Thursday, September 20, 2018

There Are Two Gender Gaps—And the Gap Between Them Is Growing

The gender gap, produced by the relative pro-Democratic lean of women and pro-Republican lean of men in party affiliation and voting habits, has been a fact of American electoral life since the 1980s. In 2016, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, women voted Democratic for president by a margin of 15 points (54 percent to 39 percent), while men voted Republican by 11 points (52 percent to 41 percent). This difference was somewhat larger in 2016 than in other recent elections—probably reflecting the specific candidates on the ballot last time—though not dramatically so; Gallup estimated in 2012 that Barack Obama had carried the women's vote by 12 points while losing to Mitt Romney by 8 points among men.

But gender differences in the composition of the parties become greater as we move up the ladder of political engagement from average voters to activists, candidates, interest group leaders, and elected officials. Today, for example, 74 percent of female senators are Democrats, as are 73 percent of female U.S. House members—even though Republicans outnumber Democrats overall in both chambers. And this elite-level gender gap is certain to grow after the 2018 midterms. Democrats have nominated 183 women for the House this year (compared to 52 for the Republicans), representing a record 43 percent of the party's candidates. Among non-incumbents, a full 50 percent of Democratic House candidates are female, compared to 18 percent for the GOP:



This imbalance between the parties is also evident in senatorial and gubernatorial races, where women constitute 38 percent of Democratic nominees in 2018, compared to 17 percent of Republican nominees:



Democratic women are still undercounted in leadership ranks; because they reliably outnumber men among the party's supporters in the national electorate, even the perfectly balanced gender ratio among non-incumbent House candidates in 2018 gives female Democrats less than their proportionate share. But Republican women are underrepresented among the politician class to a much greater degree. According to the Pew data, women provided Donald Trump with about 48 percent of his popular votes in 2016, yet they constitute only 14 percent of the party's 2018 congressional candidates, 12 percent of its sitting senators and governors, and 10 percent of its current House membership. And it's quite possible that the share of female Republicans in Congress will decline further after 2018, since several veteran incumbents are retiring and a few others face tough races against Democratic challengers this November.

So there are really two gender gaps—one each in mass and elite politics—that differ markedly in magnitude. But they differ in their character as well. Scholars have not settled on a consensus explanation for the emergence of the gender gap among rank-and-file voters, but some analyses have suggested that, despite common assumptions that political disagreements between male and female citizens center mostly on stereotypical "women's issues," its existence mostly reflects distinct views on economics. In general, women tend to be more liberal than men on kitchen-table domestic policy concerns like health care and Social Security, perhaps reflecting the fact that they are collectively more economically vulnerable than men—especially if unmarried.

In the echelons of political leadership, however, the partisan loyalties and policy priorities of many women on the Democratic left are visibly fueled by a personal commitment to feminism and related social causes. Because the top ranks of the conservative Republican opposition are so heavily dominated by men, the landscape populated by nationally prominent politicians and activists—as well as the related professional worlds inhabited by reporters, intellectuals, social critics, media personalities, and the rest of the "creative class"—can resemble a perpetually polarized battle of the sexes in which gender differences closely map onto other stark political divisions separating participants along lines of partisanship, ideology, and cultural perspective.

This pattern is further reinforced by current fashions in liberal thought and rhetoric. The strong individualistic streak that once characterized the American left is gradually giving way to newer intellectual trends emphasizing the inescapable salience of social group membership as a source of common interests, priorities, experiences, and threats. Contemporary liberal activists with visible social media platforms or prominent positions in opinion journalism and the entertainment industry commonly characterize issues like abortion, sexual assault and harassment, and demands for demographic diversity in high-status professions as uniting women as a group ("#YesAllWomen") against a male-identified opposition bent on their subjugation ("#SmashThePatriarchy").

But among the American public as a whole, differences in opinion between men and women on such matters are often modest or nonexistent, and are reliably smaller than more familiar divisions along party lines. For example, a recent Pew survey found no significant gender gap on abortion (59 percent of women and 55 percent of men favored legal abortion in "all or most cases") but a much wider divide separating partisans (75 percent of Democrats took the pro-choice position, compared to 34 percent of Republicans). Another survey conducted this past April asking whether "sexual harassment and assault is a major problem in the workplace today" found a 10-point difference by gender (55 percent of women and 45 percent of men agreed) and a 29-point difference by party (62 percent of Democrats agreed, compared to 33 percent of Republicans). Even the surge in female office-seekers depicted in the graphs above inspires the same pattern; 80 percent of Democrats (including 75 percent of Democratic men) say it's a "good thing" that more women are running for Congress in 2018, but only 39 percent of Republicans—and only 45 percent of Republican women—express enthusiasm about this development.

