Monday, August 22, 2016

It Sure Looks Like the Same Old Electoral Map in 2016

The nomination of Donald Trump (and, secondarily, the performance of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries) has helped to infuse media coverage this year with a pervasive everything-is-different-now attitude that has been applied to a number of campaign attributes, practices, and phenomena. In the eyes of political analysts who have become bored with the familiar red-versus-blue pattern of the two parties' contemporary geographic constituencies, one of the more exciting aspects of the Trump candidacy was its potential capacity to redraw the modern electoral map. A few weeks ago, when Trump was within striking distance of Clinton in the national polls, pundits speculated about pro-Trump white working-class voters shifting Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, or Iowa from blue to red this year. More recently, Clinton's national lead and a few favorable state polls have prompted talk that Trump's political vulnerabilities might lead to Democratic victories in the traditional Republican bastions of Georgia, South Carolina, Arizona, and even Utah.

In truth, though, it seems quite unlikely that there will be much change in the traditional partisan alignment of the states At the moment, all three models on the FiveThirtyEight website—the polls-only, polls-plus, and now-cast analyses—produce an identical map in which every state is predicted to vote for the same party as in 2012 except for North Carolina, which flips from red to blue. (Because only two states, North Carolina and Indiana, voted differently in 2008 and 2012, FiveThirtyEight also forecasts a duplication of the 2008 outcome in every state but one.)

Four years ago, the Obama and Romney campaigns concentrated their resources in ten swing states deemed by both sides to be legitimately up for grabs: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. A Politico report published on Monday suggests that the Clinton campaign is currently making advertising purchases in seven states—the exact same battlegrounds as 2012, except for Colorado, Virginia, and Wisconsin—while the Trump campaign is currently advertising only in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Clinton is also buying ad time in the Omaha television market, which encompasses the 2nd congressional district of Nebraska (worth a single electoral vote) as well as sections of western Iowa.

If there is any change in the map compared to 2012, it appears more likely that the scope of the electoral battleground will shrink further rather than expand into new territory. The Clinton campaign has indicated that it is sufficiently confident of victory in Colorado and Virginia to divert resources to other, more competitive states, but it has yet to make an open incursion into any state that was deemed safe for McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012. Divining which states the Trump campaign views as top targets is a more difficult task for analysts, given its low rate of advertising and unorthodox candidate itinerary, but at the moment Trump is only contesting four states on the airwaves and is in no position to put any state into play that had been conceded to Obama in either of the past two elections.

We have had more than the normal share of surprises and milestones in 2016, but a realignment of the nation's political geography does not seem to be imminent. Even in an otherwise unusual presidential campaign, it will still—as the saying goes—all come down to Ohio.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Donald Trump Is a Conservative—But Not Much of a Republican

The news that Donald Trump has hired Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News to take over his campaign has amazed the political press since it broke late Tuesday night. Bannon lacks the experience in practical politics conventionally deemed necessary for a position atop a major-party presidential campaign (although it is unclear how responsibilities will be divided between Bannon as "CEO" and pollster Kellyanne Conway, simultaneously named campaign manager). Perhaps more importantly, he comes to the campaign from a website that has repeatedly cheered on Trump's candidacy since before the Republican primaries began, defending many of his most controversial actions. Trump is clearly signaling—as much of the reporting around the hire reveals explicitly—that, in his view, the main problem with his campaign is that it hasn't been aggressive enough in promoting its existing message, not that it needs a new one.

One can almost feel hearts sink across the professional Republican Party. Trump is currently running well behind in the polls while suffering near-daily media crises, and most Republican leaders are no doubt desperate for him to adopt a more traditional approach to running his campaign that would tamp down the day-to-day drama, build a strong organizational infrastructure, and appeal to wary swing voters. Instead, Trump seems to believe that he has been excessively muzzled by "establishment" Republicans—personified, apparently, by now-sidelined campaign chairman Paul Manafort—who fail to appreciate his unique strengths. "I don't want to pivot. I don't want to change," Trump told a Wisconsin TV station. "You have to be you. If you start pivoting, you're not being honest with people."

Many Trump critics, especially within the Republican Party, are fond of claiming that Trump is not a conservative, pointing to his departure from ideological orthodoxy on entitlements and international trade as well as his history of inconsistent issue positions and previous support for Democratic politicians. But whatever Trump's private political beliefs might be, he is very much running this year as a conservative—albeit a conservative whose priorities hew closer to the populist/nationalist style of Breitbart, Sarah Palin, and Bill O'Reilly than the more intellectual tradition of George F. Will, Bill Kristol, and National Review. Debates over who is or isn't a member of the club are a favorite conservative activity, but Trump is solidly aligned with key elements of the American right, not the center or left, as the Bannon hiring further confirms.

