Monthly Archives: November 2012

Obama’s Victory And The Power of Incumbency In The Modern Era

A reporter recently emailed asking me to comment on the following observation: “This is the first time in American history since Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe that the United States has elected three consecutive presidents to two terms (Clinton, Bush, Obama). I was wondering if you had any thoughts regarding why there has been a gap of almost 200 years between the first and second occurrence of this?”  Those who were in attendance on Election Night at the Karl Rove Crossroads Cafe heard me reference this fact in the form of a trivia question.

And that’s largely what I think this is: trivia.  As I told the reporter, I think there’s much less here than meets the eye. That is, if you view this historical oddity as an indication of just how hard it is for a president to win reelection, you are likely misreading history.  In fact, if you look at the so-called “modern” presidential era which scholars typically date to the post-FDR period, one is struck by the power of incumbency. Indeed, the more surprising fact is that there are incumbents who lost their bid for reelection in this era.  Let’s run down the list:

There have been a dozen presidents in the post-FDR era.  Of these, all but Kennedy had an opportunity to run for reelection.  Among the remaining 11, only Ford, Carter and Bush I failed in their reelection bid.  Ford’s effort fell just short which, in retrospect, was an impressive performance given the Watergate-induced backlash against all things Republican in 1976.  Bush I’s 1992 reelection bid was undoubtedly negatively affected by the presence of a strong third-party candidate in the person of Ross Perot, who won nearly 20% of the popular vote.  To this day Bush believes Perot cost him reelection.  That leaves only Carter among the dozen who lost a straight up bid for reelection under “normal” political circumstances.

Put another way, if we “adjust” our calculations to address the modern presidents who initially took office by non-electoral means, the “gap” between Monroe and Obama seems much less meaningful. So, we can consider Truman, who took office less than three months into FDR’s final term, as essentially a two-term president.  Similarly, the eight years under JFK-LBJ, and the eight years under Nixon-Ford, can also be viewed as two-term presidencies, since neither Kennedy nor Nixon were removed by electoral defeat. From this perspective, it turns out that from 1944 through 1976 we saw four consecutive two-term presidents.  If we step back one administration, FDR makes it five-plus.  Viewed in this way, the real question becomes: how did Carter lose?

My point is that it is difficult to defeat a sitting president in the modern era.  Yes, I understand that both Truman and LBJ opted not to run again in part because of their electoral vulnerability, but both had won election in their own right at least one time. By comparison, if we look at the pre-FDR sitting presidents who won their party’s nomination, by my back-of-the-envelope calculation almost half – eight of 18 – went down to defeat in their first bid for reelection.

Why is it so difficult to defeat an incumbent president in the modern era?  One likely reason is that the office is much more visible, so that presidents simply by virtue of carrying out their duties in a non-partisan way, such as providing disaster relief, can score political points. It may also be the case that in an era of nuclear weapons and other WMD’s, the presidents’ foreign policy role enhances their political standing. That is, as national security issues loom larger in voters’ calculations, the incumbent president’s foreign policy role is magnified. Moreover, despite the criticisms his comments entailed, Romney was right when noted – albeit perhaps not in the most diplomatic manner – that Presidents are relatively well situated to influence policies in ways that reward key voting blocs. All this is somewhat speculative, of course, but I am persuaded, in the absence of countervailing evidence, that modern incumbents generally run for reelection with advantages that their premodern forebears did not possess.

A note to readers: the audience for  this blog has expanded considerably in the last year and for that I am very appreciative.  Thus it is with some regret that I am announcing that I will be posting much less frequently during the next several months.  I have a book deadline, and added administrative duties, that are cutting into my blogging time.  This is not to say I will stop posting completely – I’m still going to respond to the most egregious punditry errors (“Obama Won A Mandate!”  “Most Voters Want Unified Democratic Control!”), particularly when political science provides some insight and/or countervailing evidence.  And I’ll try to keep up with the major events affecting the presidency, but perhaps not quite as regularly as in the past.  Of course, I encourage you to submit questions – I will try to get to them in due time.  And, as always, I thank you for reading, and for participating in what are almost always very interesting discussions – and for not turning this site into still another partisan-driven echo chamber.  Lord knows we have enough of those out there already.

Why Joe and Jane Sixpack – and James Madison – Are Likely Pleased With Tuesday’s Results

Bob Johnson, as is his wont, chastises me once again for implicitly suggesting in my previous post that Americans last Tuesday again voted for divided government.  Bob writes, “In fact I suspect that we could and in fact may be getting divided government despite the wish of every voter that the national government be unified — under their party’s leadership, of course.”  In one respect Bob is right, of course; as I should have said more directly in my post, most Americans are not voting for divided government.   However, that is not the same as saying most Americans who voted on Tuesday preferred to have unified government under Democratic control!  (Or Republican control, for that matter.)

It is true that, in the aggregate, Democrat candidates likely won slightly more popular votes in House races than did Republicans. House votes are still being counted, and we need to be careful about counting votes in districts where incumbents from the same party were pitted against each other.  But at this point preliminary numbers suggest that, in the aggregate, Democratic House candidates tallied about 50.3% of the vote to about 49.7% for Republicans, for a margin of about .6% in Democrats’ favor. And, of course, Obama won the popular vote; although the final numbers aren’t in, he’ll likely get close to 51% of the vote.  Not surprisingly, Obama supporters cite these numbers to argue that most Americans voted for unified government under Democratic control.  But this is probably not the case. Consider the National Election Study data regarding split ticket voting in the nine most recent elections to Congress and the Presidency, as summarized in this table:

As you can see, going back to 1976, not once did a majority of voters, at least based on the NES data, vote for unified government under Democratic or Republican control.  Bob is correct, of course, that a strong majority of voters would prefer unified government – if their preferred party was in control. However, there is always a small plurality of voters who, for whatever reason, split their ticket.   And that means a majority of voters typically oppose unified control under the opposition party.

Put another way, the 50.4% of voters who voted for Obama last Tuesday are almost surely not the same 50.3% of voters who voted Democratic in the Congressional race.  Indeed, on average across the last 9 national elections, about 13% of voters have supported the Democratic presidential candidate while voting Republican at the House level.   That percentage has dropped in recent years, as has split-ticket voting more generally, but even if we restrict out analysis to the last four elections, it is still about 8% of voters who split their ticket in this fashion.   Another 10% on average across the last four elections have opted for the Republican presidential candidate but supported a Democrat in the House race.   So, we see a bit more than 17% of voters splitting their tickets in the last four elections.  This is in part a testament, no doubt, to the power of incumbency in House races.

But it is also reminder, apropos Rob Mellen’s comment, that we do not have a parliamentary system, in which our president is selected based on the popular vote for the legislative branch. Instead, ours is a system of separated institutions, each with its own electoral base, sharing powers.  As Bob notes, it is that combination of staggered elections and separated  electoral constituencies that makes it easier for elections to produce divided government.

But is divided government really all that bad?  Bob will undoubtedly be happy to learn that David Mayhew has come out with still another book, Partisan Balance, extolling the virtues of our system of shared powers, despite – because of? – its propensity to return divided government. Mayhew’s essential point is that despite the intense partisan polarization that characterizes government at the national level, the system of staggered elections and different constituencies means the policy process never systematically tilts too much in favor of one party at the expense of the other.   This, of course, drives party purists at both ends of the ideological spectrum nuts – far better, they argue, that one party be allowed to control the government, pass their agenda, and be held accountable for the results, than to have to endure a policy process characterized by partisan bickering, fiscal cliffs and incremental change at best.

That might be true.  But polls indicate that, although there is variation across time, typically as many Americans support divided government as do prefer unified government, although opinion varies  by whether their preferred party controls the presidency or not.  Moreover, consistent with the NES data, there’s never been a majority of Americans surveyed who express a preference for unified government; most are either opposed or indifferent.

Yes, we are facing two more years of divided government.  That’s nothing new.   And it may not be a problem, at least from the perspective of Joe and Jane Sixpack.  And, for that reason, I’m guessing Tuesday’s results would please “Little Jemmy” Madison as well, even if modern-day party purists are frustrated once more.

Once More, With Feeling! Divided We Stand

As we begin assessing the results of the 2012 elections, perhaps the most important takeaway is that, once again, the country has voted for divided government.  When this newly-elected Congress finishes its term in January, 2015, we will have had divided government during 42 of the last 68 years, dating back to the first-post World War II Congress in 1947.  Much of the media focus, understandably, has been on Obama’s narrow victory, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, as of this writing, it appears the Republicans lost a net of about 6 House seats, and therefore they will retain their House majority with something close to 236 of the 435 House seats.  The Democrats, meanwhile, defied expectations (at least mine!) and actually gained two seats in the Senate, upping their advantage there (assuming the two independents Angus King and Bernie Sanders vote with them) to 55-45.

What explains Americans love affair with divided government?  In part, our explanations may vary depending on what type of divided government we see – right now the Congress is divided.  That is the more rare form of divided government, occurring in just 12 years since 1947. In most other years we see a unified Congress facing a president from the other party.  It is tempting to think, but harder to prove, that voters are engaged – consciously, or subconsciously – in some type of partisan balancing act.   If they are consciously dividing control, the question is why?  One explanation that was particularly popular when split control meant choosing a Republican president and Democratically-controlled Congress is that voters saw the parties having different strengths.  Republicans were stronger on defense, and hence better suited for the Presidency, while Democrats were more protective of the social safety net and therefore were given control in Congress.  However, the partisan roles have been more often reversed in divided government since 1994, with Republicans controlling at least the House and Democrats sitting in the Oval Office.  Note that, as Mo Fiorina reminds us, not all voters need to be engaged in this type of reasoning for split government to occur – divided government only requires a minority of voters to split their ticket.  Despite this, critics of the balancing argument suggest this still imposes a relatively high threshold of purposive voting on the part of voters.