This doesn't mean that the promotion of feminist thought by liberal elites has had little effect on public opinion more broadly. The reception of these ideas has merely been much warmer among Democrats than among Republicans—even female Republicans—further fueling a societal debate in which the largest divide is between the two parties, not the two genders. Analysis that fails to acknowledge the overwhelming influence of partisanship risks misstating or incorrectly forecasting the public's response to political events or figures that touch on gender issues. Feminist thinkers and activists may claim the standing to speak on behalf of women as a group, but women out in the public at large exhibit much less collective coherence, or distinctiveness from men, than it appears from the vantage point of the politically hyper-engaged.

For example, when the "Access Hollywood" footage of Donald Trump surfaced in October 2016, most pundits, and even leading Republicans like Reince Priebus and Paul Ryan, assumed that scandalized women would abandon his candidacy en masse, leaving him to a certain and perhaps historic defeat. Instead, Trump's female supporters stayed loyal and carried him to an upset victory. Likewise, the emergence this week of sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh inspired predictions from some corners of a popular backlash among women that would soon scuttle his chances of confirmation in the Senate. It's too soon to know for sure, but there's little evidence so far of significant erosion in Kavanaugh's public support; Democrats already disliked him, and Republicans who were initially favorable to his nomination haven't yet heard anything to change their minds.

I've argued repeatedly that the coast-to-coast eruption of female-led Democratic activism in 2018 is the most important electoral development of the year, and probably the most underappreciated. A compositional transformation and mass mobilization on such a large scale is sure to have significant consequences for American political life even if it is confined to only one party. And this "pink wave" is itself a response to key developments in Republican politics that culminated in the election of the current presidential administration.

We don't yet know, however, whether Democratic primary voters' growing preference for female candidates will be shared by the much larger and politically diverse general electorate this November, or how the feminist case against Republican rule made by thought leaders in the national media will resonate among women—or men, for that matter—in the pivotal midwestern constituencies that hold the balance of power in Congress. In the age of Trump, the gender gap among elites seems to be growing more intense by the day. But will the mass gender gap start moving in the same direction, or will the gap between the gaps just continue to grow?

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Primary Election Recap: A Big Upset Here at Home

Honest Graft headquarters is located in the 7th District of Massachusetts, a constituency that rarely commands the attention of the national political world. As denizens of a one-party city located within a seldom-competitive state, Boston voters are unused to producing electoral outcomes of interest to anyone but ourselves (if even that). But on Tuesday night, an already newsy day in American politics was capped by a major upset: the defeat, by a wide popular margin, of 10-term incumbent House member Mike Capuano by Boston city councillor Ayanna Pressley.

I'll admit that I expected Capuano to win this race. He wasn't caught napping by Pressley's challenge; in fact, he outspent her by a substantial amount and, at least in our corner of the district, ran a more visible campaign. Moreover, his down-the-line liberal voting record in Congress gave Pressley few specific targets to attack. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, while the district is nominally a majority-minority seat, the active electorate is mostly white—and white Bostonians do not have much of a history of voting for non-white Bostonians.

As I argued on Twitter, I think it's a mistake to view the Pressley victory primarily as a manifestation of a larger pattern of ideological purity tests in Democratic nomination politics; if pundits insist upon characterizing the results in MA-07 as part of a national trend, a much better choice of context is the record-setting rate at which Democratic voters are nominating women for office in 2018. In fact, other results around the state on Tuesday didn't fit the story of a newly-dominant left. Incumbent House members Richard Neal and Stephen Lynch—the latter much less liberal than Capuano—easily defeated insurgent primary challengers, and statewide candidates Jay Gonzalez and Bill Galvin cruised to victory over more left-leaning opponents.

