Tuesday, May 22, 2018

For Democrats, 2018 Is the Year of the Woman...and 2020 Too?

Opinion polls confirm that Democratic voters don't like Donald Trump any more than Republicans liked his predecessor Barack Obama, but anti-Trump popular activism ("the Resistance") has received a small fraction of the press coverage that the Tea Party movement attracted in 2009 and 2010. There are several reasons for this imbalance: the absence of a liberal counterpart to the powerful conservative media universe; the relative lack of bitter internal conflict within the Democratic Party as compared to the Republicans' persistent battles over ideological purity during the Obama years; and a Trump presidency that has itself produced an overwhelming barrage of daily headlines, making it difficult for any other story to gain sustained notice.

During the rare breaks in the Trump-generated action, media attention has occasionally focused on what has appeared to be a surge in political participation by women, from the well-attended Women's March of January 2017 to reports of an increase in female campaign donors to studies indicating a rise in women-led political organizing efforts. With Tuesday's primaries in Arkansas, Georgia, and Kentucky (plus a primary runoff in Texas) bringing the number of states that have already selected 2018 party nominees to 13, collectively holding 34 percent of the total number of House seats nationwide, it's a good time to examine whether the number of female congressional candidates is in fact historically exceptional, and whether—as one recent story suggested—such a trend is apparent in both parties, not just among the Trump-allergic Democrats.

Calculating the share of women among House nominees, and non-incumbent nominees, within each party in the states that have held primaries so far, and comparing these figures to previous years, yields the chart below. As Susan B. Anthony might say, wowee zowee:



So far in 2018, 43 percent of the Democratic nominees for the U.S. House are women, producing what would be the highest share of female congressional nominees in history for a major party by far if sustained through the remaining two-thirds of the primary calendar (the current record is 29 percent, set by the Democrats in 2016). In the districts with no Democratic incumbent seeking re-election, women actually outnumber men at this point in the nomination season by a margin of 51 seats to 50.

These numbers will shift somewhat in one direction or the other as more states hold their primaries. But it's apparent enough by now that we are witnessing a dramatic and historic change in the gender distribution among Democratic congressional nominees, caused by a rise in the supply of, and demand for, female candidates within the party in the wake of Trump's election (and Hillary Clinton's defeat). It's equally clear that this development is not occurring in parallel on the Republican side. In fact, the GOP is drifting the other way—so far, only 7 percent of the party's House nominees this year are women (compared to 12 percent in 2016), the lowest share for the party since the election of 1988. The proportion of female Republican nominees isn't much bigger when incumbents are excluded (9 percent).

From time to time, I'm asked whom I think the Democrats will nominate for president in 2020. With no obvious heir apparent in the party and a large field of probable candidates, I find it impossible to guess which individual contender is most likely to emerge from the nomination process two years from now. Moreover, the surprises of 2016 have left some of us supposed political experts with an enduring dose of humility that leads us to be wary of forecasting electoral outcomes.

But there is one prediction that I have been making with a great deal of confidence: I think there will be very strong sentiments among many Democratic activists and primary voters to nominate another woman for president in 2020. This doesn't mean a woman will win for sure; the nomination system is complex and multifaceted, and multiple female candidates could easily split popular support among themselves in the pivotal early states to the strategic benefit of a male opponent. But it seems certain that Trump's ascendance will cause gender to be even more salient among active Democrats next time than it was in 2008 and 2016, when the first viable potential female nominee sought the presidency. The primary results of 2018 thus represent both a critical contemporary development and a likely foreshadowing of our political future.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

What We Can Learn From the Demise of Trump's Infrastructure Plan

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed what had already been apparent for months: Congress is not going to enact infrastructure legislation this year. In its early weeks, Trump treated infrastructure investment as a major goal of his presidency; as recently as January's State of the Union address, it served as one of the primary elements of his proposed legislative agenda. But the details of the plan remained vague, enthusiasm among congressional Republicans was palpably limited, and periodic attempts by the White House to talk up the issue always seemed to be derailed by unrelated distractions of its own making.

Even in a conventional administration, "presidential initiative hits dead end in Congress" is hardly an unusual story. But the death of the infrastructure proposal also tells us something about the current state not only of the Trump presidency, but of the wider Republican Party.

Most national political leaders, most of the time, have historically operated under the assumption that they will be rewarded by the electorate for delivering widely popular policies and benefits; in the pithy words of Bill O'Reilly, voters are thought to "want stuff." This inclination tends to provide a brake on ideological extremity, encouraging members of the majority party to resolve their internal differences in order to amass a collective record of productivity and accomplishment. The ability to claim credit for working the system to provide funding for projects in their home states and districts was once seen as a significant advantage for incumbents running for reelection—and even as an explanation for the structure of Congress itself. Previous presidents have likewise habitually advanced policy priorities that were popular with average voters—from Bill Clinton's crime bill and welfare reform to George W. Bush's prescription drug benefits and public education funding—even if they departed at times from party orthodoxy.

But today's ideologically-oriented Republican Party increasingly rejects this logic. Rank-and-file Republicans, increasingly afraid (with good reason) of primary challenges from the right, are reluctant to support centrist or bipartisan legislation regardless of its overall popularity. Legislative leaders, who normally concern themselves with protecting the party's majority by playing to key voters in competitive seats, must now also keep a worried eye on their own right flank. The Senate majority leader has been cast as a sellout to conservatism by members of his own party in several Republican primaries this year, while the speaker of the House is departing from Congress rather than endanger future political ambitions by risking his reputation for ideological fidelity.

The president has found it politically useful to sell himself in public as a get-it-done Mr. Fix-It rather than a conservative thinker—and, indeed, media coverage during the 2016 campaign mostly adopted Trump's own framing of himself as a maverick outsider dedicated to "making deals" rather than upholding philosophical principles. But Trump hasn't placed much emphasis on backing up such pronouncements with action once in office, instead amassing a strongly conservative record in both personnel and policy matters.

Failing to pass an infrastructure bill might deprive Trump and congressional Republicans of a political advantage heading into the 2018 midterm elections. Spending more money on infrastructure is much more popular with the American public than Congress's actual priorities this session: cutting taxes on the wealthy and attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Imagine a President Trump who planned to spend the coming summer touring the country, triumphantly demonstrating his patriotic dedication to rebuilding the nation with each well-televised ribbon-cutting ceremony. Other Republicans, too, would have received tangible benefits to offer voters whose disapproval of Trump's personal behavior might have been tempered by his success in demonstrating effectiveness in office—to the endless frustration of Democratic congressional challengers.

Instead, Republicans have made a different choice. Party leaders are desperate to avoid further alienating a skeptical party base that they believe is already dissatisfied by the lack of spending cuts in the March omnibus appropriations bill, and that might treat additional "pork barrel" legislation as an outright ideological betrayal. Most top Republican politicians, including Trump himself, are daily consumers of Fox News and conservative talk radio who worry more about stimulating high turnout among Republican voters than about attracting electoral support from outside the party; as a result, they wish to avoid doing anything that might lead to critical coverage from right-of-center media. Most, Trump presumably excepted, are also themselves committed conservatives whose personal political beliefs would also discourage support for a major federal infrastructure initiative.

The demise of Trump's infrastructure plan thus represents both a revealing window into the current Republican Party and a collective political bet placed by Republican politicians on the smartest strategy for contesting the 2018—and, perhaps, 2020—elections. One notable characteristic of the Trump era is a growing perception that voter support, at least on the right, is best sustained via symbolic appeals rather than policy deliverables. The GOP's adherence to this hypothesis may ultimately risk a fatal backlash led by the rest of the public against a presidency that has so far offered more drama than substantive accomplishment. But it surely holds a natural allure to a president who seems much more inclined to verbal volatility than applied action, and it may prove to be a sufficient way for Republicans to rally their own side in the coming electoral battles with an energized Democratic opposition.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

More on the Conservative Media in the New York Times

Today's New York Times column by Tom Edsall concerns the rising power of conservative media within the Republican Party in the Trump era. It draws on research and analysis by a number of scholars and practitioners, and quotes at length from my latest paper with Matt Grossmann, "Placing Media in Conservative Culture." You can find the column here, and the full version of our paper here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Party Asymmetry in the Trump Era: Op-Ed in the New York Times

Not long ago, I wrote about the lack of a "liberal Tea Party" in the Trump era. In our latest op-ed piece for the New York Times, Matt Grossmann and I delve deeper into this question—and explain why being a member of the anti-Trump "resistance" requires you to keep your weekends free for one protest march after another. As veteran Honest Graft readers will know, this argument draws upon our 2016 book Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Ryan Was an Odd Fit as Speaker, and His Exit Proves It

The retirement of Paul Ryan after only two and a half years as speaker of the House, though rumored for months, was made official on Wednesday morning, setting off a race to succeed him as leader of the House Republicans. I very much recommend this post from Jonathan Bernstein, and have a few additional thoughts of my own.

It's impossible to understand Ryan's speakership without understanding the bizarre circumstances under which he came to power. John Boehner abruptly announced his departure from Congress in the fall of 2015 after anti-Boehner Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus threatened to force a procedural motion to depose him. Boehner's previous lieutenant and heir apparent, Eric Cantor, had unexpectedly been defeated in the Virginia Republican primary the year before, and Cantor's successor Kevin McCarthy, presumed at first to be next in line for the speakership, proved unable to line up enough votes within the Republican conference. (McCarthy, who remained as majority leader, is preparing to take another shot at the top leadership position now that Ryan is leaving, though the voters will decide in November whether or not that position is the speakership.)

Ryan, who was not a member of the party leadership at all in 2015 (he was chairing the Ways and Means Committee at the time), was finally persuaded to stand for speaker by an increasingly desperate Boehner in concert with other senior Republicans, protesting all the while that he was not actively seeking the job and didn't really want it. As it turned out, this wasn't just clever posturing designed to increase his leverage with the Republican conference. From the day he took the speaker's gavel until the present, Ryan has consistently behaved very much like someone who wasn't especially comfortable in the role and whose primary political preoccupation was to avoid suffering the awkward fate—unsentimentally pushed out the door in the midst of a congressional session—that had befallen his immediate predecessor.

It turns out that there are pretty good reasons why the speaker of the House is usually a veteran party "pol" rather than an ideologue or policy specialist—and is usually someone who views the position as the desired culmination of a long-held ambition rather than a potential impediment to his or her even greater future plans. While Boehner, a widely underrated leader, repeatedly put himself on the line politically in order to protect his party, Ryan instead risked his party in order to protect himself—including by the way he announced his retirement.

Throughout his tenure in office, Ryan acted more like an ideological activist than as the leader of a party or a country. Ideological leaders of the left and right have their place in our political system, but that place is seldom at the head of a congressional caucus. Boehner understood that the greater interests of his members sometimes required him to take heat from conservative insurgents for departing from ideological purity; Ryan instead manuevered to direct blame onto others in order to preserve his own reputation in conservative circles.

Donald Trump's shocking rise to the presidency presented Ryan with a series of challenges that he lacked the political creativity or courage to address effectively. Ryan never had a good plan for protecting the Republican conference in the House from being seriously damaged by Trump's political deficiencies. He neither found a way to publicly distance his electorally vulnerable members from Trump's antics nor advanced a popular set of policies for which they could claim credit in 2018. Ryan's office played a major role in developing the one major legislative achievement of the current Congress—the December 2017 tax reform act—but the bill directed its benefits to such a narrow segment of the population that it turned out to have limited appeal among average voters. By the end of the race in last month's special election in Pennsylvania, Republicans had more or less stopped trumpeting the tax cuts in their campaign advertising, concluding that the issue didn't really help them win support even in a seat carried easily by Trump in 2016.

Ryan could have used his own platform as speaker to send Trump signals that certain presidential behavior would have negative consequences—or to reassure the electorate that a Republican Congress could be counted upon to serve as at least an intermittent check on the chief executive. Instead, Ryan tended to treat reporters' questions about Trump as hostile "gotchas" designed to embarrass him personally, and he declined to act when the House Intelligence Committee, one of the last vestiges of bipartisanship and institutional independence on Capitol Hill, devolved into pettiness and rancor over the Trump-Russia issue. In general, Ryan was less inclined than previous speakers to talk or act like an officer of the United States government rather than merely the leader of a partisan majority, even though Trump's ascendance arguably made such a responsibility even more important in his case.

Finally, Ryan's own departure from Congress has occurred in a manner that puts his own career ahead of other Republicans' interests. Had he left last year, he could have plausibly argued that the electoral climate in 2018 was not yet clear; had he waited until after this fall's election, he could have avoided sending the message during the campaign that Republicans were likely to lose control of the House and would have delayed an open leadership fight within the Republican conference that will now play out over the course of the election season. But Ryan, who at 48 can dream of a long political future beyond the speaker's office, did not wish to risk associating himself with what may turn out to be a devastating electoral defeat. He may be the captain of the House Republican Party, but he has no intention of going down with the ship.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Why The "Liberal Tea Party" Doesn't Exist (And Why Some People Think It Does)

As we head into the 2018 primary election season, some reporters and pundits have raised the question of whether Democratic nomination contests will turn into activist-fueled ideological purity tests—in other words, a liberal version of the Tea Party movement that has so famously roiled the Republican Party over the past decade. But it's hard to sustain the case that the Democrats are about to undergo a leftward lurch driven by a demanding party base. Conor Lamb, the newest member of the House Democratic caucus, just won a special election in Pennsylvania after running a campaign in which he opposed gun control and pledged not to support Nancy Pelosi for party leader. Last night, the socially conservative, anti-ACA incumbent Dan Lipinski narrowly won renomination from a safely Democratic district in the Chicago area. In the Senate, meanwhile, 17 Democrats recently joined Republicans to support a banking deregulation bill strongly opposed by Elizabeth Warren and other economic liberals in the party. If a partywide leftist purge is indeed imminent, it's quite well-disguised.

Matt Grossmann and I explained in Asymmetric Politics why the Democrats are much less vulnerable to ideological purification campaigns than Republicans are, and we summarized our argument in this piece for Vox Polyarchy. Part of the story is that the American left simply lacks much of the institutional infrastructure that promoted and sustained the Tea Party rebellion on the right, such as powerful ideologically-driven media sources, interest groups, and financial donors. (The number of politically active leftist billionaires is....not large.) But it's also true that many Democratic voters simply don't think of politics in ideological terms or prize doctrinal fidelity over other qualities—such as perceived electability, group identity, or ability to deliver concrete policy achievements—when making their choice of candidate.

So if there isn't much evidence of a "liberal Tea Party," why is anybody talking about it? One reason is that the assumption of party symmetry is deeply entrenched in the minds of many political observers, who expect any trends on one partisan side to inevitably appear in comparable form on the other. Another is the well-documented tendency of media coverage to frame stories in ways that emphasize conflict, or at least the possibility of conflict ("if it bleeds, it leads"); for example, this recent Politico article does its best to hype the existence of a "Democratic civil war" exacerbated by Lamb's victory even though there's nothing in the actual piece that justifies using such hyperbolic language.

A third is that Republicans, facing a poor electoral climate this year, have adopted the talking point that their fortunes will be salvaged by a raft of extremist opponents nominated by far-left Democratic primary electorates. House Speaker Paul Ryan brushed off Lamb's victory last week by claiming that "this is something that you're not going to see repeated, because they didn't have a primary [referring to Lamb's selection by a local Democratic committee to compete in the special election]. They were able to pick a candidate who could run as a conservative."

But there's something else at work here as well. Purist leftism, to the extent it exists in America, is especially concentrated in the circles—metropolitan, well-educated, highly internet-active—in which many media members themselves travel. Based on their own anecdotal experiences, or at least their social media feeds, it's easy for them to start thinking that left-of-center politics is consumed with protests of ideologically unpalatable campus speakers, debates over whether Bruno Mars is guilty of cultural appropriation or whether RuPaul is prejudiced against the transgender community, and endless relitigation of the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders presidential race as a proxy for the direction of the American left as a whole. (In reality, as my research shows, Clinton and Sanders supporters in 2016 were split much more by age, race, and party identification than they were by ideology.)

Put simply, the online left is not representative of the Democratic Party. Visitors to local Democratic caucus or committee meetings in most parts of America will find that the public employees, union officials, trial lawyers, nonprofit association administrators, and African-American church ladies who actually constitute the party's activist backbone are, by and large, neither preoccupied with ideological purity nor in a state of rebellion against its current leadership. And though the election of Donald Trump has surely angered and energized the Democratic base, there's no particular reason to think that anti-Trump sentiment will lead to an internal ideological transformation. 

The scholars Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol, who are studying the citizens—especially the women—newly mobilizing against the Trump-led GOP, report that a strong sense of pragmatism prevails among their subjects. "This is not a leftist Tea Party," they explain. "It is not a Sanders versus Clinton redux [or] Occupy Wall Street-type questioning of liberal democracy . . . [T]he metropolitan advocates to whom the national media turn . . . at times exaggerate the left-progressive focus of the activism underway and overestimate their own importance in coordinating it." Instead, Putnam and Skocpol find a lot of middle-aged suburban professionals moved to act by their horror of Trump and determined to work strategically to oppose him. "At the current pace," they predict, "it seems likely that the pop-up leaders and grassroots groups of 2017 will, by 2019, have repopulated the local layer of the Democratic Party in much of the country."

The logic of Asymmetric Politics doesn't imply that one party is inherently in better shape than the other, but rather that each side has its own distinctive set of problems. The Democratic Party is suffering from a number of contemporary weaknesses, made undeniable by its inability to defeat a deeply flawed Trump candidacy in 2016. But Democrats remain well-positioned to avoid the specific pathologies that have recently plagued the Republican opposition: endless primary challenges to veteran incumbents, Freedom Caucus-style legislative rebellions, the elevation of cable news hosts into positions of power over elected officials. Jettisoning the assumption that one party is simply a mirror image of the other would not sacrifice the balance and objectivity of news media coverage, but it would greatly improve its accuracy.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Pennsylvania Special Election Recap: Good News for Democrats? Yes. 100+ Seats in Play This Year? Not Quite.

It's always possible to overinterpret the outcome of a single special election; at the same time, even one more data point can help us make a little bit more sense of the political world around us. Here are a few things that can be gleaned from tonight's results in Pennsylvania:

1. The photo finish between Democratic candidate Conor Lamb and Republican nominee Rick Saccone (with Lamb currently in apparent position to eke out a victory) in a district previously considered safely Republican indeed represents a notable development, but not a shocking one. It comports with the historical pattern of electoral politics: the opposition party reliably makes gains in midterm elections, and the magnitude of the swing is correlated with the (un)popularity of the president. The importance of tonight's outcome lies primarily in its confirmation that these dynamics still hold today as they have in the past. But the current state of President Trump's job approval rating and the congressional "generic ballot" polling already signaled that 2018 is likely to be a good year for Democratic candidates.

2. Even so, the outcome in PA-18 may itself prompt members of the Washington community to revise their predictions about what's likely to happen in November, although there's plenty of existing information on which to base their analyses. There's an undeniable psychological difference between expecting something to happen and actually watching it occur. I remember the 2006 midterms, when—despite piles of survey data pointing to a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives—a number of pundits had a hard time actually envisioning an end to what at that point was a 12-year Republican reign over the House until the votes actually came in on the night of the election.

As for the parties themselves, whatever spin we hear from either side doesn't mean very much. What's important is what they do. Will Republicans start to act as if they believe their majority is now in serious danger? Will there be criticism directed, on the record or on background, by rank-and-file members of Congress toward Republican leaders, including the president, for putting the party in such a precarious position? Or will incumbents sincerely adopt the view that the results in PA-18, along with those in the Alabama Senate race last year, reflected a mismatch in candidate quality more than a fundamental deterioration of the GOP's electoral strength?

3. Special elections can also be opportunities for the parties to test out their campaign messages in advance of a national vote. One lesson that the Republicans appear to have taken away from their Pennsylania experience is that the December tax cut bill is of limited popularity and/or salience in the electorate. Since the current congressional majority has few other accomplishments for which to claim credit, this suggests that the fall elections will be fought over something other than the legislative record of the past two years. (It's likely at any rate that the midterms will be dominated by Trump and Trumpism regardless of what most individual candidates do.)

4. It's common for election analysts these days to use the 2016 presidential election results, or measures derived from them (such as the Partisan Voting Index, or PVI), as a benchmark to characterize the party leaning of states and congressional districts: a +5 Clinton seat, a +10 Trump seat, etc. In general, presidential and congressional voting results are strongly correlated, making these figures good rules of thumb in most cases. But there are still parts of the country where voters behave somewhat differently when choosing presidential and non-presidential candidates; moreover, the distinctive candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (and, before that, Barack Obama) have the potential to produce slightly misleading pictures of the "fundamental" partisan composition of a particular constituency.

Specifically, it's worth noting that while PA-18 gave Trump a 20-point margin over Clinton in 2016, Democrats still slightly outnumber Republicans in the district's party registration figures. Washington County, most of which lies within the district, supported Trump over Clinton by 60 percent to 36 percent and Mitt Romney to Obama in 2012 by 56 percent to 42 percent, but had narrowly preferred John Kerry to George W. Bush in 2004 and had given Al Gore a 53-44 advantage over Bush in 2000.

Of course, things have changed since 2004, and recent elections are more predictive of future outcomes than more distant ones. But it's worth keeping in mind that the world of American politics did not experience a complete rebirth in 2016, rendering all previous history irrelevant. With more time and perspective, we'll be better able to tell how much of the 2016 alignment represents a "new normal" and how much is a temporary deviation from longer-term patterns.

The demonstration that a Democratic candidate like Lamb could win back many former supporters, especially among the white non-college population, who had defected in 2016 is good news for the party. Democrats are defending multiple Senate seats in states that not only supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, but also shifted significantly in the Republican direction in 2016—including Missouri, West Virginia, North Dakota, Indiana, Montana, and Ohio. In order to avoid a devastating series of defeats in Senate races this year, Democrats need to attract voters who had previously backed the party's candidates but who either abandoned Clinton for Trump or merely stayed home.

At the same time, I'd recommend being a bit wary of the claim, oft-repeated during Tuesday night's coverage, that there are more than 100 Republican-held House seats that are more electorally vulnerable than PA-18. Again, that's true if we use PVI or Trump's 2016 margin over Clinton as the sole measure of partisan competitiveness, but PA-18 has more of a Democratic tradition—and labor union presence—than most other districts that gave Trump (and Romney before him) comparable margins.

Republicans undoubtedly appear to be in serious danger of losing their 24-seat (now, perhaps, 23-seat) House majority later this year. But any implication that the number of seats gained by Democrats in November could approach triple figures is not exactly realistic.