Sunday Shorts: Why Is This President Smiling, and What Have Millennials Really Learned?

Jack Goodman is constantly urging me to write more frequent, but shorter blog posts. In response, I’m introducing a new Sunday blog format, provisionally titled Sunday Shorts, that will touch briefly on political topics that I could not fit in during my longer posts during the week. This week’s short topics include Watergate, what explains Millennials’ growing distrust of the Presidency and why George H. W. Bush is a very happy 90-year old.

Let’s begin with Watergate. On the 40th anniversary of its original publication, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s classic work of investigative journalism All the President’s Men is being reissued with an afterword by the two authors. Both appeared on Candy Crowley’s State of the Union show this morning and had some choice words for the state of investigative journalism today. Simply put, they believe news organizations put too much time and money into shows that specialize in political punditry, and not enough into traditional on-the-ground reporting. Moreover, in this internet-dominated 24-7 news cycle, journalists face increasing pressure to get something out on a daily, even hourly basis, rather than taking the time to gather the facts in order to tell the full story. To illustrate, they cite the Benghazi and IRS missing e-mail controversies as stories that would benefit from some traditional investigative journalism, rather than the daily back-and-forth evidence-free accusations that have dominated discourse on this topic. Immediately after their appearance, Crowley – showing not a trace of irony – hosted a round table of four pundits who traded accusations about who is to blame about the IRS missing e-mails.

Former Midd student and political science major Addison DiSesa (who is gainfully employed in communications) pointed me in the direction of Ezra Klein’s Vox video piece claiming that Millennials (that would be Addy’s generation) are “getting smarter about politics.”  As evidence, Klein notes that Millennials’ “trust in the presidency has plummeted during [Obama's] two terms.” This, Klein suggests, is a good thing because it shows Millennials are catching on that the presidency is an inherently weak office. As Addy, a veteran of my presidency course, can surely attest, Klein’s observation regarding the power of the presidency is Basic Neustadt 101.  But I’m not sure Millennials’ growing skepticism of the presidency is a sign of increased understanding of the limits of presidential power so much as it is disappointment in what Obama has been able to accomplish. Put another way, it would not surprise me to see Millennials’ fooled again, given the right presidential candidate and political context.

we all know how this ends

That’s what honeymoons are for! Later this week I’ll post a brief analysis of Obama’s falling approval ratings. You might be surprised which previous president’s approval ratings closely mimic the current president’s.

Speaking of previous presidents, why is George H. W. Bush smiling? Probably because when he’s not jumping out of airplanes, he’s surrounding himself with agreeable guests. Plus he wears cool socks.

This, I submit, is a just reward for arguably the best president not to win reelection!

Have a great Sunday (and keep those comments and suggestions coming)!

Are Americans Becoming More Liberal?

Politico magazine has published a slightly revised version of my earlier post analyzing the highly publicized Pew Research Center survey that so many media outlets portrayed as evidence that we are living in “the divided United States of America”. (Note: I did not choose the Politico headline, which was a bit more provocative than is probably necessary. But I suppose it drives more traffic that way.  It also wasn’t actually the final version I sent them – that version included “Jenny North” as one of my baby boomer archetypes. But no matter – the message is the same. ) I’ll have more to say about some of the Pew survey results, but for now these two interactive graphs tell much of the story. This first graph is what most of the media focused on.

The second graph below is of the general population as a whole – it shows that most Americans still possess a mix of conservative and liberal views, based on the survey responses recorded by Pew to ten values-based questions (they are listed below) they have asked repeatedly since their 1994 survey. Indeed, as the Pew Report authors acknowledge, “To be sure, those with across-the-board liberal or conservative views remain in the minority; most Americans continue to express at least some mix of liberal and conservative attitudes.”

If you hit the interactive button on the original page for this graph, you’ll see that there is a slight leftward shift in the peak of the distribution across two decades toward “consistently liberal”. What appears to be primarily driving that leftward movement are Americans’ responses to two questions among the ten Pew uses to construct their ideology measure. Here are the ten questions:

The first question on which aggregate opinion has moved in the liberal direction addresses attitudes toward homosexuality. As this graph put together by Middlebury student Tina Berger shows, Americans have become increasingly accepting of homosexuality since 1994, with about 62% in 2014 agreeing “that homosexuality should be accepted by society”, an increase of 16% choosing this response compared to 1994, and 12% above the average agreeing with this statement during the 20-year interval. This appears to be a long-term sustained trend in the liberal direction that started in the mid-1990’s, and it’s not clear if or when it will level off.

homo6.21.14Source: Pew Research Center 2014 Political Polarization and Typology Survey Final Topline, page 16.

The second factor shifting the modal peak to the left is the public’s changing views toward immigration. Today 57% of Pew respondents agree that “Immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents” – a figure that is up almost 13% from the 20-year average, and up 26% compared to 1994. To be sure, the trends aren’t uniform, but over two decades the net movement has been toward the liberal response.

immigrantsSource: Pew Research Center 2014 Political Polarization and Typology Survey Final Topline, page 9.

On the remaining eight questions, however, there is very little sustained consistent movement in the aggregate in either a liberal or conservative direction. Of course, this can’t tell us what is happening at the individual level. The Pew summary indicates a doubling since 1994 of those holding ideological consistent views, with 21% expressing “either consistently liberal or conservative opinions across a range of issues – the size and scope of government, the environment, foreign policy and many others.” This means most Americans, by Pew’s standard, still hold a mix of views, at least based on responses to these ten questions. And, on most issues, it does not appear that in the aggregate views have changed all that much across two decades. Again, this suggests that despite the media focus on evidence that Americans are growing increasingly divided, the details of the Pew survey results suggest a more complex and perhaps reassuring picture.

In sum, while it appears Americans’ views have become more liberal in regards to immigration and homosexuality since 1994, it is not clear whether this means, as some have claimed, that the country is “moving left”.  It’s all in how you parse the data.


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:

Is America Really Polarized? About That Pew Report…

Amid more than a little fanfare, the Pew Research Center released the result of its most recent survey of Americans’ political values based on responses from more than 10,000 adults polled between January and March of this year. Its conclusion? “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.” In support of that assessment, the Center provides a wealth of data summarizing not just the survey responses dealing with political views, but also a host of related demographic variables, such as where Democrats and Republicans live, as well as some fascinating graphics such as this one purporting to show the growing ideological divide in American politics.

Understandably, in covering the release of the Pew Report, many journalists  keyed their story to the theme embraced by Pew’s Center President Alan Murray in his (over?)heated summary of the divided state of politics in America. That meant primarily focusing on the data suggesting a deepening partisan public divide in which Republicans and Democrats increasingly don’t like each other.

However, it’s not clear that this should be the journalists’ primary takeaway from the Pew Report. In fact, if you dig more deeply into the Report, there is evidence suggesting that the partisan cleavage is not quite a pervasive as the prevailing media coverage suggests. As the Pew authors acknowledge further down in the Report: “These sentiments are not shared by all – or even most – Americans. The majority do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views. Most do not see either party as a threat to the nation. And more believe their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want.” Readers may wonder why no editorials were written highlighting the fact that, according to the survey results, most Americans do not seem to be pure partisans, and that they believe in compromise as a means for solving political problems!

The answer may be that the authors thought the bigger story is changes in levels of partisanship that have come to characterize American politics in recent decades. But even here we need to be careful in assessing the Report’s conclusions. As I’ve discussed in earlier Presidential Power posts, we should not to mistake a process of party sorting as evidence of growing ideological polarization. Consider the Report’s statement that, “Looking at 10 political values questions tracked since 1994, more Democrats now give uniformly liberal responses, and more Republicans give uniformly conservative responses than at any point in the last 20 years.” Contrary to what some might initially conclude, this doesn’t necessarily indicate increasing ideological polarization at the individual level. Instead, as Morris Fiorina has argued, it may instead reflect a process in which more liberals now consider themselves Democrats, and more conservatives self-identify as Republicans, than was case when Pew first conducted this survey two decades ago – even if the number of conservatives and liberals has not changed appreciably in that time.

To see what I mean by party sorting, consider two archetypal baby boomer Americans – let’s call them Johnny South, and Billy North. Johnny’s political views owe much to his South Carolina roots where he was born, raised ans still lives.  These  beliefs include support for a strong military and a muscular foreign policy, a populist streak that supports some types of government spending on infrastructure and commodity subsidies, but a strong aversion to federal intervention into private social mores. Johnny’s counterpart, Billy North, is a life-long New Yorker and, like Johnny, his residence has helped shaped Billy’s political views. Billy is strongly against jingoist military intervention in foreign affairs, is moderate – even progressive – on many social issues, but is also a staunch fiscal conservative.

How do these views translate into political behavior? In the 1950’s, 60’s and even into the 70’s, Johnny usually voted Democratic in congressional elections, but he could be persuaded on occasion to vote Republican in presidential elections, as was the case in 1972 when he backed Richard Nixon. Longtime Democrat Fritz Hollings, however, was his political hero. During this same time period Billy typically voted Republican at the Congressional level, but he too would occasionally pull the Democratic lever, as when he backed LBJ in the 1964 presidential election. Billy’s political hero through much of this time is Nelson Rockefeller.

The point is that although both Johnny and Billy had coherent and largely stable ideological views, neither self-identified comfortably with one of the two major parties during most of this period; indeed, they occasionally supported the opposing party candidate and on more than one occasion split their vote between the two parties. Now jump ahead forty years. Neither Johnny nor Billy has changed their political views – but their party affiliations and voting habits have undergone a significant transformation across four decades. Today, Johnny consistently votes Republican in national elections – he is a strong supporter of South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, and he backed both McCain and Romney in 2008 and ’12, respectively. Billy, on the other hand, cast his last Republican vote for Ronald Reagan in 1984’s presidential election. Since then has uniformly voted the straight Democratic ticket in all national elections.

