Author Archives: Matthew Dickinson

No, That’s Not The Message Voters Sent Yesterday

I’m working on about 3 hours sleep but wanted to give some initial thoughts regarding yesterday’s completely unexpected Senate and House results. At last check Republicans had picked up at least seven seats in the Senate, giving them a 52-43 margin (with two independents caucusing with Democrats.) However, with all the votes in, it appears that Republican challenger Dan Sullivan has ousted incumbent Democrat Mark Begich in Alaska, which would give Republicans 53 seats. Meanwhile, Virginia is headed to a state-mandated recount between incumbent Democrat Mark Warner and Republican challenger Ed Gillespie, and Louisiana will hold a runoff between Republican Bill Cassidy and incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu in December. I suspect Cassidy will win the runoff, but there’s a good chance Warner survives the recount. So, conceivably Republicans could end up with 54 Senate seats which would be a net gain of nine.

In some ways the House results are equally impressive for the Republicans, given how few races were really up for grabs and the fact that Republicans went into yesterday already holding 234 seats. As of now it appears Republicans have netted 14 seats to push their majority to 243, but with results still pending in more than a dozen races that total could go up to as much as 19 seats gained. One has to go back to the 80th Congress (1947-49) to see a Republican House majority that big.

So, what are we to make of these results? To begin, it’s important to resist the inevitable tendency for pundits to overreach in their effort to discern “the message” the voters send yesterday. Already I am reading that the results indicate 1) a rejection of Obama,  2) a rejection of Democrats’ “war on women”  3) a rejection of Democratic liberal governance or maybe some combination of all of these. Some Democrats, not surprisingly, are suggesting that Republicans “bought” the elections due to backing from Superpacs.

The reality is that while this was a good night for Republicans, the results were driven by midterm election dynamics that political scientists have long documented. In this respect last night’s results were not unusual – nor were they even unexpected, at least based on fundamentals-driven forecasts. The most important point to remember is that the electorate in a midterm is different than what we see in a presidential election year, a point I made repeatedly last night. I haven’t seen turnout figures, but I’m guessing turnout was about 40%, down about 18% from 2012’s presidential election. More important than the size of the turnout, however, is its composition: yesterday it skewed older, whiter and more affluent than the electorate of 2012, and these are all attributes associated with a greater propensity to vote Republican.

More generally, the President’s party almost always loses House and Senate seats in a midterm – this is as close to a covering law that we have in political science. The magnitude of last night’s House losses by Democrats were surely attenuated somewhat by the fact that Republicans controlled so many seats, but nonetheless a net gain of 14-19 House seats by Republicans is well within the norm for a midterm election. On average, the president’s party loses about 28 seats in these midterms during the post-World War II era.

In the Senate Republicans did better, but not unusually so based on the fundamentals. As this chart indicates, political scientists who forecast the Senate race thought Republicans would pick up 8 seats based on the state of the economy, Obama’s approval ratings, and the prevailing view among most voters that America was headed on the wrong track.

Yes, this election was in part a referendum on Obama, but exits polls indicate that fully 45% of voters didn’t factor Obama’s performance into their vote at all, while 19% said their vote was meant to express support for him, so this can’t be viewed as a wholesale rejection of his presidency. More generally, when the economy is weak, the president suffers from low approval ratings and people are generally dissatisfied with the state of the nation, we should not be surprised that a Republican-oriented electorate dumped on members of a Democratic president’s party in Congress.  Indeed, the greater surprise would have been if Democrats somehow held onto their Senate majority in the face of these fundamentals.

Of course, elections have consequences, and yesterday is no exception. To me, the most important is that these results are not likely to reduce polarization in Congress. Consider the Senate Democrats who were turned out last night. David Pryor was the second most conservative Democrat in the Senate, Mary Landrieu (who may yet hang on) the third most, Kay Hagan fourth and Mark Begich 12th among the 55 Democratic/Independents Senators. It is almost certainly the case that the Republicans replacing them are not going to be more moderate, although I confess to not knowing enough about them to place them on an ideological scale with any great degree of confidence. Still, I’m fairly confident polarization is not likely to decrease during the next two years.

In looking ahead, my guess is that the Senate will become more unruly – not less so – during the next two years. This is partly because the Democratic caucus has shifted left with the loss of its more moderate members. But it is also because several conservative Senate Republicans – with at least one eye on a potential 2016 presidential run – will view this election as an opportunity to push conservative policies designed to appeal to the party base. As David Mayhew reminds, for legislators the payoff is more often in the position taken than in the legislative results. Similarly, I see no reason why Obama is going change his ideological leanings as a result of last night’s “shellacking” redux. Presidents – like any politician – are not infinitely malleable when it comes to ideology. They have core beliefs that guide their conduct, although in Obama’s case those beliefs sometimes appear frustratingly opaque. Rather than do a governing about face, Obama is likely going to accommodate Republicans when he can, but otherwise wield that veto threat to block Republican initiatives, just as Gerald Ford, the two Bushes and Bill Clinton did when they faced an opposition-controlled Congress. We may see legislation passed, but only where both parties see it in their own interest. In short, last night’s election is not likely to have affected the strategic calculus that has governed relations between Obama and Republicans to this date.

A final thought. As the table below indicates, we have cycled through almost every possible configuration of partisan control of our national governing institutions – a period of instability that testifies to the public’s apparent unwillingness to give governing power to one party or the other for any significant amount of time.

Picture2As long as individual Senators and Representatives believe that their electoral fortunes rest in part on the popularity of their party’s “brand name” among voters, and as long as the parties’ governing coalitions appear evenly matched even as they grow increasingly polarized in views, it remains the case that each side will usually conclude that it is not in their interest to compromise. And so we appeared destined to cycle through still another governing configuration.

Next up: the 2016 elections. Let the campaigns begin!

Live Blogging At the Grille!

Hi all,

Welcome to another night of Live Blogging from the “Karl Rove” Crossroads Cafe here at wonderful Middlebury!  (Actually, I’m not there yet, but am heading in to set up with Bert Johnson).  Our crack research staff will be Tina Berger, Kate Hamilton, Day Robins and Danny Zhang.  As always, I’ll be doing double duty co-hosting the festivities and trying to blog and tweet – please join in on the live blog!

First states we are looking at will be early returns from Kentucky and Vermont, both of which have polls closing at 7 p.m.

 

The Election Forecast: It’s The Fundamentals, Stupid!

Political scientist Lynn Vavreck posted an interesting New York Times column a couple days back in which she noted that midterm elections – more so than presidential elections – are referendums on the president and his party. As she writes, “Instead of rewarding or punishing the incumbent president for his handling of the nation’s economy, in midterm years voters address the president more directly — by penalizing his party members, on average, but also by calibrating that punishment based on how the president is doing his job. Average approval ratings of the way the president is ‘handling the job’ explain more of the variation in seat loss than the economic indicators.”

What Vavreck is referring to is the well-known “midterm” loss phenomenon which I have written about on multiple occasions. Briefly, as political scientists have documented, the president’s party on average loses about 28 House seats and 4 Senate seats in midterm elections during the post-World War II era. There are several explanations for why this is the case, but Vavreck cites one – the “surge and decline” thesis that points to differences in the size and composition of midterm elections versus presidential elections as a primary reason why the president’s party does less well in off-year elections. Strictly speaking, of course, the surge-and-decline thesis is not necessarily a referendum on the president’s performance so much as a fundamental aspect of turnout differences. Historically, as this chart indicates, midterm turnout in recent years hovers at about 40% – these are the habitual voters who turn out every election, whereas in presidential elections we see more variation and usually higher turnout. (This data is from Michael McDonald’s site.)

 

In 2010, turnout was about 41% of eligible voters, but it was about 58% in the 2012 presidential election.

But, it is also the case that beyond simple turnout factors, midterms are also directly referendums on a president’s performance. From this perspective, how one votes in the midterm is a direct reflection of a voter’s attitudes toward the President. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, congressional candidates – as strategic actors – are very much aware of when the President is a liability. Under those conditions, they have an understandable desire to keep him at arm’s length, as we have seen in “purple” state Senate races in Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire this fall.

In their forecast models, political scientists try to account for both the surge-and-decline and the referendum factors by including a midterm variable, but also a measure of the president’s approval ratings. However, we do not want to overstate the degree to which the midterm is all about the President. As this table from Pew shows, even during the current election cycle, only about 32% of voters see their midterm vote as driven by opposition to Obama, while 20% say it is a vote in favor of Obama. That means 45% of those surveyed say their midterm vote has nothing to do with the President! And, as the chart indicates – that’s not unusual; many people in past midterms say their vote is not a referendum on the president’s performance.

So, if not just the president – what is the midterm about? One factor is a general assessment of how well the country is “doing”, captured in questions asking whether the country is on the right track or not. Here we see that most people think the country is currently on the wrong track.

right track

Another influence is the relative preference for one party or the other, often measured in the generic ballot question.

generic ballot

On this measure Republicans also have a slight advantage. Finally, the economy does matter, even in midterm elections, and some measure of economic conditions is often included in fundamentals-based forecast models. For example, Michael Lewis-Beck and Charles Tien include a measure for changes in disposable income in their forecast model.

When we incorporate all these variables into a “fundamentals”-based forecast for today’s midterm elections, what do we get? Middlebury student Day Robins put together this chart summarizing the predictions made by several political science forecast models. (Note that some models only forecast House results, some only Senate, and some do both.  Note also that most forecasts do not estimate a probability of a party taking over a chamber.)Picture1
Note that these models are not driven by the same logic that drive predictions based on poll aggregation, such as those by Drew Linzer at the Daily Kos or Mark Blumenthal’s Huffington Post. Poll-driven models are likely to be very accurate – maybe more accurate than fundamentals-only polls – but they don’t tell us why the polls turn out the way they do. For that, we need to turn to political scientists. And, as Robins’ chart makes clear, the fundamentals – the fact that this is a midterm, the President is unpopular, Democrats have more exposed seats, the economy is sluggish and generally more people think the country is on the wrong track – does not bode well for Democrats in either the House or the Senate. How badly will they do? On average, the models indicate Democrats will lose 12 House seats, with the median figure 14. In the Senate, the models say Democrats will lose on average 7 seats, dropping them to 48, with the median at 8 seats. Both forecasts sound right to me. To make it official, I’ll go with a Republican pickup of 8 Senate seats and 14 House seats. That will give you all something to root against tonight!

No turnout machine, no matter how sophisticated, can make much of a dent when the fundamentals mean you are moving electorally against a strong partisan headwind.

Keep in mind that, as the table above shows, as midterms elections have become increasingly nationalized, the partisan tides affect all candidates to a much greater degree. And so I expect it to go today.  This is likely to be a predominantly nationalized election, one in which, taken collectively, the fundamentals favor Republicans more so than Democrats.

I’ll be live blogging from the “Karl Rove” Crossroads Grille tonight, while simultaneously trying to keep the Middlebury students from crying in their beer. I hope you can join in – it’s been a while since I’ve been able to do a live blog.

See you at 7:30 – by then they may have already called the Vermont races!

Are Democrats Really Running From Obama?

Are Democrats really running from Obama in this election cycle?

