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?

Monday, September 12, 2016

More Guest Blogging This Week at Vox

As the Asymmetric Politics media blitz rolls on, Matt and I will be blogging this week under the kind auspices of Lee Drutman at Polyarchy, part of the Vox website. I'll update this post with links on a daily basis as our pieces appear over there:

Part One (September 12): The Liberal Failure of Political Reform

Part Two (September 13): The Mess of Health Reform: Trying to Achieve Democratic Goals Through Republican Means

Part Three (September 14): Why Primary Elections Scare Republican Politicians More Than Democrats

Part Four (September 15): Why Democrats Have No "Freedom Caucus"

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

New Book and Guest Blogging This Week

Today, September 7, 2016, is the official publication date of my new book, written in collaboration with Matt Grossmann of Michigan State University. In Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, Matt and I explain how the two major parties have come to be so different and how this difference affects American politics. Our analysis encompasses voters, party activists, financial donors, political candidates, presidents, members of Congress, interest groups, party organizations, intellectuals, think tanks, and the news media. We came to believe over the course of writing this book that much of what is happening in the political world today is impossible to explain without dispensing with the assumption that each party is simply a mirror image of the other—a conclusion that the 2016 election is doing a pretty good job of bolstering.

Asymmetric Politics is now available in both physical and electronic formats at the usual retailers or directly from Oxford University Press. Under the kind auspices of John Sides and Danny Hayes, we will be guest blogging over the next few days at the Washington Post's Monkey Cage—the premier political science blog—in order to give readers an introduction to our main argument and share a few interesting findings. I will be updating this post on Honest Graft as each installment of our Monkey Cage blogging is published.

Part One (September 7): Republicans and Democrats Can't Even Agree About How They Disagree

Part Two (September 8): How Different Are the Democratic and Republican Parties? Too Different to Compare

Part Three (September 9): How the Conservative Media Is Taking Over the Republican Party

Monday, September 05, 2016

Two Reasons Why the Press Cares More About the Clinton Foundation Than the Trump Foundation

Over the last few weeks, the prestige press—notably led by the New York Times—has taken a renewed interest in the activities of the Clinton Foundation, running a series of stories suggesting that foundation donors might have received some sort of preferential treatment from Hillary Clinton or her staff while she was running the State Department. The lack of any hard evidence of a quid pro quo has not stopped Republican critics and good-government scolds from attacking Clinton over the foundation's existence. The former group doesn't need any proof to find her guilty, while the latter takes the position that the "appearance of impropriety" is itself a transgression—which more or less means that if anybody in the news media thinks you might have done something wrong, then, by definition, you did.

In the midst of a charged presidential campaign against a hated opponent, we might expect Democrats and liberals to mount an aggressive pushback—and indeed they have. Some Clinton defenders have focused on rebutting the news media's suggestions that the former secretary of state violated ethical norms, while others have charged the Times and like-minded press sources with imposing a double standard on the candidates. After all, Donald Trump's own foundation not only broke the law by making a campaign contribution to an elected official using the funds of a non-political organization, but did so just before the official—Florida attorney general Pam Bondi—decided not to launch an investigation into accusations of fraud by Trump's defunct "university." Yet the demonstrated illegal behavior of Trump's organization, to say nothing of the possibility that the money bought a reprieve from punishment for further criminal activity, has received much less press attention than the mere "questions" and "shadows" that supposedly "swirl" around the Clinton operation.

Why the difference? I see two reasons.

The first has to do with the press's particular preoccupation with apparent examples of hypocrisy. Democrats in general are held to a higher standard in the media with respect to scandals, or alleged scandals, involving improper influence or corruption because Democrats, more than Republicans, support the imposition of stricter rules and laws intended to reduce improper influence or corruption. Journalists are especially upset when the party that vows more frequently to clean up government is caught in an ethical lapse, as it is seen as not only dishonorable but hypocritical.

We can see this dynamic in a story the Times published over the weekend on Hillary Clinton's recent campaign finance activities. The article portrays Clinton as spending more time on the fundraising circuit than the campaign trail in recent weeks and openly argues that this shows she prefers the company of the super-rich to that of the regular people she claims to champion in her "seemingly joyless" public campaign. The clear message is that Clinton is something of a phony when she says her policies will benefit "everyday Americans" or when she advocates reform of the campaign finance system.

Republicans also spend a lot of time hanging around rich people, but they tend to openly advocate policies that cut taxes on the wealthy and reduce business regulations while opposing stringent limitations on political money. According to the press, then, Republicans may be out of touch, but they are not dishonest or hypocritical when they engage in this behavior.

The second reason why the media spends more time implying that Clinton's foundation is an ethical problem than cataloging the actual transgressions of the Trump foundation has to do with the specific pre-existing flaws from which the candidates are perceived to suffer. In the main, journalists do not view Hillary Clinton as incompetent, unintelligent, inexperienced, temperamental, or ideologically extreme. Her chief fault in their eyes (and in those of the public as well) is dishonesty—a perception that stretches back to the Bill Clinton years of the 1990s but has been reinforced more recently by the Benghazi and email server issues. Any evidence, or even subject matter, that can be interpreted as consistent with the "narrative" of ubiquitous Clinton shadiness will therefore receive considerable attention, as it vindicates an existing media conclusion. (Secondarily, she is deemed to be an untalented and strategically unsophisticated campaigner—another common theme of critical media coverage.)

To be sure, the media doesn't seem to think that Donald Trump is particularly honest either. But that's far from the primary knock on Trump. His biggest alleged flaw, according to the press, is racial divisiveness, followed by (2) running a supposedly incompetent campaign; (3) lacking apparent command of policy; and (4) exhibiting "unpresidential" personality traits. Indicators that Trump's rhetoric is in fact less truthful than Clinton's are occasionally noted, but don't shape media stories to the same degree—simply because honesty is simply not Trump's #1 problem the way it is for Clinton.

Paul Krugman notes today that a similar dynamic arose in the 2000 presidential campaign. The media made a much bigger deal out of Al Gore's supposed exaggerations and misstatements than they did of comparable remarks by George W. Bush. This was because Gore's main fault was held to be dishonesty, while Bush's main fault was held to be ignorance—so if Bush said something that wasn't true, it was likely to be interpreted more charitably ("he doesn't know any better") than if Gore did the same ("he's intentionally trying to deceive us").

I doubt that the 2016 election will turn on media stories about the Clinton Foundation, and both candidates have ample opportunity to make their own case against each other via television advertising and debate performances. But journalists have hardly been shy about expressing the opinion that the election this year has left the American people with a particularly poor choice of candidates, and the tone of coverage of both Clinton and Trump is likely to be overwhelmingly negative from now until November. It is already clear that the next president, whomever it may be, will come into office viewing the press as a sworn enemy.