But the Pressley-Capuano race does represent a potential milestone all the same, with resonances that extend beyond the borders of the district in which it was fought. Steady rates of population change over the past two decades or so in Boston—as well as in neighboring Cambridge and Somerville, both located at least partially within the borders of MA-07—have brought streams of younger professionals into neighborhoods that were previously home to working-class urban residents. Both types of voters are mostly Democratic—and, to a degree, mostly liberal—but they have different sets of political concerns, priorities, and styles.

A city that has become mostly a collection of highly-educated cosmopolitan whites and politically mobilized racial minorities is potentially fertile ground for candidates with Pressley's profile—and, in fact, the most remarkable thing about this race might be how long it took for these population shifts to translate into political change. The Somerville of the 1990s was still home to a significant blue-collar "white ethnic" vote that elected Capuano mayor before helping to send him to Congress in the first place; the Somerville of today is a rapidly gentrifying satellite of the Tufts and Harvard campuses that nearly opted for Pressley over its erstwhile favorite son.

It could well turn out to be a fitting coincidence that Pressley defeated Capuano on the same day that Rahm Emanuel announced his retirement as mayor of Chicago. Emanuel personifies a certain kind of urban politician—liberal and Democratic, yet bluntly transactional, impatient with idealism, and sensitive to the interests of businesses and law enforcement unions—who once ruled American cities from one side of the country to the other but who are becoming increasingly scarce, and even somewhat anachronistic. We may be observing the rise of a new style of urban politics that is more conversant with national issues and ideological currents than its predecessors, and in which white voters increasingly join non-whites in opposing policies and patterns of demographic representation that are perceived to disfavor racial minorities and other socially disadvantaged groups. If so, Boston will not be the only city to soon feel a political change in the air.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Quiet Reinvention of Ted Cruz

It's hardly unusual for an incumbent politician to kick off a re-election campaign by producing a television ad recalling a past crisis when he provided both personal comfort and—even more importantly—public resources to his constituents in their moment of need. But when that politician is better known for taking symbolic stands on the floor of Congress than for working pragmatically with others to deliver material benefits to his home state, even a fairly ordinary 30-second spot seems like a window into a larger personal reinvention.

The politician in question is Texas senator Ted Cruz, who built a national reputation as a Tea Party-aligned conservative purist during the second term of the Obama presidency before running for president himself in 2016. Earlier this month, Cruz, now seeking a second term in the Senate, released his first positive campaign ad of the year, which emphasized his role in securing federal funds on behalf of the victims of Hurricane Harvey and featured video clips of the senator—not normally known as a touchy-feely type—embracing and holding the hands of disaster-afflicted citizens. The Cruz portrayed in the ad is indeed a fighter, but for the immediate interests of fellow Texans rather than for timeless ideological principles.

Cruz appears to have good reason to recast his public persona. Unlike other candidates like Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich, who returned home with their popularity intact after losing the 2016 nomination race, the elevated visibility that Cruz received by running for president damaged his reputation among Texas voters. According to University of Texas surveys, the proportion of state residents holding a favorable impression of Cruz peaked at 46 percent (compared to 34 percent reporting an unfavorable impression) in June 2014; by the end of his presidential candidacy two years later, Cruz's favorability rating had sunk to just 31 percent (versus 48 percent unfavorable).

Cruz seems to have enjoyed a bit of a rebound since then; the latest UT survey, from June 2018, gives him a 41 percent favorable rating and a 42 percent unfavorable rating. But that showing still places him in a potentially vulnerable position as he seeks re-election, even as a Republican incumbent in a Republican state. Indeed, multiple recent polls—including a survey released this afternoon by NBC News—have found Cruz with just a single-digit lead over his Democratic challenger, El Paso congressman Robert "Beto" O'Rourke, who is running an energetic and well-funded, if at times amateurish, campaign. Cruz is still clearly favored to win, but he can't simply coast to a second term—and even a narrow victory would represent an undeniable sign of political weakness, given the massive head start bestowed on any Republican by the strong partisan lean of the Texas electorate.

