Tag Archives: polarization

Why Obama’s Approval Is Bush League

Three new national polls  came out recently showing President Obama’s approval ratings falling to the low 40% range, which puts them at or near the lowest of his presidency. The drop in support came in the wake of a series of bad news, including the VA scandal, the ongoing IRS controversy and most recently, the unexpected surge by the Isis terrorists in Iraq. This drop led to the predictable overreaction from the punditocracy.  NBC’s Chuck Todd declared that the numbers “are a disaster for the President.”  Similarly, Ron Fournier tweeted: getting dangerously close to failed presidency territory.”

However, while the numbers aren’t great news for Obama, it is useful to put them in their historical context. First, as the PlumLine’s Greg Sargent points out, this is not new polling territory for Obama; his approval has dropped this low in some polls in previous months. And, while it is typical for pundits like Todd to attribute changes in approval ratings to particular events, such as the deteriorating conditions in Iraq, research shows that presidential approval is also driven by what we might call structural factors. One of these is time in office. In his seminal work on the American Presidency, political scientist Richard Neustadt noted that “there is a certain rhythm in the modern presidency.” While Neustadt referred primarily to a president’s learning curve while in office, his observation pertains to how the public perceives the President, as gauged in approval polls, as well. Thus Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley, in their study of the factors influencing presidential approval, suggest that once you control for events, approval ratings following a set dynamic that reflects the length of time a president has been in office. In this regard, it is interesting to compare Obama’s approval with that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, at similar times in their presidencies. Martina Berger put together the following comparison based only on Gallup Poll surveys:

obama-bush approval

We can see that five years into their presidencies, their approval ratings follow similar downward trajectories – indeed, if one removes the impact of the Iraq war on Bush’s approval, the trend lines are almost identical throughout their presidencies. This partly reflects, I think, the natural rhythms in approval associated with a president’s time in office in the modern context. But it also is an indication of just how thoroughly Americans are sorted along party lines. As I’ve noted elsewhere, presidents Bush and Obama are the two most polarizing presidents in the modern era in terms of the partisan division in their levels of support – as this table shows, their sources of support are almost mirror images:

polarizingWe should be careful not to read this poll as evidence that Americans are highly polarized, however. Instead, it reflects the fact that their choices – in this case, whether to approve or disapprove of a president – are perceived to be polarized. Even a closely divided, mostly moderate public – which I have argued elsewhere is the best characterization of the current distribution of Americans’ public opinion – will appear to be divided if only given two extreme choices in a survey. Put another way, we would expect to get these polling results even if most Americans place themselves close to the middle of the ideological spectrum, with perhaps a slight lean in either direction.

The bottom line is that we should not be surprised by the downward trajectory of Obama’s public support.  Nor should we overreact to the latest number. It likely reflects the interaction of a highly-sorted electorate and the rhythm of approval associated with a president’s time in office. This is not to say that Obama’s approval will necessarily track Bush’s for the remainder of the President’s time in office, although it might. It does suggest, however, that it is driven by factors that are largely out of the President’s control. And, as I will discuss in posts to come, it does not bode all that well for Democrat’s electoral prospects in the upcoming midterms.

Sorry, But We Are Still Not Polarized

Stanford political science Professor Morris Fiorina, on whose research I relied heavily in writing my Politico piece analyzing the widely publicized results of the recent Pew survey on polarization  has written his own take on the subject in this Monkey Cage blog post.

In contrast to much of the pundits’ read of the Pew results (but consistent with my read of its survey data), Fiorina does not believe the general public is becoming more polarized. He writes, “In sum, we can argue about the size of the political center in the United States since the answer depends on various ways of measuring it, but whichever measure one chooses, the conclusion is the same: the country as a whole is no more polarized than it was a generation ago.” Instead, he argues that what Pew shows is a process of party sorting in which partisanship, ideology and issue positions “go together in a way they did not in the mid-20th century. Issues and ideology used to cross-cut the partisan distribution, now they reinforce it.” The result is that parties are much more ideologically homogeneous than they were half a century ago. This is something I also discussed in the Politico piece, and therefore I won’t elaborate here, but it is this process that those who claim to see evidence of polarization are often describing.

But Fiorina makes two additional and very important observations regarding how some of the media commentary indicates a misreading of the Pew Report. The first is that many pundits have misconstrued the growth in ideological consistency among a portion of the public as evidence of increased ideological polarization. But they are not the same. As I noted in the Politico piece, Pew has utilized the same set of 10 questions, with a dichotomous response option (e.g., “homosexuality should be accepted by society” or “homosexuality should be discouraged by society”), to create their liberal-conservative index. The most recent survey results show a doubling, to 21%, in the number of respondents expressing either consistently liberal or conservative opinions across these 10 questions.

