Category Archives: Political Science

Fenno’s Paradox, or Why You Should Ignore That Poll That Says We Hate Our Member of Congress

This WashingtonPost/ABC poll finds that, “for the first time ever”, a majority of those surveyed disapprove not just of Congress, but of their own member of Congress.  What does this portend for the fall midterm election?  As I write in my latest U.S. News post here, it probably means a lot less than some pundits would have us believe.  A rough back-of-the-envelope statistical guesstimate based on past results to this question suggests roughly 87% of incumbents will still win reelection this fall.  If you want to know why, Richard Fenno explained it all back in 1972.



Why Political “Corruption” Is Good

In his column in today’s New York Times, Thomas Edsall makes the case for what he calls “good corruption.” His essential point is that effective government is often weakened by reforms that make it harder for politicians to make the compromises necessary to strike political deals and build voting coalitions. As he writes, “The best politicians are sensitive to the relative importance of moral considerations as they shift from the public arena to the back room, aware that ultimate judgment of what they have done will be based more on what they produce than how they produce it.”

One need not adopt Edsall’s juxtaposition of “good” with “corruption” to appreciate his broader argument. It is one that political scientists have been making for some time, particularly in efforts to explain the growing partisan polarization within our governing institutions. They have documented a series of well-meaning reforms that have collectively made American institutions and processes far less insular, and much more open to direct popular participation during the last four decades. These include an increase in presidential primaries, more open committee meetings and recorded votes in Congress, expanded rules of standing and a more activist judiciary, and technological advances that have made it easier to gauge public opinion and reach out to prospective supporters, to name only the most prominent. In each case supporters hoped that these reforms would make politics both more transparent and more accessible. But, in a classic illustration of Dickinson’s Third Rule of Politics – “for every intended benefit of a political reform, there is likely to be an unintended cost” – the cumulative impact of these reforms has arguably made American politics less representative. The reason is that most members of the public are not very interested in politics on a daily basis. As a result, a more open political process tends to reward the most politically active, who typically possess more ideologically coherent and extreme views, and thus are less likely to support the “good corruption” that Edsall favors. When one is doing God’s work, as most issue activists and ideological purists believe they are, compromise with the opposition is the road to damnation.

To drive home his point, Edsall points to two reforms that he argues have reduced the ability of political leaders to forge the compromises necessary to govern effectively. The first is the elimination in 2010 of congressional earmarks – those legislative directives to fund specific projects that helped grease the wheels of the lawmaking process. In a rare instance of bipartisan compromise, House Republicans worked with President Obama to remove these side payments from the legislative process. The idea was to end the wasteful (and corrupt?) practice that led party leaders to trade tax-subsidized projects for legislators’ votes. However, with earmarks eliminated, Edsall argues, party leaders have one less source of leverage with which to forge coalitions. Edsall’s point is driven home in Robert Draper’s wonderful When the Tea Party Came to Town, in which Draper recounts a conversation between House Speaker John Boehner and his veteran House colleague Ralph Hall during a particularly tough vote: “It’s not like the old days, Ralph”, Boehner lamented. “Without the earmarks to offer, it’s hard to herd the cats.”

Edsall’s second example is campaign finance reform. Here he is particularly critical of three recent Court cases – Citizens United v. F.E.C., McCutcheon v. F.E.C. and v. F.E.C. – that he argues have collectively reinforced “the public’s view that government is run for the benefit of powerful special interests.” Here, however, I think Edsall’s example works against his broader argument. The fact is that public suspicion of the role of money in politics predates these recent court rulings – indeed, that suspicion helped fuel previous campaign reform efforts, such as the McCain-Feingold bipartisan campaign reform act of 2002. However, in a sterling illustration of Dickinson’s Second Law – “money always finds its way to candidates” – the biggest impact of campaign finance reform dating back to the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act, (as amended in 1974) has not been to reduce the amount of campaign contributions to candidates or the importance of money in campaigns more generally. Rather, the general impact has been to shift how money gets to candidates while simultaneously forcing those running for office to spend more time fundraising. The early evidence is that the three most recent court decisions Edsall cites have not necessarily increased the importance of money so much as altered the way it flows from contributors to candidates. In contrast to Edsall, I believe it is this combination of repeated efforts to limit the impact of money on elections juxtaposed against the reality that candidates spend an increasing amount of time fundraising that fuels public cynicism toward campaign finance reform. Indeed, one could argue that for all its faults (and they were significant), the pre-1971 era of campaign finance at least exhibited something of the “good corruption” that Edsall believes exerts a salutary impact on government in other contexts.

