Category Archives: Democrats

Trustee or Delegate? The Impact of Controversial Votes on Democrats in the 2010 Midterms

Trustee or delegate?  It is the classic dilemma every elected official faces. Political scientists are fond of reminding their students that Edmund Burke once explained to his constituents that as a member of Parliament he would be a trustee, not a delegate; that is, he would vote his conscience,  rather than simply doing what his constituents wanted.  “Your faithful friend, your devoted servant, I shall be to end of my life, [but] a flatterer you don’t wish for.”  Burke promptly lost his bid for election.

It is not clear whether House Democrat Dan Maffei, who conceded his race in New York’s 25th district to Tea Partier Ann Marie Buerkle on Tuesday, knew of Burke’s fate. As Jeff Garofano reminds me in an email, Maffei’s seat had been reliably Republican for several decades – as had been much of upstate New York – until Maffei won it for the Democrats in 2008.  Once in office Maffei supported the Democratic leadership on a number of controversial votes.  In his concession letter,  Maffei – much like Burke! – expressed few regrets:  “Not only do I not apologize for my positions on the stimulus, the health care bill, financial reform, and the credit card bill, but my only regret is that there were not more opportunities to make healthcare more affordable to people and businesses and get more resources to the region for needed public projects – particularly transportation and public schools.  I am also deeply proud of my commitment to energy reform and mitigating global climate change.”

Maffei may be proud of his votes – he was no flatterer! – but in the end his seat became, by my unofficial count, the 63rd lost by Democrats in this election cycle, pushing the overall House totals to 242 Republicans and 192 Democrats. And, as I discuss below, there is evidence suggesting that the votes about which Maffei expresses such pride may have cost him – and Democrats more generally – their seats.

To be sure, as I argued in my last post, the size of the Republican wave that washed so many Democrats like Maffei out of office was largely due to the unprecedented nature of the economic recession.  In that vein, Mo Fiorina passes along the following chart:

As you can see by the red line, the depth and duration of the current jobless cycle is unprecedented in the post-Depression era.  I also suggested in that previous post, however, that some Democrats, like Maffei, paid a price for their votes on a number of high profile issues, such as health care. In this vein, Bill Galston finds based on polling data that 17% of midterm voters cited health care as the biggest influence on their vote. “Of those voters, 58 percent had an unfavorable view of the health-reform law, 58 percent thought it would make the country worse off, and 56 percent thought it would leave them and their families worse off. Not surprisingly, health care voters went for Republican over Democratic candidates by a margin of 59 percent to 35 percent. (Non health-care voters were divided 44 percent to 44 percent.)”

But can we be sure that support for health care, or other controversial high-profile issues like TARP, the stimulus bill or cap and trade, really cost Democrats seats? A number of political scientists have sought to look more systematically at the electoral effect, if any, in 2010 on Democrats who supported these issues.  One such study by Eric McGhee and John Sides analyzed the estimated impact of a Democrat’s support for cap and trade, the stimulus bill and health care, and the impact of supporting only health care and cap and trade, while controlling for the district’s previous House vote, presidential support in 2008, and campaign spending by candidates. As the following two charts indicate, they estimate that in the aggregate  support for the stimulus bill, health care and cap and trade cost the Democrats 35 seats, while a vote for just health care and cap and trade cost 24 seats. (The charts compare the actual results with the estimated results if Democrats had voted against the controversial bills.)

They calculate the average loss of support for Democrats per controversial vote as follows: 2.8% for the stimulus, 2.1% for cap-and-trade, and 4.5% for health care. Of course, the estimated loss varies across each district, although it tends to increase as districts become progressively more Republican. They conclude that the net impact on Democrats of just these three controversial votes might have been enough to cost them control of the House. These estimates,  of course, are subject to a large margin of error (the red lines in the charts above).  Moreover, as Jonathan Bernstein points out,  we can’t really be sure what would have happened in the absence of the health care vote, or the absence of any of these votes for that matter, because the context of the election most assuredly would have changed without these votes. Finally, one might conclude, as Maffei evidently did, that passing health care or the stimulus package was worth the political cost of losing one’s seat, not to mention majority control in the House. In the case of the stimulus bill, or TARP, one might argue that Democrats had no choice but to support both pieces of legislation – otherwise the banking industry might have collapsed and the economy might have gone into a deeper recession.  As McGhee and Sides remind us, however, Democrats certainly had the option not to push for health care reform, or cap and trade legislation.

In short, although profiles in voting courage may provide material for Pulitzer prize-winning books, it is likely that because of these votes Republicans now control the House, and are poised to take the Senate in 2012.  If they also win the presidency, who knows whether health care will even survive?  So, were these votes worth the electoral pain they inflicted?  Unfortunately, elected politicians don’t have the luxury of hindsight when trying to estimate likely voter reaction to how they vote.  Maffei may now tell his constituents that he is proud of his votes, and he may even believe it.  On the other hand, what else can he say?  “Wait! I want a do-over!  Health care was a horrible piece of legislation!”  My guess – and it is only a guess – is that if he knew these votes would cost him his seat, he would have voted no on several of them. Instead, his district is now represented by a Tea Partier who is certain to try to undo all the legislation Maffei supported.

That brings me to the final element in my post-election analysis: the impact of the Tea Party. I’ll address that in my next post.

How Democrats Can Minimize Their Losses on November 2

How might Democrats minimize their losses on November 2?  Not by following the advice rendered by Sheri and Allan Rivlin, the authors of this Huffington Post article.

The Rivlins, echoing arguments that I find on many progressive websites, suggest that “something seems to be going terribly wrong with the Democratic message machine. To say we are off message is charitable, when a more accurate reading is that we are trying every message at once, which is another way of saying we are not committed to any message at all.”  To remedy this, they argue that Democrats should nationalize this election by framing it as a choice between the two parties’ economic plans.  In the Rivlins’ view, “The only thing voters should care about is who has the best plan to move forward, and our advantage is we have a plan and the Republicans don’t. The best evidence that we have a plan is all the statements by the other side that we have been doing too much. The best evidence that the Republicans don’t is their inability to point to any economic ideas that are new and different from Bush’s ideas.”

In my view, this is precisely the wrong approach for Democrats.  Fairly or not, the public – or at least that portion that is likely to vote in 10 days – perceives the Democrats as the party in charge at a time of stubbornly high 9% unemployment and sluggish economic growth.  Those facts are not going to change between now and November 2.  Simplistic or not, many voters view this election as either continuing on the current slow-growth path or trying something – anything – new.  Put another way, a good portion of the electorate – particularly the independents – that votes on Nov. 2 will frame this election as a referendum on the party in power – not a choice between competing economic plans. The Democrats aren’t going to lose the House because of bad messaging – they are going to lose it because of a bad economy, one that has not improved on their watch. As this recent survey indicates, most voters do not believe the economy is improving. Instead, “Americans are waiting for changes in the national and local employment statistics to signal that the downturn’s end is near.”  In the meantime they are increasing savings and cutting down on expenditures.

With this dismal economic context, what should Democrats do?  Incumbents – particularly those in the House – should do precisely the opposite of what the Rivlins suggest. That is, they should not do what Obama did in his recent radio address and try to frame this election as a choice between going forward under Democrat leadership or going back to the failed policies of Bush and the Republicans. A September Democrat poll conducted by Democratic pollsters Stan Greenberg and James Carville supports my claim. It found that “Voters are not moved by Democratic messages that say ‘go forward, not back,’ mention President Bush, compare then and now, or even that hint the economy is “showing signs of progress.” No matter how dramatically these messages set out the record of Republican obstructionism, their work for the wealthiest and Goldman Sachs, the millions of jobs lost and Democrats’ support for jobs, small business and new industries – these messages falter before the Republican attack. The messages get lower scores and lose voters. After hearing this battle of Republican and Democratic messages, 8 percent shift their vote to support the Republican, while only 5 percent move to the Democrats. We lose ground. These messages are helping the Republicans.”

In short, Democratic candidates for Congress lose support when they try to frame this election as a choice between going back to the Bush-Republican policies or continuing with Obama’s.  Rather than nationalize this election,   during the next ten days Democrat incumbents should distance themselves from partisan policy debates and instead work assiduously to localize this election by reminding voters of everything they’ve done for their district: earmarks, casework – all the constituency services that contribute to the traditional advantages that accrue to incumbents in both parties. At the same time, they should distance themselves from the Democratic Party leadership, including President Obama. His most useful role is as a fundraiser in strongly blue districts and states.  But if you are a House Democrat running in a marginal district, you do not want the President at your side right now.

There is some evidence that Democratic leaders are beginning to grasp this. Two days ago Nancy Pelosi, appearing on Charlie Rose , suggested that this was an election that would turn on local issues: “This is not a national election; it is district by district,” she said.  Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbs, appearing on Meet the Press, agreed with Pelosi’s assertion by arguing that the midterm election would turn on local factors, not national ones.

Localizing House elections  at a time when midterms have become more nationalized  than at any time in the last half century is not going to be easy.  But at this point House Democrats don’t have much choice.

Tuesday’s Results: Good News for Obama and Democrats?

I’ve been on deadline with a conference paper, so am commenting somewhat belatedly on last Tuesday’s election results, focusing on the highly publicized Senate primary races in Colorado and Connecticut.  As you know, in Colorado, incumbent Democrat Michael (“One T”) Bennet defeated challenger Andrew Romanoff by a relatively comfortable 54%-46%, a margin somewhat larger than what many pre-election forecasts suggested.  You will recall that Bennet was appointed to the Senate in 2009 to fill the seat of Ken Salazar, who became Obama’s Secretary of the Interior.  In the Republican primary, local District Attorney Ken (“One Tea Party”) Buck topped former Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton, 52-48.  Buck has Tea Party backing, while Norton was viewed more favorably by the Republican “establishment”.

In Connecticut, meanwhile, former WWE wrestling executive Linda McMahon won the Republican Senate primary over Representative Rob Simmons and the Tea Party candidate Peter Schiff.   McMahon now faces Democratic Attorney General Dick “I might have fought in Vietnam” Blumenthal in November to fill the seat of retiring Senator Chris Dodd.  Despite some biography-related gaffes, Blumenthal is up by double digits over McMahon in early polls, although his lead is shrinking.

For the most part, the mainstream media painted this as a good night for Democrats, and for President Obama – indeed that was the exact Politico headline in their coverage of the results: “Primary Night Yields Good News for President Obama and Democrats”.  A bit more cautiously, the New York Times headline reads, “Incumbent Backed by Obama Wins Colorado Primary” thus associating Obama with the outcome without necessarily crediting him for it.

Each story went on to suggest that the results indicated that the prevailing narrative, which shows Republicans making great gains come November, might need to be reconsidered. In Politico, John Harris writes, “Republicans, meanwhile, were left with several new reasons to wonder whether all the favorable national trends showing in the polls are enough to overcome local candidates who are inspiring little confidence about their readiness for the general election 12 weeks from now.” In the Times’ coverage of the results,  Kirk Johnson writes, “The predictions of doom for incumbents and establishment candidates this campaign season are proving to be more complex in the real world.”

Well, yes and no.  It is true that leading Democrats, most notably President Obama, as well as Vice President Joe Biden and others, campaigned heavily on Bennet’s behalf.  Had Bennet lost, the prevailing media narrative almost certainly would have been that still another candidate backed by Obama went down to defeat.  So, given the alternative, the Colorado outcome certainly was good news for Obama.  However, do the results “complicate” our understanding of midterm elections?  Do they potentially herald a strengthening of Democrat support heading into November?

No. In fact, the Colorado and Connecticut Senate primary outcomes do nothing to change my belief that the underlying electoral fundamentals are still pointing to strong Republican gains come November. Let’s start with Colorado.  Keep in mind that it highly unusual for candidate challenging an incumbent in a primary to win 46% of the vote.  This despite the fact that Bennet spent about $1.9 million on advertising to Romanoff’s roughly $757,000, much of it in a ten-day advertising blitz near the end of the campaign when polls indicated Romanoff might pull off the upset. All told, Bennet spent almost $6 million on the primary campaign, compared to less than $2 million for Romanoff.  Bennet officials admitted that they had not anticipated the need to spend this much on advertising but they took no chances when polling suggested they were in a tight race.  In fact, total spending in these Colorado primaries broke the state record.

Note also that Bennet is not running like a typical incumbent; despite his backing from the Democrat establishment in the primary, in his victory speech he immediately pivoted to portray himself as a political outsider not yet tainted by Washington politics.  When asked, he made no commitment to having the President come to Colorado to campaign for him in the general election. This despite that fact that polling data has Bennet in a dead heat with the Republican Buck.

Note also that although turnout was up in both party primaries, due to the contested races, it was up more in the Republican primary, where 45% of registered Republicans voted compared to about 40% of registered Democrats. According to state records, there are 802,000 registered Democrats in Colorado, 830,000 Republicans, and 730,000 independents.  Bottom line: it’s not clear to me that Bennet has a markedly better chance than did Romanoff to beat Buck.  Polls showed both Democrats in a dead heat with the Republican.

In Connecticut, meanwhile, analysts pointed to the fact that McMahon won less than 50% of the vote in a three-way race as evidence that she’s not a strong candidate.  While Blumenthal must certainly be considered the front-runner in this Democrat-leaning state, I would be cautious about adopting the interpretation that Tuesday’s results signify McMahon’s weakness.  First, in contrast to the Colorado races, turnout in the Connecticut Republican primary was quite low, in part because it was vacation time and also because McMahon already had the backing of the party establishment coming out of the Republican convention earlier this year.  Second, keep in mind that independents don’t vote in the Connecticut primary, and they constitute about 43% of Connecticut voters.  How many of them will support McMahon over Blumenthal?  Third, how likely is it that Simmons’ and Schiff’s supporters are going to vote for Blumenthal over McMahon? Fourth, Democrats are pouncing on McMahon’s wrestling background as a sign that she’s not electable.  Jesse Ventura anyone? Finally, keep in mind that McMahon has very deep pockets.  Given all these factors, I expect this race to tighten come November.

In short, you should not let the headlines from Tuesday’s races fool you into thinking the underlying electoral fundamentals suddenly shifted. I’ve just begun crunching some of the forecast numbers and will have much more to say about them in the coming months.  But the bottom line is that, unless these midterm Senate races are driven by an entirely different set of dynamics than previous midterms, the situation is still not good for Democrats.

As evidence, some of you may remember my warning about the recent results of Gallup’s generic ballot question which asks voters whether they will support the Republican or Democrat congressional candidate come November.  After weeks of favoring the Republicans, the results flipped during a two-week period in mid-July to put Democrats in the lead. Progressive bloggers hoped it heralded a reversal of political fortunes. In contrast, I cautioned (along with others like Mark Blumenthal) that the change might simply reflect the typical random variation associated with public opinion sampling.  Here’s the most recent Gallup results:

As you can see, Republicans are back in the lead, and by the largest margin (tied) held by either party since Gallup began tracking the generic ballot in March.  This does not mean that voters have suddenly switched back to supporting Republicans.  Instead, it is more likely that the underlying voting dynamics have remained remarkably stable and that July’s results were, as I suggested, simply random variation due to sampling.  Since March Republicans have been tied or ahead of Democrats in almost every poll except for that two-week period in July, and they continue to maintain an “enthusiasm” advantage in terms of their likelihood to vote in November.

Bottom line? Tuesday’s “good news” headlines notwithstanding, the election results in Colorado and Connecticut do not complicate or even change the political science narrative at all:  the fundamentals are no more favorable to Democrats or Obama today than they were last week.

Did Democrat Turnout “Fall Off the Cliff” In Last Tuesday’s Primaries?

Pundits are busy parsing the results from three recent statewide primaries in Ohio, North Carolina and Indiana held last Tuesday.  Much of the focus has been on how well candidates backed by the Tea Party did. Of more interest to me, however, is the relative turnout among Democrats and Republicans. At first glance, the results don’t seem to bode well for the Democrats.  Thus, Reid Wilson, writing for Hotline On Call, in his article titled “Dem Turnout Falls Off a Cliff”, notes that “Turnout among Dem voters dropped precipitously in 3 statewide primaries on Tuesday, giving the party more evidence that their voters lack enthusiasm ahead of midterm elections.”

Well, maybe. I’ve written before about the dangers of generalizing from a limited base of comparison, particularly given the idiosyncratic nature of midterm primary elections.  With this in mind, is it the case that headlines trumpeting a collapse in Democrat turnout on Tuesday are justified? Note that Wilson draws his conclusion in part by comparing turnout in Tuesday’s Senate primaries with turnout in previous statewide elections for different offices, such as Governor, in these states.  This comparison is not ideal – far better, I think, to try to compare turnout to previous midterm Senate primary races. That is precisely what I’ve tried to do below, although I caution that I had to piece together data from different sources and so can’t be completely certain of the accuracy of all these figures, although most are drawn directly from state records.

To start, I thought it might be interesting to see how the overall statewide turnout in these three states compares to previous midterm primaries, including the last “wave” midterm election in 1994.   In the following table, I’ve pasted the overall turnout (not just turnout for Senate races) of registered votes in the statewide primary elections in all three states for elections in 1994, 2002, 2006 and 2010 – all midterm elections.

State 1994 – Primary Turnout Statewide 2002 – Statewide Primary 2006 – Statewide Primary 2010 – Statewide Primary
North Carolina 13% 21% 12% 14.3%
Indiana 31% 22% 19% Not Released Yet
Ohio 33% 19.4% 24.28% 22.3%

It does not appear, then, that turnout in these three set of statewide elections is abnormally low, although neither does it approach the levels achieved in the “wave” election of 1994, at least in Indiana and Ohio.  (Interestingly, North Carolina did not have much of a turnout boost in 1994.)  But this does not tell us whether Democrat turnout has dropped off while Republican turnout is up.  Unfortunately, none of these states provides a partisan breakdown of turnout.  To get some leverage on the question, I went back to look at actual turnout in previous Senate primaries in these states.  All data is drawn from state election records, but in most cases I had to add up totals by hand, so reader beware. Note that all I can provide for now is absolute vote totals – not percentage turnout by party.

Here’s what I found, broken down by state:

OHIO – DEMOCRAT SENATE PRIMARY COMPARISON 2010, 2006, 1994.

In 2006, 747,404 votes were cast in the Ohio Democratic primary race for the Senate, won by Sherrod Brown, although it was not a tightly contested race. In the more hotly contested 1994 Democrat Senate primary, however, in which Joel Hyatt narrowly beat Mary Boyle, there were 934,891 votes cast.  This past Tuesday, however, despite a closer primary battle between Lee Fisher and Jennifer Bruner, turnout in the Democrat primary only numbered 673, 597.  So it appears there was a drop in Democratic turnout this past Tuesday from previous years.

INDIANA – REPUBLICAN SENATE PRIMARY 2010, 2006 and 1998 (partial)

In what was essentially a three-candidate contest on Tuesday for the Republican Senate nomination, 527,036 voters cast ballots in an election won by former Senator Dan Coats. In 2006, incumbent Senator Richard Lugar ran essentially unopposed in the Republican primary and drew 393,960 votes.  In 1998, when Coats decided to step down as Senator, Republicans waged a tightly contested primary fight eventually won by Paul Helmke, who was defeated by Evan Bayh in the general election. Helmke received 129,309 votes in the Republican primary compared to his main rival’s 124,005, but I have not been able to get the overall totals for that primary as yet.   With this caveat, it looks like turnout was up in Indiana among Republicans on Tuesday.

NORTH CAROLINA – DEMOCRAT SENATE PRIMARY 2010, 2002, 1998

Despite a closely contested Democratic primary between Elaine Marshal and Cal Cunningham this past Tuesday, only 423,453 voters cast ballots, with no candidate reaching the 40% threshold for avoiding a runoff election. In 2002, in contrast, 645,070 turned out in the Democrat Senate primary won by Erskine Bowles, who then went on to lose to Republican Elizabeth Dole in the general election.  In 1998, John Edwards (remember him?) won the North Carolina Democrat Senate primary in which 540,031 voters cast ballots.  Again, it appears that Democrat turnout is down last Tuesday.

It does appear, then, that historically speaking Democrat voter intensity, at least in these two Senate primaries in Ohio and North Carolina, was down this past Tuesday, while Republican turnout was up in Indiana.  But I caution you not to read too much into this quite yet.  I am not that familiar with all the candidates involved in these races, nor can I say much about contextual factors in each state that might have influenced overall turnout during past years.  These are three races with their own idiosyncrasies, so I hesitate to project voter enthusiasm by party for the 2010 midterms.

Nonetheless, if I were a Republican I would be pleased.  If a Democrat – maybe not.  As a political scientist, I want to see more data!

UPDATE: the link to the Wilson article I cite above was not working – it should be fixed now.

Who Will Be the Democrats’ Mezvinsky on Health Care?

The just-released Congressional Budget Office projection that, if passed,  the Senate health care bill will reduce the deficit over a 10-year period promises to provide some political cover for “Blue Dog” Democrats who worry about the fiscal implications of another hugely expensive government program. If media reports are to be believed, Democrats – buoyed in part by the CBO projections – are now poised to pass the Senate health care legislation, although the latest whip count suggests they have almost no votes to spare.

The blue dogs’ worry about supporting the health care bill even with the CBO projection is understandable considering that public opposition to the health care bills being discussed in Congress has remained quite stable over the past few months. According to the Pew survey center, “As has been the case since last July, there is more opposition than support for these proposals. Currently, 48% say they generally oppose the health care bills in Congress while 38% say they generally favor them. That is almost identical to the balance of opinion in February and January.  Moreover, a plurality of those polled would prefer that Congress start over”:

Democrats’ uncertainty regarding the final vote will inevitably mean that some of the undecideds will leverage their position to extract concessions from the House leadership.  The latest effort to do so centers on regional disparities in Medicare payments.  But the flip side of this is the fear by many Democrats that they will be “Mevinskied”,  a reference to the Pennsylvania Representative, Marjorie Margolies Mezvinsky, who lost her seat 18 years ago as a result of casting one of the deciding votes that pushed Bill Clinton’s first budget over the bar. Clinton had been elected in part on his promise not to raise taxes on the middle class. Once in office, however, he inherited a growing budget deficit that was much larger than he anticipated.  He also  faced a Congress composed of almost an identical partisan composition as the Congress that Obama confronts today.  Reversing his campaign pledge, his first budget included a tax hike designed to cut into the burgeoning budget deficit, but many Democrats, including Mezvinsky, were leery of signing on to it.  In the end, with no Republican support at all, passage of Clinton’s budget came down to a handful of Democratic votes in both the House and Senate.  Much like the current health care debate, Clinton supporters portrayed the budget vote as a referendum on his presidency; if it failed to pass, his political capital would be severely damaged, jeopardizing his entire legislative program – including health care reform. In the end, he was able to attract just enough votes to pass the budget, in large part because Mezvinsky, the freshman Pennsylvania Representative, voted for the President’s budget. In a recent op ed piece,  Margolies defended her budget vote, and urged Democrats to emulate her by voting their conscience regarding the current health bill. Eighteen years ago, however, she was expressing a different emotion, begging the White House not to press her to support the President’s budget because she feared it would likely cost her seat in the House. A tearful President, feeling her pain, promised he would campaign for her reelection if she voted for his budget.  She did – and he did,  but to no avail.  Mezvinsky’s vote was one of two that put the President’s budget over the top by a final vote of 218-216.  Republicans chanted “bye-bye Marjorie” as her vote was recorded – and they were right. Despite Clinton’s efforts, she was was defeated for reelection in 1994, largely on the basis of that single vote.  Writing 18 years later, Margolies says she doesn’t regret the vote,and she urges Democrats to follow her lead: “I urge you simply to cast the vote you can be proud of next week, next year and for years to come. Given the opportunity, I wouldn’t change my vote.”  In the next breath, however, she admits: “Then again, what do I know? I was a lousy politician.”

Will Obama need another Mezvinsky to step forward to save health care?  And if he does, will it be “a lousy politician” who loses her seat in order to save the President?