Category Archives: Elections

Will Open Primaries Reduce Polarization?

The New York Times printed this op ed by New York Senator Chuck Schumer yesterday, in which Schumer made the familiar claim that to reduce partisan polarization, we should open up party primaries to all voters, regardless of partisan affiliation. In particular, he cites with approval adopting a version of the “top-two primary system” in which “all voters, regardless of party registration, can vote and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, then enter a runoff.” That’s the system adopted in 2010 in California, in time for this summer’s nominating process there.

Schumer’s impulse is understandable – in theory, by opening primaries, you allow independents and more moderate voters to participate in the nominating process, thus increasing the odds that more moderate candidates will be nominated to run in the general election. In contrast, under closed primaries dominated by party purists, logic suggests the tendency is to nominate the more ideologically extreme candidate, leaving moderate voters to choose from two extreme candidates in the general election. As Schumer puts it, “The partisan primary system, which favors more ideologically pure candidates, has contributed to the election of more extreme officeholders and increased political polarization. It has become a menace to governing.”

While well intentioned, however, the problem with Schumer’s proposal is that there is little evidence suggesting open primaries will reduce polarization. Consider recent results in California. As former Middlebury College student Jaime Fuller noted in this Washington Post piece, the early evidence from the California experiment with the top two system are not encouraging for Schumer’s argument. She writes, “If you look at last month’s results, however, there aren’t many congressional races you can point to where moderates made the final round — even in those seven races where two members of the same party made the runoff.”

More generally political scientists have not found much evidence that tinkering with the primary voting rules has much impact on the level of polarization in legislatures (see here and here and  here). There seems to be three reasons why open primaries don’t seem, by themselves, to produce more moderate candidates. First, it remains the case that more extreme voters tend to participate in greater proportions even in open primaries. As I’ve noted many times before, political activism and more extreme views go hand-in-hand. Second, as Seth Masket points out, party activists, who tend to be more ideologically extreme, still control a variety of means, including endorsements, money and campaign expertise, which they can use to help their favored candidates get a leg up in the selection process. Third, it appears that in the California top-two election process, voters were not always able to distinguish the more ideologically moderate candidate running under a party label.

This does not mean the California experiment is a failure – it has only been in place for one and half election cycles, and it may yet produce a more moderate candidate field as voters, and candidates adjust to the new system. But for now, contrary to Schumer’s claim, open primaries do not seem to be the remedy, by themselves, to the hyper-partisanship afflicting our political system.

Schumer also cites a second factor that he believes has increased polarization: gerrymandering – the drawing of House district lines in ways that that enhance the reelection prospects of certain candidates. Again, however, the empirical evidence, which I’ve discussed previously, does not support Schumer’s claim.

If open primaries and “neutrally”-drawn districts are not going to reduce polarization, then what will? For reforms to work, they need to increase the participation of the more moderate voters in the nominating process. This Bipartisan Policy Study contains a number of recommendations for doing so. Among the electoral reforms, it suggests a common national primary day for all congressional nominating races and easing registration requirements and strengthening outreach to make it more likely that the less politically engaged will vote in primaries. Eliminating caucuses as a means of nominating candidates would also help. Even here, however, without additional institutional reforms, it is unclear just how much these incremental changes will reduce the level of partisan polarization in Congress. But without additional reforms like these,  open primaries aren’t likely to do the trick, contrary to what Schumer might believe.

UPDATE 7.23.14: Jonathan Bernstein takes on the Schumer proposal in this Bloomberg column and comes to the same conclusion: open primaries will not reduce polarization.

 

 

Who Will Win The Senate? A Primer on Midterm Forecasts

With the nominating phase of the congressional campaign just about over and the midterm elections less than four months away, you are going to see an increasing number of predictions, prognostications and more than a few statistically-driven forecast models purporting to tell us how the Republicans and Democrats are going to do in the House and Senate. Accordingly, I thought it might be useful to present a short primer on the types of forecasts you are likely to see, so that you can makes sense of the predictions.

Generally, you will encounter three types of forecasts. The first type are individual race-specific predictions made by the veteran handicappers like Charlie Cook, Stu Rothenberg and their associates. These predictions use a combination of on-the-ground reports, opinion polls and other bits of evidence to divide the field into safe, leaning and tossup (or their equivalent) races. With their descriptively detailed updates focused on the competitive races, these types of horse-race forecasts are in many respects the most interesting to follow, particular when they look at the high-profile Senate races. Right now, for example, Cook is predicting that the Republicans will gain between 4 and 6 Senate seats. Rothenberg puts the number at between 4 and 8. The Republicans, you will recall, need a minimum of 6 to regain a Senate majority so both handicappers see a Republican takeover as well within the realm of possibility. The implicit assumption in these models is that individual races can turn on factors idiosyncratic to that particular race, and thus the most accurate prediction depends on understanding these myriad influences.  In short, if we want to know which party is going to control the Senate, you need to build from the bottom up by aggregating the results of the individual races.

The second type of predictions are those produced by the structural forecast models developed by political scientists. In contrast to the handicappers like Cook and Rothenberg, these models eschew any interest in local detail in favor of macro-level factors, such as national economic growth, the president’s approval ratings and the number of exposed seats, to generate a prediction which is usually measured in terms of how many seats will be lost by the president’s party. The assumption built into such models is that fundamental national tides affect all races and thus all forecasters need to do is to measure those tides to generate an accurate prediction. To the best of my knowledge, Edward Tufte constructed the first such midterm House forecast model back in 1974 that was predicated on only two measures: the president’s approval and the annual growth in real disposal personal income per capita. In effect, he was modeling the outcome of the House midterm races – specifically, the share of the national popular vote the president’s party received – as referendum on the President’s performance.

Since Tufte’s pioneering effort political scientists have generated dozens of such forecast models, with most of them trying to predict the distribution of House seats between the two parties, rather than the overall vote share. Some early models focused solely on economic indicators. But most are predicated on variants of Tufte’s model, with measures for presidential approval included. More recent versions include additional variables. These might include “seat exposure” (which party has more seats on the line); a “surge and decline” variable (the idea is to capture the effect of the decline in midterm turnout based in part on how the parties did in the previous presidential election); and a time in office variable to capture the waning influence of a party that has held the presidency for a long time. The most recent innovation to these models – and one that I will discuss in a moment – is to include a generic vote variable based on national surveys that ask respondents which party’s candidate they plan to vote for in the midterm election.

In assessing these structural forecasts, you should keep two considerations in mind. First, most of the models are based on midterm elections occurring during the post-World War II era. So they are predicated on a very limited numbers of cases – 2014 is only the 17th midterm election in that period – which means that even the most accurate predictions have a very wide margin for error. In assessing the prediction of a particular model, you should always look to see if a prediction interval is provided in addition to the predicted seat outcome. Moreover, as Ben Lauderdale and Drew Linzer have cautioned in their critique of presidential forecast models, there is a tendency with a sample this small for modelers to over-fit their predictions by basing them too closely to the particular elections studied. Nonetheless these models are theoretically the most interesting because, when done well, the modelers are very explicit in explaining why midterms turn out the way they do. So we learn the most from these efforts in terms of understanding the dynamics driving election outcomes. Note that these are one-shot deals – once the numbers are plugged in, a forecast is generated and that is that. There’s no updating based on new data.

The final set of forecast are what might be called mixed models. Typically, these start out with a variant of a structural mode (a prior, to use  Bayesian terminology), but then the prediction generated by that model is updated based on race-specific polling data. By the time Election Day rolls around, most of these mixed models will be mostly poll-based, which means (as Drew Linzer demonstrated so effectively in the 2012 presidential election) they are likely to be very accurate. These are the models featured at the Washington Post’s MonkeyCage’s Election Lab or the New York Times’ Upshot site. The basic idea behind these efforts is that if you want to know how people are likely to vote in the 2014 midterm, you should probably ask them and incorporate their response into your forecast.

You might think these mixed models would all generate basically the same forecast. As of today, however, they are not. The MonkeyCage, for example, is giving Republicans an 86% chance of retaking the Senate.  The Time’s Upshot, on the other hand, gives the Republicans only about a 59% chance  of taking the Senate. Why the difference? As the MonkeyCage’s John Sides explains here,  it is partly because as of today the Upshot is likely weighting the polling data, which is a bit more favorable in some states to the Democrats, more heavily than is the MonkeyCage. So, which forecast is more accurate? I don’t know, and neither do they! But that is probably beside the point since it is likely that the two models’ predictions will converge as we get closer to Election Day.

The more important point is that this combination of structural models and polling data is likely to produce a more accurate forecast than either approach alone. (For the more technically-minded among you, Simon Jackman explains why here.)  The use of mixed forecasting is more prevalent now because of advances in computing power and the greater ease of access to polling data. Still, the forecasts are not foolproof – pay attention to that confidence interval when evaluating predictions! – which means that in a very close election cycle, as this one appears to be, none of these approaches may be precise enough to nail down who will control the Senate with perfect accuracy. (Control of the House appears not to be in play at all this cycle.)

Of one thing I am sure. In the face of forecast uncertainty many of you will cherry pick the model whose outcome you like the best, while damning those you disagree with for their bad data, faulty assumptions and poor methodology. If you are one of those who believe in advocating the equivalent of “unskewing the polls”, I apologize in advance for injecting a dose of reality, no matter how unpleasant, into your political fantasy world in the coming months. I promise to do so as gently as possible.

Now let the forecasting begin!

UPDATE 5 p.m. Sam Wang has waded in with his own Senate forecast that puts the projected final Democratic seat total at either 49 or 50.  He makes the important point that a small swing in the partisan share of the vote is going to determine which party controls the Senate – it’s that close!  See his post on the topic here.

No, That’s Not Why Cantor Lost, and That’s Not What It Signifies

No, that’s probably not why Eric Cantor lost, and no, that’s not what we should conclude from his loss.

To all of you who were lurking in the twitterverse last night, I apologize if I seemed to take a bit too much pleasure in pushing back on the instant analysis issued by everyone from Chuck Todd to Chuck Wagon. But let me ask you: since no name-brand pundit that I know of saw Cantor’s loss coming (on this point, see Jaime Fuller’s wonderful “Holy Crap” summary!), why should you believe them when they then try to explain what it means? The answer? In the absence of actual data regarding who voted (more on that in a moment), you probably shouldn’t.  Of course, that’s not going to stop pundits from trying to glean the national implications of Cantor’s loss.

So, at the risk of piling on, let me explain in a bit more detail why you should view most of the Cantor post-mortems with a great deal of skepticism. Let me begin by addressing some of the more popular but empirically vacuous bits of punditry.

1. Cantor’s loss means immigration reform is dead.

This was the initial reaction from pundits like Todd, and it is being repeated today by the Washington Post’s Chris Cilliza and others. The logic seems to be that since Cantor expressed a willingness to discuss amnesty for the children of illegal immigrants as part of an overall immigration package – a position his opponent David Brat attacked – then Cantor’s loss shows that immigration reform is a non-starter.  There’s a couple of problems with this interpretation. First, it presumes that immigration reform wasn’t already dead, or at least on life support, even with Cantor in the House. Second, it’s not clear how much opposition to immigration reform in Cantor’s district had to do with Cantor’s loss. In fact, a Public Policy poll indicates that 72% of those surveyed in Cantor’s district strongly or somewhat support the elements of a bipartisan immigration reform bill. That support includes 70% of Republicans who responded to the survey, and 73% of independents.

2. Cantor’s loss is good news for Hillary Clinton/bad news for Marco Rubio/Jeb Bush/fill in the name of moderate Republican presidential candidate.

Ezra Klein, among many others, is pushing this line as one of his 11 lessons to draw from Cantor’s defeat. (Note: as I tweeted at length last night, my view is that at least 5 of Klein’s lessons are of dubious empirical validity.)  But it is extremely misleading to draw national implications from one House primary race. We might just as well conclude that Lindsey (I support immigration reform) Graham’s Senate primary win suggests moderate Republicans are poised to do well in 2016. The fact is that you shouldn’t draw any implications regarding the 2016 presidential race from an outcome based on about 12% turnout in a single House district.

3. Cantor’s loss shows money can’t buy elections.

It is true that Cantor vastly outraised and outspent Brat by some 5-to1. But about 39% of Cantor’s money came from PACs, which is not unusual for someone occupying a leadership position, and only 2% (about $95,000) from small contributors. In contrast, Brat received no PAC money, but drew 33% ($65,000) of his contributions from small donors. As my colleague Bert Johnson is fond of pointing out, small contributors tend to be activists with strong partisan preferences. In addition, David Levinthal, using financial disclosure forms, indicates that only 12% of Cantor’s money came from within his district. So, the effective disparity in campaign contributions may not be as great as the gross spending numbers suggest.

4. Cantor’s loss means all Republican establishment candidates, particular in leadership positions, are vulnerable to Tea Party challengers.

As Klein asserts, “These losses mean no Republican is safe.” Presumably the pundits are referring to people like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, or Senator Lindsay (I support immigration reform) Graham, who both easily beat back Tea Party challenges? Keep in mind as well that two weeks ago these same pundits were explaining how the Republican establishment had figured out how to beat Tea Party-backed candidates!

I could go on, but I hope you see my point. What all these instant analyses have in common is a desire to draw national implications from a local race that, in the absence of data to the contrary, likely turned primarily on local constituent concerns. This tendency to draw sweeping conclusions from limited data is an unfortunate characteristic of today’s social-media driven punditry. That strategy may increase readership, but often at the expense of getting the story right.

So why did Cantor lose? We know from the PPP poll I cited above that he was not very popular in his district; only 43% of Republicans and 23% of independents approved of him, compared to 49% and 66% expressing disapproval, respectively. It is also the case that the House Republican leadership was not very popular (41% approval among Republicans, and only 16% among independents). Finally, we know turnout was up from the Republican primary in 2012 (a presidential election year) by about 20,000 voters according to Martina Berger, in an open-primary state in which there was no Democratic primary in Cantor’s district, so it is likely that independents participated in the Republican primary to a greater degree than might be expected. I hesitate to say much more about the composition of yesterday’s electorate without more data, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Cantor lost primarily because many voters viewed him as too concerned with leadership issues and thus out of touch with local district concerns. That’s not very earthshattering, and it is disappointing to those seeking some deeper meaning in Cantor’s defeat. But sometimes the simplest explanations are the best. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, and until more data comes in, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Update 1:16.  The WashingtonPost is doubling down on the immigration angle here and dismissing the polling data I cited by saying that the poll doesn’t survey only Republicans.  Of course, it does have results for Republicans but to find them you have to actually read the poll which, evidently, the WaPo writers find too time consuming.  And, of course, the Virginia primary is open to anyone regardless of partisan affiliation, so it’s useful to know the opinions of non-Republicans as well. Now, it may be, as the writer would have us believe, that turnout was dominated by the 23% who opposed immigration reform rather than the 70+% who supported it. But you can’t simply assert that this was the case without supporting evidence.

Update 1:56.  I haven’t said much about whether crossover voting by Democrats along with independents contributed to Cantor’s defeat (but see this!)  However, an initial analysis by Michael McDonald and by Scott Clement suggests the evidence doesn’t support the crossover voting thesis, although in the absence of exit polls it is hard to tell conclusively.

The Primary Lesson From California: It’s Not an Open and Shut Case

A recent National Journal article (hat tip to Max Kagan) reprises a familiar journalistic lament: “[T]the existence of closed primaries in 12 states,” the article subheading proclaims, “keep[s] voters away from polls and polarize Congress.” (Full disclosure: the author, Kaveh Waddell, is a 2013 graduate of my home institution Middlebury College.) In this instance, Waddell’s immediate concern was with the nearly 241,000 voters in New Mexico who could not participate in that state’s primaries last Tuesday because they were independents and thus not affiliated with a political party. But his argument has broader implications. Indeed, the belief that closed primaries in House elections increase partisan polarization is widely shared among journalists and pundits. And, in fact, the logic underlying this claim is superficially appealing: by limiting voting during the nominating process to members of a single party, closed primaries exclude participation by the more ideologically moderate independent voters. As a consequence, nominations tend to be won by the more ideologically extreme candidate, which in turns produces a more polarized Congress.