What Trump is not, however, is a loyal Republican. His personal and institutional ties to the GOP are weak, and he instinctually resists engaging in even minimal displays of partisan team spirit (as demonstrated by his ostentatiously perfunctory endorsement of Paul Ryan after previously suggesting that he would not support the speaker in his Wisconsin primary election).

Republican leaders might have hoped that Trump would proceed from now until November with some awareness that his behavior could have a significant effect on the short- and long-term fortunes of the party as a whole. But the hiring of a campaign chief executive from the ranks of the conservative media universe, where the strategic concessions usually deemed necessary to defeat Democrats in national elections are often ignored or ridiculed, suggests that Trump's high-risk behavior is certain to continue. Now it's time for the rest of the Republican candidates on the ballot this November to figure out how to position themselves with respect to their unorthodox presidential standard-bearer, who cannot be relied upon to care about the interests of anyone but himself.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

The Partisan Generation Gap Is Alive and Well

One of the more interesting characteristics of the Obama presidency has been the emergence of a large and persistent generation gap in partisan voting preferences. As recently as the 2000 election, there was virtually no apparent association between age and vote choice: according to the national exit polls that year, Al Gore won 48 percent of the vote among citizens aged 18–29, 48 percent among those aged 30–49, 50 percent among those aged 50–64, and 51 percent among those 65 or older. In 2004, John Kerry only ran 7 points better among voters under the age of 30 (54 percent) compared to those aged 65 or older (47 percent).

Four years later, Obama received 66 percent of the under-30 vote compared to just 45 percent of the 65-and-over vote—a difference of 21 points. Obama's reelection in 2012 looked a lot like 2008: he won 60 percent of the under-30 vote and 44 percent of the over-65 vote, producing a 16-point gap. But Obama seemed to be a candidate whose political style was particularly well-suited to courting younger voters (and whose race might be expected to disproportionately cost him votes among the elderly), and he ran against two Republican opponents who were 25 and 14 years his senior. It was not outside the realm of possibility that the age divide in presidential voting reflected variation in the personal appeal of the candidates among Americans of different generations as well as any disagreements over ideology or issue priorities between younger and older voters.

What if the Democrats nominated someone who was a 68-year-old veteran of the political arena and who lacked Obama's natural hipness and ability to personify "change"? What if the Republicans nominated a candidate who lacked ties to their own party's traditionally stodgy national leadership and who ran as an unconventional outsider? Might we expect to find a significant narrowing of the Obama-era generation gap under such circumstances?

Well, we might...but so far it doesn't seem to be happening. Two post-convention national polls this week suggest that the Clinton-Trump contest may well produce a large generation gap just like the Obama-McCain and Obama-Romney elections:

A Public Policy Polling survey found Clinton leading Trump by 17 points among voters aged 18–29 (with an unusually high 15 percent undecided rate, probably mostly comprised of young Democratic-leaning voters who supported Bernie Sanders and have yet to rally around Clinton) and 19 points among voters aged 30–45. Trump led by 5 points in the 46–65 age range and by 4 points among those older than 65.

A CNN poll gave Clinton a 33-point lead among voters under the age of 45 and Trump a 4-point lead among voters aged 45 or older. This poll found Trump with a 19-point advantage among voters over 65.

It's not unusual for results among specific age groups to vary from poll to poll due to sampling error; what's important here is the overall pattern of correlation between age and partisan alignment, which is apparent in both surveys. Younger voters strongly preferred Sanders to Clinton in the Democratic primaries, and her favorability ratings in Gallup polls were actually weakest among the youngest generation once the Democratic nomination contest heated up early this year. But these young voters also appear particularly skeptical of Trump, and their collective affinity for the Obama-led Democratic Party seems to be fully intact even though Obama himself is no longer on the ballot.

The relationship between age and partisanship is not merely a short-term curiosity. Political science research demonstrates that citizens often develop attachments to a favorite party during their political coming-of-age period in young adulthood that can solidify into a lifelong voting habit. For example, many Americans who reached voting age during the Great Depression and presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt were still likely to support Democratic candidates like Bill Clinton in their golden years fifty and even sixty years later. The risk taken by Republicans in nominating Trump thus does not merely encompass this year's election, but could potentially extend to damaging the party's reputation among a cohort of young voters who have decades of electoral choices still ahead of them.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Pennsylvania Is Always Purple (And Other Electoral College Observations)

Over the weekend, the New York Times published an article titled "Electoral Map Gives Donald Trump Few Places to Go," which suggested that the electoral college was effectively tilted in favor of Hillary Clinton this year. The piece referred to a "daunting electoral map" producing a "narrow" and "precarious" path to an electoral vote majority for the Republican presidential ticket, arguing that Trump's chances of victory virtually depended on his carrying Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina—while Clinton only needed to pick off one of these four states to defeat him. Since the interaction between the political geography of the American electorate and the institutional structure of American electoral rules is a particular interest of mine, I thought I'd share a few observations based on the article, which is itself worth reading:

1. The electoral college is crucial to understanding candidate strategies, but is very unlikely to prove decisive to the outcome. The probability of a national popular vote winner failing to receive a majority of electoral votes is vanishingly small unless the popular vote margin is extremely narrow (as it was in 2000). This is because there is no significant partisan bias in the electoral college, and because individual swing states do not move independently of each other but rather collectively mirror national trends. Any analysis (like this one from the Times) arguing that Candidate X has a clear advantage in the electoral vote is thus suggesting that Candidate X is clearly ahead in the popular vote—and vice versa. Especially at this early stage of the race, it is advisable to avoid getting bogged down in trying to predict the election by gaming out various electoral college scenarios, as they will only come into play if the race is truly neck-and-neck heading into Election Day.

2. A casual reading of the Times article can leave the reader with the impression that the scope of the electoral battleground is likely to shrink significantly this year, with several states that were contested by both parties in 2012 openly conceded to one side or the other in 2016. But a more careful examination of the piece doesn't turn up any hard examples of states that fit that profile. We are not told that the Trump campaign is actually abandoning any of the states that Romney contested four years ago—only that it considers Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania pivotal to its chances and North Carolina a must-win but potentially vulnerable state. None of this should be much of a surprise; the Romney campaign was in a very similar strategic position in 2012 (except that it considered Virginia more critical than Pennsylvania). We should expect both campaigns to devote a large proportion of their resources to the first three states in any event, since they cast the most electoral votes of all the potential battlegrounds and are therefore highly likely to determine the outcome of the election. Competitive but less populous states like New Hampshire, Iowa, and Nevada are likely to be actively fought over by the campaigns as well, but they are much cheaper to contest and are less likely to serve as the tipping point that determines which party receives a majority in the electoral college.

3. The main development cited by the Times that works in favor of the Clinton campaign is the potential partisan evolution of Colorado and Virginia. In the past two elections, the results in both states closely matched the national popular vote. But if the Democrats could count on achieving slender victories in both states in the event of a very close race nationwide, the party would stand a decent chance of gaining an electoral vote majority even if it were to lose both Ohio and Florida. Note, however, that the article does not claim that either state is safely Democratic—only that Clinton is doing relatively well there based on recent polling. Moreover, these apparent trends would only make a difference in the event of a virtual tie in the overall popular vote. If Trump pulls ahead nationally, Colorado and Virginia will suddenly look quite unsafe for Clinton.

4. Because the article (justifiably) places particular emphasis on Pennsylvania's potentially decisive role in the 2016 election, it is worth noting that the state is often somewhat mischaracterized in electoral college analyses. Pennsylvania has not voted Republican for president since 1988, which prompts some writers to classify it as a dependable "blue" state or as part of the Democratic geographic "base." But this is not quite accurate. Pennsylvania is actually a competitive battleground state—"purple" rather than reliably blue—that usually sits one notch to the Democratic side of an even split between the parties. It has voted Democratic for the past six consecutive elections because Democratic nominees have won the national popular vote in five of those elections, while losing narrowly in the sixth (2004, when Pennsylvania voted for John Kerry by the same 2.5-point margin by which he lost the national vote to George W. Bush).

For this reason, Democrats should not count on Pennsylvania to be a safe bastion for their party—and Republicans should not view actively contesting it as achieving a bold invasion of enemy territory. Some analysts have suggested that Trump could outperform previous Republican presidential candidates in Pennsylvania due to the demographic composition of its electorate. Whether or not he manages to do so, it seems certain that the state will receive considerable attention from both parties between now and November—just as it has in every presidential election for the past 60 years.