Buzzfeed's recent profile of O'Rourke revealed that the Democrat's campaign "proudly employs no pollsters or traditional consultants," which seems like a very odd thing to be proud of. Cruz, presumably, has not adopted such a policy. Indeed, the visible change in his public behavior since returning to the Senate from the presidential campaign trail two years ago suggests a deliberate shift in strategy informed by direct evidence of declining popularity back in his home state. Once best known for delivering floor speeches blasting the Republican leadership as sellouts to conservatism and for leading the right wing of his party into procedural confrontations on behalf of ideological causes, Cruz has been a fairly quiet senator for a while now. In some ways, the Cruz of the new TV spot, bringing home the federal bacon to Texas with a hug and a smile, is just the latest version of a personal reinvention that began even before O'Rourke emerged as a viable challenger.

Such a change of course may only confirm the suspicions of critics—like many of his eye-rolling Senate colleagues—who found Cruz's previous persona as a tireless defender of sacred principles to be merely the product of transparently insincere and self-serving calculation. But all politicians must change with the times or risk defeat. Lindsey Graham was once one of the fellow senators most frequently infuriated by Cruz's behavior, calling him "at his core . . . an opportunist" among many other pejoratives. Of course, Graham also trashed Donald Trump in the press for months, but has more recently become one of the president's golf partners. In politics, opportunism is less an occupational hazard than a virtual inevitability.

Cruz has ultimately found himself in the same place as many other Republicans, struggling to adapt to the massive changes that have occurred since Obama gave way to Trump—both within the Republican Party and in the larger political climate. Some Republican members of Congress, such as many of Cruz's former Capitol Hill allies in the House Freedom Caucus, have become enthusiastic supporters of their new party leader; a few others have voiced open criticism (usually on route to departure from office). But most Republican politicians have cautiously stayed in the middle, calibrating their words and actions to satisfy the conservative activist base without staking their own public reputation on Trump's behavior. Once an attention-grabbing insurgent within his party, Cruz has become one more Republican hoping to be among the survivors of the high winds whipped up by this season's political hurricane.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Few Political Consequences of the Democratic Surge Among College-Educated Whites

The Pew Research Center recently released an informative report on the composition of the American electorate, based on a survey of citizens whose electoral participation (or lack thereof) in 2016 was confirmed by matching their names to state voter turnout records. High-quality studies like those conducted by Pew provide more reliable information on the distribution of attributes within the voting public than the more commonly-cited (but less methodologically sound) national exit polls, and thus any discrepancies between them are usually best resolved in favor of the former.

For example, exit polls can overestimate the degree of educational attainment in the electorate. In 2016, the national exit poll found, improbably, that a full 50 percent of voters had earned at least a bachelor's degree, with just 18 percent reporting no more than a high school education. The new Pew study estimates that the true figures are the following: 37 percent with a BA degree or more, 34 percent with college experience short of a four-year degree, and 30 percent with a high school diploma or less—much closer to a rough three-way split among the no, some, and completed college categories than an even divide between four-year college graduates and non-grads.

But if the true proportion of college graduates in the voting public was smaller than the exit polls indicated, these voters also seem to have preferred Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump much more decisively than the exit pollsters believed. The national exit poll estimated that Clinton had prevailed over Trump by 52 percent to 42 percent among all four-year college graduates, narrowly losing white college grads by a margin of 48 percent to 45 percent and carrying white female grads by 7 points (51 percent to 44 percent). According to the Pew researchers, however, Clinton outpolled Trump by a full 21 points (57 percent to 36 percent) among all college graduates, by 17 points (55 percent to 38 percent) among white grads, and by 26 points (61 percent to 35 percent) among white female grads.

The Pew figures aren't likely to be precisely correct; sampling error and other methodological limitations apply to them as well. But they surely come closer than the exit poll data to the true values within the American population. Since pre-election surveys and other forms of evidence indicate that Trump carried non-college-grad whites overwhelmingly (perhaps by as much as 40 points), the most logical way to account for the fact that Clinton outran Trump by 2.8 million popular votes nationwide is to assume that she prevailed among the college/post-grad sector of the electorate by a comfortable margin. In fact, Clinton is almost certainly the first Democratic presidential candidate in modern history to win more votes from white college graduates than the Republican opposition.

This achievement undoubtedly reflects the limits of Trump's appeal among college-educated voters more than any special devotion to Clinton. But the Democratic Party was evolving even before 2016 to become more dependent on the votes of racial minorities, young adults, and highly-educated professionals (the "Obama coalition") while relinquishing much of its previous electoral support among non-college-educated whites to the GOP. Moreover, recent opinion polls and the results of special elections indicate that the pro-Democratic shift among white college graduates evident in the 2016 contest has survived into 2017 and 2018, suggesting that the Democratic leanings of these voters will endure for at least as long as Trump is the leader of the Republican Party.

What are the implications of a newfound preference for Democrats within this formerly majority-Republican sector of the electorate? Here are a few areas of American politics that will be measurably affected by such a change:

1. Geography. Because educational attainment is not evenly distributed across geographic boundaries, the places where each party can expect to win votes will evolve along with the demographic composition of their voter coalitions. In general, we can expect the growing partisan divide between increasingly "blue" large metropolitan areas and securely "red" small towns, a trend explored in my recent book Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics, to persist into the future. This will help Democratic candidates in high-education suburbs where a number of vulnerable Republican-held House seats are located, such as those actively contested this year in greater New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, Denver, Seattle, and Los Angeles. But most of these places already vote Democratic at the state level, while the erosion of Democratic support among non-college whites endangers the party's Senate prospects in states like Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota. As a result, it's quite possible that the midterm elections this year will result in a majority-making Democratic "wave" of 25 seats or more in the House while simultaneously preserving, or even strengthening, Republican control of the Senate.

2. Participation. Level of educational attainment is always a powerful predictor, and often the most powerful predictor, of citizens' propensity for political engagement. Participatory activities that go beyond merely voting for president every four years—from turning out in midterm and primary elections to volunteering for campaigns, making monetary contributions, and organizing political events and groups—are all disproportionately the domain of the highly-educated. Democrats already appear to be benefiting this year from the energetic mobilization of metropolitan professionals, which has led to both a rise of political networking at the local level and a cascade of individual financial donations to Democratic candidates. In contrast, one of the biggest unanswered questions as we look forward to the 2018 midterms is whether the Republican Party will succeed in motivating the non-college-grad whites who supported Trump in heavy numbers two years ago to turn out at sufficient rates in a non-presidential election when Trump himself is not on the ballot.

3. Candidate Recruitment. Whites with college degrees are a minority of the total electorate, but they always constitute a large majority of the pool of candidates for federal and state office. A partisan shift among this population therefore influences the relative supply of strong candidates within each party's activist base. The particular antipathy to Trump evident among college-educated women in the Pew data helps to account for an unprecedented spike in the number of female candidates on the Democratic side in 2018, and the desire to send a message of opposition to Trump's behavior seems to have inspired Democratic primary voters to frequently choose these women to be standard-bearers for the party. Through the first 41 states to hold primaries so far this year, 41 percent of all Democratic House nominees this year are women, including 48 percent of all non-incumbent nominees—an astonishing increase over all previous congressional elections:



4. The Polarization of Education Policy. Education has not always been a strictly partisan or ideologically-charged issue. Past Republican presidents like George W. Bush adopted ambitious education initiatives in order to bolster their appeal among suburban moderates, while state governors and legislators of both parties have often viewed the authorization of ample K-12 and public university funding as both economically and politically advantageous. But there are signs that this bipartisan consensus is coming apart. In recent years, Republican governors in Kansas and Oklahoma have enacted ambitious tax reductions that required deep offsetting decreases to local education aid, while GOP legislators in Wisconsin have targeted state universities for budget cuts and other restrictions. In addition, conservative media sources now repeatedly direct sharp criticism at the American educational system, often describing universities as bastions of intolerant leftism and mocking college students as hopelessly coddled "snowflakes."

If highly-educated voters continue to drift toward the Democrats, a key constituency that might be expected to serve as an internal base of resistance against these policies will lose its current degree of influence within the Republican Party—which may well only further reinforce the trend of growing polarization. Trump has not made education a presidential priority, and his appointment of the controversial Betsy DeVos as secretary of education has done little to bolster his popular standing on the issue. But while Republicans may pay an electoral price in the short term due to the countermobilization of concerned parents and outraged teachers, the prospect of a perpetual partisan war over the value of American education ultimately threatens the interests of educators much more than those of politicians.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Special and Primary Election Recap: (Mostly) More of the Same

The special House election held Tuesday in Ohio's 12th District headlined an evening that also featured primary contests in Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, and Washington. Sifting through the results for information about the contemporary political landscape reveals confirmation of three existing trends, plus one more unusual development. So, three non-surprises and one surprise—adding up to a picture of "(mostly) more of the same":

1. The Ohio election received considerable national media coverage, just like previous special congressional elections held over the past year or so in Georgia, Alabama, and Pennsylvania. In all four of these contests, a district or state that was ordinarily a Republican stronghold produced a highly competitive and closely divided race for the first time in many years. In Alabama and Pennsylvania, Democrats eked out a narrow win; in Georgia and (apparently, barring a surprise twist) Ohio, Republicans managed to barely hang on. Thus, the Ohio results can be added to the existing set of clues that the national electoral environment has shifted substantially in the Democrats' favor since Donald Trump became president, but they don't themselves hold much independent importance. Given the results of previous special elections, recent polling data, and campaign fundraising totals, there was already more than enough reason to believe that Democrats are poised to gain a substantial number of House seats in November—unless the prevailing political winds shift dramatically before then.

2. The remarkable success of female candidates in Democratic primaries continues to be the biggest electoral story of the year. Women won the Democratic nomination for governor in Kansas and Michigan last night, will inherit the safely Democratic House seat in Michigan held for 53 years by ex-Rep. John Conyers, and will advance to face Republicans this November in the competitive districts of MI-07, MI-08, MI-11, WA-03, WA-05, and (probably) WA-08. Again, these results are hardly a surprise given the outcome of previous primaries, but they extend what has become an extraordinarily important evolution in the internal dynamics of the Democratic Party.

3. While some corners of the political media continue to anticipate an ideologically purist rebellion within Democratic ranks led by the supporters of Bernie Sanders in 2016—expectations that were given a shot of rocket fuel after the upset victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a New York House primary last June—there continues to be little evidence of a consistent national trend in this direction. Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez both endorsed Abdul El-Sayed for governor of Michigan, who finished a distant second in the primary on Tuesday, and Ocasio-Cortez also personally campaigned for Cori Bush, who challenged veteran Democratic incumbent Lacy Clay in the St. Louis-based MO-01 seat but fell well short of victory. (Honest Graft maintains a long-standing skeptical stance toward claims of an imminent left-wing revolution within Democratic politics, for reasons that have been set forth at greater length in previous posts.) To be sure, two other key developments on Tuesday in Missouri—the rejection of a state "right to work" law via ballot referendum and the defeat of a veteran St. Louis County prosecutor in the wake of the Ferguson protests—can be interpreted as liberal victories, but they also both fit comfortably within our own view of the Democratic Party as primarily advancing the interests of its social group coalition.

4. The biggest surprise of the night occurred on the Republican side, where Donald Trump's public endorsement of Kris Kobach in the Kansas GOP gubernatorial primary did not lift Kobach to a comfortable victory over incumbent governor Jeff Colyer. (As I write this, the vote count is neck and neck; Kobach may win, but he can hope for a slim advantage at best.) After Trump intervened in other primaries—most recently, for governor of Georgia—on behalf of candidates who cruised to easy victories, it appeared that he enjoyed an impressive kingmaking power due to his personal popularity among the Republican electorate. But the president may learn why his predecessors have normally been reluctant to wade into internal party contests—if your anointed candidate struggles, it makes you look weak, politically speaking. And Donald Trump is not a man who likes to look weak.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Was the Midwestern "Red Shift" More Pro-Trump or Anti-Hillary? The Answer Matters a Lot for 2018

The election analyst Nate Cohn of the New York Times published an excellent piece today arguing that the Democrats are benefiting from an electoral battleground in 2018 that is broader than was anticipated by the post-2016 conventional wisdom. In particular, he notes, Democratic candidates appear to be doing better than expected this year in heavily white, lower-education congressional districts that voted for Donald Trump. This has allowed the party to contest many more seats than it would if the scope of electoral competition were restricted to the smaller number of Republican-held well-educated suburban districts that had shifted toward Hillary Clinton in 2016.

In general, one of the most challenging aspects of analyzing events in real time is distinguishing temporary blips from more durable trends. Popular pundits and other media figures often tend to overstate the degree to which immediate events portend long-term patterns; as I noted once in another context, "There's a temptation to assume that everything new in politics is a harbinger of the future. But lots of things are dead ends: They rise, and they go away." On the other hand, we academics are often prone to the opposite bias, hanging onto familiar theories and assumptions past the point when evidence has built up that the world has indeed changed.

When it comes to the geographic polarization of American voters, there's an unmistakable decades-long trend of divergence between (pro-Democratic) metropolitan areas and (increasingly Republican) rural areas, but also an especially sharp and unprecedented increase in this gap in the 2016 presidential election—as illustrated in this summary of partisan voting in the pivotal Midwest region taken from Chapter 6 of my book Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics:



The rural Midwest has been trending Republican for a long time; Bill Clinton narrowly carried it twice in the 1990s, but Barack Obama lost this vote 53 percent to 47 percent in 2008 and 57 to 43 in 2012. In 2016, Donald Trump routed Hillary Clinton here, attracting 68 percent of the two-party rural Midwestern vote—6 points better than Ronald Reagan in his 49-state landslide 1984 reelection.

If 2016 indeed represents the "new normal," than it would make sense for analysts to take a bearish view of Democratic chances in white, small-town congressional districts in the Midwest and elsewhere this year. But if 2016 was something of an aberration, and the Trump-Clinton vote does not fully reflect the relative fundamental strength of the two parties, then the map of electoral battlegrounds opens wider, and the fortunes of congressional Democrats improve accordingly.

Midterm elections are always primarily a referendum on the president, and Trump has dominated the political scene so thoroughly since he took office that this rule of thumb is likely to be especially applicable to 2018. If the remarkable Republican strength in the rural Midwest in 2016 was primarily a reflection of Trump's personal popularity, we might expect it to carry over into 2018 unless a significant share of formerly-enthusiastic Trump supporters had become disillusioned in the interim. But if the abrupt partisan shift between 2012 and 2016 visible in the figure above was largely a reflection of Hillary Clinton's personal unpopularity with rural Midwesterners—as well as a Clinton campaign that eschewed economic issues to an unprecedented degree for a modern Democrat—we shouldn't be surprised by a significant Democratic rebound in the region this November, since Clinton will be neither on the ballot nor in the White House.

Cohn's piece focuses exclusively on the House of Representatives, but the question of whether the 2016 "red shift" across the north-central section of the country is a temporary or enduring development becomes even more critical when we turn to the Senate—where Democrats are defending nine seats in Trump-carried states stretching from Pennsylvania to Montana plus two more in Minnesota (which Trump lost by less than two points). Using the 2016 presidential results as a starting point for expectations of 2018 outcomes paints a very optimistic picture for Republicans; Trump carried Indiana, Missouri, and Montana by about 20 points and won North Dakota and West Virginia by more than 35. Yet all of these states elected Democratic senators only six years ago, and all of them but North Dakota were actively contested at the presidential level as recently as 2004 or 2008. 

Many loyal Democrats will not easily accept the belief that the results in 2016 reflected a widespread popular antipathy to Hillary Clinton. And the surprising nature of Trump's victory has encouraged the view, even among his fiercest critics, that he maintains under-appreciated political strengths. But the more validity to the conclusion that Trump was a weak candidate who won a close and fluky election only because he was facing a seriously flawed opponent, the rosier the outlook becomes for Democrats this November.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Is The "Resistance" the Most Under-Covered Political Story of 2018?

Last week, candidates for Congress submitted their campaign fundraising and spending reports for the second quarter of 2018, as required by federal law—and a clear pattern emerged from the thousands of individual filings. In more than 70 Republican-held or competitive open House seats, at least one Democratic candidate out-raised the leading Republican over the preceding three months; 56 of these Republicans are incumbent members of Congress. Democratic fundraising success extended from the perennial battleground districts of CO-06, IA-01, and TX-23 to seats that were widely considered to be deeply red-hued even in this year's electoral climate (for example, Democrats Ken Harbaugh and Liz Watson raised more than $500,000 apiece in OH-07 and IN-09, respectively—two districts that are currently classified as "solid Republican" by the Cook Political Report).

The campaign money flowing on the Democratic side this year is just one sign of a larger mobilization of Americans moved to political action in response to current events; as David Wasserman of the Cook Report quipped, "Donald Trump is the best fundraiser Dem candidates have ever had." Reports from journalists and academics describe grassroots organizational activity by left-of-center citizens and groups that is unequalled since Barack Obama's first presidential campaign, and disproportionate political engagement among women that may have been last matched during the push for the Equal Rights Amendment four decades ago. Yet even as the conventional wisdom continues to tilt toward the expectation of major Democratic electoral gains this year, some important micro-foundations underlying this national shift—the changing behavior of citizen activists in local communities—are receiving a small fraction of the media coverage that was directed to the Tea Party movement in advance of the Republican victories of 2010.