My point is not to advocate a return to the pre-1974 era when presidents shook down companies that were doing business with government. Rather, it is to express general agreement with Edsall’s broader point (if not all his specific examples), which is that reforms that make it harder to engage in the vote trading and compromise necessary to cut deals may not, despite reformers’ best intentions, have a salutary impact on our political system. Instead, increased transparency and more participatory institutions and processes can make it harder to govern. In short, if we want politicians to get things done, we may need to relax our zealous efforts to take politics out of the political process by, for example, persisting in thinking we can eliminate the role of money in campaigns. And rather than condemn our elected leaders for sacrificing principle on the altar of political pragmatism, Edsall suggests we instead take a look at our own behavior in the context of his proposal: “Political morality in this context becomes something far less rigid and rule-bound than many in the public conceive it to be – even though, in their own lives, most people act more like politicians than they would like to think.” Politicians are not angels – and neither are we.

No, the Presidency Has NOT Become More Difficult

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote an interesting column two days ago under the headline “It’s Virtually Impossible to be a Successful Modern President.” Cillizza begins his piece like this: “Being president is the most powerful job in the world. At which you will almost certainly fail.”

Both those statements are wrong, of course. As I and other presidency scholars have written repeatedly, the presidency is not a very powerful office and it is certainly not the most powerful job in the world.  Indeed, even among elected chief executives in modern democracies, the presidency is one of the weaker offices. The primary reason, of course, is because the Framers wanted it that way, as indicated by their decision to embed the presidency within a constitutional system of shared powers. That’s why presidents cannot dismiss Congress, call for new elections, or even count on the support of a legislative majority to pass legislation – all expectations that many prime ministers in other nations possess. And, with the ratification of the 22nd amendment, presidents lucky enough to win reelection serve most of their second term as defacto lame ducks. As Brendan Nyhan notes in his column today, however, this weakness has not stopped individuals from exaggerating the president’s potential degree of control over events.

But what of Cillizza’s second claim? In part, both Cillizza and Ronald Brownstein, whose article here provides some of the evidence on which Cillizza bases his claim, rest much of their case about presidential weakness on the belief that America is an increasingly divided nation. As I’ve argued elsewhere,  however, the evidence that Americans are polarizing along ideological lines is weak – most of what analysts claim to be a growing ideological divide is more accurately described as party sorting. In short, there’s not much support for the claim that modern presidents are dealing with a more ideologically polarized public.

The more empirically valid charge is that modern presidents must deal with a very polarized Congress – the most partisan  polarized Congress since the 19th century. Both Cillizza and Brownstein argue that it is very difficult for presidents to get legislation passed through a Congress that is so deeply polarized along partisan lines. But the link between partisan polarization and legislative productivity is more complex than this simple narrative would have one believe. Nelson Polsby, in his classic work How Congress Evolves, describes how a cross-partisan conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans stymied the passage of liberal legislation from 1937 until the mid-1960’s. More generally, building on Polsby’s observation, studies show that too little polarization in Congress is as counterproductive to legislative productivity as is too much. This is because under conditions of limited partisan polarization, we often see great divisions within parties (see Polsby’s description of the Democrats during the era of the conservative coalition), and little difference across them – exactly the conditions that James MacGregor Burns complained about in his classic study of American political gridlock in the early 1960’s.  Evidence shows that legislative productivity under these conditions of weak polarization is as limited as under the deep polarization in Congress presidents confront today.

Moreover, there is other evidence one can cite that undercuts the premise of Cillizza’s and Brownstein’s argument. For instance, we might think that if the presidency was so much more difficult, presidents would find it harder to win reelection. However, our three most recent presidents – Clinton, G. W. Bush and Obama – all successfully won reelection. In contrast, three of their four immediate predecessors: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and G. W. Bush, did not. Moreover, Lyndon Johnson did not pursue a second full term in 1968 because of political opposition and declining support, and Nixon resigned in the face of almost certain impeachment, making Ronald Reagan the only one of those six previous presidents to serve two full terms. No wonder scholars complained of a “tethered” presidency at the start of Reagan’s first term!

Finally, consider the severity of the issues facing recent presidents. Yes, 9-11 ushered in the Age of Terrorism, and all the difficulty that entails for presidents’ efforts to fulfill their commander-in-chief functions. But the consequences of making a mistake in the fight against terrorism, while enormous, are arguably not any greater – and probably less significant – than what the post-World War II presidents confronted during the height of the Cold War. It is for this reason that Neustadt, in the final edition of his classic work which was issued as the Cold War came to a close, cautions against looking back on those years with rose-colored glasses. He writes, “From the multicentered, interdependent world now coming into being, environmentally endangered as it is, Presidents [and pundits!] may look back on the Cold War as an era of stability, authority and glamour. They may yearn for the simplicity they see in retrospect, and also for the solace. Too bad.” Although acknowledging that governing in this new age has its own set of difficulties, Neustadt reminds us that there are compensations for outliving the Cold War: “[T]he personal responsibility attached to nuclear weapons should become less burdensome for Presidents themselves, while contemplation of their mere humanity becomes less haunting for the rest of us. To me that seems a fair exchange.”