What changed? Not Johnny and Billy’s political beliefs – they did not become more conservative or liberal. Instead, what changed was their understanding of what it meant to be a Republican and a Democrat. That is, they resorted themselves into a particular party – and that is precisely the process, carried out by many people, that the Pew Survey has picked up on and highlighted in their most recent report. Given this process of party sorting, we should not be surprised that increasingly Republicans view Democrats as out of step with the times, and that Democrats similarly have heightened antipathy toward Republicans. The fact is that their view of the opposing party has become less positive as both parties have become more uniformly composed of liberals and conservatives, respectively.  To repeat, then, Americans’ views haven’t necessarily become more ideologically extreme – they just fit better under a particular party label.  That is why Pew shows a growing consistency between ideology and party affiliation – note that they would find this result even if there’s no real change in ideology at all!

To be fair to Pew, there are other findings in their report that are worth discussing, such as the apparent rise in ideological consistency among many Americans, that at first glance seem consistent with the idea that Americans are increasingly polarized in terms of political values. As time permits, I’ll try to unpack some more of their results. But for now beware of sensationalized media reports suggesting that we are becoming an increasingly divided nation. That is the glass-is-half-empty perspective.  But the data, along with an understanding of party sorting, indicates that we should probably adopt a glass half-full perspective.  Most Americans are not divided into two ideologically hostile camps of unyielding partisans.  Instead we have much more in common politically than a superficial read of the Pew findings might suggest.  I will develop this point in posts to come.

Correction: an earlier version of this post said Pew’s first values survey took place three decades ago – the Pew data I cite here only goes back two decades.

Hillary Clinton on Gay Marriage: “I Think I’m An American!”

Will Hillary Clinton’s evolving views on legalizing gay marriage hurt her presidential prospects?  Probably not.

Clinton is taking heat for her “contentious” and “testy” exchange with NPR host Terry Gross yesterday regarding her evolving support for legalizing gay marriage.  Clinton’s appearance was part of her national book tour touting her new memoir, Hard Choices which chronicles her four years as Secretary of State.  Many pundits see the book tour as a pretest of her 2016 presidential campaign, and thus are using it as a barometer of how well prepared she is to make a second run for the nation’s highest office.  Based on the reaction by pundits to the interview, they do not believe she’s yet battle ready. Critics suggest that in response to Gross’ probing questions Clinton failed to adequately explain when and why her views on the issue of gay marriage changed – was it a case of political opportunism? – and that the exchange made her sound angry and thin-skinned (read: “unpresidential”), proving once again that Clinton is “not very adept” in these more intimate formats. This CNN post-mortem is not atypical of the pundits’ reaction.

The publicity and reaction by pundits to the interview led to an interesting if perhaps unduly complicated Washington Post effort to track Clinton’s “complicated” views, as expressed in the interview, via this flowchart. But in listening to the actual NPR interview with Terry Gross, Clinton’s views on the issue don’t seem very complicated at all. (Here is the particular segment dealing with gay marriage):

(I’ll leave to you to decide whether the exchange with Gross is “testy”.) Instead, it appears that her attitude on the topic has evolved almost in lockstep with those of most Americans. To see how, compare the Washington Post’s timeline of Clinton’s public statements on the issue with the attitudes of Americans on this topic more generally, as captured in survey data. As Clinton alludes to in the interview, when her husband signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law in September, 1996, support for gay marriage was quite low. Not surprisingly, Clinton does not appear to support legalized gay marriage at that time. Since then, support has grown among almost all demographic groups, so that today a majority of Americans support the legalization of gay marriage – as does Clinton.

Moreover, this increase in support has continued into 2014 and shows no signs of abating.

My point here is not to defend (or condemn) Clinton’s evolving attitude toward gay marriage. Clearly she was not in the vanguard of the movement toward marriage equality – something she openly acknowledges in the NPR interview. Most of us who change (grow?) individually do not have to worry that this process will take place publicly, with every statement taken down and potentially used against us as a sign of moral weakness and/or political opportunism. Presidential candidates, however, do not have that luxury. Everything they say can, and will be, used against them by somebody.

I suspect, however, that Hillary’s opponents will not get much traction on this issue in 2016 for the simple reason that although Americans’ support for gay marriage is on the rise, the issue does not have very high salience with most potential voters; as this Gallup survey indicates, gay rights issues barely register on the list of Americans’ non-economic concerns  (look way down the list of concerns to find it!):

It is probable, of course, that the issue will have greater salience among the party activists participating in the Democratic presidential nominating process, but even among this important subgroup I do not believe candidates’ evolving attitudes on gay marriage will be the deciding issue. In short, while the NPR crowd may get fired up by Clinton’s “testy exchange” with Gross, I suspect it will have little impact on her presidential fortunes.

UPDATE 4:39 pm: Charles Franklin posted this figure of aggregrate survey results regarding opinions on gay marriage. Again, it shows Americans’ position evolving in support of same-sex marriage: