Monthly Archives: September 2010

Take Me To Your Leader!

Two recent columns, one by Dana Milbank (thanks to Peter Baumann for bringing this to my attention) at the Washington Post, and the second by the New York Times’ Tom Friedman, help illuminate the essence of the leadership problem faced by President Obama and underscore one of the reasons Democrats are in danger of losing both the House and the Senate come November.

Milbank’s column focuses on David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign strategist who announced a few days ago that he will be returning to Chicago after the midterms.  Axelrod, Milbank writes, “is leaving in defeat. It’s not really an electoral defeat: Though Democrats will probably experience a shellacking on Nov. 2, Obama’s prospects for 2012 will surely rise with the economic cycle. Rather, it’s the notion that Obama, who declared on election night that “change has come to America,” has failed to change Washington, a belief shared by 53 percent of Americans in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll.”

What explains Obama’s failure to bring change?  According to Milbank’s account, “The campaign he [Axelrod] designed for Obama to run against Washington in 2008 ran headlong into the Washington dealmaking necessary to get items such as health-care reform through Congress.”

That, in a nutshell, encapsulates a recurring problem with incoming administrations, including this one – an utter failure to realize that campaigning is nothing like governing, and to overestimate the President’s – any president’s – capacity to bring change.  Axelrod’s disillusionment is rooted in an unrealistic understanding of the limited nature of presidential power.

But the problem of inflated expectations owes much to the media punditocracy of which Axelrod is so critical. Consider Friedman’s column, which begins with the now-conventional dismissal by Washington insiders of the Tea Party movement.  Friedman then begins musing about what this country really needs.

Americans, he argues, are “looking for a leader with three characteristics. First, a patriot: a leader who is more interested in fighting for his country than his party. Second, a leader who persuades Americans that he or she actually has a plan not just to cut taxes or pump stimulus, but to do something much larger — to make America successful, thriving and respected again. And third, someone with the ability to lead in the face of uncertainty and not simply whine about how tough things are — a leader who believes his job is not to read the polls but to change the polls.”  The implicit assumption built into Friedman’s column is that Obama has failed on all three counts.

Friedman’s argument is, to state it succinctly, complete nonsense.  The reality is that the Framers’ designed the American political system precisely to prevent a single “leader” from accomplishing any of the objectives he cites without the active cooperation of most other political actors and institutions. In our system of shared powers, no politician – especially the President – has the capability to fulfill these expectations alone.  If change is to come, it requires the president to work closely with, and through, the majority party in Congress (and sometimes the minority party too), and to act within the latitude afforded by public opinion – that is, it requires engaging in the “dealmaking” that Axelrod so despises.  Even then “change” is likely to occur haltingly, in incremental and not uncontroversial steps.

The problem with columns like Friedman’s with their call for “leadership” is that they contribute to the inflated expectations and inevitable disillusionment characteristic of Axelrod’s Washington experience.  That disillusionment is rooted in wholly unrealistic understanding about what a President can hope to accomplish.  Now, the Obama administration is not blameless in fueling these expectations – its senior members, including Axelrod, somewhat naively but sincerely believed, I am sure, that they would bring genuine change and they did nothing to tamp down expectations in this regard when they took office. And, in important respects, they have brought substantive change. But all presidents, and their senior aides, take office overestimating their influence. It is partly a function of the inevitable political “high” that comes from overcoming extraordinary odds to win the presidency.  Moreover, the current method of selecting presidents – one that tends to treat executive inexperience and a lack of Washington ties as a virtue and their converse as a curse (see Hillary Clinton) – often produces winners who initially think governing is much like campaigning.  Inevitably reality sets in as they discover that their capacity to bring change is highly contingent on the willingness of others to work with them.  And that willingness comes with a hefty price tag.  (This comes through most clearly in Obama’s decision-making process in Afghanistan, as described in Woodward’s latest book.  I’ll have more to say about this in a future post, but Woodward’s account lends credence to my earlier posts describing a president being led down the garden path by his generals.)

The disillusionment and anger that is fueling the Tea Party movement, and which will likely lead to deep Democrat losses come November, is not the result of Obama’s failure to “lead” as Friedman would have him do.  It is due to the deep-seated economic problems that are only partly susceptible to government “cure” and which certainly cannot be solved by this or any President acting alone.

Note to Friedman (and to Axelrod): leadership does not require eschewing politics for patriotism or putting principle before party.  It requires acting politically by working through party (and sometimes parties) to achieve principles. That’s how you change Washington and the polls, and begin restoring America’s “greatness”.

All presidents are patriots. The best ones are also extraordinary politicians who understand the art, and the necessity,  of the deal.

If Summers’ Gone, It Must Be Fall (Election Season, That Is!)

Last week Larry Summers announced that he would resign as director of President Obama’s National Economic Council (NEC) after the upcoming midterm elections. As the head of the NEC, Summers – working from his West Wing office – served as Obama’s primary economic adviser and was largely responsible for coordinating the administration’s economic policy process. As such, he played a key role in the major economic policy debates that led to the stimulus bill and legislation overhauling the nation’s financial system, among many issues. Following on the heels of the earlier resignations by Obama’s OMB director Peter Orszag and his CEA chair Christina Romer, Summers’ departure means that only Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner remains from the economic policy team with which Obama began his presidency (not counting the Fed chair, of course).

It is tempting to read Summers’ resignation as a sign that Obama is revamping his economic team and possibly his policies in the face of a stubbornly high unemployment rate and the more general economic listlessness.  Publicly, Summers’ decision to leave is being portrayed as a personal choice motivated by his desire to get back to Harvard. That may very well be true.  But the timing of the announcement almost certainly reflects Obama’s realization that the midterm results, now less than two months away, will turn largely on voters’ perceptions of Democrats’ handling of the economy.  And while Obama can do little to change the economy between now and November, he can signal to voters that he is open to new economic advice and ideas.

Both progressives and conservatives have been unhappy with Summers’ performance, albeit for different reasons.   Their dissatisfaction, however, is a reminder of just how complex – substantively and politically – the economic problems Obama inherited are, and how difficult it is to design policies that can entail even marginal economic improvements without incurring huge political costs.  Rather than as an opportunity to debate Obama’s economic policies, however, I want to use Summers’ resignation to illustrate another important point:  that turnover rates among the presidents’ senior policy staff have gone up in the last several decades, potentially making it more difficult for presidents to sustain politically-risky policy commitments.

The trend toward shorter staff tenures as illustrated in the almost complete turnover in Obama’s senior economic team, I believe, is rooted less in the personalities or policies of particular presidents and their advisers, and is due more to changes in national politics during the last several decades.  I first made this argument several years ago in two published research articles I co-authored with Professor Katie Dunn Tenpas.  Those articles documented a gradual but noticeable decline in retention rates among the presidents’ senior White House staff and leading cabinet officials during the period 1929-96 – a decline illustrated in the following graph. (Note that the lowest retention rates reflect the transition to new presidents.)

As you can see, there has been a decline in retention rates across the nearly seven-decade period, particularly since the 1960’s, punctuated by nearly complete staff turnover when a new president comes aboard. What explains this decline?   It is tempting to think that it is a function of the increased workload that modern presidential staffs take on, which leads senior advisers to burn out more quickly.  However, there is not much evidence that aides are worker harder or for longer hours today than they did back under FDR or Truman.  In my interviews and research with former White House aides, some dating back to the Truman presidency, the recurring story is the same: long hours at the office, with almost no time off.  For example, Ken Hechler, a former Truman junior White House aide, remembers how at the end of the day a group of junior-level White House staff would collapse into a single car and fall instantly asleep,  to be woken only when the car arrived at their respective residence. One by one they would be dropped off, only to start the process all over again early the next day.  Work at the White House, it appears, has always entailed long hours and little sleep.

If senior officials aren’t working longer or more arduously, then what explains the declining retention rates?  Tenpas and I hypothesize that it partly reflects the changing political environment within which presidential aides work. In particular we cite the change from a party-controlled election process to a candidate-centered one.  Increasingly, presidents are running their reelection campaigns from out of the White House, rather than entrusting this function to the party chair and his minions, as used to be the case.  Rather than oversee the reelection campaign, the party instead has been relegated to serving primarily as a fundraiser, while strategy and tactics are developed by the President’s personal staff, working out of the White House.  (Note that because by law purely electoral activities cannot be paid for from out of the White House operating budget, White House aides have to take care to separate the two functions).  At the same, there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that the increasingly polarized nature of presidential politics makes service in the White House less enjoyable.  I don’t have systemic evidence to bring to bear on this issue, but more than one former White House adviser from recent presidencies has made this point to me.  Decisionmaking, they say, is increasingly driven by electoral concerns.

The change in the nature of presidential campaigns, and of the operating environment more generally, is probably best illustrated by the rise in the role of primaries during the nominating process, beginning particularly after 1968.  Why does this affect the president’s senior staff?  Because by essentially the end of the president’s second year in office, he must begin campaigning for reelection.  This is when the substantive policy types who are so important for governing begin to leave the White House.  To see this, in the next figure I’ve graphed retention rates as a function of the growth in the number of delegates selected through primaries.

Note that as the percent of delegates selected through primaries goes up, staff retention rates decline.  (The bars around each mean measure the uncertainty of the estimate).  Viewed historically, then, the resignation of Obama’s major economic advisers is neither unprecedented nor surprising.  On average, in the period 1972-1996, only about 75% of a president’s senior cabinet and White House advisers are retained from the first year of the president’s term into his second year, and only 64% of second-year staffers make it to the third year.  This compares to a roughly 85% retention rate for both presidential years during the pre-1972 era. I’ll try to update these figures through 2008 if I can, but I hope my point is clear:  life in the White House is a Hobbesian existence (and I don’t mean Calvin’s imaginary friend): nasty, brutish – and increasingly short.

Beware of Delaware: Why the Republican Senate Primary is Significant

In my last post I noted the historically high turnout (at least since 1990) – close to 32% of registered Republicans- in the Delaware Republican primary Senate race that was won by the Tea Party-backed candidate Christine O’Donnell.  She beat the favored Congressman Mike Castle by a decisive 53.1% to 46.5% margin. While acknowledging that O’Donnell faced an uphill battle in the general election, I suggested that the high turnout was still another indication that the Tea Party had successfully tapped into voter anger during the current electoral cycle – anger that did not bode well for Democrats in the midterm elections.

In response, a political science colleague sends me the following turnout data that puts O’Donnell’s support in a slightly different perspective:

The 2010 Republican Delaware Senate Primary

Age-eligible population: 682,000
Registered Voters: 621,700   (91% of age-eligible population)
Republican Registration: 182,800   (29% of registered voters)
Republican Primary Vote:  57,580    (31% of registered Republicans)
O’Connell Vote: 30,561    (5% of registered voters)

The take home point is that O’Donnell’s victory is due to the votes of about 5% of Delaware’s registered electorate. It’s a useful reminder that we should not overstate O’Donnell’s – or the Tea Party’s – overall level of support among all voters.   And it drives home two points that I’ve made before. First, the current high level of partisan polarization in Congress is not the product of a polarized electorate as much as it is due to moderate voters having to choose between more ideologically extreme primary winners. Unless Castle runs an independent campaign, much like Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski is doing in Alaska after her defeat in the primary there, Delaware voters who wish to cast a protest vote in the general election against the party in power must do so by voting for O’Donnell – even if they don’t agree with all her policies.  The alternative is not to vote at all.  Now, I am not suggesting that O’Donnell will win the Delaware Senate race in November (although I confess to having no first-hand knowledge of Delaware political dynamics).  But to the extent that the Delaware Senate race becomes a referendum on Obama and the Democrats, she will be the beneficiary – even if moderate protest voters don’t necessarily share her views.  Note also that O’Donnell is frantically backing away from her most controversial past statements in an effort to portray herself as a more centrist candidate. We will know come November whether she is successful, but most pundits don’t think much of her chances.

My second point is that even during “wave” elections, such as the Republican takeover in 1994, most voters’ underlying partisan preferences and voting habits don’t shift from one party to the other.  Remember that in the more competitive Senate races, since 1982 incumbent senators have nonetheless won reelection at about an 83% clip.  (The House rate is even higher.)  In this election cycle there may be 10 Senate races that will truly be competitive.  However, in competitive races, a small shift in underlying voter sentiment is often enough to swing a race one way or the other.  And, in the aggregate, a shift in a few percentage points in voters’ support for either party can be enough to produce a change in congressional control. For example, the Democratic takeover in the 2006 midterms reflected only a 4% Democrat gain in the aggregate national vote.   This small shift in voter sentiment was enough to end the Republican majority.

In short, changes in the partisan makeover within Congress often are driven by a change in voting habits of only a small sliver of the electorate. A movement that has the support of only about 20% of voters, as most  polls suggest is the case with the Tea Party, can nonetheless play a significant role in congressional elections, particularly if the 20% is more motivated to vote. The significance of O’Donnell’s win, then, has less to do with her chances of winning the Senate seat in Delaware, and more, I think, with what the turnout in her primary victory says about the national mood, and the relative chances of Republicans and Democrats come November.

The Midterm Elections: A Choice, or a Referendum?

Two weeks ago Democrats’ hopes for the midterm elections were briefly raised when the Gallup generic ballot came back showing a dead heat, 46%-46%, in voters’ preferences between the two parties. Some progressive media sites, buoyed by the poll, wondered why it did not receive more press coverage.  Alas for Democrats, the most recent Gallup survey puts Republicans back up by 5%, 48%-43%, a margin that is identical to the average lead held by Republicans in the Gallup poll since the start of August.  I’ve written before about the need to view one-time fluctuations in the generic ballot results with caution, and the latest results are a reminder that, despite these fluctuations, for the most part Republicans have lead in the generic ballot for almost two months.  This is important, because as I’ve also discussed in previous posts, the generic ballot results are a useful, if not infallible, tool for predicting the actual midterm results.  As I noted in my previous post, several of the midterm forecast models developed by political scientists incorporate the generic results, and these are the ones that suggest Republicans are poised to gain upwards of 50 seats in the House come November.

To get a sense of the significance of the generic ballot, I had my research assistant Matt D’Auria plot the final Gallup generic ballots results (the x-axis) against the actual aggregate popular vote (the y-axis) received by the Democrat Party in each midterm election dating back to 1952.  For comparison purposes, he also plotted the results as if the generic result perfectly predicted the actual aggregate support for the Democrats (the red line).

By fitting a regression line to the actual data, we can construct a simple equation that estimates the final popular Democrat vote based on the generic ballot results. If we plug in 43%, which is what Democrats are currently receiving on average in the generic survey, the regression suggests that Democrats will receive 44% of the actual aggregate popular vote in November. That’s actually better than one might expect, given that in most years the actual vote falls below the generic results. (Warning: this is a crude estimate, particularly since the current level of Democrat support is lower than that in any of the previous years’ totals included in our sample.)

However, what we really want to know is how many seats the Democrats are likely to win, assuming – as our crude model does – that they receive 44% of the aggregate popular vote. If we plot previous aggregate support against actual seats won, we can again estimate a very simple regression equation, keeping in mind all the caveats mentioned above.

Plugging in our predicted value of 44% popular support for Democrats, our crude model indicates that Democrats will win about 44% of the 435 House seats, or only 191 seats come November – a projected loss of 65 seats!

Now before my Democrat readers slit their tree-hugging wrists, keep in mind that these are very squishy estimates; there’s a large margin of error around this projection.  None of the more sophisticated forecast models of which I am aware forecast Democrats losing 65 seats.  And with a month and half to go before the midterms, the generic ballots results can still change.  Moreover, the simple model I’ve presented here encompasses a long time period during which the underlying dynamics of congressional elections has evolved. However, these long-term changes don’t necessarily help Democrats. Most importantly, as I’ve indicated in previous posts, congressional elections – including midterms – have been increasingly nationalized in recent years.  That is, individual races are more susceptible to broader forces affecting the nation as a whole.  And right now, those broader forces – most notably the lagging economy and ambivalence toward the Obama presidency – are working against Democrats.

This is all a long way of saying that the recent Delaware Senate primary results are, in my view, consistent with a broader picture, one that does not bode well for Democrats in the coming midterm elections. They may not lose 65 seats, but if history repeats, they are likely to lose closer to 40, and their majority, than to 25 which is the post-World War II average.

Is there any way to prevent his from happening?  If I am an individual Democrat in the House from a marginal district (one in which I won with less than 55% of the popular vote) and am running for reelection in this climate, I would fall back on those tactics that traditionally work for incumbents: emphasizing constituency service and name recognition, reminding voters about what Republicans stand for, and distancing myself from the President and his policies.  The goal is to make this election a choice – not a referendum on the party in power.

As Delaware Goes…?

The reaction among pundits to Christine O’Donnell’s surprising win over Representative Michael Castle in yesterday’s Republican Senate primary in Delaware has been interesting, to say the least.  Polling done early in this race suggested that  O’Donnell, who lost two previous bids for the Republican Senate nomination, was destined to lose a third time. Instead, she  won convincingly, 53.1% to 46.5% – a victory that likely owed something to support from the Tea Party movement.

If the pundits are to be believed, however, Republicans have just snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.  Castle, a well-known Republican with a moderate voting record (that record placed him as the 11th most liberal member of the Republican House caucus) was viewed by most observers as the stronger candidate, one capable of beating the Democratic nominee Chris Coons in the general election for the Senate seat previously held by Joe Biden.  O’Donnell’s win was another sign, according to conventional wisdom, that the Republican Party has been captured by the ideological loony-toon fringe who seem intent on purging the party of any sane individuals that might possess centrist predilections. Karl Rove captured this sentiment well when, in dismissing O’Donnell’s chances of winning in the general election, he cited the “nutty things” she has been saying.  Similarly, Politico led their Delaware coverage with this paragraph: “The Republican Party’s hopes for winning back the Senate rest on a perennial candidate with a sketchy employment history who has dissembled about her education, defaulted on her student loan and her mortgage, sued a former employer for mental anguish, railed against the evils of masturbation and questioned whether it would have been OK to lie to prevent Nazis from killing Jews during World War II.”