Moreover, if this scenario is correct, the cure seems equally obvious: replace closed primaries with open ones, in which voters of any affiliation may vote in either party’s primary. Or, better yet, go one step further and eliminate party primaries altogether. This is the logic behind California’s Proposition 14, which as of June, 2012 established that state’s “top two” nominating system, in which all candidates, regardless of party, face off in a single nomination contest from which the two highest vote getters advance to the general election, regardless of party. (This differs from the so-called blanket primary in which all candidates are listed on a single ballot, but they only compete with other candidates from the same party.) The idea behind Proposition 14, consistent with the logic driving the National Journal article, is to give moderate voters a better opportunity to select more centrist candidates to run in the general election.

Despite the intuitive appeal of this line of reasoning, however, political scientists have not found conclusive evidence that closed primaries do in fact produce more ideologically extreme candidates than do open primaries which are used to varying degrees in most states in the U.S. Why might this be? One reason is that when we unpack the logic underlying the assumptions built into the National Journal and related articles, we find that our predictions regarding the relative impact of closed vs. open primaries depends in part on our expectations regarding how strategic voters are. For example, in an open system, what happens if partisan voters cross over to vote for the weakest candidate in the opposing party’s nominating election, as happened in Vermont’s 1998 Senate race? (See Fred Tuttle, Vermont’s “Man with a Plan”!) Depending on what assumptions we make, it is possible to argue that open primaries should produce more extreme candidates, not less extreme.

It also may be that many voters aren’t very good, in the absence of party cues, at discerning ideological differences between candidates. This may be particularly problematic for challengers who are generally far well less known by voters than are incumbents. Finally, partisan actors, such as campaign donors and other activists, who have a vested interest in seeing more ideologically-extreme candidates win elections may exert enough influence to trump institutional factors such as open primaries.

Whatever the reason, the empirical work with which I am familiar on this topic suggests that we probably shouldn’t be surprised that the initial results from California’s “top two” system have not seemed to produce more moderate candidates. As Jaime Fuller points out in her Washington Post story today, based on last Tuesday’s results only 7 of California’s 53 House races under the “top two” system feature races involving two members of the same party. Of course, whether that is a glass half-full or half-empty result depends in part on one’s perspective. Perhaps more importantly, however, as Fuller writes, “[T]here aren’t many congressional races you can point to where moderates made the final round — even in those seven races where two members of the same party made the runoff… .In most of the other congressional races, the same outcomes happened that would have occurred under the old primary system anyway. The ideologically pure Republican and the predictably lefty Democrats made the runoff, just as they would have if two separate primaries had been held.” (Full disclosure: Jaime is a political science graduate of my home institution Middlebury College where I served as her academic adviser.)

To be sure, as my former grad colleague Dan Stid cautions, the California system has only been in play for one and one-half election cycles, so it is early to draw definitive conclusions. It may take a while for voters, candidates and partisan activists to adjust to the new rules. But, for now, the early results are consistent with the expectations of political scientists as laid out in previous research. Moving toward open primaries, or more, such as California’s top two system, is not likely to moderate electoral outcomes in the absence of other changes.

(And, perhaps not incidentally, these two articles also suggest that Middlebury political science majors like Fuller have a better understanding of U.S. electoral dynamics than do international political economy majors like Waddell!)

 

What Does Tuesday’s Special Florida Election Tell Us About the Upcoming Midterms?

Many analysts viewed last Tuesday’s special House election in Florida’s 13th district to replace longtime Republican Congressman Bill Young as a bellwether for the upcoming 2014 midterm congressional elections, particularly because they expected Obamacare to be the central issue in the Florida campaign and in November’s elections.  Thus, the author of the New York Times’ election preview, which was headlined: “Florida Race for House Sets Stage for 2014”, described it as “a contest in the first race of the 2014 battle for control of Congress, with both parties hoping for a victory and watching carefully how President Obama’s health care law may affect the outcome.” The prevailing media perspective did not change in the aftermath of Republican David Jolly’s narrow 48.5% to 46.6% victory over his Democratic opponent Alex Sink.  In a not uncharacteristic post-election interpretation, the Economist wrote: “On March 11th David Jolly, a Florida Republican, won a special election to the House of Representatives by relentlessly bashing Obamacare. His party hopes to use the same tactic to hold the House and capture the Senate in November. ”  Similarly, a Washington Post article opined that “Jolly’s win in a Gulf Coast district just west of Tampa illustrated the political toxicity of the law known as Obamacare. Jolly favored repealing and replacing the law, which was a central focus of the campaign, while his Democratic opponent did not.”

