Thursday, January 13, 2022

There Will Probably Be Presidential Debates in the Future...But It's OK If There Aren't

News broke on Thursday that the Republican National Committee was threatening to require its future presidential nominees to pledge to boycott general election debates organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has produced the debates every four years since it was formed by representatives of both major parties prior to the 1988 election. This threat, conveyed in a letter to the debate commission from RNC chair Ronna McDaniel, is being made amidst a set of demands for changes to the commission's membership and policies (the complete letter is available here). Republican dissatisfaction with the debate organizers has been apparent since at least 2016, and is in some ways a manifestation of the Trump-era party's larger suspicion of political institutions that are not under its direct control.

It's possible that this means there will be no fall debates in 2024 for the first time since the 1972 election. But we're still far from that point—despite some headlines suggesting otherwise—for a number of reasons.

First, the RNC is making demands that, in principle, the debate commission could find a way to satisfy, including an earlier start to the debate schedule, term limits on commission members, and public neutrality of commission members toward the candidates. The commission will be understandably reluctant to look like it's acquiescing to threats from one of the parties; on the other hand, in the end it would rather hold debates than not hold them. Nothing in McDaniel's letter looks like an ultimatum that would be impossible for the commission to address in some form.

Second, the parties lack control over the presidential nominees once they have been formally selected at the national conventions. Party organizations can require all kinds of signed pledges or commitments from candidates, but they lose the ability to enforce them once the nomination is granted. (If Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination in 2024, and then decides he wants to attend the fall debates, would he let a previous pledge to the RNC stop him?) Responding to McDaniel, debate commission co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf—himself a former RNC chair—noted that the commission communicates and negotiates directly with the campaigns themselves, not the national parties: "we don't deal with the political parties [and] never have . . . we work only with those candidates for president and vice president who meet the criteria" for participation.

Finally, winning the presidency is the primary purpose of the national party committees, and has been since these committees were formed in the 1800s. Once the national ticket is selected, parties pursue this goal by becoming the loyal agents of their candidates. If participating in a debate boosts the campaign's chance of victory—perhaps the nominee is running behind in the polls and needs an opportunity to shake up the race—it would be entirely out of character, as well as an act of political malpractice, for the party to attempt to deny the candidate such a strategic option or to publicly criticize him or her for taking it.

This post is not intended to be an expression of reassurance. Honest Graft is a long-standing source of skepticism questioning the value of televised debates, swimming against an endless tide of debate-hyping voices in the news media who insist on treating as sacred civic rituals a series of events that have seldom proven edifying or substantively valuable in practice. If no debates occur in 2024 because the RNC, the debate commission, and the Republican nominee all choose inflexibility over compromise, American politics will not suffer. But—for better, or maybe for worse—we're still a long way from that point right now.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Voters Don't Often Reward What They Like...But They Do Punish What They Don't Like

Joe Biden finally signed the infrastructure bill into law this past Monday after a three-month delay separating its approval by the Senate from its passage in the House of Representatives—a delay insisted upon by House liberals who attempted to use it as leverage to guarantee the simultaneous enactment of the larger and more ambitious reconciliation bill. But the reconciliation bill, named the Build Back Better Act after a campaign slogan of Biden's, still remains in legislative limbo, as a few pivotal moderates in the Senate have remained coy about exactly what they will support and when they will support it. The House leadership plans to move forward on the bill as early as this week, but the Senate's timeline for action will remain unclear until the entire Democratic caucus signals that it's ready to proceed. At the moment, final passage of the bill shortly before the Christmas recess seems like the most optimistic plausible scenario for Democrats, and it's still possible that nothing will end up passing at all.

It might seem logical to draw a connection between the slowing momentum of the Biden legislative agenda and the simultaneous fade in the president's job approval ratings over the course of the late summer and fall. Perhaps, one could imagine, voters who are dissatisfied by the pace of national policy change are taking out their frustrations on the president. If this were true, both the recent enactment of the infrastructure bill and the potential forthcoming passage of Build Back Better—both popular measures according to opinion surveys—would hold the promise of giving Biden and his fellow Democrats a popularity boost heading into the midterm elections next year.

One problem with this assumption is that there are other, more convincing explanations for Biden's declining approval. The resurgence of COVID-19 infections caused by the delta variant, combined with the continued disruption of the job market and rising inflation, seems quite sufficient to account for increased public discontent since the spring. Even Biden's imposition of mandates for vaccination or frequent COVID testing as a condition of employment, though favored by a narrow majority of Americans, may have cost him some support among certain segments of the population.

But we also don't have many historical examples of voters rewarding presidents and governing parties for legislative productivity. Even when the bills being passed are popular or transformative, they don't seem to attract new supporters to the president's side or protect him from criticism on other grounds. The congressional sessions of 1965–66, 1981–82, and 2009–10 were all marked by unusually prolific policy-making innovation, enacting laws that continue even today to shape national politics and federal governance. In all three cases, the president's party suffered a significant loss of congressional seats in the subsequent midterm election.

Voters are tough to satisfy and have short memories, especially for success. (In May 1945, Winston Churchill and the other Allied leaders declared victory in the European theater of World War II; two months later, Churchill's party lost 189 seats and control of Parliament to the opposition.) Americans happily accepted the economic stimulus payments included in the American Rescue Plan earlier this year, passed through Congress on a party-line vote, but did not respond to this provision of benefits by showering the ruling Democrats with their enduring affection. But when the party in power does something unpopular, or even fails to effectively ameliorate the day's crisis or economic hardship, we can almost always foresee a public backlash. In politics, grievance is a far more predictable response than gratitude.

Anyone who would wish electoral outcomes to serve as a reliable means of rewarding legislative achievement and punishing legislative inertia will find this pattern endlessly infuriating. But it's a good reason why the importance of new policy shouldn't be judged only through the lens of its potential short-term electoral consequences, which may be nonexistent or even negative. Democrats paid a heavy political cost for passing the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which contributed to their loss of the House for what turned out to be the following 8 years. But when Republicans sought to capitalize on public dissatisfaction with the ACA by attempting to repeal it in the first year of the Trump presidency, the direction of popular sentiment immediately swung in the other direction—and House Democrats soon found themselves back in the majority. A party expecting an electoral reward for enacting new laws may just need a lot of patience; the political payoff, if it comes at all, may not be realized until the opposition comes to power and tries to undo the accomplishments of its predecessors.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Biden's Declining Popularity: An Interview with The Signal

I spoke recently with Michael Bluhm of The Signal about the recent decline in Joe Biden's job approval ratings. We covered the likely causes of this trend, their political implications, and the contributing role of America's broader climate of partisan polarization. Excerpts of the interview are posted here, and a more complete version is available to subscribers.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

The Democrats Don't Appear Doomed, Unless Losing Half the Time Means Doom

Since Ronald Reagan's first victory in 1980, the United States has held 11 presidential elections and 10 congressional midterms. In total, over those 21 federal contests:

• Republicans have won the presidency 6 times and Democrats 5 times.

• Democrats have won a majority in the House of Representatives 11 times and Republicans 10 times.

• Republicans have won a majority in the Senate 11 times and Democrats 10 times. (This counts the post-2000 Senate as having a Democratic majority, though Republicans controlled it for several months in early 2001.)

• Democrats have achieved unified control of the presidency and Congress after 3 elections: 1992, 2008, and 2020. Republicans have also achieved unified control after 3 elections: 2002, 2004, and 2016 (plus those few months in 2001). The remaining 15 elections produced divided party government in one permutation or another.

These numbers form a picture of consistent, and fairly remarkable, long-term parity between the parties, reinforced by the narrow margins by which most recent presidential and congressional elections have been decided at the national level. The record of the past 40 years suggests that Democrats and Republicans can each expect to achieve unified control of the presidency and Congress in about one out of every seven elections, most likely holding a cross-branch governing majority for just two years at a stretch before the next election re-establishes the condition of divided government—which has been the norm of our age.

This might seem to be a boringly self-evident set of observations. And yet, those of us who have actually spent most of this period experiencing each election in sequence while immersed in associated debates and media coverage have been subjected to a constant series of arguments, theories, and analyses that claim the existence or imminent appearance of an enduring advantage for one party or the other. Promoting hypotheses of "electoral locks" over particular institutions and repeatedly proclaiming nascent realignments or even revolutions, some of the most distinguished political analysts of the era have repeatedly been tempted to assume that the short-term trends of the immediate past will extend into the long-term future. All the while, actual electoral outcomes have continue to rapidly and repetitively bounce back and forth between Democratic and Republican victories at equal rates over decades of history, even while the internal coalitions, policies, strategies, messages, and candidates of both parties have undergone substantial change.

On Friday, the New York Times published a column by liberal journalist Ezra Klein profiling the Democratic political strategist and data analyst David Shor. Shor has attracted a reputation as something of a renegade, though I'd guess that many of his conclusions are quietly shared by a substantial proportion of professional consultants in both parties. His contrarian image stems more from his willingness to publicly argue in front of social and online media's younger, well-educated, ideologically progressive audience that the left-wing cultural opinions now ascendant within that audience are likely to weaken Democratic mass appeal among working-class voters if they become popularly associated with the party and its candidates.

We are, of course, currently in what history tells us is a rare and temporary period of unified Democratic rule, likely to end as soon as 2022 given the narrow margins of control in Congress and the losses normally suffered by the president's party in midterm elections. But Klein and Shor are neither congratulating Democrats for achieving an uncommon success nor cheering on the leftward policy shifts that the victories of last November have made possible for their side. Instead, they are looking into the future with terror.

Invoking Shor's analysis, Klein's column repeatedly employs apocalyptic phrases to describe the Democrats' hypothetical fortunes in upcoming elections: "truly frightening," "without any hope," "sleepwalking into catastrophe," "on the edge of an electoral abyss." A "deeply pessimistic" view of the Democrats' position is not unique to Shor, Klein writes, but is widely shared among analysts (including, presumably, himself).

Given the urgency of such language, one might expect Klein and Shor to be forecasting the imminent end of our long era of partisan parity, to be succeeded by a new phase of American politics marked by unobstructed Republican rule. But they don't explicitly argue that Republicans will win national elections at a higher rate in the future than they have in the past, and they certainly don't claim to envision a durable GOP governing majority. Though the results of the statistical model Shor has built to predict every election from now until 2032 are not revealed in detail (ambition, at least, is not in short supply here), the likelihood of Democrats losing unified control next year and facing challenges in winning it back quickly thereafter appears to be a sufficiently dire prospect to provoke dramatic expressions of anticipatory lamentation—even if such an outcome is, by historical standards, tediously unexceptional.

Many of the specific points made by Klein and Shor are sound and even persuasive. The current geographic distribution of the parties' mass coalitions gives the Republicans a structural head start in winning a majority in the electoral college and especially the Senate, though (as the results of 2020 demonstrated) this advantage falls well short of guaranteed perpetual victory. But if lacking unified federal control is plunging into an "abyss," then the Democratic Party has been sunk in that abyss for all but three two-year periods since 1980. Defining the failure to achieve a cross-branch governing majority as a "catastrophe" would suggest that Democrats—and Republicans too, for that matter—are in an electorally catastrophic state 86 percent of the time.

I suspect that's not what Klein really means. Most likely, he simply views the post-Trump Republican Party as sufficiently dangerous to the values he prizes that any impending Republican victory, even just to restore divided government and block the Democrats' legislative progress, represents disaster. Thus, Democratic leaders and their supporters cannot afford to appreciate the rare achievement of their recent electoral success or the policy changes that flow from them, and certainly have no right to adopt a philosophical detachment about the inevitability of frequent alternations of power in an age of evenly-matched national parties. There's a five-alarm fire in the engine room of American democracy, he implies, and the Republicans are pouring fuel on it. Any setback for the Democratic side is ruinous.

Regardless of the validity of that argument, it engages questions that are distinct from merely estimating each party's probability of victory in upcoming electoral contests. And if the nation is indeed in such peril, it doesn't seem realistic to expect Democratic politicians and operatives to solve the problem by adopting a sufficiently powerful set of policies and messages to shut the Republicans out of power until they change their ways, whenever that might be. An age marked by persistently close elections means that the outcome in this or that specific contest can indeed hang on the calculated choices of candidates and campaigns, and Shor has a number of justifiable ideas about which strategies will maximize Democrats' chances of victory. But partisan parity also means that both sides are going to lose sometimes, no matter what they do. If that's catastrophic, than catastrophe is inevitable.

Given the disappointing record of previous attempts to identify nascent partisan trends in one direction or the other, I admit to holding a strong default assumption that this parity will continue until the evidence really starts to build over multiple elections that American politics has entered a different era. There are simply too many moving parts in the parties' coalitions and too many contingent factors influencing electoral outcomes to gain much confidence in foreseeing future developments, and even smart arguments made by smart people drawing on smart data sources can quickly fall apart when the political world changes. If predictions must be made, the safest bet remains that each party will narrowly win roughly half the time, and that divided government will continue to be more frequent than instances of single-party rule. For now, I leave to the judgment of others the question of whether that likely pattern indicates impending doom—for either party, or for the country itself.

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

In the California Recall, Republicans Turn to the Conservative Media for Party Leadership

The field of Republican candidates seeking to replace Democratic governor Gavin Newsom in next Tuesday's recall election in California includes the former mayor of San Diego; a businessman who was the Republican gubernatorial nominee in 2018; a former member of both houses of the state legislature who serves on the elected state tax board; and a current member of the state Assembly. All of these candidates have the kind of background that commonly precedes service as a top statewide elected official.

But none of them have much chance of replacing Newsom if he is recalled. Assuming that the polls are roughly accurate, all of these candidates are stuck in the single digits, while the clear favorite candidate of Republican voters—who will likely lead the overall vote for a successor, since no major Democrat is running—is Larry Elder, a conservative talk show host. A majority "yes" vote on the recall itself would automatically make the plurality winner of the replacement contest the next governor of the state. Even if more Californians oppose recalling Newsom than vote for Elder, all Elder needs is more votes than any other single replacement option, and it seems like he's in position to achieve at least that second goal.

California Republicans do not appear to be bothered by Elder's lack of conventional experience for high executive office. His favorable position in the race has allowed him to pursue a strategy of skipping the major debates where he might face attacks from other candidates or lines of questioning designed to test his grasp of state government. And even the negative publicity that Elder has received in recent weeks has kept the media's attention on him, making it difficult for any single other Republican to break out of the also-ran category in the final stretch of the race.

Elder's success reflects the appeal that a conservative media figure's candidacy can have among Republican voters—and, more generally, the growing influence of the conservative media universe over the direction of the Republican Party. Talk show hosts like Elder boast several potential advantages over more conventional Republican candidates: they are skilled at delivering the red-meat rhetoric that conservative voters reward; they lack a governing record that might contain elements of ideological impurity; and they are "outsiders" who can serve as a personification of resentment towards a class of traditional party leaders who have failed to reverse the growing power of liberalism. Elder's rival Kevin Faulconer is running on his successes in managing the state's second-largest city, promising to bring the same "strong and stable leadership" to the governor's office, but that argument has not caught on among California Republicans like Elder's more provocative style and resolutely pro-Trump message has.

Of course, California has twice elected famous actors to the governorship who sold themselves as anti-politicians. But both Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger were true celebrities, widely known as entertainers before they decided to enter elective politics. Elder, by contrast, is a creature of the conservative media world without any larger notability, and his campaign is strongly ideological rather than merely throw-the-bums-out populist.

To actually become governor, Elder needs independents and some Democrats to vote to recall Newsom, which may well be a tougher sell with a right-wing successor seeming to wait in the wings. Two organizers of the recall even complained recently that Elder was "outspoken to the extreme" and being "very politically naive" by trying to ride culture-war backlash to the governorship of a socially liberal state. Faulconer's moderate policy views and less pugnacious demeanor would seem to better fit the typical profile of a victorious Republican in Blue America. But Republican voters are not really in the mood to value political pragmatism or conventional leadership experience. If they were, conservative media personalities wouldn't have such political power in the first place.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

As New Census Numbers Show, the Biggest Divide Isn't North v. South Anymore—It's Metro v. Rural

On Thursday, the Census Bureau released the 2020 census data for cities, counties, and other geographic subdivisions. Just as with the state-level numbers announced in April, there were some surprises. Many large metropolitan areas grew faster over the past decade than the Bureau had previously projected, with eight of the nation's ten largest cities showing an increased growth rate compared to the 2000 to 2010 period. At the same time, most of rural America shrank in absolute as well as relative terms. A majority—52 percent—of the nation's counties actually reported a smaller raw population in 2020 than they had in 2010:

Many rural areas have been stagnant and struggling for a long time, but the distinct trajectories of big-city and small-town life have seldom been as divergent—and as connected to partisan politics—as they became over the past decade. Kathy Cramer's fieldwork in Wisconsin during the late 2000s and early 2010s found a prevailing sentiment of political alienation among rural voters, who perceived their communities as suffering a steady economic and cultural decline for which they often blamed greedy and decadent urbanites. An existing collective preference for the Republican Party among this heavily white, socially traditionalist population was soon super-charged by Donald Trump's brand of nostalgic populist nationalism, producing record Republican electoral margins in rural precincts from coast to coast in 2016.

But Trump's policies as president did not solve the long-term problems facing rural residents, or reduce the financial and cultural opportunities that migration to larger population centers can offer their children and grandchildren. The invocations of a nation fallen from past glories that resonated so strongly in small-town America inspired less enthusiasm among the residents of racially diverse, increasingly well-educated metropolitan municipalities, where even the challenges of daily life—high costs of living, insufficient housing supply, traffic congestion—often reflect the byproducts of growth and success rather than decline and decay. Prosperous suburban enclaves that once served as reliable sources of support for the mass Republican Party (such as Orange County, California; Loudoun County, Virginia; and Cobb County, Georgia) continued to shift steadily toward the blue end of the partisan spectrum in response to Trump's rise.

The fundamental geographic division in American politics has traditionally been a sectional conflict setting the North against the South. The idioms of "red states" and "blue states" caught on widely after the 2000 presidential election because they could be applied to a regional divide—blue North, red South—that was already presumed to reflect the main axis of political debate and competition. But the partisan difference between large-metro and rural residents has now become much larger than the gap between northerners and southerners.

Until 1996, the difference in presidential voting between residents of the nation's largest 20 metropolitan areas and inhabitants of rural (non-metropolitan) counties resembled the difference between the South (defined here as the eleven states of the former Confederacy plus West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma) and the North (defined as all other states from the Atlantic coast west to Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri). Between 2000 and 2008, the urbanism gap was somewhat, though not dramatically, larger than the regional gap. By 2016 and 2020, however, the partisan difference between large metros and rural areas had become fully three times as large as the North-South difference, which had visibly narrowed (from 12 to 9 percentage points) from its 2008 peak.

Look inside practically any state in the country and you'll find blue dots corresponding to its densent and most populous urban centers, each surrounded by a sea of red rural hinterlands. The regional divide has declined since 2008 because the urban precincts of the South have grown bluer over time while the rural territories of the North have gotten redder, both shedding some of their sectional distinctiveness in the face of a consistent nationwide trend. This gave Donald Trump the ability to flip a few northern states with significant rural populations from blue to red in 2016 (such as Iowa and Wisconsin), while Joe Biden likewise outperformed previous Democratic nominees in Georgia and Texas in 2020 by winning the large metro areas of greater Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston—none of which had been carried by Barack Obama in his 2012 victory.

In a widening electoral conflict between urban and rural America, one might think that it would be clear which side holds the strategic advantage. More than twice as many voters live in one of the top 20 metro areas as reside in all rural counties combined, and the results of the new 2020 census reveal that the American population is becoming more collectively metropolitan at an accelerating rate. Even in states where they control the post-census redistricting process, Republicans will face the challenge of needing to accommodate the declining numbers of their loyal rural constituency.

But as the figure above reveals, Republicans' plight as the rural party of a increasingly non-rural nation has so far been balanced out by the fact that rural America has moved toward the GOP at a faster pace since the 1990s than urban America has shifted away. When combined with the structural biases of the electoral college and Senate in favor of rural voters, the current Republican popular coalition can easily remain fully competitive in national elections. The intensifying conflict between city and country has had a number of important consequences for how each party operates, which voters it attracts, and which states and districts it is likely to win, but it does not show any signs of ending the perennially close competition for control of the federal government that has become a distinctive characteristic of our current age.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Power Center in the GOP Isn't Just Trump, It's the Conservative Media

Donald Trump is still the Republican Party's spiritual leader in exile. Most other Republican politicians don't dare express criticism of Trump in public, ambitious candidates troop to Mar-a-Lago to seek his endorsement, and his style of resentment politics continues to gain adoption even among former detractors in his party. But Trump's repeated denunciations of the infrastructure legislation being developed in the Senate by a bipartisan "gang of 20" do not yet seem to be having much of an effect on its amount of Republican support; the bill survived its first test vote on Wednesday evening when the motion to begin consideration passed with the votes of 17 Republican senators, including minority leader Mitch McConnell.

This reflects something important about the nature of Trump's internal power within the GOP. The main conduits through which Trump exerts control over other Republicans are the conservative media outlets with which he has maintained a close alliance ever since his 2016 nomination. Trump is much more effective at imposing his preferences on the party when the Republican electorate is made aware of those preferences by the informational sources they trust the most.

When Trump was president, and before he was banned from social media, we often heard about how he had uniquely harnessed the power of Twitter. But it wasn't his tweets themselves that were especially powerful (only a small slice of the American public would have seen any of them directly), it was his tweets as amplified by other media platforms with much larger popular audiences. Republican members of Congress enjoyed much more political leeway to reject or ignore President Trump's policy proposals than they did to explicitly disapprove of his personal behavior, because substantive differences with Trump did not usually receive much attention from the media—including the conservative media—while personal differences could turn into headline news.

Trump is no longer allowed to tweet, but he still issues statements that resemble his old social media posts. Now, however, his goal of attracting widespread attention for these messages is even more dependent on the decision of others with louder bullhorns to give them publicity.

Some of the Senate Republicans participating in the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations, like Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, have already survived confrontation with Trump or his conservative media allies. Others, like Rob Portman and Richard Burr, are not planning to seek another term and may not care much what the Fox News audience thinks about them. But a few Republican members of the "gang of 20," like Todd Young of Indiana or Mike Rounds of South Dakota, might well be made uncomfortable if their names and faces repeatedly led off the top of Tucker Carlson Tonight broadcasts as accused enemies of Trump and the conservative cause.

Fortunately for them, the infrastructure bill simply hasn't been promoted to Republican supporters in the electorate as a critical test of ideological purity. The attention of Carlson and his fellow conservative media personalities is mostly trained elsewhere these days, on the various cultural concerns that have come to dominate the agenda of the popular right. This may cause Trump some frustration. But if the energy of conservative activists and voters has indeed shifted in recent years from opposing increases in government spending to fighting the contemporary culture war, Trump—as well as his friends in the right-of-center media world—surely bears considerable responsibility for encouraging this change in priorities.