Friday, July 29, 2016

In Philadelphia, the Democrats Define Their Coalition

For as long as I can remember, the two parties have each tended to rely on a favorite theme when attacking each other: the Republicans accuse the Democrats of adhering to an extreme ideology, while the Democrats accuse the Republicans of supporting extreme policies. As Matt Grossmann and I explain in our forthcoming book, there are good strategic reasons for each side to adopt its favored strategy; most Americans lean to the political right in general terms but hold left-of-center views on specific issues, so politicians respond by attempting to shift the public debate of the campaign onto turf that favors their own partisan interest.

Four years ago, the party conventions followed this pattern closely. The Republicans spent an entire evening at their 2012 convention in Tampa portraying Barack Obama as a big-government collectivist who was instinctively hostile to the private sector and individual entrepreneurship. The best-received speech of the Democratic convention in Charlotte, Bill Clinton's "explainer-in-chief" address nominating Barack Obama for a second presidential term, methodically criticized Romney's positions on a number of specific policy questions as unacceptably hostile to the interests of ordinary Americans.

But the events of 2016 have prompted both sides to rewrite their playbooks a little. There was still a fair amount of traditional conservative rhetoric at the Republican convention last week—particularly visible in the speeches of Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and vice presidential nominee Mike Pence—but Donald Trump's acceptance address, like his campaign up to this point, relied on themes of American nationalism more than the limited-government principles ordinarily emphasized by Republican candidates, and his chief line of attack against the Democratic opposition was not that it was excessively liberal in a philosophical sense but that it was unacceptably permissive in the face of terrorism and lawlessness. Republican criticisms of Hillary Clinton, while numerous, primarily focused on the topics of the events in Benghazi and her private email server, and thus questioned her honesty, competence, and devotion to American interests more than her supposed leftism.

For Democrats, Trump's nomination presented its own novel challenge. As usual, the party's national convention this week promoted its own extensive set of policy positions, but Democrats' normal practice of characterizing Republican policies as extreme by comparison was frustrated by the fact that Trump, though he has expressed support for nearly all of the usual Republican domestic policy agenda, has not made limited government a defining theme of his campaign. Democrats who normally delight in presenting themselves as the defenders of popular entitlement programs and opponents of "giveaways" to corporations and the wealthy seem to have concluded that Trump's own personal attributes represent better attack fodder than his policy positions (such as they are). They repeatedly characterized Trump as inexperienced, ill-tempered, and divisive, with Barack Obama even referring to the Republican nominee as a "homegrown demagogue."

Most strikingly, the Democratic Party's essential nature as a coalition of social groups was on display to an unprecedented extent in Philadelphia. The Black Lives Matter cause and the Mothers of the Movement were given prominent platforms and expressions of support. Undocumented Latino immigrants spoke on Clinton's behalf, and a number of speakers, including the party's vice presidential nominee, punctuated their remarks with Spanish words and phrases. Other groups that received explicit representation from the convention stage included Asian Americans, Native Americans, feminists, gays and lesbians, transgender people, Muslims, union members, and people with disabilities. Clinton's status as the first female major-party presidential nominee and potential first female president was celebrated repeatedly during the convention proceedings—including via a video effect on Tuesday night in which a mosaic of (male) presidential portraits broke apart with the sound of shattering glass to reveal Clinton's face as she appeared live from a remote location to greet the delegates.

For much of the last few decades—especially the 1990s, when the current nominee's husband was the national leader of the party—Democrats tempered such tributes to social diversity with other gestures meant to reassure white southerners, businesspeople, and blue-collar cultural moderates that the party spoke for them too. Today, due to a combination of demographic trends, geographic realignment, and Trump's own behavior, Democratic leaders no longer feel the need to place much emphasis on courting these other voters. By nominating Trump, the Republican Party has bet heavily on a campaign message tailored to appeal primarily to middle-aged, middle-class, middle-American whites. Democrats have opted to make a different wager of their own: that the voters who will feel left out of Trump's vision for America not only represent a rainbow coalition of social groups but also a national electoral majority that can carry Clinton to victory in November.