As Fiorina points out, however, this doesn’t mean Americans’ views have become more extreme on these issues – indeed, we can’t know that based on this set of questions and available responses.  Moreover, we do know from other survey data that many Americans’ views on key issues aren’t easily captured by a simple dichotomous response set. So, rather than an increase in polarization, what Pew has found in terms of these 10 questions is an increase in the ideological consistency of some respondents’ anwers. By the same token – and the Pew authors make this clear – this does not mean the roughly 80% who express a combination of liberal and conservative views based on these 10 questions are all moderates. Instead, they may hold very extreme, but ideologically inconsistent, views on a number of issues. (As I noted in my Politico piece, the evidence that Americans are largely moderate comes from other survey data, such as the ANES surveys.)

In defense of pundits who misinterpreted this portion of the Pew Report, the robust publicity (and still continuing!) rollout pushed by Pew , as well as some of the Report’s language seemed to suggest their results indicate a more divided United States. But the Pew data does not show that American is becoming increasingly polarized – only that it is better sorted along party lines and that there has been an increase in ideological consistency.

Fiorina also addresses a second result in the Pew survey that has become a matter of some debate: whether political “polarization” is asymmetrical – that is, whether the “growing” extremism – read, partisan sorting – is situated largely within one side of the ideological spectrum (Republican or Democrat). In keeping with Jack Goodman’s admonition to keep these posts short, however, I’ll deal with this issue in tomorrow’s post.

For now, however, the key point is this: despite claims to the contrary, the Pew study does not “offer overwhelming evidence of a sharp increase in polarization and in tribal political characterizations over the past two decades, but especially in the past few years.”  Instead, it provides further evidence of party sorting. And, contrary to what some have argued, the difference between sorting and polarization is not simply academic hairsplitting. Instead, the two describe completely different phenomena. Polarization refers to a process in which we see movement among Americans away from the moderate center toward the ideological extremes. Party sorting, in contrast, suggests a general stability in the distribution of Americans’ political views with, if other survey data is to be believed, most Americans remaining situated closer to the ideological middle. Deciding what is actually occurring is not simply a “nerd” fight among academic geeks. Instead, the answer has real world ramifications. For example, we might worry less about the increase in congressional polarization if we thought it simply mimicked the evolving views of a polarizing public. But, if Fiorina is right, the polarization in Congress is not a reflection of a growing ideologically divide within the general public. And that should be cause for concern.

Kristof, Gerrymandering and Polarization: The Limits of Public Intellectuals

Not surprisingly, a number of scholars pushed back against the Nick Kristof column that I blogged about in my previous post, echoing many of the points that I made (see here and here and here and here and this Instagram and, of course, this wonderful parody). The general consensus (but see here!) is that Kristof doesn’t fully appreciate the growing frequency with which political scientists are using social media, in addition to more traditional news outlets, to make their research much more accessible to journalists, pundits and, for that matter, the general public.  This Presidential Power blog is case in point! At the same time, he is perhaps less sensitive to how the professional incentives that motivate political scientists’ choice of research topics and methods differ from those that influence how Kristof’s “public intellectuals” go about their jobs. Most notably, political scientists are engaged in a collective enterprise in which their research must pass muster with their peers through, ideally, a process of blind review.  That means the research must be thorough, theoretically explicit and empirically grounded.  This process of research and review often takes considerable time – months or years in the case of a book. Moreover, it is not enough to assert that our research helps explain some pattern of behavior or political outcome.  It should also be clear about how confident we are that we understand that relationship or outcome.   In short, political scientists live in a probabilistic world, in which what we think we know is usually conditional and is often revised in light of additional research.

This means by nature we tend to recoil from the hyperconfident and often more entertaining assertions that are the pundits and bloggers’ stock in trade.  Moreover, we are usually better at rejecting pundits’ sweeping assertions than we are in replacing them with our own equally sweeping (and empirically validated we hope!) generalizations.  To illustrate, consider what political scientists think they know about the relationship between gerrymandering and partisan polarization in Congress, compared to what I think many (most?) journalists believe.  In my last post, while listing several assumptions embedded in conventional media reporting that I believe do not have strong empirical support, I noted that political scientists have not found persuasive evidence that gerrymandering causes polarization. In response, Blake Hounshell (who is Politico Magazine’s deputy editor)* tweeted: “I’m by no means anti-intellectual but am unpersuaded by many of these alleged ‘debunkings’….I mean gerrymandering doesn’t lead to polarization?  Defies all logic.”

And, in Blake’s defense, it does make intuitive sense that gerrymandering by state legislatures in the process of redrawing congressional district lines should contribute to partisan polarization.  If a state legislature controlled by a party is successful in redrawing district lines to reward fellow partisans running for Congress, then there will be less competitive elections, which lead to a more partisan outcome which translates into a more polarized Congress. For political scientists, however, having an intuitively plausible theory is only the first step in the research process. As it turns out when they look at the empirical evidence, political scientists generally find that gerrymandering of this type contributes very little to the polarization we see in Congress today.  Rather than summarize a body of research, a couple of brief counterfactuals will help illustrate the broader findings.  First, in states that encompass a single House district, like my home state of Vermont, gerrymandering is obviously not a factor, and yet we find that the voting records of representatives in these states are becoming more ideologically extreme as well.  To illustrate, compare the House voting records of Jim Jeffords, who represented Vermont in the House from 1975-89 with that of Bernie Sanders, who took office in 1992! Second, as this graph shows, it is clear that voting in the Senate has become as polarized as the House across the same time period, even though redistricting doesn’t affect Senate representation.

These two examples suggest that gerrymandering may not be the primary cause of partisan polarization. When empirical findings don’t comport with theory, it is makes sense to revisit the assumptions underlying that theory. In this vein, upon further reflection it becomes clear that there are geographic and political limits to the ability and willingness of partisan legislators to draw district lines in ways that contribute to their partisan advantage in the House.  First, court rulings mandating that congressional districts must adhere to some admittedly ambiguous standards of contiguity and compactness, in addition to having the same population size, eliminate some of the more extreme shapes these districts might take in the name of partisan advantage. Second, residential patterns show that Democrats are more likely to be bunched up in urban areas, in contrast to the more widely dispersed Republican voters, which again limits how far one can go to advantage one party by drawing partisan districts of equal population size.  Third, efforts to maximize a party’s number of likely seats through gerrymandering may also create opposition-party controlled districts that are less competitive and thus that strengthen the incumbency advantage of the opposition legislators.  This also means that the majority party can be more susceptible to getting swamped in electoral waves – something party leaders must keep in mind when pushing redistricting plans.  For all these reasons (and others), we need to be careful in assuming that gerrymandering is the primary cause, or even an important cause, of political polarization in Congress today.

Note that, if accurate, this line of research suggests that some common reform proposals floated by pundits and bloggers, such as placing “neutral” commissions, judges or even computers in charge of redistricting, are not likely to make a huge dent in the degree of polarization afflicting Congress today.  Of course, to say that pundits overstate the impact of gerrymandering on polarization is not to say the two have no relation.  Sean Theriault estimates, if I recall correctly, that redistricting may contribute about 10% to the level of polarization in the House since 1973, primarily through the creation of new congressional districts. However, the prevailing view among political scientists is that when it comes to explaining partisan polarization in Congress, other factors are likely much more important.

I should add that I am by no means the first to suggest that gerrymandering is not a significant cause of partisan polarization – by my count it has been the subject of at least a half a dozen blogs posts just in the last year by my professional colleagues, and yet despite these efforts it remains a staple of mainstream punditry.  This is another reason why I am skeptical of the benefits that will accrue by heeding Kristof’s call for political scientists to become more active in mainstream punditry. In cases when political scientists have engaged in public discussions, such as trying to debunk efforts to link gerrymandering and polarization, it is not clear we have had much impact. And that may say more about the incentives motivating what journalists report than it does about any failure of political scientists to engage them.

*My apologies – an earlier version of this post misspelled Blake Hounshell’s last name, and didn’t fully identify where he works.

Independents and Obama: How Polarized is the Public?

In the last several posts I have been presenting evidence indicating that rather than the “post-partisan” presidency promised during his campaign, Obama has in fact proved every bit as polarizing as his immediate predecessors.  With hindsight, some of you are now arguing that there was no reason to expect Obama to be anything but a partisan president, but a careful read of his campaign speeches clearly indicates that he held out hope for a change in the tone of Washington politics, in addition to a change in policy direction.  And, contrary to what many of you are now saying, at the time of his election not a few of you believed he would in fact bring not just a new policy direction, but also a new more civilized mode of political discourse on Capitol Hill.  Indeed, if I heard a variation of the following refrain from colleagues and students once, I heard it 100 times: “I’m really optimistic that Obama’s election will finally end the partisan bickering in Washington.”  Admit it – you were one of those who believed, weren’t you?  (You know who you are!)

Of course, this was never likely to happen, as I quietly tried to suggest in my earlier blog postings and talks during the transition and aftermath of the inauguration.  My goal in harping on this theme is not to cast myself as a latter-day Cassandra. Instead, it is to make three broader teaching points. (After all, that’s the point of this blog!)  First, there was an inherent tension in Obama’s promise to bring policy change AND to lower the degree of partisan bickering on Capitol Hill.  He was unlikely to accomplish both objectives and, in the end, not surprisingly chose partisanship and policy change over bipartisanship. To do otherwise – to pursue a more bipartisan strategy – would have required an enormous expenditure of political capital. Second, the polarized politics that have characterized presidential-congressional relations are not due primarily to the actions of any single president, but instead are largely the result of the confluence of several long-term trends in American politics. By understanding why polarization exists, we are less likely to be disappointed by Obama’s failure to change that tone – it really has little to do with his skills or style of leadership.  Similarly, once we understand the sources of polarization, we are better able to adopt a more realistic assessment of previous presidents’ culpability for the current state of affairs.  Third – and this is one of the main reasons why I write this blog – Obama’s failure to usher in the era of the post-partisan presidency reminds us that presidents possess much less influence than pundits and journalists would have us believe. Ours is not a presidential form of government so much as it is a congressionally-centered system.

Some of you are now arguing that partisanship may be a good thing, or at least less worrisome, as long as policy change occurs.  I will devote a separate post examining this question, in part by looking at the production of legislation under various partisan permutations. But note that partisanship is not without its costs.  Eventually, a polarized debate on Capitol Hill will filter down to the public, and we will see Obama’s popularity approval ratings exhibit the same polarized division that characterized Bush’s support.  Indeed, this is already happening; in the aftermath of congressional passage of the economic stimulus bill followed by the first budget resolution – both of which took place with almost no Republican support – we already see Obama’s popularity exhibiting Bush-like characteristics.  According to Amy Walter at the National Journal the latest Diageo/Hotline poll shows that just 19 percent of Republicans thought more government involvement in the economy is a good idea, compared with 79 percent of Democrats. “Asked if they think the stimulus plan will be successful in turning the economy around, 72 percent of Republicans said no while 86 percent of Democrats said yes” (see article here).

Of course, it may not be surprising that Republicans – only 9% of whom supported Obama in the election – are registering disapproval of Obama in increasing numbers, based in large part on his economic policies, while Democratic support remains high.  But what of the key swing group, the independents? By the end of Bush’s presidency, only about 30% of independents approved of his job as president. Obama won the independent vote in November by 52-44, and so far, his support among this group remains strong. According to the March 30-April 5 Gallup Poll (see table below),  his approval among independents is 60% – almost exactly what it was on inauguration day and pretty much where it has remained ever since.

However, Walter, citing the Diego poll, notes that those independents who said they “strongly” approve of the job Obama is doing dropped 13 points between the end of January and the end of March. She also notes that that independents’ support for Congressional Democrats is softening as well: “From the beginning of March to the end of the month, the approval ratings of congressional Democrats among independent voters dropped 10 points, from 48 percent to 38 percent. Same goes for the generic ballot test. In our most recent poll, independents gave a slight edge to Republicans (26 percent to 23 percent) — a 6-point drop for Democrats since early March.”

As yet, the drop in independents’ support for Democrats has not translated into an increase in their support for Republicans now in Congress. Walters notes that, “Just 26 percent of independents approve of the job Republicans are doing in Congress (a 4-point drop since early March). The 26 percent that Republicans are getting in the generic matchup is unchanged since early March as well.”  We see, then, that among independents, support for Obama is strong, but potentially softening.  However, most of the erosion in independent support seems focused on the Democrats in Congress.  Whether and to what degree that will extend to a loss of support for Obama depends, I believe, in large part on perceptions regarding the economy.  Polarization within the public becomes a major problem, I argue, when it includes a loss of support among independents, and not just Republicans.

So, why does polarization exist? One reason is the efforts by well-meaning reformers to reduce the influence of money on elections. Many of you will recall that in his 2004 run for the Democratic nomination for president, Howard Dean trumpeted the fact that a huge proportion of his campaign contributions came in small amounts, often under $200.  In 2008, Barack Obama picked up on this theme, arguing that he was broadening popular participation in elections by attracting financial support from those who represented the “average”, less wealthy voter, rather than the “fat cats” who typically funded campaigns.  In their view, the internet was “democratizing” presidential campaigns. As my colleague Bert Johnson’s research reveals, however, this is not what was happening – at least not in the way that the Dean-Obama campaigns would have us believe. Their fundraising strategy did not mobilize the less partisan, middle-of-the-road voter.  In fact, it benefitted from – and may actually have contributed to – the increased partisan polarization that characterizes American politics today.  To understand why, and to appreciate some really innovative research, I want to devote the next post to Bert’s research on campaign finance.  He tells a fascinating – and counterintuitive – story that merits a full discussion, and helps illustrate two of Dickinson’s three laws of politics: “Money always finds its way to candidates” and “For every positive benefit from a political reform, there is an equal and unanticipated negative reaction.”