But did Jolly really win the special election by “relentlessly bashing” Obamacare – and will that tactic make a difference in who controls Congress come November?   The answers are not as clear cut as many analysts would have us believe.  It is true that Jolly ran on a platform that included repealing Obamacare.  But Sink’s stated position, which was to fix Obamacare, rather than repeal it, actually had strong support among likely voters, at least in the limited polling data* I was able to review.  For example, in a poll of likely voters conducted by St. Leo University, 40% of respondents wanted to keep Obamacare but make changes to fix some of the problems, compared to 20% who wanted to repeal it and replace it with a different health care plan, and only 20% who wanted repeal and a return to the pre-Obamacare status quo.

Of course, one needs to be cautious in using polling data to infer voters’ motivations. One difficulty is that those responding to surveys can only express an opinion on issues about which they are polled.  If voters are only asked about Obamacare, it will seem to loom large in their decision calculus. Moreover, responses differ according to what options are available. For example, this St. Petersburg poll of likely voters only asked respondents about their views on two issues: Obamacare and illegal immigration.  And on Obamacare, 35% of those surveyed said they supported repeal, 34% leaving it alone, and 27% advocated repeal once a “better plan” is in place.  Without specifying the details of that “better plan”, however, it is hard to interpret the results.  Does that mean a plan that is Obamacare without the blemishes, which was Sink’s stated position?  Similarly, in the St. Leo poll, it is hard to know what the 20% who wanted to replace Obamacare “with a different plan” had in mind, and how closely that option aligned with Sinks’.  (I did not see any crosstabs in either poll by which to judge the candidates’ respective supporters’ views on Obamacare.) Note that many of the ads attacking Sink for her support of Obamacare, such as this one by the Chamber of Commerce, did not necessarily advocate for its repeal.  Instead, they targeted its impact on Medicare payments.

So it’s not clear that Jolly’s message to repeal Obamacare carried the day.

In taking stock of Jolly’s victory, it is also helpful to remember that the smaller voter turnout characteristic of a special election is not always a reliable indicator of who will vote during a normal midterm election cycle. Note that while Sink appeared to have a slight lead based on early voting heading into Tuesday’s election, Jolly evidently benefited from a better Election Day turnout.  However, the election drew only about 184,045 voters, and Jolly won victory over Sink by less than 4,000 votes. Pre-election polls indicated that Jolly’s support was stronger among the older white voting population that is more likely to turn out in a special election. By comparison, in 2012 the long-time incumbent Young won this district by a much larger margin, 16% over his Democratic opponent, than did Jolly on Tuesday even though President Obama narrowly carried the district by about 50% to 49% in the presidential race. Of course turnout in that presidential year was almost 330,000 voters – much higher than it is likely to be in the coming mid-term election. However, in the 2010 midterm, turnout in Florida’s 13th district, (which encompassed slightly different territory) was almost 267,000 – much higher than what we saw in last Tuesday’s special election. (According the Florida Secretary of State’s office, Republican voters constituted about 38% of voters in the district, Democrats about 35%, and Independents about 23%, but I don’t know the partisan breakdown of Tuesday’s voting pool.)  So Jolly may have benefited by the smaller size and composition of Tuesday’s electorate.

Nor was this election only about Obamacare – voters were inundated with ads targeting Sink’s handling of a pension fund, Jolly’s views on entitlement reform including Social Security, and climate-change related issues including flood control, in addition to immigration. All of this makes me much more skeptical than are media pundits regarding what the results of Tuesday’s election tell us about the likely impact of Obamacare come November. Keep in mind that Republican control of the House is probably not at stake in 2012, regardless of how large Obamacare looms in voters’ decision calculus. And in the Senate races in which Democrats are vulnerable, Obamacare is only one of a myriad of issues, including jobs and the state of the economy, that are likely to influence outcomes. Finally, I expect most Democratic candidates to run on a platform of “mending” Obamacare, which may prove more appealing to many moderate voters than calls to fully repeal it.

So, does Tuesday’s special election result in Florida’s 13th congressional district provide an accurate preview of election events to come? Probably not nearly as much as some media pundits will have you believe.

*Thanks to Kate Hamilton for research on the polling data I referenced here.