Friday, July 22, 2016

As Cleveland Showed, The Big Republican Split Is Between Leaders and Voters

The primary purpose of a national convention—now that the actual selection of the nominee is completed beforehand by primary voters—is to foster party unity and put it on display, thus earning positive attention from the news media that will in turn engender heightened support and enthusiasm from partisan identifiers and persuadable independents in the mass electorate. It's fun to watch and kibitz over the quality of the speeches and the competence of the stage management, but most of the hour-to-hour proceedings are soon forgotten (OK, Clint Eastwood's empty chair is an exception). The big picture is what's important: what is the state of the party at the start of the general election?

It's clear from the events in Cleveland that Republicans remain a divided party. The single most dramatic moment of the entire four-day convention occurred at the end of Ted Cruz's speech Wednesday night, when the runner-up presidential candidate, building to a rhetorical peak, danced on the edge of an expression of support for Trump before exhorting his audience instead to "vote your conscience" for candidates who are true to constitutional principles, clearly implying that Trump himself did not meet this standard. The media immediately seized on Cruz's behavior as a signal not only of disunity but of political incompetence—why had the Trump campaign allowed Cruz to speak without securing an assurance that he would endorse the nominee?—and a furious Trump reignited a row with Cruz at a bizarre press conference today that defies easy summary or explanation.

The Trump-Cruz feud will consume most of the post-convention media attention, but the convention itself revealed a more fundamental, and probably more important, divide. In one camp are a majority of Republican delegates, activists, and voters, who are firm supporters of Trump (whether or not they voted for somebody else in the primaries) and highly motivated to defeat Hillary Clinton. In the other camp are the vast majority of the party's top elected officials, both past and present, who have serious reservations about the Trump candidacy and wish to limit their association with him. From beginning to end, the proceedings in the Cleveland formed a picture of a party leadership trying to cope with the fact that a presidential candidate is being forced upon them unwillingly by their own voters.

The many Republicans who harbor various degrees of qualms about Trump have responded to his nomination in different ways. One faction, including Mitt Romney, John Kasich, Lindsey Graham, Ben Sasse, Jeff Flake, and the Bush family, remains openly unreconciled to Trump; these leaders failed to appear at the convention, whether due to their preference or Trump's. A second group, consisting of many Republicans from politically competitive constituencies, is not explicitly opposed to Trump—in fact, some have endorsed him—but pointedly declined to attend the convention as a means of signaling their distance from the candidate (Marco Rubio, running for reelection in the "purple" state of Florida, recorded a brief taped message of support for Trump that was shown on Wednesday night).

That left the convention itself to be dominated by a third set of officials: the nominal Trump supporters. These politicians showed up in Cleveland to address the nation on behalf of the presidential ticket, but their speeches almost to a person spent more time attacking Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama than praising the virtues of the Republican alternatives. References to Trump, when they occurred, were brief and strikingly muted. Mitch McConnell advocated on behalf of an unnamed "Republican president" whose role would be merely to sign the legislation passed by a Republican Congress. Paul Ryan's speech mentioned the name of his party's nominee only to argue that "only with Donald Trump and Mike Pence do we have a chance at a better way." (Traditionally, predictions of future partisan governing success take a more confident tone.) Scott Walker's case for Trump rested on the premise that "any Republican" would be a better choice than Hillary Clinton.

These and other speeches communicated a message that was clear enough. Most leading Republicans view Trump as a poor candidate facing near-certain defeat in November, and they appear worried that any public expression of impassioned support for his campaign risks tainting them with political or historical embarrassment. But for many Republican delegates, activists, and voters, a Trump loss is far from inevitable and a Hillary Clinton presidency close to unthinkable. The persistence of this internal schism is likely to have implications for Republican politics for the remainder of the campaign, and may even outlast it.

As for Cruz, it will take some time before we know whether his big bet will pay off. Cruz is transparently wagering that Trump will eventually be so thoroughly discredited among Republicans that his own ostentatious refusal to endorse Trump before a national audience will be interpreted in retrospect as an honorable devotion to principle. But Cruz is sometimes prone to tactics that are too clever by half, and his own reputation among Republicans as a poor team player has cost him in the past. Even if Trump turns out to be a disaster for the party, it may turn out that the Paul Ryan approach was savvier: give a pro forma endorsement to the choice of the Republican electorate while simultaneously acting like you think it's a big mistake.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Are We Really Looking at the "End of a Republican Party"?

A new analysis by Clare Malone of titled "The End of a Republican Party" takes a thoughtful, in-depth approach to addressing what is clearly the most important political question of the year: what does the rise of Donald Trump tell us about the state of American politics in general and the Republican Party in particular? It's well worth the read and contains some particularly informative reporting from within the world of the House Freedom Caucus, a group that played a key role in forcing the exit of John Boehner from the speakership last fall.

At the same time, the piece in its totality leaves me with the impression that the case for Trump as either an instigator or a product of transformational change in the Republican Party rests more on human perception than systematic data. It sure feels to many of us as if we're in the midst of a tectonic shift in our politics—and a celebrity neophyte's unexpected march to the presidential nomination of a major party, defeating a number of talented veteran politicians along the way, is just the kind of shocking development that causes observers to declare that the world has permanently changed and the old rules no longer apply. Nebraska senator Ben Sasse is even quoted as predicting the imminent end of the two-party system, expressing the view that Trump is just the leading indicator of bigger change to come.

But when I think about the evidence backing up these very strongly-felt sentiments, I keep coming up against plenty of signs that things aren't changing as fast as they seem. Here are a few specific examples:

1. Party coalitions and geography. One of the main pillars of the Malone argument, which has been echoed by many other commentators, is that Trump's rise cements a reordering of the two parties' electoral coalitions: the Republicans are now the party of the white working class, while the Democrats now represent an alliance between racial minorities and college-educated whites. To the extent that these characterizations are true, however, they are the consequences of long-term historical trends, not the products of a single electoral environment. Trump's brand of racial politics (and the Democrats' nomination of a feminist woman) are likely to further this divide, at least in the short term, but there is little reason to view this election as representing an "inflection point" of foundational party change. Compared to a number of historical cases—such as the transformation of millions of northern urbanites from Coolidge Republicans in the 1920s to FDR Democrats in the 1930s, or the migration of southern whites en masse from the Democratic Party to the GOP over the course of two generations in the late 20th century—it doesn't seem as if we are witnessing a significant realignment of party supporters in the electorate.

The article also touches on the subject of geography, demonstrating that the parts of the U.S. with the highest proportions of "non-hyphenated Americans" (mostly whites of English or Scotch-Irish descent) have shifted the farthest towards the Republican Party in recent elections. Yet this, too, can be viewed as the final stage of the southern realignment that began in the 1950s. In any case, the change described is minor in scale; the two parties' current geographic coalitions are, by historical standards, unique in their relative stability. As this figure from a forthcoming book of mine demonstrates, more than 80 percent of the states voted for the same party in each of the four presidential elections between 2000 and 2012, which is the highest level of consistency in the post-Civil War era:

Will Trump fundamentally reorder the current electoral map? So far, it doesn't look likely; the current FiveThirtyEight forecast for 2016 is identical to the final results in 2012, identifying Hillary Clinton as the favorite in all 26 states carried by Obama and projecting a Trump lead in all 24 states won by Romney.

2. The GOP's electoral standing. The steady increase in the proportion of nonwhite voters in the American electorate is often portrayed as causing an electoral crisis for the Republican Party unless and until it figures out a way to broaden its appeal to racial minorities, especially Latinos. Since 2004 and especially 2008, younger voters are also disproportionately Democratic-leaning (the two trends are somewhat related, as the young are more racially diverse than their elders). Malone writes of the Republican Party's "demographic and cultural divergence from the majority of the country," and ex-Jeb Bush advisor Tim Miller is quoted as worrying that the GOP might well "move to a period of minority status."

I've said this before, but I continue to be somewhat baffled by characterizations of the two parties' contemporary electoral fortunes that completely exclude congressional and state-level elections, where Republicans are not only holding their own but are in fact doing very well. And if we accept the very reasonable proposition that Hillary Clinton would be neck-and-neck or even running behind right now had the Republicans nominated Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, or John Kasich instead of Trump, then even the party's current deficit in presidential polling looks more like the product of a nominee with limited personal appeal than a party that is systematically unable to attract a national electoral majority.

3. Will Trumpism outlast Trump? If the Trump nomination indeed marks the closing of one era of Republican politics and the opening of another, we can safely assume that Trumpism will survive and even thrive in the Republican Party regardless of whether Trump himself is elected president. So far, however, Trump looks more like an individual political entrepreneur than the leader of a transformational movement within the Republican Party. He has has served as an effective vehicle for Republican primary voters to express support for a more aggressive stance against immigration, skepticism about free trade agreements, and frustration with the party's traditional leadership. But much of the institutional Republican Party remains either resistant to or glumly resigned to Trump as a candidate, in part because most leading Republicans view his brand of politics as electorally counterproductive. If he indeed loses in November, that conclusion is likely to stick.

I don't mean to dismiss some of the very real challenges now facing the Republican Party. But even if scholars like Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein are correct that the GOP is now in a state of dysfunction, evidence suggests that the party faces a bigger problem in governing effectively than in appealing to voters up and down the ballot. If the dust clears after this election to reveal a newly-elected President Hillary Clinton serving alongside a Congress in which at least one chamber is controlled by a Republican majority, it seems likely that the next four years will look, for better or worse, an awful lot like the last six—leaving 2016 to appear in retrospect like a moment of partisan evolution rather than fundamental change.

Friday, July 15, 2016

So What Does Choosing Mike Pence Tell Us About Trump?

Earlier this week, I argued that we should primarily evaluate the selection of a vice presidential running mate by considering what it tells us about the presidential nominee, rather than merely speculate about the (likely minimal) effect of the pick on the outcome of the election.

So what do we learn about Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate or a future president, from the choice of Indiana governor Mike Pence and the process that led to it? Here are a few things that struck me:

1. Trump is famous for demanding loyalty, but he did not insist on a running mate who had endorsed him (or remained neutral) in the presidential primaries. Pence had endorsed Ted Cruz prior to the Indiana primary, though that did not prevent Trump from winning the state easily and knocking Cruz out of the race.

2. Pence has held both legislative and executive office, having served for 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and one term as governor of Indiana. However, his previous experience and responsibilities are not as extensive as past running mates chosen by presidential candidates with little or no service in Washington, such as Joe Biden (Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair and ex-Judiciary Committee chair), Paul Ryan (House Budget Committee chair), Dick Cheney (ex-Secretary of Defense, White House chief of staff, and House Republican Whip), Lloyd Bentsen (Senate Finance Committee chair), and George H. W. Bush (ex-CIA director, ambassador to China and the United Nations, House member, and RNC chair). Unlike these other political veterans, Pence also lacks a reputation as a policy specialist or managerial heavyweight. A Vice President Pence would doubtless assist a President Trump in navigating the ways of Washington, but it is not immediately clear that he would necessarily play a critical role in making policy or administering the executive branch.

3. The choice of Pence can be viewed as something of a bridge-building gesture to the subset of movement conservative leaders who remain wary of Trump. It is likely that Pence will serve as the chief intermediary between the organizational apparatus of the traditional Republican Party and the Trump campaign (and, potentially, presidential administration), and that this was a major selling point in the eyes of the pro-Pence faction among Trump's advisors.

4. The process by which Pence was selected seems as revealing as the final selection. If news media accounts are accurate, Trump faced a difference of opinion between political aides who mostly preferred Pence and family members who mostly preferred Gingrich. The political professionals got their way—though a few sources are reporting today that Trump almost changed his mind last night, long after Pence's selection had been leaked to the press. The public rollout has also been awkward; Trump canceled his scheduled press conference this morning in response to the massacre in France but confirmed Pence's selection anyway via Twitter (which may have been prompted by today's deadline for Pence to withdraw from the Indiana ballot). We are left with a picture of a candidate who is unusually dependent on his own family for political advice and who appears less than completely satisfied with the choice of Pence. A potential Trump presidency may not be especially methodical, resolute, or routinely deferential to expert opinion.

5. The evaluation of Pence's suitability as a running mate or potential vice president is dependent upon the identity of the alternatives. Compared to the other members of Trump's short list (Gingrich and Christie, with Jeff Sessions and Michael Flynn as secondary options), Pence looks like a safe and even optimal choice, suggesting that Trump is more risk-averse and politically savvy than he looks. But many other leading Republican figures who would otherwise be natural VP candidates were not under active consideration, whether due to their lack of interest or Trump's. Compared to a longer hypothetical menu of potential running mates and vice presidents, Pence seems like an adequate but not unusually inspired choice.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Why the Vice Presidential Picks Matter

Vice presidential running mates for non-incumbent presidential candidates are, by tradition and necessity, chosen in the summer of an election year between the end of the primary season and the start of the party's national convention—unlike the other senior members of a president's administration, who are usually not revealed until the election itself is over. For this reason, the vice presidential choice is usually treated by the news media primarily as a manifestation of the presidential nominee's campaign strategy rather than as a clue about his or her approach to governing. During the "veepstakes" phase preceding the official selection, potential contenders are mostly evaluated by pundits on the basis of electoral criteria, and this line of analysis is routinely applied to the eventual choice once he or she is finally announced to the public.

Many of these strategic angles predictably recur year after year. What social groups in the mass public might a particular vice presidential candidate attract to the party? How effective are the candidate's campaign skills? Would the candidate bolster the ticket's standing in a key battleground state? Will the running mate generate excitement among the party base, or supply gravitas, or persuasively vouch for the virtues of the presidential nominee?

Presidential candidates also give careful consideration to such questions when making up their minds—since, in their view, one critical job of a running mate is to help win the presidency. Some past vice presidential selections, such as John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin in 2008, were almost entirely motivated by short-term electoral considerations; McCain was trailing in the polls and hoped that a surprise pick and a woman on the ticket would both shake up the race and help him coax disappointed Hillary Clinton supporters to cross the partisan aisle.

But little evidence exists that the identity of the running mates normally influences the preferences of voters. (Palin turned out to be a rare exception to this rule, but her unpopular candidacy backfired and ultimately benefited the opposition.) It is therefore perfectly appropriate for political analysts to interpret the VP choice as reflecting the electoral strategy of the presidential candidate, but we should be wary of suggestions that the outcome of the election itself is likely to be determined by the decision.

The running mates are much more important for the window that they provide into the presidential candidates who select them: what perceived personal limitations or weaknesses do they wish to address, and what kind of presidency might they have if elected? George W. Bush's selection of Dick Cheney in 2000 indicated that the vice president would take a major role in the policy-making and administration of the executive branch—in contrast to his father's choice of Dan Quayle in 1988, who was clearly meant to be a junior partner with little independent responsibility. Bill Clinton chose Al Gore in part to demonstrate that he would maintain a distance from the left wing of his party while in office; Gore's decision to choose Joe Lieberman eight years signaled a personal break with Clinton. Barack Obama's selection of Joe Biden reflected a perceived need to cement good working relationships with key members of Congress by choosing a Capitol Hill veteran. Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan seemed designed to reassure conservatives of his ideological devotion.

Within a week or so, we'll know the identity of each party's vice presidential nominee in 2016. Plenty of media coverage will be devoted to gaming out the potential strategic implications of the running mates for the outcome of the election. But it is even more important to consider what the selections reveal about the prospective presidents who made them—in order to better inform ourselves about the choice that awaits us in the voting booth this November.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Right Now, Trump Isn't Saving the GOP From Anything (Except Maybe the White House)

Nearly 60 years ago, the economist Anthony Downs published An Economic Theory of Democracy, a study that remains widely-read and frequently-cited today. The book is best known for Downs's formalization of a specific model of electoral politics to which many political observers intuitively subscribe. If the competition between two political parties can be described as occurring on a single ideological dimension between matching left and right poles, and if voters predictably support the party taking the ideological position that is closest to their own, each party will face an electoral incentive to move its position in the direction of the ideological center—converging toward the preferences of the median voter in the electorate.

In practice, ambitious politicians may be restricted in their freedom to reposition themselves in this way by the demands of primary voters, party activists, financial donors, interest groups, and other influential actors who insist upon the parties' commitment to non-centrist policies. It is also fair to question whether voters indeed consistently view party conflict in ideological terms and make their choices accordingly, whether they correctly perceive the relative positions of candidates and parties on a left-to-right dimension, and whether their own political views can be coherently translated into a specific position on that same dimension. Whatever the reason or reasons, the predictions of Downs's model clash in many respects with the reality of an American political system in which the two parties' policy positions have not only remained distinct but have further diverged over the ensuing six decades. Yet few political analysts reject the median voter logic entirely—all else being equal, aren't there still more votes to be had by running to the ideological center rather than toward the left or right fringe?

A recent New York Times article by Sam Tanenhaus called "How Trump Can Save the GOP" contains one of the purest Downsian analyses of contemporary American politics in recent memory. The argument in the piece rests on the following premises:

1. The Republican Party is currently in an electoral crisis.

2. This crisis is due to the GOP's excessive ideological extremity and inflexibility, especially on the issue of popular federal entitlement programs, which limits the party's popular appeal in the national electorate.

3. Donald Trump is an ideological centrist compared to most Republican officeholders, and his triumph in the presidential primaries reflects the desire of many rank-and-file Republican voters to pull their party's policies to the left on economic matters.

4. Trump's nomination gives the national Republican Party a rare and perhaps welcome opportunity to shed its association with electorally disadvantageous conservative economic policies, potentially strengthening its overall popularity with the American public in the present and future.

5. If elected president, Trump would govern in a pragmatic style à la Dwight Eisenhower, developing productive relationships with congressional leaders of both parties and prizing concrete legislative accomplishments over symbolic gestures—thus "unlocking the frozen gears of government."

If one accepts these premises, Trump arguably emerges as something like the Republican version of Bill Clinton in the 1990s: a new leader who offers his party the chance to rebuild its (supposedly) declining electoral fortunes and seize the mantle of responsible governance, at the price of making certain ideological compromises. Much of Clinton's political maneuvering had a Downsian logic to it; he often pursued a strategy of "triangulation" that involved positioning himself ideologically in between the left wing of the Democratic Party and the conservative leadership of the GOP.

Poke at any of these assumptions, however, and the picture of Trump as Republican savior starts to fade very quickly. In lieu of a more thorough analysis, I offer a few thoughts in response.

First, there really isn't a strong case that the Republican Party is facing an electoral crisis—or at least it wasn't before Trump came along. At the congressional and state level, Republicans are currently as electorally dominant as at any time since the 1920s. Democratic presidential candidates have indeed won the national popular vote in 5 of the past 6 elections, but none of those elections was a double-digit landslide (one was close enough that the GOP was able to achieve an electoral college majority anyway). It's quite possible that a different Republican nominee would be leading Hillary Clinton in the national polls this year, and under that scenario few people would be talking about the need for a fundamental redefinition of Republicanism in order to allow the party to recapture the White House.

Second, the assertion that the Republican Party's economic positions are an obvious electoral vulnerability is similarly debatable. It is true that most voters agree with Democrats that the benefits provided by entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare should be maintained or expanded, but most voters also agree with Republicans that government is too big and too costly in general. Even voters who would be potentially alienated by Republican economic policy might be unaware of the party's true positions. During the 2012 campaign, staffers at one Democratic-aligned super PAC found that when they informed focus group participants of Mitt Romney's support for converting Medicare into a voucher program even as he proposed significant reductions in the tax rates paid by the wealthy, "the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing."

Third, it is likely that Trump's deviations from Republican economic orthodoxy on issues other than international trade policy have received more attention from pundits than from voters. From time to time, Trump has expressed support for maintaining middle-class entitlement programs at their current benefit levels, but this has hardly been a central message of his campaign; he has also proposed a tax cut plan that disproportionately favors wealthy citizens. The salient distinction between Trump and other leading Republicans resembles a familiar center-versus-right ideological conflict much less than it does a difference in emphasis between Trump's prominent ethno-nationalist rhetoric and the more traditional Republican themes of limited government and cultural traditionalism.

A growing tension is evident between two competing and somewhat irreconcilable strains of media analysis. Does America now find itself amidst a formidable populist uprising against the cosmopolitan elite, with Trump himself acting as the ascendant agent of an enraged (white) working class poised to marshal its superior voting numbers to take bitter revenge on a discredited and vulnerable political "establishment"? Or does Trump's imminent nomination instead represent a political blunder of historic magnitude, as a Republican Party throws away an otherwise winnable race against a flawed opponent by choosing a standard-bearer who is likely to be uniquely unpopular with the average Americans whom he claims to champion?

We'll find out which of these two perspectives is more accurate in November, though the evidence so far strongly points in the direction of the latter view. And if Trump ultimately receives a lower share of the vote than Mitt Romney, John McCain, or George W. Bush won in preceding elections—an entirely possible outcome, given current polling—the outcome will suggest that whatever electoral advantage Trump may have gained from his supposed economic centrism relative to his party was far outweighed by the presence of other important considerations in the minds of voters. At the moment, Donald Trump looks less like a savior and more like an anchor weighing down the GOP's presidential ambitions.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Geography and the Veepstakes

Geography usually ranks near the top of the considerations that are commonly said to matter when selecting a vice presidential candidate. Political folk wisdom tells us that a would-be president seeks to balance the ticket by choosing a running mate from a different region of the nation, while a prospective VP from a critical battleground state holds the promise of attracting a favorite-son (or -daughter) vote that could tilt that state to his or her party, thus offering an advantage in the electoral college.

John F. Kennedy's choice of Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate in 1960 is often treated as the model case of vice presidential selection. Johnson was credited in retrospect with helping to keep most of the South in the Democratic column—especially his home state of Texas, which Kennedy carried by less than 50,000 votes—at a time when the Democratic Party could no longer take the region for granted in presidential elections. When speculation turns in the late spring and summer of an election year to the identity of the vice presidential candidates, governors and senators from swing states like Ohio and Florida are often among the most frequently mentioned, reflecting the assumption that their presence on the ticket could potentially prove decisive to the outcome just as Johnson supposedly did.

As a rule, however, presidential candidates have not consistently elevated geography among other considerations when selecting running mates. Joe Biden (D 2008/2012), Sarah Palin (R 2008), Dick Cheney (R 2000/2004), and Joe Lieberman (D 2000) were all residents of small states that were already electorally safe for their party. On the other hand, the home states of John Edwards (D 2004) and Jack Kemp (R 1996) were almost certain to vote for the opposition regardless of their presence on the ticket. Paul Ryan (R 2012) did come from the battleground state of Wisconsin, but he had never represented more than one-eighth of the state's residents in Congress (after the election, Mitt Romney advisors revealed that Ryan was not chosen because the campaign thought that he would deliver Wisconsin to the Republican Party). The home state of Al Gore (D 1992/1996) was politically competitive but not widely considered pivotal to the national outcome.

Since Johnson in 1960, two other Texans have been nominated for vice president: George H. W. Bush (R 1980/1984) and Lloyd Bentsen (D 1988). Geography played a role in the selection of both, though other considerations seemed to matter more; both Bush and Bentsen were identified with rival party factions to the presidential candidates who chose them, and were placed on the ticket largely to promote party unity. Despite Ohio's longstanding importance in the electoral college, no Ohioan has appeared on a national ticket since John W. Bricker served as Thomas E. Dewey's running mate in 1944. Florida, a more recent swing state, has yet to be represented by a presidential or vice presidential nominee of either party.

It appears, then, that modern presidential candidates seldom choose running mates whom they believe will help them carry a specific state—much less an entire region. Indeed, there is little evidence that parties normally perform significantly better in the VP's home state compared to what they would otherwise expect (most presidential nominees, in contrast, attract a reliable favorite-son bonus of a few percentage points in the state's popular vote).

Of the major potential running mates for Hillary Clinton floated so far in the media (Tim Kaine, Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, Cory Booker, and Tom Perez), only one—Kaine—resides in a battleground state. Similarly, the apparent field of candidates for VP on the Republican ticket (Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, and Joni Ernst) includes a single swing-state representative (Ernst, though Iowa casts only 6 electoral votes). This recent article suggests that somebody in the Trump campaign—probably pollster Kellyanne Conway—is talking up Pence by portraying his selection as allowing Trump to "shore up the Rust Belt," but there is little reason to believe that many voters outside Indiana (a state that is normally safe Republican territory) would care very much about Pence's presence on the ticket.

If Kaine or Ernst is nominated for the vice presidency this year, it is probable that political geography played a role in boosting them over other potential candidates. But recent history suggests that most presidential nominees view the potential electoral impact in a particular state or region as sufficiently modest that it does not outweigh other important factors relevant to the choice of running mate, from ideological positioning and political experience to campaign skill and personal rapport. We should not be surprised, then, if the 2016 presidential candidates follow this pattern by selecting running mates from safely red or blue states rather than electoral battlegrounds.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Beware of Analyzing Demographic Groups in Isolation (Even the All-Important White Working Class!)

Even in an election year with more than the usual degree of surprise, a few familiar patterns have returned—such as the quadrennial flurry of media stories about the supposedly pivotal role of the white working class in deciding the presidency. Some of these pieces are colorfully anecdotal tours through blue-collar communities; others are more systematic and data-driven. However, their tone and conclusions tend to converge on a single theme: the Democrats need to watch out, because the Republicans are cutting into their traditional base.

We'll probably hear this caution more often than usual in 2016, since Donald Trump appears to hold disproportionate appeal among whites without bachelor's degrees compared to other voting blocs in the American population. (I have some objections to accepting a methodological definition that classifies the richest person in the United States as "working class," but that's a discussion for another time.) It's also quite possible that Hillary Clinton is not exactly beloved by this set of voters—especially the men among them—further opening the door for Trump to win a substantial chunk of their support.

According to the polls so far, however, any newfound advantage that Trump provides the Republican Party among the "white working class" is more than balanced out by his weaknesses among the racial minorities and college-educated whites who constitute the remainder of the electorate. It is likely that both phenomena reflect the same underlying set of candidate attributes: Trump's outspoken nationalism, racially charged rhetoric, and idiosyncratic persona could be expected to attract some types of voters while repelling others.

Such tradeoffs are common in politics. Party tents can only stretch so far; the actions that welcome one group into an electoral coalition can often alienate the members of another. When the Democratic Party moved leftward on civil rights in the mid-20th century, it won a greater share of the minority vote but lost popularity in the South. The white southerners who migrated into the GOP then helped to establish social conservatism as a foundational Republican creed, which in turn propelled culturally liberal northern metropolitans toward the Democrats. Politicians often seek to raise issues or develop messages that might cause segments of the opposition to defect from their habitual partisan alignment, but such maneuvers can be risky and are seldom entirely costless.

Close study of the changing preferences of a single demographic group or stratum of the electorate can yield insights and illuminate developments that otherwise go unappreciated—such as the dramatic pro-Democratic trend among Asian-American voters since the 1990s. The evolution of the parties' popular coalitions over time holds significant implications for a number of important political phenomena, from voter mobilization to elite policymaking.

But these analyses are often conducted in the context of a campaign horse race, where any change in the prevailing partisanship (or relative size) of a particular voting bloc primarily receives attention because of its potential impact on the outcome of an imminent election. Examinations of a single category of voters may incorrectly assume that no countervailing trends exist among other citizens, potentially leading to misguided conclusions. For example, the growing electoral strength and partisan loyalty of Latino voters is surely an asset to Democratic candidates, holding all else equal—but if it is accompanied by an erosion in the party's popularity among racially conservative or immigration-skeptical whites, it will hardly provide Democrats with a decisive long-term advantage. (The much-hyped increasing demographic diversity of the American electorate notably did not prevent Republicans from winning more seats in Congress in 2014 than at any point since the 1920s.)

One of the reasons why we hear so much about the white working class every four years is that many of the battleground states in presidential elections are located in a nearly contiguous band between Pennsylvania and Iowa that roughly corresponds to the so-called Rust Belt. It is easy for party leaders and media figures alike to envision the pivotal voters in these pivotal states as retired steelworkers or out-of-work machinists, and to thus conclude that the election will turn on these Americans' specific attitudes and concerns. Despite popular perceptions, however, these states also contain plenty of professional-class residents who may be just as alienated by the Trump campaign as their blue-collar neighbors are attracted to it.

Moreover, the logic of partisan tradeoffs can apply to the electoral college as well. If Trump's rhetoric on race and immigration inspires a large enough popular backlash among minority voters to deliver the ethnically diverse states of Florida, Nevada, Colorado, and Virginia to the Democratic ticket this November, then he could carry Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire, and the northern district in Maine and still lose the presidency. Yes, it's a problem for Hillary Clinton if she loses Johnstown by a landslide—but it's a bigger problem for Trump if he gets blown out in Miami.

In 1996, the consultants running Bill Clinton's reelection campaign successfully convinced reporters that they had identified the decisive voting bloc in the race: white suburban women with children, whom they dubbed "soccer moms." Those of us old enough to remember that election can recall numerous media stories about this narrow supposed demographic. It is easy—and cognitively appealing—to focus the analysis of a large and heterogeneous electorate on a single "crucial" subpopulation. But everyone's vote counts the same, and restricting our field of vision to the voters shifting in one partisan direction may prevent us from noticing an equal or larger group moving the other way.