Tag Archives: 2012 election

Once More, With Feeling! Divided We Stand

As we begin assessing the results of the 2012 elections, perhaps the most important takeaway is that, once again, the country has voted for divided government.  When this newly-elected Congress finishes its term in January, 2015, we will have had divided government during 42 of the last 68 years, dating back to the first-post World War II Congress in 1947.  Much of the media focus, understandably, has been on Obama’s narrow victory, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, as of this writing, it appears the Republicans lost a net of about 6 House seats, and therefore they will retain their House majority with something close to 236 of the 435 House seats.  The Democrats, meanwhile, defied expectations (at least mine!) and actually gained two seats in the Senate, upping their advantage there (assuming the two independents Angus King and Bernie Sanders vote with them) to 55-45.

What explains Americans love affair with divided government?  In part, our explanations may vary depending on what type of divided government we see – right now the Congress is divided.  That is the more rare form of divided government, occurring in just 12 years since 1947. In most other years we see a unified Congress facing a president from the other party.  It is tempting to think, but harder to prove, that voters are engaged – consciously, or subconsciously – in some type of partisan balancing act.   If they are consciously dividing control, the question is why?  One explanation that was particularly popular when split control meant choosing a Republican president and Democratically-controlled Congress is that voters saw the parties having different strengths.  Republicans were stronger on defense, and hence better suited for the Presidency, while Democrats were more protective of the social safety net and therefore were given control in Congress.  However, the partisan roles have been more often reversed in divided government since 1994, with Republicans controlling at least the House and Democrats sitting in the Oval Office.  Note that, as Mo Fiorina reminds us, not all voters need to be engaged in this type of reasoning for split government to occur – divided government only requires a minority of voters to split their ticket.  Despite this, critics of the balancing argument suggest this still imposes a relatively high threshold of purposive voting on the part of voters.

A second argument explaining divided government focuses not on ideological or partisan balancing, but instead on structural factors.  Thus, one explanation for why Democrats retained control of the House for so long, even as the nation elected Republican presidents, is that Democrats, by virtue of more active political participation in state government, simply fielded a more experienced and hence stronger set of candidates at the national level.  That is, they benefited by, in effect, having a stronger minor league program. It wasn’t until 1994, after Newt Gingrich had been actively recruiting Republicans to run for office at the local level for a number of years that this structural imbalance was finally overcome.  In recent years scholars have cited a second structural factor – one that advantages Republicans.  They note that Republican voters are more efficiently distributed across the country, while Democrats are bunched up in large urban areas along the coasts.  This more efficient distribution – one accentuated by Republican-controlled gerrymandering in many states after the 2010 census – means Republicans “waste” fewer votes in congressional elections.

Does it matter that government is divided?  In particular, does it lead to legislative gridlock? On this question, scholars are also divided.  David Mayhew has shown that major legislation generally gets churned out whether government is unified or not.  Others argue, however, that under divided government it is more likely that the national government will fail to address pressing problems.   That is, our answer may depend on whether we are looking at pure policy productivity or at the saliency of the legislative Congress passes in relation to societal concerns more generally.

The answer may also depend on more than whether government is divided or not.   Larry Dodd and Scott Schraufnagel suggest that Congress’ legislative productivity depends also on the level of partisan polarization dividing the two parties.  When the two congressional parties are internally very unified, but the ideological distance between them is large, legislative productivity can be hampered even during periods of unified government.  This is because our bicameral legislative process, with its supermajoritarian hurdles, makes it easier for a unified opposition party to stymie action.  Under the current conditions of quasi-divided (split Congress) government and high polarization, the tendency toward gridlock is even greater.

