Wednesday, June 13, 2018

In Both Parties, Primary Voters Have Trump On Their Minds

Last Tuesday, Alabama congresswoman Martha Roby was held to 39 percent of the vote in the Republican primary in apparent punishment for her long-ago disavowal of Donald Trump after the Access Hollywood tape surfaced in October 2016. Roby faces a tough July 17 runoff election, where she will need to win an outright majority of votes in order to salvage her congressional career. This Tuesday, fellow House member and ex-governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina lost his own race for renomination to another Republican challenger whose main line of attack against Sanford cited his penchant for criticizing Trump.

Scattered election results don't always add up to a pattern—Sanford, in particular, carries his own personal baggage that long predates Trump's ascendance—but Tuesday brought another revealing set of outcomes in Virginia. Two-term Republican congresswoman Barbara Comstock represents a district that Hillary Clinton carried over Trump in 2016, yet her own party's voters do not appear to have much patience for her attempts to maintain an independent political persona in order to preserve her general-election viability. Without much advance warning, a relative unknown challenger from the right held Comstock to just 61 percent of the vote in the Virginia Republican primary. At the same time, Republican primary voters in northern Virginia provided Corey Stewart, an outspoken defender of the state's Confederate heritage, with the margin he needed to capture the party's U.S. Senate nomination.

One might expect that the population of wealthy, well-educated, professional, politically-connected Republicans who reside within the Washington suburbs would render northern Virginia about as promising a place as anywhere in the country to find a GOP electorate that was relatively skeptical of Trump and Trumpism. But there's little trace of such sentiments within the latest primary returns, in Virginia or elsewhere. In fact, it's hard to identify a single consistuency nationwide where Republicans are sufficiently numerous to realistically compete in general elections but where separation from Trump, even in muted form, is devoid of serious political risk for party candidates.

Open criticism of the current president from within the ranks of Republican officials is thus likely to be restricted to the handful of retiring incumbents—Jeff Flake, John McCain, Bob Corker, John Kasich—who no longer fear retribution from their own party's voters. Other Republicans may grumble on background to reporters about the current administration, but the message they hear from their voters these days is, at least in their perception, a demand for unconditional public loyalty. This state of affairs is only likely to change if the conservative media, now acting as the most powerful source of opinion leadership within the Republican Party, sours on Trump—which hardly seems possible in the immediate future.

It's not just Republican voters who are preoccupied with Trump these days. The abrupt surge in the share of women nominated for Congress by Democratic primary electorates that I discussed last month has remained intact through the recent round of primaries, representing an unmistakable response to Trump's election.

As of this week, a majority of states have now held primary elections for the 2018 midterms, and it is safe to say that the number of female House nominees on the Democratic side will set a historical record by a wide margin. In fact, Democrats have nominated 74 non-incumbent women for the House so far, which already exceeds the all-time high number (73) reached by the party in the 2012 election—with 24 states yet to hold primaries this year and several others with unresolved runoffs. Currently, 41 percent of Democratic House nominees are women, including 48 percent of non-incumbent nominees (see below). More than a year into his presidency, the shadow cast by Trump over both sides of American politics seems only to be growing in size.



Monday, June 04, 2018

What the Governor of Massachusetts Tells Us About American Voters

A new WBUR poll of Massachusetts residents confirms that the incumbent governor, Charlie Baker, is overwhelmingly popular and in excellent position to win a second term by a landslide. Baker is viewed favorably by 67 percent of poll respondents (compared to just 9 percent with unfavorable views) and leads each of his two potential general-election opponents by an identical 40-point margin. The 2018 election will feature pivotal and highly competitive governors' races in a number of states from Maine to Nevada, but we Bay Staters appear likely to be deprived of such excitement this fall.

Baker is a Republican running in a normally Democratic state and a pro-Democratic national electoral environment, yet he is not merely favored to win but heavily so. In an era in which it is fashionable to characterize Americans as hopelessly "tribal" in their partisan loyalties, he has managed to become broadly well-liked across party lines (in fact, according to the WBUR data, Baker is slightly more popular with Massachusetts Democrats than among his fellow Republicans). Baker's success thus represents a rare outlying case that allows us to better understand the foundations of contemporary political conflict in the United States. What has allowed him to escape the partisan wars that have scarred so many other politicians?

Part of the answer is Baker's own public persona. He has made efforts to define himself as an ideological moderate by breaking with conservative doctrine on social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and gun control, and he has not proposed deep budget cuts in education or other popular public programs. Baker has also distanced himself from his party's national leadership, refusing to endorse Donald Trump (whose favorability rating in Massachusetts is just 29 percent, according to the WBUR poll) in 2016 and publicly criticizing the president's actions and words on several occasions.

But the behavior of the Democratic opposition is also important. By and large, Democratic leaders in the state legislature and state constitutional offices have taken a cooperative approach to the Baker administration rather than attempting to exacerbate partisan rancor at every turn. Democratic voters who are liable to take cues from their own party officials when forming opinions on political matters thus have little reason to form a critical view of Baker's governorship. Because both of the possible Democratic nominees for governor are relative unknowns with limited fundraising capacity, the 2018 campaign is unlikely to change enough Democrats' minds about the incumbent's job performance to plunge him into electoral danger.

For all the evidence that Democratic and Republican citizens increasingly disagree over policy issues and view each other in negative personal terms, it's still important to acknowledge the role of messages from elites—politicians, interest group leaders, media figures—in regulating the climate of partisan conflict. The mass public is often portrayed as fatally inattentive to political nuance, but it does seem to notice when party leaders prize collaboration over confrontation (and vice versa). At the national level, however, it has become rare for both sides to view mutual cooperation as serving their interests at the same time—and even if party leaders themselves wish to turn down the partisan temperature, they face increasing pressure to remain maximally combative from ideological media outlets and other powerful actors, especially on the Republican side.

One of the common themes of this blog is that politics is inevitably full of tradeoffs. For Charlie Baker, a moderate and mild-mannered governing style may well guarantee him a second term in office but will almost certainly prevent him from rising in the national Republican Party. For Donald Trump, slash-and-burn politics has succeeded in satisfying conservative activists and media authorities, but at the cost of legislative productivity and an unusually energized Democratic opposition. Yes, Americans are collectively divided these days—but it's important to note that such developments don't happen on their own. Inevitably, there are political leaders, whether in or out of office, who are doing the dividing.

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.