Author Archives: Matthew Dickinson

Why Putting Bannon On The NSC Is Probably A Good Idea

With the media firestorm generated by President Trump’s executive order on immigration, some news outlets were slow to pick up on another controversial and potentially more important president directive: Presidential National Security Memorandum 2, which Trump issued two days ago.  That presidential memorandum (contrary to this New York Times article, it was not an executive order) laid out the organizational structure that will presumable help guide Trump’s national security poliycmaking process (including homeland security issues) during his presidency.  Among the details, the directive stipulated that controversial White House political strategist Steve Bannon was one of those “invited as attendees to any NSC meeting.” Bannon was also extended an invitation to regularly attend the national security principals’ meetings as well (those meetings of the highest ranking NSC members not attended by Trump).  At the same time, Trump’s memorandum directed that the director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff only attend Principals Committee meetings when “issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed,” which many in the media interpreted as a downgrading of their positions. Under Obama,  by comparison, no White House political strategist was extended such a courtesy, (although Obama’s chief of staff was invited) while both the DNI and the JCS chair were regular invitees.

Not surprisingly, the decision to extend Bannon a permanent invitation to participate in the national security policymaking process generated a negative reaction from a range of individuals in both parties, including Republican Arizona Senator John McCain and former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice, who reportedly called the decision “stone cold crazy”. David Rothkopf, who has written a couple of histories of the NSC, penned an op ed piece in the Washington Post that included this dire warning: “…Bannon is the precisely wrong person for this wrong role. His national security experience consists of a graduate degree and seven years in the Navy. More troubling, Bannon’s role as chairman of, with its racist, misogynist and Islamophobic perspectives, and his avowed desire to blow up our system of government, suggests this is someone who not only has no business being a permanent member of the most powerful consultative body in the world — he has no business being in a position of responsibility in any government.”

Even Bette Midler took time to tweet her concern:

Bette Midler Verified account @BetteMidler 7h7 hours ago

#Trump‘s reshuffling US National Security Council (NSC), DOWNGRADING THE MILITARY CHIEFS OF STAFF! Giving a regular seat Steve Bannon! WHY?”

What is one to make of this reaction? With all due respect to the Divine Miss M’s foreign policy chops, I want to make the argument here that giving Bannon a formal place at the national security table is probably a good idea, given the fact that he’s probably going to play an important role in Trump’s national security process whether he sits in on meetings or not. Nor do I agree that the directive necessarily indicates a demotion for the JCS chair or DNI. However, there are other aspects of Trump’s order – aspects ignored by the critics – that worry me far more than the formal status for any single individual, including Bannon.

A little bit of background to Trump’s directive will help put it in historical context. Every recent president has, very early in their administration, issued a directive similar to Trump’s that lays down the organizational template for national security policymaking. Again, here’s the full text of Trump’s presidential memorandum.  And here is Obama’s comparable directive  and George W. Bush’s. As you can see, despite the difference in titles (Obama’s is labeled a Presidential Policy Directives, or PPD, while Bush’s is a National Security Policy Directive, or NSPD) they adopt a similar format.  But neither Bush nor Obama included a White House political strategist as a regular attendee.  Indeed, according to former Bush chief of staff Josh Bolten,  Bush explicitly forbid his chief political strategist Karl Rove from sitting in on NSC meetings, for fear that it would signal that political considerations tainted his national security policymaking process.  Although Obama’s political strategist David Axelrod occasionally attended Obama’s national security meetings, he was not listed as a regular attendee and did not actively participate in deliberations. However, both Bush and Obama did include their White House chief of staffs as regular invitees. It bears noting that in Obama’s case, Rahm Emanuel, who was Obama’s first chief of staff, was very influential in devising political strategy for the President.