The bottom line is that, for whatever reason, the voters last Tuesday essentially opted for the status quo.  Despite protestations to the contrary, Obama did not receive a mandate – if anything, his position is weaker now than it has ever been.  That means from his perspective,  the legislative window of opportunity starts small, and will likely close quickly.  To be sure,  I don’t expect that both parties, in their lameduck version,  will be willing to drive the country over the fiscal cliff come the start of the New Year. But the long-term outlook for inter-party cooperation on legislation in the incoming Congress is not promising.  Republicans, responding to their own constituent pressures, are likely to be as unified in the new Congress as they were in the last.  This does not mean major legislation won’t be passed.  Mayhew shows that it can still happen – but only when it addresses the political interests of both parties.  Those cases are rare indeed.

Obama, Unemployment and Reelection: What I Think I Know…

Will persistent high unemployment doom Obama’s reelection chances? That question was debated anew in response to last Friday’s dismal economic report for June, which showed unemployment actually going up a tick, to 9.2% (and over 16% if one includes those who have stopped looking for work) and with the number of jobs created since May far less than what economists had predicted.  The unemployment figures took on added significant in light of a much discussed NY Times article from last month which began, “No American president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has won a second term in office when the unemployment rate on Election Day topped 7.2 percent. Seventeen months before the next election, it is increasingly clear that President Obama must defy that trend to keep his job.”  Based on the Times’ article, readers might conclude that if the unemployment trends holds and recent history is a reliable guide, Obama’s reelection prospects are dim to nonexistent.

However, in the aftermath of the Times’ article and again after Friday’s report, some analysts were quick to dispute that idea. Larry Sabato, who created the widely read Crystal Ball website,  noted that there was no clear relationship between unemployment and the electoral fortunes of the president’s party.  As evidence, he presented the following chart:

Green bars indicate that the incumbent president’s party won reelection while orange indicates that it went down to defeat.  Based on this data, Sabato takes issue with the implications of the Times‘ piece, arguing instead that  “No way is 7.2% the magic number.”  As he notes, Ronald Reagan won reelection by a landslide in 1984 despite a November unemployment rate of 7.2%.  Conversely, Vice President Hubert Humphrey lost his bid for the presidency in 1968 even though unemployment was only 3.4% (back when U.S. Steel was king, gas was a dime a gallon and Detroit ruled the automotive world). The reason for Humphrey’s loss is that voters were focused not on jobs but on the Vietnam War.  Sabato’s broader point is that although the jobless rate is not meaningless, neither it is a foolproof predictor of election results.  Indeed, it may make more sense to focus on the overall trend in unemployment numbers or changes in GDP or some other economic indicator.

Seth Masket, another political scientist and blogger, made a similar argument on his website in the aftermath of the Times‘ article. He presented a scatterplot graphing the relationship between annual unemployment and the share of the two-party vote won by the incumbent president’s party in a presidential election.  The almost flat line in the chart is a regression estimate he fit to the data indicating that there is virtually no statistical relationship between unemployment and vote share based on presidential elections dating back to 1948:

Masket’s conclusion?  “The fact is, as the above scatterplot demonstrates, the unemployment rate does not predict presidential elections at all. The Democrats failed to hold the White House in 1952 during the lowest unemployment on record. Parties have both lost and retained the White House during periods of high unemployment. And the biggest reelection margins have occurred with unemployment between five and six percent — right around the middle of its historic range.”

Are Sabato and Masket right?  Can we discount unemployment as a predictor of election results? Not necessarily. To begin, neither of them has really addressed the New York Times’ claim: that no incumbent president since FDR has won reelection with unemployment over 7.2%.  Instead, they focus on the electoral fate of the incumbent president’s party. If, however,  per the New York Times piece we restrict our analysis to the winner of those elections involving an incumbent, and extend our timeline back to the first post-FDR  president Harry Truman in 1948, here’s what we see:

This graphically illustrates the New York Times‘ claim. Based on this chart, it appears that if unemployment is above 9% come November, 2012, Obama is toast.