To me too. Yes, the presidency is difficult. But there’s little evidence that it is harder today than in previous presidencies during the post-World War II modern era.  Indeed, one might argue that the job has become slightly easier, although I doubt that is any solace to Barack Obama.

P.S. This post attracted its fair share of readers, so I’ll follow up with some additional discussion focused on recent evaluations by pundits of Obama’s presidency.  If you are interested in getting notifications of new presidential power posts, I post notices on twitter at:

Or contact me at and I’ll put you on the anonymous distribution list.

UPDATE: Jonathan Bernstein weights in on the issue here:

Home Is Where The Political Heart Is – Or Is It?

Jack Goodman, consumer of all things political and purveyor of great blog post ideas, recently sent me the link to this entertaining exercise hosted by the Washingtonian magazine that attempts to determine where you should live based on your politics. If you click the link, you’ll come across a series of eight agree/disagree questions pertaining to a variety of lifestyle choice and beliefs. Based on your responses, the program’s algorithm purports to tell you where you should live, within a particular state, according to your political views.

The exercise brings to mind Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing’s widely publicized 2008 book The Big Sort. In it the authors argue that during the previous three decades Americans were increasingly sorting themselves into politically like-minded communities. They did so not on the basis of overt partisan calculations, but due to life-style choices that produced, as a byproduct, more politically homogenous communities. As evidence, the authors note that in 1976 only about a quarter of American voters lived in a county in which a presidential candidate won by a “landslide” margin, that is, with 60% or more of the vote – an indication of a dominant political perspective. By 2004, however, the number of landslide counties had swelled to nearly half of all counties. The trend toward a more uniform political outlook within communities, they believe, has contributed to the growth in political polarization that has again become such a hot topic thanks in part to the recently released Pew report I’ve discussed in previous posts.

Somewhat puckishly, I immediately emailed Jack with a challenge: to name one individual who is actually living where the website said she should be living based on her political views. My challenge was based in part on political science research that has cast doubt on the Big Sort thesis that, in effect, home is where our political heart is. As it turns out, other indicators suggest Americans are not sorting into like-minded communities. Thus, professors Morris Fiorina and Sam Abrams show that if you examine party registration levels in counties, instead of vote choice in presidential elections, the trend is quite different than what the authors of the Big Sort would have one believe.  Based on this alternative measure, they find a decrease in Democratic “landslide” counties, but an uptick in counties dominated by independents and Republicans. More generally, in their words, “If we define landslide counties according to their voter registration rather than their presidential vote, the proportion of the American population living in landslide counties has fallen significantly, from about 50 to 15 percent.”

Fiorina and Abrams do not claim to have the last word on this topic. But they do point to the need for a more fine-grained analysis that digs deeper than county-level analyses. In this vein, other research has shown that in 2008, the Democratic share of the presidential vote in most precincts was close to 50%, suggesting that by this measure at least our communities are more politically competitive than the Big Sort suggests. (This graph is by Yale political scientist Eitan Hersh via the MonkeyCage blog):

More importantly, questions like those in the Washingtonian exercise, or in the recently released Pew survey on political polarization, that ask where we prefer to live based, in part, on political preferences, aren’t very good at telling us where we actually live. That is because as Clayton Nall and Jonathan Mummolo show in this paper people’s residential choices are constrained by more fundamental concerns with factors such as crime rates, the quality of the schools and proximity to one’s job. In this regard, people may express a partisan preference on surveys in terms of where they would like to live, but that preference is rarely going to determine their actual choice of a home. So we should be wary of using respondents’ answers to survey questions regarding where they would prefer to live as evidence of increasing political polarization.

Note also that survey results based on dichotomous choices, such as the agree/disagree option in the Washingtonian exercise, don’t do a very good job at capturing the complexity of individuals’ political views. Thus, asking whether one agrees or disagrees with the statement “Abortion should be legal and accessible to all women” won’t come close to capturing what most Americans think about this issue, based on other survey data that gives respondents more options.

For all these reasons, I’m willing to buy Jack lunch if the Washingtonian Capital Comment algorithm actually places more than, say, 5% of those Vermonters who respond into the community in which they actually live. (Full disclosure – Jack has bought the last 23 lunches we have enjoyed together so this is a low-risk wager.)

And we can start with me – the algorithm didn’t come close to getting my residence location correct. And that is because I live here in God’s Green Hills not because of any affinity with my neighbors’ political views – indeed, I have very few neighbors in my very rural community to bother me. Instead, I have an abundance of swimming holes, hiking trails, woodchucks and, not least, stones. And stone walls, after all, make good neighbors. And woodchucks never question my political views. They just eat my garden.

UPDATE 12:47: The Fix’s Chris Cillizza chimes in, citing some of the same research: