Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Forget the '60s—The Real Generation Gap Is Happening Right Now

Since the election last month, we have seen a parade of analyses examining how Clinton supporters differ from Trump supporters along the dividing lines of race, education, and geographic residence. The persistence of partisan differences by age in American elections, however, has received somewhat less attention. Younger voters, who first demonstrated a notable relative preference for the Democratic Party in the 2004 presidential election, swung even further towards the Democrats in the two Obama elections; Obama carried the under-30 vote by 34 points in 2008 and by 23 points in 2012, according to the national exit polls. At the same time, voters over the age of 50 collectively preferred Republican nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney to Obama in both of his successful national campaigns.

Hillary Clinton may have lacked Obama's (and Bernie Sanders's) personal appeal among younger voters, but she still carried the under-30 vote by an 18-point margin over Trump according to the 2016 exit polls, while voters over the age of 45 collectively opted for Trump by 9 points—confirming that the contemporary political generation gap will outlast the Obama era. This is a significant divide by historical standards. None of the 1960s-era elections produced a comparable partisan difference, despite the decade's prominent youth-led protest movements and memorable "don't trust anyone over 30" rhetoric. According to Gallup data, Hubert Humphrey led Richard Nixon in 1968 among voters under 30 by only 9 points, 47 percent to 38 percent, while voters over the age of 50 preferred Nixon by just 6 points (47 percent to 41 percent). So Trump performed about as well among young voters in a two-person contest as Nixon did in a three-way race.

Many of the most prominent political issues of our time include a generational dimension separating the left-leaning young from their more conservative elders. Social issues such as gay rights and drug legalization divide Americans sharply by age. The Affordable Care Act drew its fiercest opposition from the elderly—who already enjoyed Medicare benefits and thus perceived little collective interest in expanding health care access to younger citizens. Climate change is of greater concern to those who stand to inherit the planet than those who rule it today. Democratic candidates frequently tout their plans for enhancing college affordability and access to childcare; Republicans seldom discuss these topics. Conservative efforts to lower federal tax rates on high incomes also stand to primarily benefit older—and disproportionately wealthier—voters.

More broadly, the 2016 election exposed a key divide in the American electorate between nationalism and internationalism, between a preference for traditional social hierarchies and an attraction to new social norms. The themes of cultural nostalgia and alienation adopted by the Trump campaign were particularly primed to appeal to older generations feeling increasingly out of place in contemporary society and preferring a bygone past of perceived American "greatness" defined by a rejection of "political correctness" at home and an adherence to military/economic unilateralism abroad. Just as the Brexit referendum in the UK passed over the opposition of a younger generation of Britons much more at ease with European integration than their parents and grandparents, the oldest incoming president in American history assembled a narrow electoral coalition that is heavily weighted toward his own age cohort—and there's no particular reason to believe that he will govern in a manner that increases his appeal to those who did not support his candidacy. A Pew survey released this week found Trump with a favorable rating of just 24 percent among respondents aged 18-29 and 25 percent among those aged 30-49, compared to 47 percent among 50-to-64-year-olds and 54 percent among the 65-and-over population.

Ronald Reagan's famous "optimism" was to some degree an assured belief that the future belonged to conservatives. A more extensive elucidation of this view, complete with accompanying data, can be found in any number of the essays written by Michael Barone in the 1980s for the Almanac of American Politics. Barone viewed Reagan's electoral success as proof that a majority of American voters had come to recognize the fundamental flaws of liberalism and were acting together to push their country in a rightward direction. The Democrats, according to Barone, were the party of declining central cities, out-of-fashion hippie relics, and Rust Belt anachronism; the Republicans were the party of burgeoning suburbs, private-sector innovators, and Sun Belt futurism. Importantly, in Barone's view, conservatives were winning the hearts and minds of younger Americans, who could be expected to take up Reagan's torch and advance it still further through subsequent decades. As Barone and Grant Ujifusa wrote in the 1990 edition of the Almanac“[t]he young voters of the 1980s, Republican strategists hope, and Democratic strategists fear, will carry their sunny Republicanism into the 2030s and 2040s.”

Young people may still be sunny these days, but Republicanism is decidedly not. The victories of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama damaged conservatives' confidence that they spoke for an enduring popular majority, and the main conservative objectives of shrinking the size and scope of government, establishing unquestioned American military supremacy abroad, and promoting morally traditionalist attitudes among the American public have all, to varying degrees and for varying reasons, remained unfulfilled in the years since Reagan departed the national stage. When combined with the continuing leftward evolution of American culture in the realms of race, gender, religion, and sexuality, these developments have left many conservatives—including the current president-elect—warning darkly of the imminent destruction of America as we know it, which in turn justifies increasingly aggressive challenges from the right to established political norms and institutions.

Now that it is the Democratic Party that is becoming more Sun Belt than Rust Belt, that is the favored party of revitalized urban metropolises and centers of innovation like the high-tech sector, and that is more attuned to the millennial-generation cultural zeitgeist, older conservatives exhibit a shaken faith in the wisdom of popular majorities. Barone himself has taken to explicitly arguing in favor of the electoral college precisely because it might act—as it did in 2016—to thwart the will of a national plurality that he finds ideologically and demographically uncongenial. Other Republicans have responded to social change by advocating restrictions on access to the ballot that disproportionately affect young and non-white citizens, in order to further tilt the electoral system away from their political opponents.

As the Republican victories of 2014 and 2016 confirm, there is no youth-led "permanent Democratic majority," in part because our electoral rules and institutions tend to provide Republicans with a built-in advantage in close elections. Plus, there are simply lots and lots of baby boomers and pre-boomers, and they vote more reliably than their children and grandchildren. But if the young will respond to Trump's ascendance by resenting the disproportionate political and economic power of the right-leaning old, the old will continue to resent the increasing cultural power of the left-leaning young. The power of the presidency simply does not extend to authority over the national culture, and the institutions that do exert substantial cultural influence—the news media, entertainment industry, educational system, and so forth—can be expected to serve as centers of resistance to Trump and Trumpism. Cultural backlash can be a powerful tool for winning elections, but it's very hard to actually deliver on promises to move an entire society back in time.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Trump and the Myth of the American Presidency

Most political scientists view the American political system as a dense set of interlocking rules, institutions, and actors that interact in complicated and ever-evolving ways. This web of power derives much of its complexity from the fact that the United States is, distinctively, both a separation-of-powers system and a federal system. Our politics not only encompasses many different independent positions and levels of authority but also provides multiple access points for individuals and groups outside the formal structure of the government—including advocacy organizations, media sources, and mobilized citizens—to exert influence over its operations. Even scholars who devote their careers to studying one element of this system—Congress, courts, voters, interest groups, and so forth—must constantly account for the ways in which their subject of interest is affected by the other components of the system.

American citizens acquire in grade school the familiar factual knowledge that their government has three separate branches and a federalist structure. In practice, however, popular attention to the subject of politics focuses overwhelmingly on the office of the presidency and the individuals who hold it—or who seek it during a drawn-out campaign process that lasts for nearly half of the presidential term. Citizens have invested the presidency with meaning and expectations that far exceed the capacity of even its most resourceful inhabitants to fully satisfy, ignoring both the very real limitations of the president's ability to implement major change and the key roles played by other political actors and by the institutional framework of the constitutional system itself.

The campaign that just concluded only further widened the chasm separating the actual presidency from its role in the American imagination. Popular and media attention focused on the race to the White House to the exclusion of all other electoral competition; candidates for the Senate and other important offices only received national press coverage when they said or did something that related to one or both of the presidential nominees. To a greater extent than any candidate in memory, Donald Trump portrayed the presidency as a position of unrestricted power from which he could not only impose sweeping change on national and world politics—singlehandedly bringing back the steel industry from overseas, building a border wall and forcing Mexico to pay for it—but even reverse unwelcome trends in American culture ("When I'm president, we're going to say Merry Christmas again!")

Hillary Clinton was by contrast relatively cautious about over-promising on policy and keen to avoid appearances of grandiosity, reflecting both her own instincts and her understanding of the limitations of the presidency as well as its power. When discussing this or that political issue, Clinton would frequently pledge if elected to do "everything I can" to address the concerns of her audience—a promise to try rather than a promise to succeed.

Yet Clinton, too, ultimately wound up running a campaign that treated the presidency more as an abstract symbol than a position of executive responsibility. She attempted to benefit from popular disapproval of Trump's personal behavior by arguing that he would be a poor role model for the nation's children and would represent a victory for the forces of bigotry and misogyny. Democrats and Republicans came to share the view that the 2016 election did not merely present a choice between two very different visions for what America should be, but forced the electorate to determine which of two possible futures the nation would indeed have—with one path permanently selected and the other foreclosed.

Since the election less than two weeks ago, the nation has experienced an eruption of racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim speech and behavior—all presumably fueled by the perception that Trump's ascension to the presidency represents a larger impending transformation of American society (notwithstanding the narrowness of Trump's victory nor his failure to receive a plurality of the national popular vote). These incidents have not been limited to the Trump-friendly regions of the nation; even those of us who live in the "deep blue" precincts of the metropolitan coasts have experienced the same trend. The presumption behind much of this behavior is that America under Trump will look fundamentally different from America under Obama or (hypothetically) Clinton.

As some of his most ardent supporters envision a wholesale change in the social order, Trump himself has spent the same two weeks reckoning with the limits of the office he is poised to occupy. Evidence has surfaced of a rocky transition process and a president-elect who seems more interested in looking after his business interests and engaging in amateur television criticism than in staffing the executive branch. He has also begun to walk back some of his key campaign promises; anyone actually expecting Trump to immediately begin mass deportations, build a border wall, or throw Hillary Clinton in jail once he assumes office is about to be very disappointed.

Most scholars agree that the modern presidency rewards preparation. The most successful presidents have prioritized hiring highly competent subordinates who share a common policy agenda, have placed them at key positions of power, and have moved quickly to take advantage of the honeymoon period at the start of a new president's term, when his popularity and political influence are usually at their peak. It is not at all clear that Trump is equipped to begin his term in office two short months from now with the institutional capacity of the executive branch running at full speed.

We are left, then, with the prospect of an ever-widening divide between the growing symbolic power of the presidency in the American popular imagination and the stubborn reality that the president is merely one element of a political system that often resists bending to his will. All presidents have chafed against the limitations of the office, but Trump's combination of rhetorical ambition and practical inattentiveness presents a particular challenge to the new administration. The news media, which has contributed greatly to propagating the myth of the all-powerful presidency, will reliably cover American politics for the next four years almost exclusively through a Trump-centered lens, which will have the effect of further magnifying his failures as well as his successes. If the president cannot even claim control over Congress and the bureaucracy, what are his chances of making us all say Merry Christmas every December?

Friday, November 18, 2016

Princeton Podcast on Asymmetric Politics

Yesterday, Matt Grossmann and I talked with Julian Zelizer and Sam Wang of Princeton University about our new book Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats. You can hear our conversation on the latest edition of their podcast, Politics and Polls.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Podcast Interview

Yesterday I talked to Marc Chavannes of the Dutch podcast The Correspondent about the American elections of 2016. You can listen to our conversation here.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Think Politics Will "Get Back to Normal" After Tuesday? This IS the New Normal!

We've reached the stage of the presidential campaign in which everyone who's either a participant or a close observer has reached a state of complete mental overload. Colleagues, friends, and students have frequently remarked over the past week or two that they are desperate for the election to be over. This is especially true of Clinton supporters of my acquaintance, who nurture (perhaps unrealistic) hope that Trump and Trumpism will face a popular rejection on Tuesday that will expel both the man and his brand of politics from the American party system.

Given everyone's frayed nerves, it seems almost sadistic to suggest that less will change after the election that many might wish. If Trump somehow manages an upset, of course, the fallout will be unprecedented—even more so now that the events of the past few weeks have set Democrats up to view such an outcome as an effective hijacking of American democracy by the Russians and the FBI.

The more likely outcome remains a Clinton victory, though by less-than-landslide proportions. But here, too, the potential for political combustion is enormous. The entire Republican popular base is poised to go ka-BOOM in response to the ascension of President Hillary, and Republican leaders will see no choice but to ratchet up the vehemence of their opposition to a level that will even exceed that of the Obama years. For the duration of his presidency, many Republicans have viewed Obama as an arrogant Marxist incompetent who hates America and all that it stands for; they think all those things of Clinton, too, but add to them the belief that she is also a criminal who belongs in prison. The race among Republican members of the House of Representatives to be the first to file articles of impeachment against her promises to be a competitive one, and the GOP congressional leadership will face considerable pressure to engage in even-more-frequent acts of dramatic—and high-risk—confrontation.

We already know what the biggest fight will be. It hasn't received a great deal of attention in an all-Trump-all-the-time campaign, but the vacancy on the Supreme Court promises to serve as a particularly bloody partisan battlefield once the election is over. If the Republicans hold the Senate, it is likely that they will prevent Clinton from filling the Scalia seat for the entire four years of her term. While this would be an unprecedented act, there is simply no political or ideological incentive for any Republican senator to allow the confirmation of a fifth liberal justice. (Democratic hopes that the blockade of Merrick Garland would prove electorally costly to swing-state Republican senators this year seem to have gone unfulfilled, only increasing the likelihood of indefinite GOP obstruction.)

If the Democrats gain a majority in the Senate, the working assumption is that they will jam Garland, or a replacement Clinton nominee, through the chamber on a party-line vote. This is probably correct, but the political cost and pain involved is underappreciated. Any Democratic majority in the Senate is likely to be very narrow—it could even hinge on the vice president's role as a tiebreaker—and dependent on a few pivotal electorally vulnerable senators from normally Republican states, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

These Democrats will need to join with their more liberal fellow partisans not only to confirm the fifth liberal justice, but to invoke the "nuclear option" preventing a Republican filibuster of the nomination. This involves not changing the formal rules of the Senate—a process that is itself subject to the filibuster—but using a parliamentary point of order, sustained by a simple majority, that the cloture rule does not properly apply to Supreme Court nominations. (The previous use of the nuclear option in 2013 removed the filibuster for lower court candidates but left it intact for the Supreme Court.)

Regardless of what one thinks about the filibuster rule or its increasing use by the Senate minority, removing it by brute partisan force rather than via the normal procedures for modifying chamber rules adds fodder to what will be fierce Republican charges that the whole thing is an illegitimate power grab. If Democrats take majority control in January, they will face the choice of whether to invoke the nuclear option preemptively or wait until Republicans actually filibuster Clinton's Supreme Court nominee. There is some logic to ripping the Band-Aid off quickly, but red-state Democratic senators may prefer to wait for weeks or even months, giving Republicans the opportunity to amply demonstrate their intransigence before "reluctantly" concluding that the nuclear option is an appropriate response.

All of this will play out in an atmosphere of unconstrained partisan-ideological rancor. The stakes are indeed high—the formation of a liberal majority on the Court for the first time in 40 years is understandably unacceptable to pro-Trump and anti-Trump conservatives alike, while simultaneously representing an important potential legacy for a Hillary Clinton presidency that is likely to be prevented by congressional gridlock from enacting its major legislative priorities.

The election next week will resolve some important questions; the difference between the two presidential candidates is in many respects the biggest in living memory, and one will be president while the other one won't. But the acrimonious nature of party politics in the United States may only be reinforced by the outcome on Tuesday. Once the results are in, many Americans will return to their "normal" routine of only intermittent attentiveness to the world of politics. But those who continue to follow the daily march of events cannot count on the end of the campaign to provide a respite from the perpetual partisan battle.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The "Republican Party" Doesn't Make Strategic Decisions—Individual Republicans Do

The 2016 election is still two weeks away, and yet the likely outcome is sufficiently apparent that news media post-mortems are already beginning to appear. Though the Democratic Party is poised to win the presidency for the third consecutive election, elevating the first woman in history to the office in the process, it is the Republican opposition that is gaining most of the attention these days—and will surely continue to do so once the votes have all been counted. Fascination with what appears to be the picturesque final days of the Donald Trump campaign has expanded to the question of what effect Trump's candidacy will have on his party, both in the short and long term, and what steps Republicans will take to address the internal problems of which Trump is arguably more a symptom than a cause.

It's easy to discuss what "the Republican Party" will, or should, do. But no single authority atop the GOP holds the power to make and enforce strategic decisions on its behalf. There are only an array of individual Republicans, from congressional officers and national committeemembers to interest group leaders and media personalities, who may have plenty of good ideas about the proper direction for the party as a whole but who also have their own constituencies to satisfy and their own careers to advance.

Social scientists use the term "collective action problem" to refer to a situation in which a contradiction exists between the aggregate interests of a group of actors and the personal interest of each individual actor. Just as the mice are collectively safer if they can hear the house cat coming but no single mouse is willing to take the risk necessary to bell it, the current Republican Party is awash in tensions between individual and collective political incentives. Here are three recommendations or predictions that media commentators have frequently advanced for the post-election GOP, which are all probably smart in a general strategic sense but don't always recognize the contradictory interests of key individual actors within the party:

1. The Republican Party should "modernize" in order to expand its electoral appeal. If Hillary Clinton defeats Trump in November, giving the Democratic Party its fifth victory in the past seven presidential elections, many Republican political consultants and outside observers will argue that the GOP will need to take visible steps to increase its popular appeal among key demographic subgroups such as racial minorities, single women, and millennial-generation voters. Because the term "moderate" is often anathema to a party that views itself as the vehicle of conservative ideology, these calls for reform are usually promoted as "modernization" or "reinvention" initiatives.

But individual Republican politicians must still worry about winning primary elections dominated by current, not hypothetical, party supporters, while congressional leaders must similarly satisfy their own rank and file before they consider expanding the party's reach to new constituencies. The post-2012 "autopsy report" commissioned by the Republican National Committee was largely ignored by Republican elected officials in part because its recommendations departed sharply from their own individual political incentives—and this divide has only widened further in the ensuing four years. If Republican members of Congress were already reluctant to support comprehensive immigration reform legislation—one frequently-prescribed remedy for the GOP's dire current standing among Latinos—how many will be more enthusiastic to do so after Donald Trump rode deep anti-immigration sentiment to an upset victory in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries?

2. The Republican Party should push back against the conservative media. Trump's nomination represents undeniable evidence of the significant power of conservative media outlets within the party, from Fox News and talk radio to websites like Breitbart (which supplied Trump's current campaign chairman). Critics both within and outside the GOP charge the right-wing media universe with misinforming Republican voters and sowing popular anger against the party's traditional leadership, leaving the party uniquely vulnerable to a Trump takeover and its associated problems. "Want to Save the Republican Party?" asks one recent headline in the Washington Post. "Drain the Right-Wing Media Swamp."

Once again, this is easier said than done. Trump's nomination is not the first piece of evidence suggesting that the increasing influence of the conservative media universe is not always a positive good for the governing health of the Republican Party. But which individual Republican officials are willing to lead the charge against some of their own supporters' most trusted sources of information? Today, whenever a Republican member of Congress criticizes a major conservative media figure, it only takes a day or two before the member of Congress has apologized and pledged eternal devotion to the media personality's wisdom and moral leadership. It's hard to envision many Republican politicians sacrificing their own careers for the cause of putting Sean Hannity in his place.

3. The Republican Party should confirm Merrick Garland in the lame-duck session of Congress. If Clinton wins the presidency and Democrats gain control of the Senate, she will be in a position to fill the Supreme Court seat formerly held by the late Antonin Scalia—assuming that Senate Democrats would respond to any Republican filibuster by invoking the "nuclear option" to disallow filibusters of Supreme Court nominees. For this reason, some commentators have suggested—and even predicted—that the current Republican-controlled Senate should or would confirm Barack Obama's choice, Merrick Garland, rather than risk a less palatable nominee replacing Scalia once Clinton takes office.

It's easy to see the logic for this maneuver from the perspective of the Court's composition. Garland has a fairly moderate reputation as a jurist; he is also about to turn 64. If the Senate continues its blockade of Garland's nomination, a future President Clinton could withdraw it in favor of a younger and more left-wing justice, making Stephen Breyer rather than Garland the swing vote on the Court and increasing the probability of a long-term liberal majority.

But Republican senators are not worried about the Court as much as they are about themselves. Confirming Garland after the election would require majority leader Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Committee chair Chuck Grassley to schedule hearings and a vote on Garland. At least 14 Republican senators would need to vote for cloture (in order to defeat a certain filibuster that would likely represent the first phase of the 2020 Ted Cruz for President campaign) and at least 4 would need to vote in favor of Garland on the floor (or at least abstain from voting). And all of this behavior would be in service of elevating a left-of-center justice to the Court who was nominated by Obama, ending four decades of conservative judicial ascendancy.

Sophisticated conservative intellectuals might understand that such a move was motivated by the goal of avoiding the chance of an even less acceptable hypothetical outcome, but Republican senators would probably be much less confident that their party's primary voters would grasp the strategic calculation at work. For them, the easy choice is to keep Garland bottled up until January and let the Democrats do what they will in the new session of Congress, even if this inaction results in a more liberal Court. And this logic applies more broadly to nearly all of the considerations that arise when discussing the issue of "where the Republican Party goes from here." The Republican Party will collectively go wherever individual Republicans go—which is likely to be, for better or worse, wherever their own personal interests take them.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Post-Debates Recap: Is 2016 An Exception Or the New Normal?

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton engaged in the final scheduled debate last night, passing a milepost marking the home stretch of the campaign. The overall dynamics and candidate strategy on display last night closely resembled those of the first two debates. Clinton was once again well-prepped and bent on goading Trump into counterproductive responses on his main points of vulnerability. Trump was once again extemporaneous and free-associative, focusing on broad themes instead of policy details.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump has been badly hurt by the debates. On September 26, the day of the first debate, the FiveThirtyEight model estimated that Clinton was leading Trump by 46 percent to 45 percent in the national popular vote and by 278 to 260 in the electoral vote, with just a 55 percent projected chance of winning the election. Today, Clinton is estimated to hold a lead of 50 percent to 43 percent in the popular vote and 343 to 194 in the electoral vote, adding up to an 87 percent chance of victory on November 8.

This shift no doubt partially reflects other developments that have occurred over the period that the debates were held—especially the Billy Bush tape and subsequent accusations against Trump. And Clinton was already the favorite to win the race even before they occurred. But I think the bulk of the evidence points toward the debates having a significant independent effect on the relative standing of the candidates, especially because they generated negative news coverage of Trump that persisted for days after the events themselves. Trump's refusal last night to commit to respecting the outcome of the election is likewise poised to dominate this week's coverage—to his further disadvantage—which means that the debates may continue to hurt his chances further over the next several days.

If true, the power of the debates to shift public opinion is another way in which the 2016 election departs from the usual pattern. Though debates receive a lot of attention every year, and media figures always spend a lot of time explaining which candidate "won" each face-off, previous research had concluded that the effects of debate performances on the horse race tended to be quite temporary when they existed at all. If Clinton winds up winning the election by a margin comparable to her current lead, we may regard the debates in retrospect as significant events in the trajectory of the race.

Political scientists have taken our share of lumps this election from our critics, largely because most of us didn't expect the Republican Party to nominate Trump (a conclusion which, to be fair, we were hardly alone in reaching). One recurrent point of difference between political science and popular media is that many journalists and pundits tend to interpret electoral outcomes as mostly reflecting the different personalities and strategies of the candidates, while political scientists more commonly emphasize the role of fundamental factors like partisanship and economic performance in shaping the choices of voters. (This view is sometimes caricatured as a belief that "campaigns don't matter," which no political scientist I know has ever claimed.)

If the debates are revealed to be a major factor in determining the vote margin in the 2016 election, however, it's fair to point out that campaign effects turned out to be bigger than some of us assumed. When analysis built on investigation of previous elections fails to hold in a new case, there are three possible explanations:

1. The analysis was flawed even when applied to previous cases.

2. The analysis was sound in the past, but the current case doesn't fit because the world has changed—and future cases will resemble the current case more than past cases.

3. The analysis was sound in the past and will be again in the future, but the current case represents a temporary deviation from the long-term norm.

Our least charitable critics will probably argue that (1) is likely to be true—we just don't know what we're talking about and never did. But as even they must acknowledge, there's plenty of reason to believe that this particular election is just different from previous elections, with Trump's nomination either a cause or a symptom of this difference.

We can even come up with very plausible hypotheses about why the debates would matter more for a candidate like Trump than a candidate like Mitt Romney or John McCain: perhaps voters had less confidence in Trump's ability to do the job of president, rendering a substandard debate performance all the more damaging to his chances. Or maybe the press coverage of Trump has been much more negative than previous candidates over the same period. Alternatively, though it's tempting to rely on a Trump-centric explanation to account for everything that's distinctive about this election, maybe the debates mattered more because of something unique about Hillary Clinton. Perhaps her relatively strong debate performances helped her consolidate the support of younger voters and independents who never liked Trump but preferred Bernie Sanders to Clinton and were won over once the debates focused their attention on the choice before them this November.

The bigger challenge is to distinguish condition (2) from condition (3). In the heat of a campaign's final weeks, when it's very hard to step back and gain a broader perspective, we often assume that the current state of the world will pertain indefinitely into the future—for example, that Trump's particular brand of politics is here to stay in the Republican Party even if he loses the election. Sometimes that's right, but sometimes we're simply in the midst of a temporary departure from the usual order of things. Until we are able to gain the benefit of experience—or, as political scientists might put it, more data—we won't know for sure how much of what's extraordinary about the 2016 election is merely a product of the moment, and how much is a foreshadowing of the new normal.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Paul Ryan's Job Just Keeps Getting Harder

The luck of the Irish is not smiling on Paul Ryan. Last week, I noted that the probable loss of Donald Trump in the presidential race has placed Ryan in an increasingly precarious position. If Hillary Clinton is the next president and the Democrats gain control of the Senate, responsibility for leading the partisan opposition will fall to Ryan (assuming that he remains speaker of the House). Ryan will then face the challenge of negotiating regular bipartisan agreements with Clinton and Senate Democrats to fund the government and increase the national debt ceiling while simultaneously avoiding threats to his leadership from the hard-liners in the House Freedom Caucus—a difficult task that his predecessor John Boehner ultimately found impossible to achieve.

Unfortunately for Ryan, things just keep getting worse by the day:

1. Trump's position in the polls continues to slide in the wake of the well-publicized assault charges against him. A few surveys released yesterday even suggested that the margin between Clinton and Trump in the national popular vote is flirting with double digits, while the Clinton campaign hinted at a tactical offensive into a few traditionally red states that amounts to a declaration of victory three weeks before Election Day. This decline doesn't have much of an effect on Trump's already-slim chances of winning, but it does increase the likelihood of significant Republican losses in House elections that could leave any future majority with a very narrow margin of control—further enhancing the leverage of the Freedom Caucus over Ryan's speakership.

2. Trump has taken to repeatedly attacking Ryan personally for distancing himself from the presidential ticket, even accusing Ryan of hoping for a Trump defeat so that he could run for president himself in 2020. Ryan might not care too much about what Trump personally thinks of him, but it doesn't help his own future standing in the Republican Party to be charged with disloyalty to the GOP's presidential standard-bearer.

3. Trump's increasingly vociferous claims that a "rigged" electoral system is poised to deny him the presidency suggest that he, or at the very least many of his supporters, will not accept the legitimacy of a Clinton victory in November—which would in turn lead to demands on Republican elected officials to demonstrate their own thorough rejection of the new president. With 84 percent of Trump supporters in Florida—presumably representative of the national party—agreeing that Clinton should be in jail, it's near-certain that some conservatives will pressure Ryan and other Republican congressional leaders to initiate impeachment proceedings against a future President Clinton just as they did for the last President Clinton. Ryan is unlikely to view impeachment as a smart political move, but resisting it may not be a costless act for him within the GOP.

The Republican base is poised for a volcanic eruption if Clinton wins this election, and it will be difficult for Ryan to avoid sustaining some of the damage. Ryan has already signaled that he will respond to a second Clinton presidency by attempting to recalibrate the grounds of Republican opposition, exchanging Trumpist ultra-nationalism for more intellectually-styled lines of attack that paint Clinton as a big-government leftist who is hostile to individual liberty. But it will be difficult for Ryan to lead any larger reform effort within the GOP that successfully marginalizes the party's rightmost fringe given his own growing political vulnerability. As things stand now, he'll need a little luck just to keep his current job for the next four years.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Sky Is Blue, the Pope Is Catholic, and Evan McMullin Will Not Become President

The American founders' creation of the electoral college as our nation's unique mechanism of presidential selection offers the understandable temptation to cleverly game out odd little scenarios based on its various idiosyncrasies. Benjamin Morris of FiveThirtyEight proposes one today which, he says, could result in neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump assuming the presidency next January, but instead a little-known candidate named Evan McMullin.

If you haven't heard of McMullin, he's a former Republican congressional aide who's running for president as an anti-Trump conservative. McMullin doesn't have much of a campaign—he's only listed on the ballot in 11 states worth a total of 84 electoral votes—but two new polls show him winning about 20 percent of the popular vote in Utah. (That Utah seems to be his best state by far is not a surprise; Trump is particularly unpopular among Mormons, who are usually staunch Republican voters, and McMullin is a Mormon himself.) In one of the polls, McMullin is actually running only four points behind both Clinton and Trump, who are tied with 26 percent apiece.

As Morris envisions it, the chain of events leading to a McMullin administration begin with our hero placing first in Utah and winning its 6 electoral votes. Then, the other 49 states (plus D.C.) would need to be divided closely enough between Clinton and Trump that neither major-party candidate collects the 270 votes necessary to win a national majority in the electoral college. The resolution of the election would then be thrown to the House of Representatives, as the Constitution provides in such circumstances; the House must choose from among the top three finishers, and each state delegation receives one collective vote regardless of size. Morris suggests that enough House Republicans would prefer McMullin to Trump that he could prevail over the GOP's official nominee in such an eventuality.

One problem with this analysis is that it's very hard to envision McMullin winning Utah under any circumstances that don't also provide Clinton with an overall majority in the electoral college. Trump would simultaneously need to collapse in Utah—where even the more McMullin-friendly poll shows him four points ahead of McMullin, and the other poll has him up by 14—while regaining his electoral standing in must-win states like Florida and North Carolina where he's currently trailing the Democratic ticket. It's hard to imagine what turn of events would produce such a strong geographic divergence in Trump's popular appeal between now and Election Day, especially since third-party candidates usually perform less well in the actual voting returns than they do in pre-election polls.

But the even more fanciful component of this scenario is the prospect of a Republican Congress blocking Trump from assuming the presidency in favor of McMullin. Such a decision would arguably represent the biggest partisan defection in the history of American politics. Given the palpable fear with which the vast majority of Republican politicians now regard their party's voters, such a revolt against the duly chosen nominee would be completely out of character for today's Republican leaders—and, in all probability, would constitute career suicide for all involved. (One can easily foresee the revenge that Trump himself would attempt to exert on House members who abandoned him in this way, with the likely support of conservative media figures and a Republican primary electorate irate about such an "undemocratic" maneuver.)

The Trump candidacy has evoked a very unusual, though understandable, response in many political analysts. Put simply, they still can't quite believe that Republicans really want Trump to be president of the United States, and therefore half-expect the party to grasp any opportunity to shove him aside. But any prediction requiring Republican politicians to nervily stand up to their own voters is especially unrealistic in the current political environment. Unless Hillary Clinton wins 270 electoral votes on November 8, expect President Trump to be sworn in on January 20.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Why Paul Ryan's In More Trouble Than Mitch McConnell

The events of the past two weeks have taken a lot of the suspense out of the outcome of the presidential race, unless you're the kind of person who is fascinated by the question of whether normally "red" states like Arizona and Georgia will actually flip into the Democratic column this year. (Full disclosure: I am that kind of person.) Comebacks are possible in politics, but the Trump campaign seems particularly ill-equipped to make one—especially with damaging revelations and counterproductive strategies emerging on what now seems like an hourly basis.

A decisive Republican loss in the presidential contest would probably be accompanied by a switch in party control of the Senate. All but one of the competitive Senate races this year are for seats now held by Republican incumbents, and a net change of four seats would be sufficient to produce a Democratic majority in the event of a Hillary Clinton victory (since the vice president would break a 50-50 tie). Most Republican Senate candidates are likely to outrun Donald Trump in their home states, but GOP nominees in electoral battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and New Hampshire will find it difficult to attract enough crossover support from Clinton voters to prevail over a national Democratic wave, should it appear. If Trump demoralizes enough of his own party's supporters that Republican turnout falls across the nation, Democrats could wind up winning a near-sweep of the key Senate races.

Compared to the Senate, Republican prospects in the House look considerably brighter. It's difficult to know exactly how vulnerable the Republican House majority is in the wake of Trump's latest problems; we suffer from a lack of good survey data on congressional races (media polling budgets are getting tighter, and the presidential race has consumed virtually all of the attention this year). But Republicans have the twin advantages of a structural edge in the configuration of House districts and a superior crop of candidates compared to Democrats, who failed to recruit a large number of high-quality challengers. A pro-Democratic electoral tide would need to be quite massive indeed to flip the 30 seats necessary to shift party control of the House.

And yet Paul Ryan is in a much tougher position, politically speaking, than Mitch McConnell.

Even if the House GOP ultimately retains its majority, the party's likely margin of control narrows by the day with each new Trump mishap. Ryan is already operating with little room for error, as he is situated between the hard-line House Freedom Caucus on one side and the opposition Democrats on the other. A Democratic victory in the presidential race would mean that Ryan would, like his predecessor John Boehner, need to cut bipartisan deals in order to fund the government—which would inevitably leave him open, as Boehner was, to criticism from party purists that he did not sufficiently defend conservative principles. The fact that the new Democratic president would be a figure uniquely loathed on the popular right—especially after a presidential campaign in which the Republican opposition characterized her as a literal criminal—further threatens Ryan's ability to hold off such attacks.

Boehner's departure from the speakership last year was prompted by the unique constitutional requirement that the Speaker be elected by a majority vote of the full House, which gives any dissident faction of the majority party tremendous procedural leverage. Even if Ryan were able to win an initial vote for Speaker this coming January, he would serve under a constant threat of defenestration from an purist right motivated by fierce antipathy to Hillary Clinton and to any Republican who faces her with less than total opposition.

By comparison, McConnell has it easy. To be sure, he is more likely than Ryan to lose his governing majority in this election. But if the worst happens, he will slip smoothly back into his role as minority leader, leading filibusters against Democratic legislation and waiting for the 2018 midterms, which will provide Senate Republicans with a very favorable set of vulnerable Democratic seats.

Ryan was famously reluctant to seek the speakership upon Boehner's resignation. When he was finally prevailed upon to do so, he probably assumed that there was a fairly good chance of a Republican presidential victory in 2016—which would both hand him an opportunity to implement his national policy agenda and relieve him of responsibility for leading the opposition to a Democratic administration.

Today, those hopes have faded away entirely. Ryan as much as conceded the presidential race in a conference call with House Republicans earlier this week, telling them to do whatever they needed to do in order to save their own seats. Even that admission earned him some blowback from conservative purists within his own caucus—a preview of what may turn out to be an even uglier conflict within the Republican Party if Trump goes down to defeat. If Ryan is handed a narrow majority on November 8 along with four guaranteed years of a Democratic president, he will need to draw upon all his political acumen in order to prevent suffering the same fate as John Boehner.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Informational Divide in American Party Politics

Democrats and Republicans not only disagree about which public policies are desirable, but increasingly differ as well over which sources of information are reliable—and, therefore, which facts are really facts. It's hard to understand Donald Trump's rise without noting conservative citizens' increasing rejection of the power of scholarly experts and the "mainstream media" to determine what is and is not true. Today, Matt Grossmann and I write in Inside Higher Ed about "how information became ideological"—and the particular challenge that this trend poses to the traditional role of universities as intellectual authorities seeking to inform policy debates.

Monday, October 10, 2016

2nd Debate Recap: Back to the Tape

I wrote earlier that Donald Trump's real audience tonight was the press and other Republican politicians more than the voters. On this score, Trump probably emerged from the debate having preserved, but not necessarily improved, his current standing. The general media consensus seems to be that Trump, even if he did not "win" the debate outright, performed better than he had last time. He at least avoided any kind of immediately embarrassing gaffe or line-crossing in the eyes of the press that would be a candidate for constant TV replay and/or viral video status over the next week.

At the same time, the debate failed to produce a sufficiently memorable positive story for Trump that would be likely to divert attention for very long from his remarks on the Access Hollywood bus, which will probably continue to dominate media coverage and political chatter over the following days. Most debates, despite their extensive advance hype, tend to soon fade into history without pushing the race very far in either direction, and the emergence of other, more fascinating developments over the weekend may hasten this pattern in the present case.

We can probably conclude from Hillary Clinton's fairly unmemorable performance that her campaign wouldn't mind if people spend the next week talking about the Trump tape rather than the debate. Clinton was well-drilled as always, but she lacked some of the prefabricated attack lines that she had brought to the first event. Even her response to the subject of the tape was less impassioned than it could have been, which suggests that she has adopted the front-runner's traditional strategy of staying out of the way of the opposition as the clock runs down.

Van Jones of CNN advanced the theory that Trump's good-enough performance was actually the worst-case scenario for Republicans, because a total meltdown would have prompted them to dump Trump from the ticket and replace him with a stronger candidate. But Trump can't actually be dumped—people are already voting in some states—and the Republicans are stuck with him as their official nominee for the duration. Whether or not Republican leaders renounce him or deny his campaign the resources of the Republican National Committee will not be affected by his debate performance Sunday night, but rather will be determined by the fallout of the Access Hollywood tape—and the natural question of whether any more damaging revelations still await us.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Trump's Audience Tonight: Other Republicans & the Media

Tonight's presidential debate employs a "town hall" format, in which candidates take questions from undecided voters in attendance as well as the moderators. But we shouldn't think of the most important audience as the mass public at large. For this debate, the people who will decide the winner are not the average citizens watching in the hall or at home but rather the partisan and media authorities who will determine in the wake of tonight's event whether Donald Trump's campaign is salvageable.

Trump is now in a precarious position. His problem is not only that he has become very likely to lose the presidential race to Clinton but that he is also being judged as toxic to the political fortunes of the larger Republican Party, both on the ballot this November and thereafter. Several Republican congressional candidates in highly competitive races have already distanced themselves from Trump this weekend. But many more party leaders are still nominally Trump supporters, even if they seldom spend much time talking about him.

If the news media collectively decide that Trump has had a poor debate tonight—especially if he is seen as failing to effectively address his Access Hollywood comments—Republican politicians won't wait around until all the polls are in before renouncing him. We can then expect even more denunciations and declarations of non-support in the hours and days after the debate, almost assuring that Trump is damaged further in the eyes of the public as open conflict erupts between the Trump campaign and a growing faction of Republican critics.

A normal presidential candidate would grasp this political reality. He or she would engage in extensive pre-debate preparations with an eye toward reassuring Republican leaders and ensuring that media expectations for a debate performance would be met or exceeded. But Trump is not a normal candidate with normal calculations, and we therefore do not have any particular reason to believe that his behavior tonight will have either the intention or the effect of impressing elite observers in the party or the press. We also have good reason to expect that Hillary Clinton will walk into the debate with the goal of further baiting Trump into sabotaging himself in front of this key audience, putting other Republicans in the awkward position of having to choose sides between Trump's strong supporters and the increasingly anti-Trump larger electorate.

Trump is a man who is capable of surprise, so it's possible that the debate will proceed in an unexpected direction. But regardless of what he says and does tonight, the people whom he needs to impress the most are not regular voters but rather the politicians and media figures who are currently preparing a death watch around his candidacy. We'll know by tomorrow how many defenders Trump has left within the ranks of his own party, and thus whether Trump still stands a chance of avoiding a disastrous final few weeks before the election.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Trump: So Now What?

A few points on the unfolding drama:

1. The virtually unanimous opinion of the news media is that Trump has suffered catastrophic damage due to the release of the Access Hollywood tape. This may well be correct! But media interpretations of breaking news events like this are much more likely to overstate than understate their ultimate importance. Even Mitt Romney's "47 percent" comments in 2012 did not actually change many voters' minds, despite confident media assertions to the contrary. There's nothing wrong with waiting until we see some evidence of the electorate's response to this development before we draw conclusions about the extent of the damage done.

2. This doesn't mean that there won't be any damage. Trump was already losing the election, and in fact was already sliding in the polls relative to Hillary Clinton, before this story broke. Even if no current Trump supporters defect from his candidacy as a result of the latest revelations, he is in the position of needing to win over some voters who are currently undecided or supporting another candidate. That task becomes even harder now, and every day that passes without good news for Trump is itself bad news for Trump.

3. There's a lot of chatter about the possibility of Trump being replaced as the Republican candidate, perhaps with his running mate Mike Pence. Several Republican officeholders have expressed a preference for such a maneuver, while a friend told me last night that some of her liberal acquaintances were worried about a GOP switcheroo that could allow the party to escape its Trump problem unscathed. But this is a highly improbable scenario for a variety of reasons, and proposing it allows prominent Republicans to indulge in wishful thinking while sidestepping the question of whether they will in fact continue to back Trump against Hillary Clinton if he remains the party's nominee. (Given Pence's support of Trump, it's hard to argue that the party would be able to shed the Trump association even if Trump himself were to be jettisoned somehow.)

4. Most top Republicans will conclude this weekend that Trump himself is toast and that focus must shift to protecting the Republican majorities in Congress. But this is more complicated than it looks. In "blue" and "purple" states and congressional districts where Clinton is favored to win, individual Republican candidates are likely to renounce Trump (following the lead of New Hampshire senator Kelly Ayotte and Nevada senate candidate Joe Heck, who did so today). These candidates need some support from Clinton voters to be elected themselves, and they don't want to spend the final weeks of the campaign defending Trump's behavior.

