Tuesday, November 14, 2017

What Matters for Moore Is the View from Alabama, Not Washington

The accelerating litany of serious accusations against U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama has prompted incumbent Republican senators to denounce and distance themselves from their party's embattled nominee over the past few days. Reactions within the chamber that Moore seeks to join next month have been uniformly harsh, ranging from the withdrawal of previous endorsements to calls for Moore to be immediately expelled from the Senate if he were to win the December 12 election.

Reporters are busy this week chasing down reluctant Republicans in Capitol hallways to put them on record about the Moore situation, revealing what appears to be a rough consensus that (a) Moore should drop out of the race and (b) a more suitable Republican candidate should mount a write-in campaign regardless of whether he does drop out.

This is all perfectly newsworthy, but not likely to matter too much in terms of what happens from here. Moore has no particular reason to listen to what Washington Republicans say. If he thought that he couldn't win despite their opposition, he might consider withdrawing to avoid a humiliating defeat—but why would he think that? After all, Moore defeated the appointed incumbent, Luther Strange, by nine points in the Republican primary runoff even though Strange enjoyed the backing of virtually all of the party's national elected leadership.

Of course, the most powerful Republican in Washington has yet to weigh in; a presidential denouncement would be more damaging to Moore than criticisms from the likes of Jeff Flake and Susan Collins. Even so, Trump inserting himself into the race seems like a necessary but hardly sufficient prerequisite for a Moore withdrawal or successful end-around of the official Republican nominee via write-in balloting.

And the president seems unlikely to devote himself to pushing Moore out once he returns to the White House from his trip overseas. Trump felt burned by the primary, when he campaigned for Strange only to see Alabama Republicans choose Moore instead, and will not be enthusiastic about taking on the risk of exhibiting political weakness a second time in the same election.  Plus, the specific nature of the accusations against Moore makes the whole issue a treacherous one for Trump to raise given his own personal record. He's in a poor position to adopt the this-is-not-what-the-Republican-Party-stands-for argument that George H. W. Bush made when disavowing David Duke's 1990 campaign against Louisiana senator Bennett Johnston, the closest parallel to the current situation in modern Senate history.

It's only natural for a press corps based in Washington to adopt a Washington-centric view of the race. But Alabama residents are more likely to be influenced by other Alabama residents. If Moore drops out (an unlikely development), if a write-in campaign gains traction, or if a critical mass of Republican voters skips the election or defects to Democratic nominee Doug Jones, it will reflect the political environment in Alabama and the behavior of party leaders, elected officials, and media outlets at the state level. And so far, the Moore revelations have been met with much less shock and outrage in the places where this election will actually be decided than in the Potomac-adjacent environs where Republican federal officeholders preside with waning influence over the untidy affairs of their party.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

2017 Election Recap: Some Rules Still Apply

It's an unfortunate quirk of the American political calendar that Virginia is one of only five states that do not select their governor at the same time as either presidential or congressional midterm elections. Political junkies are especially starved for election news in odd-numbered years, raising the danger of over-interpreting the scattered results that do occur. And the fact that one of the two states happening to vote in 2017 is also home to most of the national political media guarantees that attention will disproportionately fall on Virginia, dependably exaggerating the importance of the outcome of its state-level elections. (It's hard to imagine, say, Missouri or Arizona receiving nearly this much notice if it were in the same position.)

The real importance of the Democratic victories in Virginia (and New Jersey, and in scattered locations elsewhere) is not that they tell us much that we don't already know. Instead, they are just a few more data points confirming one of the most dependable rules in American politics: the president's party predictably loses ground in down-ballot races, and the amount of ground lost is correlated with the president's unpopularity.

And Trump is quite unpopular. His job approval rating is the lowest of any president on record during his first year in office, and roughly half of the country not only disapproves but strongly disapproves of his performance. The unexpectedly high Democratic turnout in Virginia tonight suggests that Democratic voters are highly motivated to express their opposition to the president and the ruling GOP when given the opportunity—even in the absence of a personally charismatic Democratic candidate. This is hardly a surprise, but it still demonstrates that the laws of American politics have not been completely rewritten in the Trump era. There were many good reasons to believe that 2018 was shaping up to be a good Democratic year before tonight's results rolled in, and the outcomes in Virginia and elsewhere simply constitute one more good reason.

If there is any actual further importance to the outcome tonight, it comes from the effect that the election returns might have on the calculations of incumbent politicians and potential challengers. If a number of Republicans representing competitive districts begin to mull retirement in response to tomorrow morning's headlines, and if an array of talented Democratic candidates gain enough confidence from these results to throw their hats into the ring for Congress and other offices, than tonight's events will indeed exert an effect on what happens next year. But there is still a long way to go until November 2018, and the nation's political climate cannot be foreseen with precision a full year ahead of time on the basis of a few state and local elections tonight.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

My Vox Piece on the Demise of Jeff Flake and the Republican Civil War

Jeff Flake's announcement this week that he would retire after just one term in the Senate demonstrates that the long-running civil war between the elected and unelected factions of the Republican Party is only getting stronger, as I write today for Vox.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

In Today's America, Small Voting Shifts Can Have Really Big Effects

My new book Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics demonstrates that American elections have become more geographically polarized over the past 25 years and investigates the causes and consequences of this important development. I argue that it's very difficult to understand how politics operates today without recognizing the ways in which the spatial distribution of party votes across geographic lines interacts with the rules and mechanisms of our electoral institutions to produce representative democracy in the United States.

One of the most distinctive attributes of our current political era is that the two parties are closely balanced at the national level, yet each side maintains a formidable record of electoral dominance across large regional subsections of the United States. Since the 1990s, we have experienced a series of elections in which the overall outcome has been decided by a narrow margin even as most states and congressional districts are securely and reliably either Republican or Democratic. While it was once common for most states—and nearly all large states—to be electorally up for grabs and thus actively contested by both sides in a national campaign, the number of "battleground" states has dwindled in the 21st century to a small minority of the nation:

At the same time, the election-to-election stability of these state alignments has reached historically unmatched levels. It's not just the case that most states in any given year will be safely pro-Democratic or pro-Republican while a shrinking remainder of states will be open to contestation—instead, it's increasingly the same states that are predictably "red" or "blue" in election after election,  and the same few swing states, like Ohio, Florida, and Michigan, that hold the national balance of power from one election to the next. Over the past five presidential elections, 37 states and the District of Columbia have aligned with the same party in each contest; as the graph below shows, this represents a record degree of state-level consistency. We're a long way from the presidential elections of 1956 and 1964, when all but five states in the nation voted for opposite parties in two races held just eight years apart.

Because of the winner-take-all American electoral system, these trends mean that partisan shifts among a relatively small subset of voters in a relatively small section of the nation can have a tremendous effect on outcomes if they happen to be concentrated in exactly the right place. My political science colleague Seth Masket wrote today in Vox about the changing partisan preferences among non-college-educated whites in the small-town Midwest that proved electorally pivotal in 2016, delivering the White House to Donald Trump despite his loss in the national popular vote (see my own graph below as well). Seth concludes, I think persuasively, that these shifts are not broad enough to add up to a party "realignment"—but they still proved to be decisive because they occurred in a few key states that were otherwise closely divided between the parties. Hillary Clinton ran particularly well among college-educated whites and racial minorities in 2016, which helped her outperform previous Democratic candidates in non-battleground states like California, Texas, and Arizona but didn't pay her any dividends in the unique arithmetic of the electoral college.

The Geographic Polarization of the Midwest, 1980–2016

Because the leadership of the two parties is as mutually polarized and otherwise differentiated as at any time in modern history, the consequences of these electoral outcomes for the trajectory of national politics are increasingly significant even as the outcomes themselves are more and more likely to be contingent on the attributes, and eccentricities, of the electoral system itself. Historically speaking, there wasn't much of a difference between how Americans voted in 2012 and how they voted in 2016. But there's an awfully big difference between President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

New Book: Red Fighting Blue

I'm very happy to announce that my new book, Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics, has just been published by Cambridge University Press in paperback, hardcover, and eBook formats.

The book explains how the emergence of significant and persistent regional differences in partisan voting patterns in both presidential and congressional elections since the 1990s has had a profound effect on party politics in the United States. The American electoral system, with its geographically-defined voting constituencies and winner-take-all rules, has greatly magnified these differences when translating the preferences of citizens into electoral college outcomes and the partisan and ideological composition of Congress. The moderate Democrats formerly elected in large numbers from what are now the "red" states and the moderate Republicans who once represented the "blue" states are both disappearing from office, leaving increasingly polarized parties and an ever-shrinking scope of electoral competition. In an age in which the two major parties are closely balanced but each increasingly dominant across large regional subsections of the nation, the specific ways in which the geographic distribution of party support interacts with the rules of the American electoral process accounts for how our politics works—or doesn't work—in the 21st century.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Why Do People Think Tax Reform Will Swing the 2018 Election?

Last week, I described why we should be skeptical of the view that the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections will be substantially affected by whether or not Republicans succeed in enacting tax reform. But my previous post did not explain why such a belief can become widely accepted in Washington despite the lack of hard evidence behind it.

The extent of this acceptance is illustrated by a Wednesday article in the New York Times stating in its second paragraph that "one political and legislative reality is suddenly becoming crystal clear: Republicans must deliver a tax cut or face an epic backlash that would pose a significant threat to their governing majority and long-term political health." The article presents this claim not merely as one plausible account of the electoral stakes of reform but as a "crystal clear" political "reality" beyond legitimate analytical contestation.

The author of the article, a veteran Capitol Hill reporter, is no doubt accurately portraying the prevailing sentiment among Republican members of Congress—and perhaps among Democrats as well. Republicans really do feel desperate to rack up a major legislative accomplishment. Most of them are ideologically committed to tax cuts as a worthy substantive goal, and it's very easy for them to convince themselves that good policy is also good politics. The assertion that failure to enact tax reform will lead to electoral doom in 2018 is also a powerful argument with which to convince fellow partisans to unite around legislation. Everybody had better get with the program, Republican leaders are no doubt telling their membership, or we'll all feel the pain.

Conservative interest groups are sounding the same message. The Times article includes a quote from Scott Reed, a former Republican campaign professional who now works for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that characterizes success on tax reform as politically "vital" for the Republican Party. Reed's remarks are somewhat amusingly framed as a kind of objective analysis, though they are in fact an act of political advocacy: the Chamber wants tax reform to pass and, toward that end, is naturally promoting the idea all around Washington that the GOP has no choice but to deliver if it wants to stay in power.

But journalists and other analysts do not always concur with the strategic judgment of politicians or accept the self-serving spin of interest groups. Why is the view that tax reform represents a "must-pass" proposition for congressional Republicans so convincing to outside observers?

One answer is that media coverage perennially and systematically overstates the extent to which electoral results reflect the calculated behavior of politicians. This is partially because candidate actions are by far the most visible component of campaign dynamics, and partially because journalists are embedded in the same social environment as politicians and campaign consultants, who also habitually overstate their own influence. Within this world, electoral outcomes are typically interpreted as primarily reflecting the traits of particular candidates or the "messages" with which they court voters. It can be hard to accept that elections are mostly decided on the basis of factors—such as the state of the economy or the job approval rating of the president—that are mostly out of the control of congressional incumbents and their advisors.

But there's something else at work as well. Human nature encourages us to perceive the existence of a kind of cosmic justice in which good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished. If a "good" congressional party is focused, harmonious, and legislatively prolific, and a "bad" party is fractious, undisciplined, and unproductive, it's only natural to believe in a world in which a partisan majority that delivers on its policy goals and commitments goes on to reap electoral benefits from a grateful public while one that fails to do so faces the righteous wrath of a betrayed citizenry.

Trouble is, history gives us no particular reason to believe that this is how the world of politics actually works. The current state of the Republican Party is itself a testament to the lack of reliable correlation between popular success and leadership ability; the GOP is in its strongest electoral position since the 1920s but is arguably less equipped to govern, at least at the federal level, than at any point in living memory. Likewise, the Democrats of the late 1930s and 1940s were very good at winning national elections and not very good at uniting behind a common policy agenda.

If there is an actual iron law of politics, it's that few benefits are unaccompanied by corresponding costs and that trade-offs and paradoxes abound. (Hence the seemingly oxymoronic title of this blog.)

Sometimes Congress does little and voters reelect its members anyway; sometimes it does a lot and voters respond by rebelling. Democrats produced a series of major legislative initiatives in 2009–2010 and were "rewarded" with the enduring loss of their congressional majority. Republicans adeptly harnessed popular resentment against Barack Obama to win control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, but that same resentment led to the rise of a troublesome Tea Party movement and the installation of an unusually unpopular and ineffective president as party leader. And it is that president, not their own legislative record (or lack thereof), that represents the biggest impediment to Republican electoral success in 2018.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Can Tax Reform Really Save the Republican Regulars in 2018?

A series of recent news articles over the past few weeks describes sinking morale within the ranks of Republican congressional leaders and their allies. The failure of the Graham-Cassidy health care reform bill in the Senate, combined with the victory of Roy Moore in the Alabama Republican Senate primary, has increased the sense on Capitol Hill that an angry bloc of Republican voters is ready to punish party incumbents for failing to implement the ambitious conservative legislative agenda that Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell promised last winter.

Normally, the congressional leaders of a president's party could at least expect the White House to come to its defense. But we are not in normal times. President Trump, of course, has repeatedly and angrily expressed his frustration with the congressional GOP in general and McConnell in particular. His erstwhile political strategist Steve Bannon, freshly exiled from the West Wing, is now apparently dedicating himself to the recruitment of challengers to "establishment" Republicans in next year's House and Senate primaries. Vice President Mike Pence is usually considered a loyal party man—at least in comparison—but his own chief of staff was secretly recorded this week encouraging high-dollar donors to rebel against insufficiently pro-Trump Republicans by withholding financial support and even actively backing intra-party challengers.

Amidst this increasingly menacing haze, Republican regulars are now fixing their eyes on tax reform as a potential escape hatch. The repeated defeat of health care legislation has only raised the perceived stakes for the passage of a major tax initiative. "Republican leaders are making no attempt to mask their fear," reported the New York Times on Thursday, "predicting that failure to pass a tax overhaul in the coming months will lead to a wipeout in next year's midterm elections." The argument is simple enough: if tax reform falls apart the way health care reform did, incumbent Republicans will have no major accomplishments to tout, and disgruntled conservatives will respond in 2018 by supporting insurgent challengers in Republican primaries and/or by declining to vote in the November general election.

But accepting this logic requires viewing tax reform as itself a sufficiently valuable prize in the eyes of Republican-leaning citizens that its passage alone is likely to represent the difference between loyalty to the current stock of party incumbents and widespread disaffection or rebellion. There are at least two reasons to be skeptical of this assumption.

First, it's not at all clear that active Republican voters in the Trump era are as energized by the potential enactment of tax reform as they are by the prospect of repealing Obamacare, building the border wall, and achieving other currently-stalled party priorities. Will the simmering anger that many Republicans have expressed toward their own party's congressional leadership for the past decade really be extinguished by the passage of a single bill on a subject that has hardly dominated popular conservative debate in recent years?

Second, the actual plan that is emerging from negotiations between congressional leaders and the White House focuses largely on reducing the tax burden of businesses and very wealthy individuals; millions of middle-class and upper-middle-class citizens would receive a minimal reduction or even a net increase in their tax liabilities. Proponents argue that the plan would produce additional economic growth that would in turn ultimately boost wages and employment rates for the non-rich; even if those predictions come true in the medium-to-long term, however, it is unrealistic to expect perceptible economic payoffs to arrive in the months between the signing of the bill and the November election. Whatever the merits of the Republican plan might be, it's simply not a measure designed to provide immediate benefits to the average voter.

A somewhat stronger case for the electoral advantages of tax reform emphasizes three indirect ways in which passage could aid the Republican cause in 2018. For one thing, reform is a popular goal among the party's most generous financial donors—many of whom are apparently withholding their usual contributions at the moment as a form of protest against Congress's lack of productivity so far. If tax reform reopens some roomy wallets that are currently closed, it could help Republican incumbents compete financially against upstart primary challengers and opposition Democrats alike.

In addition, observable progress on major tax legislation over the next few months might help convince a few wavering incumbent Republicans to seek another term in 2018, while a lack of legislative success might similarly encourage those members to consider retirement—leaving behind open seats in Congress that would be vulnerable to capture in the next election by anti-leadership Republicans or Democrats.

A final way in which passage of tax reform might help congressional Republicans politically is that it might get Trump off their backs a bit—or, at least, leave him somewhat less disagreeable than he would be if reform were to fail. The worst-case scenario for Republican House and Senate leaders is an out-and-out civil war with a president who, weakened though he may be in a more general sense, clearly holds most of the power within his own party. Giving Trump a bill to sign hardly guarantees that he will be a loyal asset to fellow Republicans in 2018, but failing to deliver one virtually ensures that he will be a vocal critic of his own party's congressional membership.

All three of these indirect consequences of tax reform could well exert a limited degree of influence over Republican electoral fortunes, but it's hard to see how their combined impact would be significant enough to represent the difference between a good and a bad 2018 midterm for the party. Other external factors such as Trump's job approval rating, the success of Democratic candidate recruitment efforts, the drawing of House district lines, and the staggered terms of the Senate are poised to be much more powerful determinants of next year's outcomes, while the long-term trend of increasingly successful right-wing revolts against "establishment" Republicans is likely to continue whether or not McConnell and Ryan can muster sufficient support for a single piece of legislation.

Republican incumbents are understandably nervous about their prospects in 2018, but that doesn't make tax reform a "make-or-break" proposition for party regulars. We should therefore be wary of analysis that frames tax reform efforts primarily through an electoral lens rather than emphasizing its much more consequential substantive effects and implications for congressional governance and policy-making. If Republican regulars are indeed fatally vulnerable next year in primaries or general elections, passing tax reform will not save them; if they still maintain a clear path to victory, it will likewise not be foreclosed even if legislative success eludes them.