In thinking about the ramifications of Bannon’s appointment, it is worth keeping in mind a couple of points.  First, Trump’s presidential memorandum is only a blueprint – it is a first stab by the President at deciding how to decide – but it is issued when Trump has very little experience in running the NSC process, and before anyone really knows how personalities will, or won’t, interact.  So we should not read too much into this document in terms of projecting who will run the show, and based on what input. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the early evidence if media reports are to be believed (see Trump’s controversial executive order on immigration) suggests that Bannon is already playing a key role in the making of national security policy.  By virtue of his location in the West Wing, and his regular meetings with Obama Trump it seems clear that Bannon is going to make his views on national security policy known to Trump whether he’s on the invite list to NSC meetings or not. Given this reality, in some ways it might be more helpful to Trump if Bannon is exposed to alternative views in the formal NSC deliberative process – and if Bannon’s views are subject to formal critique as well. Finally, one might argue that a pure separation of national security strategy and politics is not only unfeasible – it’s a bad idea.  Politics matters even in the national security realm – if you lack a strategy for developing political support for a policy, it is likely to be more difficult to implement.  In short, politics does not stop at the water’s edge.

Let me conclude with three additional observations.  To begin, some of the most important details are left unsaid in this memo – specifically, the number and composition of the policy coordinating committees (PCC’s) which apparently will replace Obama’s interagency committees as the first level of policy development.  One of the problems recent NSC staff structures have had is the proliferation of lower-level committees, and attendant meetings that sucked up an incredible amount of participants’ time.  Each meeting requires an agenda, staff preparation, meeting minutes,  etc., and in previous administrations many participants in the process complain that they were too focused on the administrative requirements of preparing and holding meetings, and less on policy development and articulation.  One can get a sense of the number of these PCC’s by looking at Bush’s initial 2001 memo, which established six regional PCC’s and 11 functional ones. That’s a lot of paper pushing!  We shall see how Trump’s process unfolds at the lower level, which is in some respects more important than who sits on the principals committee, since it is where many policies are first incubated.

Second, a presidential memorandum can only provide a template for decisionmaking – ultimately, Trump’s priorities will decide which issues make it from the PCC’s up through the deputies’ level to the principals and the NSC.  Issues that Trump does not prioritize will get resolved through interagency deliberation at the lower level.  The key for any White House process is determining which issues rise to the top, and which do not.  In recent administrations, the NSC staff structure has become so large and unwieldy that it has developed a tendency to suck up lower-level issues into the President’s orbit when these should be more properly resolved before reaching the President’s desk.  The effectiveness of Trump’s deliberations will depend in part on how widely and deeply he wants to get involved in the policy weeds, and whether his staff process can separate the substantive policy wheat from the chaff.

Third, since at least Brent Scowcroft’s time as George H. W. Bush’s national security adviser (see his directive here), the national security adviser – in Trump’s case Michael Flynn – has managed the national security policymaking process, chairing the principals’ meeting, orchestrating the paperwork, etc.  To be effective in this role, Flynn needs Trump’s full support, so that no one (read: Bannon!) is rewarded for going around Flynn to try to influence Trump outside the formal deliberative process. At the same time, Flynn must cultivate a reputation for being an honest broker who presents all views to Trump, particularly when there is disagreement among key advisers.  This is a difficult task and historically one that often leads to friction with cabinet members, particularly the Secretary of State.  Again, I have no idea how well Flynn is suited to this task – early reports raise questions – but it will go a long way toward determining how effective Trump’s national security policymaking process is.

My takeaway point, however, is that Bannon’s influence on the national security policymaking process is not likely to be determined by whether he participates in formal NSC deliberations – it’s going to come from his direct access to Trump via the Oval Office daily meetings. Although symbolism matters in Washington in terms of signaling who is important, the real currency for any presidential aide is face time with the President.  Bannon’s going to get that whether he’s formally on the NSC and principals invite list or not, in my view.  Given that reality, forcing him to justify his views in a more formal deliberative process may not be such a bad idea.

Why Trump Won: It Was Fundamental!

In life, they say, timing is everything.  When I began doing my election-themed talks in late summer, after it was clear who the general election candidates were, Hillary Clinton consistently held a lead in the various aggregate polling results, such this one by Huffington Post, by about 5%-8%.


