recent comments by Vijay and Conor regarding the future of the party system.  Several pundits, looking at these and similar recent surveys, have openly wondered whether the results, to borrow the title of a Time magazine article (see here) on the subject, indicate the “party is over” for the Republicans. Of course, these assessments aren’t new; over a year ago the New York Times magazine asked whether we are witnessing “The End of Republican America?”  But the surveys, combined with several high profile events including the Specter defection and the Democratic victory in the special election to replace Gillibrand in New York’s 20th congressional district, provide additional credence to this line of thought. Writing for Time, Michael Grunwald summarizes the data as follows: “Polls suggest that only one-fourth of the electorate considers itself Republican, that independents are trending Democratic and that as few as five states have solid Republican pluralities.”

What are we to make of these analyses?  First, when it comes to gauging Americans’ partisan leanings, we need to heed my oft-repeated warnings from the general election – not all surveys are alike.  A general rule of thumb bears remembering: surveys using a random sample of “all adults” tend to show higher proportions of self-identified Democrats than do surveys sampling only “registered voters”, which in turn show more Democrats than do surveys of “likely voters”.   To get a sense of how big a difference this makes, consider the following graph from Nate Silver’s site comparing the Democratic advantage according to different pollsters using different survey populations:

Note also that survey results differ depending on the categories available to the respondents.  Some surveys give only three options – Democrat, Republican or Independent, while others provide additional survey options, often by allowing independents to say whether they “lean” toward one party or another. One way to address this variation across polls is to employ the approach I utilized when making my presidential prediction: aggregate the different polls to develop a composite assessment in polling trends. This is exactly what Pollster.Com did. Here are the results of their combined poll, using surveys from 12 different pollsters:

We see, then, consistent with the “Republicans are dying” media story line, that Republicans support has declined by roughly 3-4 percentage points (30%-26.5%) since last November’s election – indeed, the decline begins even before the election, although it is interrupted by the election itself. Interestingly, however, there has been an almost equal decline of about 3% in the number of self-identified Democrats since Obama’s election, although the total percentage of Democrats remains about 10% higher than total percent of Republicans.

What is going on here?  We can’t know for sure without disaggregating these results to look more closely at the microtrends among subgroups, something I hope to do so as soon as the latest NES results are available.  In part, however, the graph indicates that both Republicans and Democrats gained numbers in the runup to the 2008 election, and both suffered declines afterward.  This is consistent with previous electoral patterns, and reflects the tendency for respondents to self-identify with one of the two parties during the heat of a presidential election, only to shed the party label after the election.

But I don’t think that explains the entire decline. Note that the number of independents is up, continuing a trend that predates the 2008 election. A recent Pew survey shows this growth in independents extends back at least six years.

The Pew results suggests (although we can’t be sure in the absence of individual-level data) that the growth comes primarily from Republicans switching to independent. However, the findings are open to different interpretations, primarily because Pew does not show the actual survey question on their website.  So it is not clear to me how they define “independents”; is it a pure category, or does it subsumes respondents who call themselves “weak partisans”  or who lean independent.

To see why this makes a difference, consider the National Election Studies time series data in the following graphs.  It shows a long-term decline in the number of “pure” independents from a high of about 18%  in 1974 to 10% in 2004.


This is only a quarter of the independents indicated in the Pew survey.  However, during that time, the number of independents who “lean” toward one of the two parties has grown from 22 to 29%. (The actual question text is as follows:

“Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a
Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or what?”
(IF REPUBLICAN OR DEMOCRAT) “Would you call yourself a strong
(REPUBLICAN/DEMOCRAT) or a not very strong (REPUBLICAN/DEMOCRAT)?”
(IF INDEPENDENT, OTHER [1966 and later: OR NO PREFERENCE]:) “Do you
think of yourself as closer to the Republican or Democratic party?”

So independent “leaners” are respondents who initially self-identify as independents, but if pushed will acknowledge “leaning” toward one party or the other.

During the same period the number of people who are strongly partisan has also increased from 25% to 33%,  although the number has not reached the levels viewed during the 1950′s and early ‘60”s.

The growth in the number of “leaners” appears to have come at the expense of “weak partisans” – those who say they weakly identify with either the Republican or Democratic party. From a high of 43% in 1966, the number of weak partisans declines to 28% in 2004.

What this suggests, then, is that the polarization of American politics is reflected in the growth of a subset of the general public that, since the 1970′s, is more willing to strongly identify with one of the two major parties.  But at the same time a growing bloc of Americans remain less strongly committed to either party, suggesting they are more willing to switch party allegiances depending on perceptions regarding how effectively the parties, and their leading candidates, deal with the major issues of the day.  Viewed from the perspective of more than half a century of polling data, then, I’m not convinced that we are seeing a permanent decline in the Republican Party’s base support, so much as a more short-term reaction to recent events.  Rather than become Democrats, these “lapsed” Republicans are in a wait-and-see period, hedging their bets depending on how well Obama and the Democratically-controlled Congress deal with the present economic crisis and other pressing issues.  If circumstances change, however, they are just as likely to switch partisan leanings.

More generally, if party identification has become more malleable since the 1960′s, it makes it much more difficult, and perhaps less meaningful, to try and predict long term trends in partisan affiliation.  A strong subset of Americans remain, at heart, moderate in their ideological outlook, pragmatic in their policy views, and not strongly committed to either party.  In the hothouse media environment, with the increasingly polarized political coverage, we often lose sight of the fact that most Americans don’t share the punditocracy’s more partisan views.

Having said this, there are some long-term demographics trends that should give Republicans pause for concern, particularly among women and younger voters. Even here, however, analysts tend to overstate the certainty that these trends will work over time in Democrats’ favor. I’ll deal with these in a later post.

Does the “Specter” of a filibuster-proof Senate really help the Democrats?

In an earlier blog comment, Jack Goodman asked me about a Arlen Specter-Tom Ridge matchup in the 2010.  I suggested that Ridge, a former Governor in that state, was the type of moderate Republican who could defeat Specter, which was one reason why I didn’t think Specter’s Senate voting would move very far Left, ideologically, despite his new party label.  I have no idea if Ridge is running, but Quinnipiac just released polling data (see here) confirming my hunch.   In the first survey of Pennsylvania voters since Specter’s defection, it shows Specter and Ridge running neck-and-neck; Specter leads 46-43, with 8% undecided – a lead that is about the same as the poll’s 2.9% margin of error.

In contrast, the same poll shows Specter trouncing Republican congressman Pat Toomey, 52-33, with 10% undecided.

Against either Ridge or Toomey, Specter enjoys strong support among Democrats; the numbers are 84-5 against Toomey, and 78-14 over Ridge.  Among Republicans, however, it is the reverse; here Specter loses 74-14 to Toomey and 82-10 to Ridge.

The biggest difference between having Toomey as an opponent as opposed to Ridge – and why Ridge is such a formidable opponent – comes among independents.  They favor Ridge over Specter 47-37, with 11% undecided.

This is why you see so little change in Specter’s voting record to date despite the party switch; lacking a credible Democratic primary opponent, and with strong support among Democratic voters, he’s not very worried about opposition from the Left.  (The favorable/unfavorable split among Democratic voters toward Specter is 77-8!) It’s the moderate voters he’s worried about, particularly if his opponent is Ridge.  Among independents, Specter’s favorability ratio is 51-35 – but Ridge’s is 62-17 (18% undecided). And independents are evenly split, 44-44, regarding whether Specter deserves to be reelected in 2010.  Hence my prediction that Specter would remain firmly entrenched as a swing vote in the Senate.

If I’m Ridge (and Republicans more generally), the following is the part of the Quinnipiac poll that I would find most encouraging:  only 41% of those surveyed thought that a Democratically-controlled filibuster-proof Senate was a good thing – 49% said it was a bad thing (with 11% undecided). And by a margin of 52-44, Pennsylvanians agree with the following statement: “Some people say that losing a Republican in the Senate is dangerous because President Obama and the Democrats will now be able to steamroll over the Republicans. Do you agree or disagree?”  That, in my view, is the issue on which Republicans can win back this Senate seat: the “Specter” of a Democratic supermajority in the U.S. Senate.  Pennsylvanians – and Americans more generally – are uneasy when power is concentrated in a single party. And that’s why Specter’s switch might not be all that beneficial to Democrats – if his party label changes, but his voting patterns do not, then it provides Pennsylvanian voters concerned about a concentration of power with a pretext to elect a “true” Republican Senator in 2010 to limit Democratic power at the national level. From this perspective, Democrats would have been better off if Specter remained a Republican.  The problem, of course, is that Specter likely would not have won as a Republican.

Note that this is one poll, and the election is more than a year away. Ridge has not, to my knowledge, even expressed any interest in running.  More importantly, it did not ask voters about a Ridge-Toomey Republican matchup – it’s not immediately clear to me that Ridge can make it out of the Republican primary if he’s matched up with Toomey.  Nonetheless, the data provides support for my contention that Specter is more worried about his right flank than his left.  And it provides a glimmer of support for those predicting a Republican comeback in the 2010 midterms.

Meet the “New” Specter. Same as the ‘Ol Specter.

Meet the New Specter. Same as the ‘ol Specter.

So much for his leftward shift in voting. (At least so far!)  In case you missed it, in an important vote on the day after announcing his defection, Senator Arlen Specter sided with his former Republicans to vote against the Obama-backed $3.4 trillion budget resolution. That resolution lays out the administration’s tax and spending priorities for health care, education and other issues for the next fiscal year.   The spending plan passed without a single Republican vote in either the House or Senate. In the Senate, the vote was 53-43, with four Democrats, including Specter, voting against it.  The House had earlier approved the resolution by 233-193, with 17 Democrats voting with the Republicans.  I’ll have more to say about the budget resolution later (including the inclusion of a provision allowing health care legislation to come up under filibuster-proof reconciliation instructions), but for now I thought it was an interesting test case regarding Specter’s likely voting pattern as a Democrat, at least in name.

But wait. There’s more. Later in the week the Senate defeated a provision to a bankruptcy reform measure designed to allow homeowners meeting certain guidelines to renegotiate their mortgages (or “cramdown”) under bankruptcy protection.  The bill was opposed by the banking industry but supported by the Obama administration and many Democrats.  Nonetheless, Democrats did not come close to mustering the votes needed to overcome a threatened filibuster, getting only 45 votes, or 15 less than needed to invoke cloture. And once again Specter voted with his former, Republican, party, against the Democratic majority.  (All Republicans, joined by 12 Democrats, opposed the measure to invoke cloture.)

What’s going on here?  It’s Specter staying true to his constituency, while keeping a nervous eye on the upcoming 2010 election.  So far, his biggest fear is not from the unknown candidate in the Democratic primary (he’s evidently counting on the Democratic party clearing the field for him) – it’s from his likely Republican opposition in the general election.

Of course, this is only two votes.  The budget resolution was clearly going to pass the Senate no matter what Specter did. (Note that the budget resolution is not subject to filibuster in the Senate).  And it is only a budget blueprint – the overall numbers still must be reconciled with the separate tax and spending bills.  The “cramdown” amendment, meanwhile, didn’t even have much support among conservative Democrats. On other issues, most notably health care reform and climate change, I expect that Specter will be much more willing to work with the Democrats. But these initial votes provide early evidence of my claim that, contrary to what many political scientists were suggesting, he is likely to remain the same moderate swing vote that he was before the switch.

By the way, here’s Specter’s party support scores according to CQ (via USAToday):

How often Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania voted with or against his party

since 2000 as a Republican:

Year Support Oppose
2008 62% 38%
2007 49% 51%
2006 61% 39%
2005 69% 31%
2004* 70% 30%
2003 84% 16%
2002 60% 40%
2001 60% 40%
2000 67% 33%

* Specter was up for re-election in 2004

Source: Congressional Quarterly

So as recently as 2007 he was already voting against his party more often than not.  I expect that will happen with more frequency now, but as these two recent crucial votes indicate, he’s not a lock to vote the Democratic party line by any means.

P.S.  I’ve gotten lots of inquiries regarding the Souter resignation, and whether Hillary is next in line for the court.  Believe it or not, there are some basic rules of thumb regarding who presidents tend to nominate to the high court.  The next few days are busy, but I’ll try to get some data on this issue.  But let me offer a tease: there’s lots of evidence that politicians, as opposed to those who are deeply steeped in legal training (legal scholars), make more “effective” justices, because they are more amenable to compromise and splitting the differences between competing views, which in turn produces more moderate, and publicly acceptable, court decisions.