Monthly Archives: August 2009

It’s Not Rocket Science: Explaining the Sotamayor Vote

It’s not rocket science – it’s political science.

In the wake of the Senate vote to confirm Sonia Sotamayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court (see the NY Times story here), some pundits are scratching their heads trying to explain how 31 Republicans could have voted against her. By doing so, these pundits argue, Republicans needlessly risk alienating Latino voters.  And yet sophisticated statistical analyses seem to suggest that the number of Hispanic constituents in a Senator’s state had very little relation to how that Senator voted.   This has left some pundits scrambling to explain what might have motivated Republican voters.  Thus, Nate Silver, using regression analysis, suggests Republicans might have been more worried about alienating the NRA – which came out against Sotamayor’s nomination – than about losing Latino voters (see here).  I have a good deal of respect for Silver’s methodological skills (if not his political judgment) but I think Silver’s explanation, like that of many pundits who have weighed in on this issue, is needlessly complex and betrays a basic misunderstanding of political fundamentals.  As I suggested in an earlier post, the Sotamayor nomination wasn’t likely to turn on the issue of race (or interest group pressure)- it turned on political ideology.  Votes on court nominees are largely votes about ideology. (My suspicion, without seeing Silver’s numbers, is that his use of the NRA in his regression simply serves as a proxy for Senate ideology).  A vote for Sotamayor was a vote for what is almost certainly going to be a consistently liberal voice on the Court.  This suggests that only the most liberal Republicans would consider voting for her.  And this is precisely what happened. Consider the nine Senate Republicans who voted to confirm Sotamayor:

George Voinovich of Ohio;

Judd Gregg of New Hampshire;

Kit Bond of Missouri;

Lindsey Graham of South Carolina;

Susan Collins of Maine;

Olympia Snowe of Maine;

Mel Martinez of Florida;

Richard Lugar of Indiana;

Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

How many of these Senators represent states with a significant Latino population?  Only Martinez, from Florida, a state with the third highest number of Latinos (about 3.3 million).   But how do they rank in terms of ideology?  There are currently 40 Republicans Senators. Let’s list the top 9 most liberal Republican Senators, using Simon Jackman’s ideological rankings (see here), beginning with the most liberal and working toward more conservative, and see where those who voted for Sotamayor fall on this list.

To make my point more obvious, I will place the two lists side by side; on the left are the top 9 most liberal Republican Senators, and on the right are the 9 Senators who voted FOR Sotamayor.  See if you can detect a pattern!:

Most Liberal Republicans in the Senate (in order beginning with most Liberal) Nine Republican Senators Voting for Sotamayor
Olympia Snowe – Maine Snowe
Susan Collins – Maine Collins
George Voinovich – Ohio Voinovich
Debra Murkowski – Arkansas Graham
Richard Lugar – Indiana Lugar
Mel Martinez – Florida Martinez
Kit Bond – Missouri Bond
Lamar Alexander – Tennessee Alexander
Judd Gregg – New Hampshire Gregg

At the risk of stating the obvious, support for Sotamayor among Republicans Senators came from 9 of the 10 most liberal Republican Senators (only Murkowski among liberal Senators voted against her).  It was ideology, not race or ethnicity that drove this vote, much as I surmised in my earlier post when arguing why Republicans ought to vote against her.  And this is why Jon Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, who represent Texas which has the second largest Latino population in the country, nonetheless felt comfortable voting against Sotamayor.  Texas may be 20% Latino, but it voted Republican in the 2008 presidential election.  My point is not that Republicans don’t care about Latino voters – they do.  But they also can’t ignore their core voters who support them every six years.

When it comes to politics, sometimes the simplest explanations are the best explanations.

Oh, by the way, I’ll be keeping that t-shirt. At least until the next contest.

Is the Sky Really Falling? Understanding Obama’s Decline in Approval Ratings

As heralded by a spate of recent media stories, Obama’s approval ratings, as gauged by numerous polls released in the last couple of weeks, have exhibited an almost steady decline since his inauguration. Here is the trend line, based on calculations used at (Pollster approval here):

As you can see, Obama has dropped from a high of near 70% approval to about 53%, on average, today. Predictably, the major news outlets have interpreted this drop as cause for alarm. The following analysis, from David Kuhn at RealClearPolitics (see article here) is not atypical of this recent coverage:

“In other words, Obama’s got problems. Health care reform has come up against the rocks and the cop and prof race debacle has also likely taken some toll. Then there is the unemployment rate, almost assured to soon reach double digits…In the end, approval rating also concerns symbolism. Once a president falls below 50 percent he can no longer say he has the majority of the public behind him–a knockdown blow for a president’s legislative ambitions.”

Almost all the assumptions built into this statement – that the drop in Obama’s approval reflects public dissatisfaction with Obama’s policies, and that this drop will hurt his legislative ambitions – are wrong, or at least misleading.  In fact, as long time readers of this blog will remember, I predicted at the start of his presidency – long before the fight over health care – that Obama’s poll numbers would be in the mid-50’s range by this point, precisely where they are now.  How did I know this?  It helps to understand what drives poll numbers this early in a presidency. Simply stated, the drop in Obama’s numbers has almost nothing to do with healthcare, or unemployment figures, and everything to do with the underlying distribution of partisan sentiment in this country.  Remember, Obama was elected with about 53% of the popular vote – that represents his “natural” level of support; these are the people who are predisposed to support his policy choices on almost all issues.  Now, this level can fluctuate a few percentage points in response to specific events – so-called rally events, or their antitheses – but these tend to be short-term fluctuations that dissipate as the news coverage cycles to different events.  On the whole, under “normal” politics, we would expect Obama’s popularity to hover in the mid-50%, precisely where it is now.

However, this does NOT mean that a president’s approval ratings are destined to remain centered on the president’s popular vote percentage throughout his presidency.  Over the duration of a presidential term, poll numbers can undergo a sustained shift, but only in response to relatively constant news narrative, either positive or negative.  Typically, these more enduring shifts are linked to broad-gauge measures of the economy (inflation or unemployment numbers) or sustained military engagements.  This means that if the economy remains mired in a recession for the next 18 months, or there is a steady drumbeat of negative news emanating from Afghanistan, Obama’s numbers will look positively Bush II-like by the end of his presidency.  But we are a long way from there, as yet.

To get some perspective on the issue, consider what happened to previous presidents’ popularity across a similar time period. Here’s table listing the drop (or gain) in presidents’ approval ratings from their inauguration through August 1. (For comparison purposes, all data comes from Gallup poll ratings, using the closest poll to August 1 as the end date).

President Starting Approval (first poll after inauguration) Approval August 1 (or closest poll to date) Percent Popular Vote in Election Change from starting approval Change from popular vote
Obama 68% 56% 52.9% -12 +3.1
Bush II 57% 55% 47.9% -2 +7.1
Clinton 58% 43% 43% -15 0
Bush I 51% 60% 53.4% +9 +6.2
Reagan 51% 59% 50.7% +8 +8.3
Carter 66% 59% 50.1% -7 +8.9
Ford Took office in August with 70% approval
Nixon 59% 62% 43.4% +3 +18.6
Johnson Took office in November with 77% approval
Kennedy 72% 74% 49.7% +2 +24.3
Eisenhower 68% 73% 57.4% +5 +15.6

There are a number of ways to spin this data, of course. Obama’s critics harp on the steep decline, which historically has only been matched by Clinton’s first term drop.  Obama’s supporters, on the other hand, point to the relatively high approval ratings.  What I want you to see, however, is how, among presidents beginning with Carter, all tend to hover a few points above their “natural” support level seven months into their presidency, as indicated in the last column.  It reflects a natural equilibrium based on the initial electoral support combined with the additional support from the presidential honeymoon. Obama is on the low end of this score, but given the uncertainty of the polling data, he is certainly not an outlier.  Note that the pre-Carter presidents tend to operate under a different polling dynamic.  I’ll devote a different post to this, but I bet you can guess what happened post-Nixon to change presidential polling patterns.  Any takers?

The other important consideration is that approval ratings – contrary to what the media coverage suggests – are simply not that important, at least when it comes to passing legislation.  I hope to devote a more complete post on this topic, but the short story is that political scientists have found very little evidence that popularity is a significant predictor of legislative success in Congress, once one controls for other factors.  So Obama’s falling approval ratings are unlikely to have much impact on whether health care, or cap and trade legislation, gets through Congress.  The media likes to report approval numbers, because it is “hard” news, and because most of the major media outlets have their own polling affiliations with which to generate these stories.  But the raw polling numbers are simply not very good measures of presidential influence in Congress.

So, if Obama’s “natural” support hovers in the mid-50’s, why did he take office with sky-high ratings hovering near 70%?  That reflects a natural tendency among Americans to initially view a newly-elected president not through a partisan lens, but from the nonpartisan perspective of “president as national sovereign”.  Simply put, in this honeymoon period, the public’s initial reaction to the approval question tends to reflect their view of the presidency as an institution, rather than the politics of the man occupying that office.  In Obama’s case, that honeymoon was heightened, I think, by the public’s recognition that the election of a black man represented a milestone in the nation’s history.  Inevitably, however, this honeymoon fades, and the natural partisan distribution reemerges.  (And not every president takes office with a substantial honeymoon – I’ll devote another post to examining this issue.) This means that no matter what policy goals Obama pursued, and with what effectiveness, he was likely to lose popularity as long as those issues were viewed differently by Republicans and Democrats. And, on most major issues that reach the Oval Office, there are clear partisan differences; issues that are deeply popular with both Republicans and Democrats (Mom, apple pie, the Red Sox) typically don’t become the subject of presidential action. It’s the divisive ones with which presidents typically grapple.

We see, then, that the media narrative, with its “sky is falling” preoccupation with Obama’s poll numbers, has the story exactly backwards.  The real issue here is how utterly unremarkable Obama’s presidency has been when it comes to public opinion, further evidence that his election was anything but transformative.  Obama’s polling dynamics to date almost exactly mimic his recent predecessors’ approval ratings.  That is why a student of the presidency could have predicted these results back in January.

In fact, one of them did.