Or is he?  Here I want to emphasize an important point:  there is a great deal of uncertainty associated with electoral projections based on 10 (or 16) data points (depending on whether we focus only on incumbents or on the incumbent’s party). Indeed, Carlisle Rainey (a political science graduate student at Florida State) estimated the 90% confidence interval surrounding Masket’s regression analysis to test Masket’s claim that unemployment rates do not predict the two-party vote share.  Think of the confidence interval as a measure indicating how confident we are that the “real” relationship between vote share and unemployment falls within a specified area.    So, in the first graph below, we are reasonably confident that the “true” relationship between unemployment and vote share, based on 16 data points, lies somewhere between the two curved lines.  You can see that the area between the curves is pretty substantial, meaning we aren’t really sure of the real relationship between unemployment and vote share.  Even in the area of about 6% unemployment where there is the most data points there remains wide variation in the vote share won by the president’s party.  Based on Rainey’s confidence interval, then, it is clear that there are many possible electoral outcomes associated with any particular level of unemployment.  Indeed, as the second chart shows, Rainey suggests we can’t even be sure if the relationship is negative or positive – that is, whether an increase in unemployment decreases a party’s vote share or actually boosts it!  (The upward sloping red lines in the second chart are regression simulations based on the data that indicate when unemployment goes up, so too does the incumbent party’s margin of victory – a counterintuitive finding, to be sure, but one that Rainey says we cannot discount based on 16 data points).

What does this mean? In contrast to Masket’s confident assertion that “the unemployment rate does not predict presidential elections at all”, we actually don’t know if that’s true, at least based on the data he cites.  The job rate may very well be a key factor in explaining the vote share won by the president’s party. Similarly, we can’t be sure that Sabato is correct that there is “no magic number” of unemployment above which the president will lose the election.  Maybe an unemployment rate above, say, 8% really is the kiss of death for any incumbent.  Sixteen or 10 data points, however, isn’t enough to make a confident projection.

This is a subtle point I’m making, but it is an important one.  The jobless rate may in fact be an important determinant of the 2012 election results. In fact, I strongly believe that, all other factors being equal, the higher the unemployment rate the lower Obama’s election chances.  But my estimate is based primarily on intuition and my reading of electoral history, and not on any robust statistical relationship between unemployment and previous election results. That means I could very well be wrong.  Based on the data alone, about all we know with some degree of confidence is that a slight change in unemployment, say 1% up or down, is not going to have a huge impact – say, as much as plus or minus 5% in the incumbent’s share of the two party vote.  Instead, the impact will be much smaller.  But in a close election,  even if a 1% change in unemployment  shaves (or adds!) 1 or 2% in the popular vote share, it could still be decisive.

The bottom line is that whenever you read an election prediction from a pundit, you should pay attention not only to the point estimate – the margin of victory, electoral votes, etc., she projects.   You should also see whether the pundit gives you any measure of the confidence she has in her prediction.  It doesn’t have to be a confidence interval.  Just ask her how much of her own money she’d wager on the outcome!  And be sure to collect your winnings!

In that regard, I can tell you that I disagree with Masket.  I think unemployment does predict presidential elections – at least those in which the incumbent is running.  Fairly or not, voters hold the incumbent president (more than the incumbent party) responsible for the nation’s jobless rate, and the higher the unemployment level, the less likely the president is to be elected.  I also think Obama won’t win election in 2012 with a 9.2% unemployment rate come November.  I’m even willing to wager money on it. But not very much.  That’s because  although I’m confident that when unemployment goes up the probability of reelection go down, I can’t tell you how much the probability decreases.  There’s simply too much uncertainty surrounding my estimate.  That means I don’t really know if 9.2% is the kiss of death for Obama in the current climate.  Maybe it’s 10.2%, or 8.2% or 7.2%.  But then, I don’t think anyone else knows either.  We are all basically guessing, although it is not entirely a random guess.

All is not lost, however. In a future post I’ll discuss some research that indicates other factors that may be more reliable in predicting presidential election outcomes.