Nonetheless, I assured my audiences that there were good reasons to expect this race to tighten during the next two months.   As evidence, I cited the political science forecast models which, again looked at in the aggregate, seemed to indicate that this race was going to be a dead heat.  As long time readers know, these models attempt to predict the two-party presidential popular vote as a function of the “fundamentals” – that is,  how well the economy is doing, whether the country is at war, and how long the incumbent party has held the White House, to name some of the most frequently utilized variables.  While not perfect, and keeping in mind that they differ in the particulars, and thus in the final forecasts, these models nonetheless provide a decent template for understanding the context which both candidates then try to exploit in their favor.   Simply put, when things are going well, the incumbent party candidate should try to run a clarifying campaign, to use Lyn Vavreck’s term, while the opponent will seek to focus the message on something else less favorable to the party in power.  Assuming candidates make proper use of these fundamentals, the forecast models issued by Labor Day are a reliable, if not perfect, indicator of how the race will turn out.  With that in mind, the key slide in my talks, which never failed to elicit a crowd reaction, was this one:


This was based on the political science forecast models available at the time – subsequent ones changed this aggregate forecast slightly at the margins, but the essential point remained:  this election was too close to call, and could go either way.  That, of course, was not what most of my audiences wanted to hear.  As it turned out, however, the political science models – looked at in the aggregate, (which is how I typically made my prediction every four years) – were spot on in 2016.  As of today, with votes still coming in, Clinton has won about 50.2% of the two-party popular vote – or almost exactly what the political science median forecast predicted.

How, then, to explain those polls showing that Clinton was in the lead?  Early in the campaign season, I told my audiences that, assuming Trump and Clinton ran effective campaigns – that is, that they made effective use of the fundamentals in crafting their respective messages, the polling gap between the two should close.  Indeed, there is extensive evidence from previous elections, as documented by Erickson and Wlezien, that as the campaign progresses, partisans come home to roost in a way that tends to lead to a tightening in the polls. However, as the election droned on, it became increasingly clear that in my talks I had to address the 800-pound hairdo in the room:  Trump was not closing the gap with Clinton nearly as quickly as I anticipated. This was surprising, because as Drew Linzer and others have demonstrated, and as the graph below shows, election polls typically get increasingly accurate as the potential voters begin tuning in and become more informed regarding which candidate comes closer to their partisan leanings. (The y-axis in the graph is a coefficient showing how much the polling aggregate predicts the final Democratic popular vote share.)


The result, as political scientists have documented in previous presidential elections, is that as the campaign heads toward the finish line, and partisans come home to roost, the polls should prove an increasingly accurate indicator of the final vote. Indeed, Drew Linzer had correctly forecast the Electoral College vote in 2012 by updating one particular forecast model (Abramowitz’s Time for a Change model) using only state-based polls. However, in 2016 his state-level poll-based forecast consistently showed a likely Clinton victory all the way up to Election Day.  Indeed on Election eve, he predicted a Clinton Electoral College victory of 323-215.  And he wasn’t the only one to do so – other analysts who had made accurate polls-only predictions in the past, such as Sam Wang, were also forecasting an Electoral College victory for Clinton.

So why wasn’t Trump closing the gap so that polls came closer to the political science fundamentals-only forecast?  I could think of two explanations.  One was that the state polls were somehow off, and were underestimating Trump’s support. In all my talks I reminded my audience that the polls-only forecast depended on the polls being right.  (Not surprisingly, many audience members have forgotten that!)  The second was that he was running a sub-optimal campaign, one in which his continual missteps made it more difficult for him to capitalize on the fundamentals that predicted this was a 50/50 race. In the end, I went with Trump running a suboptimal campaign.  That was probably the wrong choice.  But it’s worth explaining why I made it.

In adjudicating between the two explanations, I compared what I was seeing at Trump rallies with what prior research had shown about polling accuracy at the state level. As I’ve documented in many previous posts, Trump’s rallies were huge and enthusiastic.  And in talking to his supporters, it became clear that the vast majority were not the xenophobic racists that pundits (and not a few of my colleagues) thought they were.  But I worried that focusing on rallies did not give me nearly as accurate a view of the entire electorate as did the polling numbers.   By the end of the campaign, I was concluding my talks by saying this was going to be a close race – one closer than the polls indicated – but unless those polls were completely wrong (and they hadn’t been in the past), Clinton was likely to win the election.  I summarized the Trump-as-poor-campaigner in this slide that suggested the election WAS rigged – by Trump!:


As it turned out, however, the political science forecast models had it right, and the state-level polls did not.  This is not to say that the national polls were wildly inaccurate. Indeed, as Sean Trende suggests, they were, on the whole, about as accurate as the national polls were in 2012, which on average understated Obama’s final victory margin of 3.9% by about 3.2%. It’s probably worth repeating that, as of this moment, Clinton has a popular vote lead of about 700,000 votes, or about .5% and that could grow to about 1% by the time all the votes are counted.  That’s less than the RCP final four-way average which gave her about a 3.3% margin. But that’s a difference that’s actually a tad smaller than the 2012 RCP error margin. Keep in mind as well that due to the random error associated with statistical sampling, polls in the aggregate don’t usually exactly match the final vote total, even though they typically do approach that total, as I pointed out in my lectures.

But as Linzer showed, in 2016 the state-level polls consistently underestimated Trump’s support, and that miss proved crucial in forecasting key swing states, including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, which was enough to throw the Electoral College projections in the polls-only models off.  Generally speaking, the polls got Clinton’s support right, but they underestimated Trump’s. This graph by Linzer reveals the extent to which the state-level polls underestimated Trump’s support.

And this Washington Post table shows how much the polls missed Trump’s support in those key states.

I will devote future blog posts to examining why the state-level polls were wrong, as I expect Linzer and others will do as well.  But for now the important takeaway is that, once again, in the aggregate the political science forecast models got this right – exactly right, as it turns out (which undoubtedly will again elicit remarks about how smug we are).  And they did so because this was an election governed by dynamics that were largely unchanged from previous presidential elections, as Larry Bartels points out.  Bartels shows this by comparing Trump’s state-by-state performance with Romney’s 2012 results. As you can see, Trump did well in states in which Romney did well (with Utah a notable exception!) and not so well in the states in which Romney struggled.

The fact that Trump’s performance was both predicted, and that it doesn’t suggest a significant realignment in the electorate, is probably something that political pundits, whose professional existence depends on creating the impression that elections can and usually do change in reaction to every campaign event (Comey cost Clinton the election!), and that the outcome represents something new (and therefore newsworthy) may not want to hear.  But it’s what the evidence suggests.

Yes, some of my colleagues are expressing mea culpas for relying too heavily on the polls in making their final projections.  I understand that sentiment – by the end of the campaign season I was also telling my audiences that although the race would be close, the polls were usually pretty accurate, and that they seemed to suggest a high probability of a Clinton victory. But let’s be clear:  political science got this election exactly right, even if some political scientists (like me!) weren’t smart enough to realize it.  And here’s the proof, again provided courtesy of Linzer:

And this is a reminder that if you want to know who is going to win the presidential election, polls are (usually!) a pretty reliable indicator, although they certainly were not as accurate at the state level this time around as they have been in previous years.  But if you want to know why Trump won, the political science forecast models issued by Labor Day are a good place to start.  And they suggest Trump’s victory was, in large part, fundamental.

The Most Nationalized House Election Since Eisenhower?

It has become fashionable of late, particularly among liberal pundits, to argue that the future of the Republican Party depends on its leaders severing all connections with Trump and his movement.  For a number of reasons that I will discuss in future posts, I think this is profoundly stupid advice for Republicans to follow.  But whatever one’s views on the topic, one thing is clear: if you are House Speaker Paul Ryan, you want Donald Trump to do well tonight – bigly, even.

The reason is that in recent years, House elections have become increasingly nationalized.  That is, the outcome in any particular House election increasingly is affected by factors outside that district, including how well the House candidate’s party does in the presidential election. There are a number of reasons why this is the case.  A big factor is party sorting, which has made the Democratic Party and the Republican Party increasingly homogeneous in terms of ideology.  That means the party brand name serves as a more important cue for voters during House elections.  A second reason is developments in how campaigns are funded, with an increasing percentage of candidate funds coming from outside the House district as congressional candidates are more likely to look outside their own districts for funding by tapping into more ideologically-oriented issue activist.. There are other reasons that I’ve discussed elsewhere.

Several decades ago, of course, the legendary House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill proclaimed that all politics is local.  But that has long ceased to be the case, at least when it comes to the House.  Just how nationalized are House elections?  One crude way to estimate the relative proportion of the House vote that can be explained by national and local forces is to regress the House vote in any district against the presidential vote in that particular district as well as the prior House vote. The coefficient for the presidential vote can be viewed as a proxy for national forces, while the House coefficient represents the local component.  I’ve presented previous versions of this data before, but Middlebury College students Tina Berger and Martin Naunov have updated it through the 2014 midterms.  Here’s a chart that shows the relative influence of local and national forces dating back to 1954 for midterm elections.  (Note that I have skipped elections immediately following decennial redistricting, since it is impossible to calculate the prior presidential or House vote for that district.)  These tables only include contested House races.


And here are the results for presidential election years.


As you can see, there has been a steady increase in the relative impact of the presidential vote on the House vote for both presidential and midterm House elections, reflecting the increasing nationalization of House races more generally. In fact, 2014 saw the most nationalized House elections dating back to Eisenhower’s presidency. I have no reason to believe that this trend will reverse itself in today’s House races.  For better or for worse, then, the fate of the Republican House majority rests in large part on Donald Trump’s somewhat tiny hands.  Fortunately for Republicans, the much-discussed (by pundits) electoral landslide for Clinton does not seem imminent, at least if Drew Linzer’s forecast model is correct (and it has been consistently the best forecast model out there.)  While Linzer is predicting a relatively comfortable victory for Clinton of about 52% in the two-party popular vote, that’s probably not going to be enough to tip the House to the Democrats. Of course, the better the Donald does tonight, the better for the Republican House majority – at least if recent trends hold.  If I’m Paul Ryan, then, I’m secretly hoping that the Donald does very very well tonight.

I’ll be on a bit later tonight on this site to blog tonight’s election results live from the [Karl Rove] Crossroads Café at Middlebury College.  Hope you can join in!

Why New Hampshire Is Trending Trump – and Why It Likely Doesn’t Matter

For most of this fall in my election talks, I have argued that the most plausible road to victory for Donald Trump runs through New Hampshire. Others seem to agree as, apparently, does Trump; media reports indicate he is scheduled to spend election eve in Manchester, at the Southern New Hampshire University arena which is where he held a massive rally on the night of his New Hampshire primary victory. The Clinton team is countering with President Obama, who will also be in New Hampshire on Monday night, while Clinton will come to New Hampshire on Sunday. My mostly Clinton-leaning audiences here in Vermont have usually found my talks reassuring, since polls consistently showed Clinton ahead in the Granite state by comfortable margins.  Thus just five days ago the RCP polling average had Clinton holding a comfortable 5% lead in New Hampshire. And then the polling bottom fell out for Clinton.  In the five polls in the field since Oct. 28 (that include Gary Johnson and Jill Stein), Trump is ahead in three, and is tied with Clinton in two others, pushing him ahead in the RCP poll in New Hampshire by 1.6% – a drop of almost 7% in Clinton’s support in less than a week. (I should note that Drew Linzer’s site, which aggregates polls in a way that makes the results less sensitive to recent polls) still gives Clinton a very strong probability of winning New Hampshire.) Trump’s polling surge has prompted (mostly panicked) Clinton supporters to email me asking whether this means Trump’s odds for winning the election have significantly increased, since I spent so much time explaining the importance of winning New Hampshire for him.

The short answer is no.  Linzer, whose state-level polling-based forecasts proved to be the gold standard in 2012 and again in 2014,  currently has Trump’s probability of winning the presidential election at 10% – only about 4% better than before Trump’s surge (if polls are accurate) in New Hampshire.  Before explaining why Trump’s NH surge isn’t enough to appreciably improve his election chances, it’s worth exploring why he’s doing so well in my neighboring state.  Long-time readers will remember that I spent considerable time at Trump rallies in New Hampshire (I attended three there), exploring the reasons why New Hampshire voters were supporting The Donald.  As I noted in an earlier post, “it quickly became clear that two themes dominated the thinking of Trump supporters.  The first, expressed – unprompted by me – by every person I talked to, was economic anxiety.  Interestingly, that anxiety was not directed so much at their own situation but toward that of their children, or others close to them.” Put most simply, New Hampshire voters expressed a strong belief that the American Dream was slipping away from their children.  The second theme that emerged, and again I’ll quote from my earlier post, “was a deep antipathy toward Hillary Clinton. One man, in his early 40’s, told me he wasn’t voting for Trump as much as he was against Clinton. Almost to a person those I talked to expressed a fundamental belief that she could not be trusted.  At one point in our conversation, the woman whose daughter is having twins lowered her voice to tell me, “I’m a Roman Catholic and a good Christian, but I just have to say this: that woman [Hillary Clinton] is evil.”  For a more detailed glimpse of what Trump supporters believe, I urge you to read the full post. But my sense is that since those visits, stories regarding the increase in Obamacare premiums, and the steady drip-drip of Wikileaks that seemed to confirm their worst fears regarding Clinton’s honesty, have moved more voters into Trump’s column.  It has probably helped that Trump has finally seemed to develop a coherent message highlighting those themes.  Since my last trip to a New Hampshire Trump rally, he has visited the state twice more, and is now running television ads that directly address issues of Clinton’s trustworthiness, and economic anxiety.

Of course, not everyone accepted my analysis regarding what motivated Trump’s New Hampshire followers.  Many readers responded by citing research by our colleagues (see, for example this) suggesting that the bulk of Trump’s support is motivated by racial resentment, and that in fact feelings of economic anxiety are themselves rooted in part by racism. For brevity’ sake, I’ll not repeat our exchange, except to note that I remain concerned that our efforts to measure “racial resentment” are sometimes tapping into more principled opposition, often expressed to me by Trump supporters in NH, against race-based policies. And, while I acknowledge that it is difficult to detect racial sentiments in direct conversations, my primitive efforts at social anthropology left me persuaded there was a lot more to Trump’s support than simple bigotry, at least among New Hampshire voters.

Be that as it may, the broader point is that we shouldn’t be surprised that Trump may have pulled ahead in New Hampshire – his campaign themes, as I found in my interviews there, resonated with a broad cross-section of New Hampshire voters.  So, why doesn’t this improve his chances for winning the presidency?  To understand why, it’s worth analyzing how analysts like Linzer construct their win probabilities. Remember that most state-level polls consistent of random samples of likely voters.  Done properly, those surveys allow us estimate the range of probabilities regarding how the actual vote is distributed in each state, based on the poll.  By using those probabilities to generate multiple possible outcomes across all states, analysts like Linzer can estimate the overall probability that a candidate will emerge as the winner.  Simply put, when you look at the likelihood of each candidate winning particular states, there are a lot more paths for Clinton to get to 270 electoral votes (the minimum needed to win), based on current polling, than there are for Trump to do so.  Or, to put it in the context of my talks, when I laid out the most probable path for Trump to win the presidency, I noted how important it was for him to win New Hampshire.   However, I didn’t spend nearly as much time talking in depth about the many more combination of states by which Clinton could win – even if she lost New Hampshire.

So, under one scenario I discussed in my talks, Trump could eke out a victory by holding all the Romney states from 2012, and flipping five additional states as well as winning Maine’s 2nd congressional district.  This scenario is not impossible, at least not according to current polling, but it requires Trump winning New Hampshire.

picture1But current polls also suggest that even as Trump pulls ahead in New Hampshire, he’s still behind in Nevada and probably Florida, and it’s not clear he can hold onto North Carolina – a state Romney won in 2012.  Moreover, if you play out all the possible Electoral College scenarios in this way, which is what simulations are designed to do, the odds still heavily favor Clinton.  She simply has more paths to victory.  Trump, in contrast, has far fewer electoral options and thus has to hope all the key states break his way – an outcome that, while not impossible, is much more improbable.

As I noted in my last post, history suggested all along that this race would tighten in the final week as Republicans who expressed skepticism about Trump’s candidacy came home to the partisan roost most familiar to them, twitter talk about landslides notwithstanding.  But don’t let this tightening blind you to the Electoral College math which, based on polling at this point three days out, still strongly favors Clinton.