In a recent column liberal-leaning columnist Paul Waldman argued that, as the article’s title puts it, the “‘Democrats running from Obama story’ is being way overplayed.” Waldman’s basic point is that while Obama is not particularly popular – his approval ratings are hovering in the low 40% range – neither is he unusually toxic by historical standards. Rather than running from Obama, Waldman argues that “What this is really about is geography. What’s distinct about this year is that there are so many close races not just in ‘purple’ states, but in states that are deeply red. Should we be surprised that a candidate like [Alison] Grimes doesn’t want to be associated with Obama? She’s running in Kentucky. A state Obama lost in 2012 by 23 points. Mark Pryor in Arkansas isn’t asking the President to campaign with him, either. That’s because Obama lost there by 24 points.” Waldman concludes by claiming that, “But even if Obama were more popular nationally, the same thing would be happening.”

This last statement is almost certainly wrong. To be sure, we can quibble with how to define “overplayed” when it comes to the media’s claim that Democrats are running from Obama. But Waldman’s argument is still more than a bit disingenuous. To begin, one reason these states are “deeply red” is not because of “geography”, but because they voted against Obama in the last two presidential elections. So yes, Grimes and Pryor aren’t asking Obama to campaign with them, but that’s because he’s simply not popular in Kentucky and Arkansas. If he was, the geography would change.

A better test of Waldman’s claim is to look at those “purple” states that Obama won in 2008 and 2012. Take New Hampshire, a state Obama won by a little over 5% in 2012 and by almost 10% in 2008. This year incumbent Democratic Senator Jean Shaheen is locked in a tight race with her Republican opponent Scott Brown. Given the results of the last two presidential races, you might think Shaheen has begged the President to camp out with her in New Hampshire so that she could benefit from his presence. You would be wrong. Based on the official presidential schedule listed on the White House website, Middlebury College student Tina Berger finds that Obama has not visited New Hampshire once during the last six months. The reason, of course, is that contrary to Waldman’s theme, Obama is toxic in New Hampshire. A poll from early September puts the President’s overall approval rating in New Hampshire at 38%, with his disapproval at 51%. Not surprisingly, Shaheen has worked assiduously to make the case that this election is not about the President, or his policies, but instead about what she brings home to New Hampshire. Her ads consistently tout the local projects – widening Interstate 93, opening veterans’ care facilities, reopening a local prison – that she has sponsored while in the Senate, as well as her New Hampshire roots. Her opponent Scott Brown, meanwhile, has flooded the air waves with ads, like this one below, reminding voters that Shaheen has voted with the President “99% of the time”, and taking particular care to mention her support for Obamacare.

In his closing ad that has just begun airing in New Hampshire, Brown pointedly says that while Obama is not on the ballot, his policies are. Nor is New Hampshire an anomaly. In Iowa, a state Obama won in 2008 and 2012, polls show that Democratic Representative Bruce Braley and Republican state Senator Joni Ernst are in a virtual dead heat to fill the Senate seat of retiring Democrat Tom Harkin. Surely Obama’s presence on the campaign trail might swing the state to Braley? Apparently not – Berger’s data shows that Obama hasn’t visited this state in the last six months either. And no wonder – his approval ratings in a state he won twice hover in the low 40% range. And so it goes for a range of swing states; according to Berger Obama has visited Colorado, Georgia and North Carolina – states with hotly contested Senate races – only once each in the last six months, and that he has skipped Louisiana, where Democrat Mary Landrieu is in the race of her political life, entirely during that period. In contrast, he’s made 8 visits – many for fundraising purposes – to California and New York during this six-month period.

And Obama’s toxicity extends to House races in purple states as well. Here’s an ad run by Democrat John Barrow, a five-term Representative from Georgia’s 12th District. Veteran handicapper Charlie Cook currently rates Barrow’s race against Republican challenger Rick Allen as a toss-up. Notice how many times Barrow mentions the President, or even his party affiliation, in this ad (hat tip to Kate Hamilton):

Instead – like Shaheen – he touts local projects that he has helped bring to Georgia, even as he positions himself as an anti-Washington candidate. In a classic illustration of Fenno’s Paradox, Barrow runs for Congress by running against it.

It is well-known that the president’s party typically loses seats in midterm elections. This chart shows the losses the president’s party has incurred during the post-World War II midterms. As you can see, the president’s party gained seats only twice – in 1998 and 2002 – and both those sets of elections took place during unusual circumstances (Clinton’s impeachment and post-9-11 ).

As I’ve discussed previously, however, recent midterms have increasingly been driven more by national forces than they have by local ones. And in an era of ideologically-polarized political parties, that means the midterm is inevitably in part a referendum on the President who is viewed as the symbolic face of his party. Indeed, most political science midterm forecast models include a variable measuring the President’s popularity. Candidates for Congress are strategic actors. Both Republicans and Democrats understand that Obama’s policies are on the ballot this election cycle, protestation to the contrary notwithstanding. And they are behaving accordingly. In purple states, Obama’s relative lack of approval is not helping Democrats which is why they are not asking him to campaign for them.

Are Democrats really running from Obama this election cycle?  Yes they are.

President Obama: A First Class Intellect, But a Second Class Temperament?

President Theodore Roosevelt, the great Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, possessed “a second class intellect, but a first class temperament.” (Some historians think Holmes was describing TR’s nephew Franklin, but no matter.) If pundits are to be believed, President Obama suffers from the opposite condition: he has a first-class intellect, but a temperament that, as recent events indicate, seems ill-suited to acting with the urgency and decisiveness necessary to deal with crises both home and abroad.

In previous posts I’ve dealt with the question of Obama’s character, and the relative role of intellect versus temperament more generally as a determinant of presidential effectiveness, but the issue has resurfaced recently due in no small part to efforts by Republicans to frame this midterm election as a referendum on the Obama presidency. In particular, they have cited what they see as the President’s inability to deal with crises in a timely, effective fashion – a failing they attribute to his passive demeanor and lawyer-like decisionmaking tendencies. Obama’s passive temperament, they argue, too often leads to decisionmaking paralysis, with the consequence that the administration has been slow to act on a succession of crises, ranging from the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria to the Russian-backed Ukrainian separatist movement to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Josh Green’s recent column criticizing Obama’s handling of the Ebola outbreak neatly encapsulates this recurring theme: “The White House response to this latest national crisis had already run a familiar course: the initial assurance that everything was under control; the subsequent realization that it wasn’t; the delay as administration officials appeared conflicted about what to do; and the growing frustration with a president who seemed a step or two behind each new development.”  Moreover, Green argues, this pattern of too little, too late is all too familiar: “If all this feels frustratingly familiar, many former White House officials agree. The difficulty in formulating a response echoes the fitful efforts to address the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, the advance of Islamic State, the rollout of healthcare.gov, and even the shooting of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Mo.”

In response, Obama’s defenders, such as the Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, argue that the President’s detached, analytical manner is in fact a temperamental strong suit that prevents him from overreacting to events for the sake of appearances. As an example, Yglesias points to Obama’s willingness to ignore his advisers’ advice to give up on health care reform in the aftermath of Scott Brown’s surprise Senate victory.

What are we to make of these conflicting views? Part of the problem is that our view of Obama’s “temperament” is invariably colored by broader assessments of his presidency. In this regard, Green’s critique is not new – pundits have been criticizing Obama’s “no drama” persona since at least the 2010 midterm “shellacking” that cost Democrats control of the House, and the criticism figures prominently in recent memoirs by former administration officials. At the start of Obama’s presidency, however, these very traits were viewed by pundits as a welcome alternative to his predecessor George W. Bush’s impetuous, even reckless decisionmaking style. As William Buckley’s son Christopher put it in 2008 when he announced that despite his conservative heritage he was voting for Obama: “He has exhibited throughout a ‘first-class temperament,’ pace Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s famous comment about FDR.” (Never mind that Holmes was probably referring to the other Roosevelt.) In contrast, it was Obama’s opponent John McCain who, Buckley believed, seemed temperamentally ill-suited to be president.

But there is a deeper problem with the analyses by Yglesias, Green, Buckley and others: it is that they overstate the degree to which temperament and character can help predict presidential effectiveness. This is not to say that a president’s temperament has no bearing on a president’s performance. It is to say, however, that when it comes to explaining why presidents make the choices they do, temperament rarely plays a controlling role. Consider Green’s critique of Obama’s handling of recent crises: are these “fitful efforts” really a function of the President’s temperament? Or do they reflect a combination of difficult problems, incomplete information, and uncertain (and often complex) solutions that are only partially, if at all, under Obama’s control? Would a president with a different set of temperamental traits – say, Bush’s “decisiveness” – proved any more effective at handling the Ebola outbreak?  (This presumes, of course, that one accepts it has been mishandled in the first place.) As I’ve discussed on several occasions, it is hard to distinguish the two presidents’ handling of the War on Terror in its broad outlines despite the apparent gulf separating their respective temperaments.

Part of the issue here is that pundits don’t have the luxury of peeking behind the curtain to see whether and how temperament influences presidential behavior. The celebrated presidential scholar Richard Neustadt once proclaimed that the presidency was no “place for amateurs”. At the time he wrote this line in 1960 he was thinking about President Dwight Eisenhower who, despite remaining personally popular during two terms in office, appeared unwilling to risk that popularity in pursuit of controversial policies, such as civil rights. But subsequent research indicates that Eisenhower, despite the criticism of his passive, detached decisionmaking style, was in fact far more engaged and influential behind the scenes than his public demeanor seemed to suggest, particularly in the foreign policy realm. Neustadt acknowledged as much in subsequent editions of his study of the presidency. Future scholars may yet find evidence of Obama’s “hidden hand” leadership.

But a more fundamental problem is determining what aspects of a president’s temperament matters, and when. Anyone who has listened to the Cuban Missile Crisis tapes (as I have) can’t help but be struck by how President Kennedy resisted the pressure from almost all his advisers, including his brother Robert, to take out a Soviet-controlled surface-to-air missile site after it shot down an American U-2 reconnaissance plane. It often seems that JFK is the only one in the room who fully contemplates the ramifications of a U.S. military attack on Cuba. Of course, this was the same JFK who less than two years earlier had approved the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion designed to topple the Castro regime. It was the same JFK who engaged in reckless dalliances throughout his presidency with a string of women that, among other effects, left him open to blackmail from his FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.  It was the same JFK who throughout his presidency sought ways to assassinate Castro through any means possible.

My point is that it is too easy to point to temperament as the deciding factor in explaining presidential behavior, never mind why some presidents succeed and others do not. This is because it is hard to observe aspects of temperament in play during a presidency. But even when biographers and others peel back the curtain to document a presidency after the fact, it remains very difficult to separate out the impact of a president’s temperament from the myriad other factors that influence why a president acts as he did. In crucial instances, as in the Cuban Missile crisis, a president’s temperament may be the deciding factor in determining how events play out. But it is more often the case, I believe, that because presidential choices are often so constrained by factors outside their control, temperament has little bearing on whether presidents succeed or not. This won’t stop Republicans from citing Obama’s “crisis of competence” as a reason to vote out Democrats come November. But it should make voters think twice about accepting that particular argument.

Addendum 9:13 p.m. Josh Green tweets me to point out that, in fact, he did “peek behind the curtain” via his interviews with White House aides.  That’s a fair point.  Moreover, as I noted in my original post, former administration officials like Leon Panetta and Robert Gates have noted Obama’s lawyer-like tendencies.  So this aspect of Obama’s “temperament” is well noted, if these sources can be trusted.   It does raise the question, however, just how important this aspect of his personality is in terms of explaining how the President has responded to various recent crises.  It is impossible to fully answer that question in the course of a single blog post, but I’ll try to give it another shot in a post on Monday.