With those credentials, it’s hard to believe she won!  But then again, we have heard this refrain before after Tea Party-backed candidates secured Republican Senate nominations in Nevada and Utah, and when the libertarian candidate won the Republican primary in Kentucky.  After each election pundits suggested that the Republican Party, by nominating a fringe candidate, had actually lessened its chances of securing the Senate seat in the general election. For Tea Partiers and their ideological kin, the critics suggested, principle appeared to matter more than politics.

Well, maybe.  I understand the logic behind this argument, because it is a logic I’ve pushed myself, in previous blog postings, to explain the growing polarization of Congress.  Turnout in primaries tends to be low, and disproportionately weighted toward the more ideologically-extreme voters in each party.  In the general election, however, turnout is higher and independents and more moderate partisans are more likely to participate.  The Tea Party candidate is thus likely to do less well in the general election.

As the Tea Party keeps defying the odds and wracking up victories, however, one must ask whether it is really a fringe movement, or whether it has successfully tapped into the sentiment of a substantial portion of the electorate – one which is likely to act on those sentiments and vote in the general election too?

Consider the Delaware Republican Senate primary.  The Times Jeff Zeleney notes that “The primary drew 57,000 voters, a small slice of the overall electorate.”   What he did not report, however, is that this number represents a 32% turnout rate among registered Republicans.  I searched the Delaware state records for statewide primary turnout in all elections dating back to 1990 (the earliest year for which I could calculate turnout data) and guess what?  Yesterday’s turnout was the highest recorded (at least as far as I could tell) for almost any primary – presidential or midterm election – since then. (Here is the turnout data I was able to cull from the Delaware records for all the primaries, including presidential primaries, dating back to 1990.  It’s incomplete, and I had to do some back-of-the-envelope calculations to derive many of the figures, so use these numbers with caution.  (Note that I am comparing turnout rates – not the number of voters. ) Moreover, there are surely contextual differences that make comparing turnout across different elections problematic.  Nonetheless, the data indicates yesterday’s turnout was extraordinarily high – higher, even, than turnout for primaries held in some presidential election years.

Year of Primary Republican Turnout Democrat Turnout
2010 32% 12%
2008 16% 28%
2006 8% 7%
2004 15% (Dem Pres. Primary)
2002 14% 8%
1996 23.5% (Presid Primary) 6.5% (Presid. Primary)
1994 13%
1992 26.3% 26.3%
1990 21.5%

Note that in 2006, when O’Donnell finished a distant third in the Republican Senate primary, statewide turnout was only 8%.  When Castle won the U.S. Representative seat in 1998, turnout in the general election was only 39%. (Of course, this represents a far bigger voting pool.  I don’t have totals for the primary for that year, or for 2000).

My point is that I think it’s difficult to categorize O’Donnell’s win as simply the triumph of the narrow slice of the Far Right fringe brigade. In fact, the focus on O’Donnell’s views may be misplaced.  I suspect this was as much a vote against Castle as it was a vote for O’Donnell.  Indeed, all the virtues the pundits cite in Castle’s favor – his moderation, experience (read: age – he is 71) and long history in Delaware politics – are precisely the factors that cost him the election. This doesn’t mean O’Donnell will win the Senate seat come November. The latest polls have her losing by double digits to Coons. Delaware is a solidly blue state, with 47% of registered voters affiliated with the Democrat Party compared to 29% Republican. (There are 24% in the “other” category.)

And yet – how many voters will show up to vote in the general election come November?  I do not have much knowledge regarding Delaware politics, but it would not surprise me if turnout was up, particularly among Republicans.  Having listened to the same conventional wisdom (of which I was a part) in the run-up to the election to replace Ted Kennedy, and with polls there showing Martha Coakley far ahead of Scott Brown two weeks before the special election, I am far more skeptical now that the punditocracy really has an accurate read on voter sentiment this election cycle.  We may get a clearer picture when the first post-election polls begin coming in.

In the meantime, the Delaware result, I think, is relevant to the larger issue I raised in yesterday’s post, when trying to explain the difference in the political science forecast models. Those models that incorporate some measure of voter sentiment, such as the generic ballot results, are predicting a much greater seat gain for Republicans than do the models that are based only on structural factors, such as economic measures. O’Donnell’s victory may – and I stress may – provide some evidence that the models incorporating voter sentiment are likely to be more accurate.  Voters are angry and are taking out that anger on anyone associated too closely with the Washington establishment.  This sentiment may not be broad enough to propel O’Donnell to victory in November (although I am not counting her out).  But it doesn’t bode well for the Democrats more generally.