A second argument explaining divided government focuses not on ideological or partisan balancing, but instead on structural factors.  Thus, one explanation for why Democrats retained control of the House for so long, even as the nation elected Republican presidents, is that Democrats, by virtue of more active political participation in state government, simply fielded a more experienced and hence stronger set of candidates at the national level.  That is, they benefited by, in effect, having a stronger minor league program. It wasn’t until 1994, after Newt Gingrich had been actively recruiting Republicans to run for office at the local level for a number of years that this structural imbalance was finally overcome.  In recent years scholars have cited a second structural factor – one that advantages Republicans.  They note that Republican voters are more efficiently distributed across the country, while Democrats are bunched up in large urban areas along the coasts.  This more efficient distribution – one accentuated by Republican-controlled gerrymandering in many states after the 2010 census – means Republicans “waste” fewer votes in congressional elections.

Does it matter that government is divided?  In particular, does it lead to legislative gridlock? On this question, scholars are also divided.  David Mayhew has shown that major legislation generally gets churned out whether government is unified or not.  Others argue, however, that under divided government it is more likely that the national government will fail to address pressing problems.   That is, our answer may depend on whether we are looking at pure policy productivity or at the saliency of the legislative Congress passes in relation to societal concerns more generally.

The answer may also depend on more than whether government is divided or not.   Larry Dodd and Scott Schraufnagel suggest that Congress’ legislative productivity depends also on the level of partisan polarization dividing the two parties.  When the two congressional parties are internally very unified, but the ideological distance between them is large, legislative productivity can be hampered even during periods of unified government.  This is because our bicameral legislative process, with its supermajoritarian hurdles, makes it easier for a unified opposition party to stymie action.  Under the current conditions of quasi-divided (split Congress) government and high polarization, the tendency toward gridlock is even greater.

The bottom line is that, for whatever reason, the voters last Tuesday essentially opted for the status quo.  Despite protestations to the contrary, Obama did not receive a mandate – if anything, his position is weaker now than it has ever been.  That means from his perspective,  the legislative window of opportunity starts small, and will likely close quickly.  To be sure,  I don’t expect that both parties, in their lameduck version,  will be willing to drive the country over the fiscal cliff come the start of the New Year. But the long-term outlook for inter-party cooperation on legislation in the incoming Congress is not promising.  Republicans, responding to their own constituent pressures, are likely to be as unified in the new Congress as they were in the last.  This does not mean major legislation won’t be passed.  Mayhew shows that it can still happen – but only when it addresses the political interests of both parties.  Those cases are rare indeed.

The Big Winner Last Night? Political Science!

For a political scientist, last night’s outcomes were very, very satisfying.  To begin, viewed in the aggregate, the structural-based forecast models issued by last September hit the two-party popular vote share almost exactly on the head, as of this moment.  (As long time readers know, because there are so many different structural models, I take their average and median forecasts as my best estimate of what is going to happen.)  To refresh your memory, those models indicated that Obama would win 50.3% of the two-party vote, on average, with a median forecast of 50.6%.  Right now, Obama’s share of the two party vote is about 51%.  Not bad.

Meanwhile, the state-based polling aggregators also performed as expected, with Sam Wang and Drew Linzer and Simon Jackman (I apologize to the others out there who also got it right) – pending the Florida outcome – also hitting their Electoral College projections exactly on the mark.   Yes, these models don’t tell us why the election turned out as it did, but they demonstrated once again that the best way to predict an election is to ask a sample of voters the day before how they are likely to vote.

So yesterday was a huge victory for political scientists.  But we can’t, as a profession, let down our guard.  There are pundits out there, still roaming the political landscape, spreading their punditry to the unsuspecting masses.  As I drove home last night, I heard on the NPR the first discussion of the “M-word” – (pssst – “mandate”).  Let’s be clear, no matter how much pundits say otherwise, Obama did not win a mandate last night, either prospectively or retrospectively.  What he won was a seat at the governing table for another four years – a seat from which he will find his reach growing gradually shorter as his term progresses.  All this seat provides is an opportunity to do what most presidents are allowed to do: suggest an agenda, and then draw on one’s formal powers and whatever residual influence one might have by virtue of public support and reputation to bargain with the opposing party to implement that agenda.  In this case, Republicans are going to point out that the election essentially was a vote for the status quo – not for change in Democrat’s direction.  Let the bargaining begin, starting with that fiscal cliff.

I’ll be on with a more extensive post-election analysis, but I leave you with a final warning:  now that the election is over, pundits can go back to pundicating without fear that results might prove them wrong.

Meanwhile, I leave you with this visual image (pardon my French):


Live Blogging The Presidential Election Returns

It’s 6:30, and I welcome everyone to the Presidential Power Election Night Live Blog.  As always, I invite everyone to join in via the comments section.   Now that the software glitch (that would be me), my comments should post on your screen as I post them. We’ll be heading over to the Karl Rove Crossroads Superpac Cafe (Ok, just the Crossroads Cafe) in a moment, where I’ll be joined by my colleague and co-host Bert Johnson, and where I’ll have my crack research team – Anna Esten, Sarah Pfander and Owen Witek on the computers crunching the election returns all night long.  Danny Zhang – the fourth member of the team – is on the ground in Colorado, a swing state, where I hope he’ll sent us some reports.

But first – some bad news. They aren’t serving beer at the Cafe tonight!  Damn you, Karl Rove!