But other Republican leaders may worry that a full-scale rejection of Trump by the national party will depress turnout across the board, bringing normally Republican-leaning constituencies into play. This would be a nightmare scenario for control of the House in particular, which Democrats can only win by making inroads into habitually "red" districts. For Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, the solution may be to retain a degree of ambiguity on Trump himself while stressing the unacceptability of Hillary Clinton, especially a potential President Hillary Clinton who is unencumbered by a Republican Congress. It is quite possible that even reduced Republican enthusiasm for Trump himself will not translate into a significant dropoff in Republican turnout simply because party supporters can still be mobilized to vote against Clinton and the rest of the Democratic ticket.

5. It's also important to remember that the time horizons of Republican politicians extend beyond November 2016. The ascension of Hillary Clinton to the presidency, if it occurs, will spark a combustion on the American right that will probably exceed the conservative backlash against the elections of Obama in 2008 and Bill Clinton in 1992, which in both cases resulted in purges within the GOP. Republican leaders who already view their party's popular base with a mix of puzzlement and fear will very much wish to avoid attracting blame for perceived complicity in a Hillary Clinton election, which is why Ted Cruz gave in to conservative pressure and endorsed Trump in late September after months of holding out. As Republicans consider how best to handle the latest Trump news, they will seek to avoid leaving themselves vulnerable to charges from fellow partisans that they cared more about "political correctness" than the (supposed) looming national catastrophe of another Clinton in the White House.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

VP Debate Recap: Some Things We Learned Last Night

1. Pence's performance demonstrated that the Trump campaign is in fact capable of supplying adequate preparation for a candidate in advance of a debate. This suggests that Trump's more off-the-cuff style in the first presidential debate reflects his own strategic decisions more than the capacity of his campaign staff.

2. Tim Kaine walked into the debate with a well-rehearsed strategy to attack Donald Trump on three main points: his tax returns; his remarks about women, racial minorities, and immigrants; and his attitude towards Russia and Vladimir Putin. Over and over, Kaine attempted to return the discussion to one of these topics, repeating some of the same charges verbatim to Pence's growing exasperation (near the end of the debate, as Kaine mentioned Trump's negative characterization of Mexican immigrants for the nth time, Pence complained to Kaine that "you whipped out that Mexican thing again!"). Pence's equally clear and consistent strategy was to deflect attacks on Trump by flatly denying their validity and even truthfulness without litigating the point more extensively.

3. The result was a fairly unedifying event with an odd energy and rhythm to it. Kaine's hyper-aggressive demeanor seemed likely to play less well in the eyes of the news media—and, perhaps, the viewers—than Pence's cooler style. At the same time, Kaine succeeded in making Trump the major topic of discussion, repeatedly forcing Pence into the position of either defending Trump or letting Kaine's attacks go unanswered. If Pence had hoped to turn the debate into an extensive examination of Clinton's own political vulnerabilities, his opportunity to do so was limited by Kaine's approach, which seemed designed to motivate the party base, play for a tie, and avoid taking a big risk at this stage of the race.

4. At times, viewers could catch a glimpse of what the 2016 campaign might have looked like had someone other than Trump won the Republican nomination. Pence lobbed a few attacks in the direction of the Obama administration on the subjects of the economy, terrorism, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Affordable Care Act, attempting to frame the race as a familiar "change-versus-more-of-the-same" referendum on the incumbent presidency. One could have imagined a Democratic response that in turn attempted to turn the election into a proxy battle over whether Obama was, despite his failures, still a better president than his Republican predecessor George W. Bush. But Trump has a way of shifting attention in his direction, and even the positive media evaluations of Pence's performance have been accompanied by discussions of whether Trump will be satisfied with his running mate's efforts at defending him or even will resent being outperformed by his own vice presidential pick. For better or worse, Trump appears likely to once again dominate media coverage in the aftermath of a debate—even though he wasn't even present this time.

Monday, October 03, 2016

It's Not Just Millennials: Third Party Candidates Always Do Better With Young Voters

Over the last few weeks, reporters have published a number of stories about the struggles that Hillary Clinton has faced in convincing millennial-generation voters to support her over third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. The Clinton campaign has recently taken steps to rectify this apparent problem, such as booking their candidate to appear on the Zach Galifianakis talk show parody "Between Two Ferns" while enlisting Bernie Sanders, who carried the under-30 vote in the Democratic primaries by a nearly 4-to-1 margin, to stump on her behalf.

Age-group differences in electoral preferences always invite analysis that generalizes about generations. These stories repeatedly portray millennials as distinctive in their political idealism, their dissatisfaction with the political system, and their view of the two major parties (and their leaders) as fatally compromised and corrupted. Older Americans who are already prone to view the millennial generation as uniquely naive, self-involved, and politically unsophisticated can find plenty of fodder for such negative impressions from anecdotal accounts of 20-somethings who speak of voting as an opportunity for personal performances of authenticity rather than as a means of influencing the policy direction of the government, and some Democratic supporters (a fairly panicky bunch by nature) seem poised to blame millennials for a Trump victory, if it occurs, lecturing voters who are too young to remember about Ralph Nader's role in spoiling Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.

Before we get carried away with chewing over the supposedly distinctive attributes of millennials (an exercise that has a 90% chance of ending up in a hazily-informed debate over the deficiencies of Snapchat and/or Lena Dunham), it's worth pointing out that third-party candidates always run better among younger voters, regardless of the era. Nader was more popular among the youngest cohort of voters in 2000 (today's 30- and 40-somethings), Ross Perot's candidacies in the 1990s drew especially well from the young of that time (today's 40- and 50-somethings), and John Anderson's independent campaign in 1980 was also more successful among the then-young (now deep into middle age) than the then-old (now mostly departed from the earthly realm).

George Wallace, the former Alabama governor who ran for president in 1968 on a racial segregationist platform, might seem like an unlikely candidate to inspire a youth brigade, but even Wallace ran a bit better among younger than older voters. The chart below compares the performance of major third-party candidates among young (under the age of 30) and old (over 50 for 1968 and 1980; over 60 otherwise) voters, based on exit polls (1992 and after) and pre-election Gallup surveys (for 1968 and 1980):

It is clear that candidates outside the two-party system enjoy a particular appeal among young voters regardless of their specific generation. Younger voters are consistently less invested in the two-party system, more open to large-scale political change, and less strategic in their political choices. They also frequently have yet to experience politics under the rule of both parties (at least as attentive adults) and, in part for this reason, tend not to perceive large differences between the major parties as reliably as older voters with longer memories (and more grievances).

Hillary Clinton does not inspire the same level of support among today's younger voters as Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012, leaving open the possibility of large-scale third-party defection that could possibly endanger her chances. It's likely that the Clinton campaign will place a particular emphasis on young-voter outreach between now and November, hoping to convince skeptics among the rising generation that she is, if not a thoroughly inspiring choice, still preferable to the alternative. This message may ultimately find some resonance. The third-party vote usually declines in the final tally from its pre-election levels as voters return to the major party nominees—and while millennials don't particularly like Clinton, they really don't like Donald Trump.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Interview With Me About Asymmetric Politics

I recently spoke with Sean Hennessey of the Boston College Office of News & Public Affairs about Asymmetric Politics, my new book with Matt Grossmann about the key differences between the two major parties. An edited transcript of our conversation is posted here on the BC website.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Debate Recap: Some Things We Learned Last Night

1. The two candidates are in some ways representative personifications of their parties. Matt Grossmann and I have a post up at the Monkey Cage today looking at the debate through the lens of Asymmetric Politics. Like a typical Democrat, Clinton emphasized specific policies, while Donald Trump's preference for broader rhetorical themes fell in line with the pattern of previous Republican candidates.

2. It is important to undergo thorough pre-debate preparation and practice in order to deliver a performance that will be judged satisfactory by the news media. The rules—both official and unofficial—of these events give a decisive advantage to candidates who have memorized pointed and pithy responses to likely topics and questions, who strategically seek to draw their opponents into discussions of unfavorable subjects, and who project an image of good-humored unflappability throughout. This was the lesson of the first Obama-Romney debate in 2012, and it was reinforced again last night. Unlike Clinton, Trump exhibited no sign of having prepared for the debate in any systematic way, which affected the crispness and intelligibility of his own responses as well as his ability to defend himself and counterattack in exchanges with Clinton.

3. With that said, it is worth considering more explicitly how much the debates should properly influence voters' impressions of the candidates. If the difference between a "good" and "bad" performance is primarily a function of how disciplined a candidate is in subjecting him- or herself to the generally annoying task of debate prep, rather than an indicator of substantive command of policy, personal character, or other attributes, are we judging debate participants on grounds that have much to do with their actual responsibilities in office?

4. For the past several weeks, there has been something of an offensive among Democrats, especially noticeable on Twitter, against the prevailing media coverage of the campaign. Democratic complaints have included what they view as insufficient coverage of dishonest behavior by Trump, ineffective or absent media "fact-checking" of Trump's public claims, and excessive media preoccupation with Clinton's email practices and the activity of the Clinton Foundation. These critiques reached a peak after the September 7 candidate forum hosted by Matt Lauer, who was accused by Democrats of being tougher on Clinton than Trump, and evolved into an open discussion over the past several days about whether it would be proper for a debate moderator to challenge or correct factual misstatements by candidates. (Not irrelevant to the partisan dimension of this subject is moderator Candy Crowley's decision to "fact-check" Mitt Romney's claims about Benghazi in the 2012 town hall debate, which Democrats and Republicans alike commonly view in retrospect as a turning point in the election.)

It seems likely that these complaints, whether they represent sincere advocacy of media responsibility, cynical working of the referees, or a bit of both, had some effect on Lester Holt's performance last night. Holt moderated with a light touch, but he did explicitly dispute Trump's claim of consistent opposition to the Iraq War, and his line of questioning included a few tough personal challenges of Trump (most notably on the subject of "birtherism" and Trump's claim that Clinton lacked a "presidential look"). When combined with recent media coverage that devotes more attention to examples of Trump's dishonesty, it's hard to escape the conclusion that Democrats have partially succeeded in convincing journalists on this point.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Why Do Debate "Expectations" Matter?

Now that the presidential debates are almost upon us, the campaigns have begun to observe the equally well-established tradition of "expectations management." Candidates know that political commentators tend to judge each nominee's debate performance against a benchmark of prior expectations that have been set by general media consensus. A candidate may out-debate his or her rival in an objective sense yet still receive negative publicity by failing to match elevated expectations. Putting the most points on the scoreboard, in other words, is rewarded less than covering the spread.

As the debates approach, candidates who spend the rest of the year attacking each other as incompetent, out of touch, and a potential threat to the very survival of the republic suddenly flatter the opposition with compliments that are amusingly exaggerated in their insincerity, attempting to raise expectations for the other side while simultaneously lowering their own. Last time around, Mitt Romney's campaign temporarily paused its repeated denunciations of Barack Obama's "you didn't build that" remark to describe Obama as "one of the most talented political communicators in modern history." In 2000, George W. Bush's aides repeatedly characterized Al Gore as a "world-class debater" while conspicuously worrying to reporters that their own candidate might well be humiliated on the national stage. Eight years before, Bill Clinton's campaign had praised Bush's father as "the most experienced debater since Abraham Lincoln." When Clinton ran for reelection in 1996, one spokesman for Bob Dole reached even farther back through the ages for a comparison, referring to the incumbent as "the greatest debater since the days of the Roman Senate." It is hardly a shock that the most prominent pro-Trump website has suddenly developed a newfound appreciation for Hillary Clinton's debating skills.

The role of expectations in framing press evaluations of presidential debates is sufficiently familiar that we are now regularly subjected to meta-analyses of the "expectations game" in which members of the media evaluate how well the campaigns are manipulating the media. Less commonly discussed, however, is why this practice developed in the first place, or what keeps it intact from one election to the next. How did "expectations" become the primary metric by which candidates are judged?

One reason stems from the media's instinct to recalibrate comparisons between candidates so that each party has an equal shot at achieving success. Because incumbent presidents and other political veterans are widely assumed to enjoy an inherent debating advantage over less experienced opponents, holding them to a higher standard of performance can seem like a fair leveling of the field. Critics charge that this devotion to "balanced coverage" may obscure the existence of imbalance in reality; as we explain in Asymmetric Politics, the common practice of (incorrectly) portraying the two major parties as simple mirror images of each other partially reflects media norms that encourage "same-on-both-sides" analysis.

Secondly, giving the underdog a decent shot at exceeding expectations and thus "winning" the debate helps to fuel a strong media thirst for a thrilling roller coaster of a campaign boasting frequent novel developments and one apparently game-changing plot twist after another. Unlike regular voters, who may well be hearing the candidates speak at length for the first time during the debates, most pundits have long since become bored with both nominees' rehearsed rhetoric and consultant-approved talking points. Journalists appreciate the appeal of a big story—and isn't a surprise winner more interesting than a predictable winner, even if we need to grade on a curve to produce one?

Finally, insistence upon measuring candidate performance against a backdrop of expectations gives the press a central, and even crucial, role in the process. It is the media that set the expectations for the two candidates in the first place, so only the media can determine which candidate did or did not meet them. Hours of post-debate analysis on television, and endless corresponding stories on the internet, are thus devoted to the task of explaining to the American public who won and why.

As viewers of debate coverage in past elections no doubt recall, these judgments are seldom based on substantive matters. Body language, emotional disposition, tone of voice, recitation of prepared one-liners, and similar behavior seem to weigh more heavily than candidates' command of the facts or effective explanation of favored policies. Presidential debates are often treated in advance as uniquely precious national exercises in sober civic deliberation. Afterwards, however, they are mostly reviewed by the critics in the press box as if they were any other television performance—and who among us hasn't occasionally concluded as the credits rolled that an actor on a TV show we just watched might not have been great, but was at least more entertaining than we thought he or she would be?