One obvious potential explanation for this relative inattention is that Trump himself dominates the daily news to an unparalleled degree, crowding out other stories about other topics. Indeed, the latest fundraising reports might have made a bigger public splash if the president hadn't had a particularly newsworthy few days last week. But that alone isn't enough to explain why the "resistance" in general isn't getting more press. Under the right circumstances, it's actually quite easy for the media to become fascinated with Democratic Party politics, even in the age of an uniquely attention-grabbing Republican chief executive.

For example, when a previously unknown challenger won an upset primary election victory over a mid-ranking member of the House leadership last month, she immediately became a media phenomenon, even sparking serious suggestions by multiple members of the commentariat that the Democratic Party in general was turning toward socialism. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has gained so much attention precisely because she seems like a dramatic exception to the usual pattern. Preoccupation with novelty is an understandable human response—but when translated into journalistic practice, it results in a hurricane of national coverage descending on a single, decidedly atypical congressional candidate.

As I have recently argued, the Democratic Party is indeed evolving in important ways, and the class of candidates running this year is visibly different from those of the past. But these changes have produced little of the internal party conflict and factionalism that tends to interest the media. (Ocasio-Cortez's relatively confrontational approach toward other Democrats is one of the main reasons why she's received so much attention—though here, too, she is unrepresentative of broader trends.) The Tea Party movement's aggressive challenge to existing Republican leaders' hold on power helped to earn significant publicity during the Obama years, but the current activist backlash against Trump lacks the Tea Party's ideologically purist and anti-Washington character.

We are left, instead, with a picture of millions of Americans arrayed from the political left to the center, disproportionately well-educated, suburban, and professional, who are simultaneously captivated and repulsed by the day-to-day behavior of Donald Trump. Perhaps the real reason that reporters and editors don't find this story more interesting is that they feel like they already know plenty of people like that. (In fact, many of them are people like that.) Yet if the balance of partisan power shifts after November, it won't just be because of Trump himself, but will also reflect the actions of citizens who responded to his presidency by making room in their own lives for heightened engagement in the political arena.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

In the Democratic Party, Even "Anti-Politicians" Tout Policy Credentials

One of the most distinctive characteristics of the large congressional freshman classes elected in the Republican midterm landslides of 1994 and 2010 was the sizable proportion of new members in both years who had never before held elective office. These "citizen legislators" effectively harnessed longstanding public suspicion of Washington and temporary time-for-a-change popular sentiment to cast themselves as untainted outsiders rather than professional politicians, successfully jumping directly to Congress without climbing the traditional career ladder via town councils and state legislatures.

On the Democratic side, candidates have historically been less likely to adopt the persona of the insurgent outsider, and Democratic organizations have normally preferred to recruit and reward candidates for Congress who have previously served as elected officials. (From the party's point of view, potential congressional nominees who have already attained positive name recognition among voters, who have built extensive fundraising networks, and who can boast a successful track record in managing political campaigns have normally been considered the safest bets to perform well in general elections.) Thus even the national Democratic victories of 2006 and 2008 did not produce freshman classes packed with self-styled "anti-politicians" who had won their seats by advertising their status as electoral newcomers.

This year, however, many of the Democratic nominees in competitive districts lack previous elective experience—a pattern that could foreshadow a more reformist House if the 2018 elections return the Democrats to power. But these new Democratic "amateurs" are still not exactly the mirror images of their Republican counterparts. As Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report recently wrote after interviewing twelve Democratic challengers in pivotal House districts:

Only four of the 12 hold elective office or have ever run for office. Most of the others, however, are policy veterans. Some worked in the Obama White House or other branches of the federal government during the Obama era. Others worked as advocates in their states/districts on issues ranging from voting rights to child advocacy to housing issues. In other words, they aren’t your local dentists or lawyers or business owners who suddenly got "fed up" or "activated" to service. Their lives have long been defined by activism of one sort or another.

Walter doesn't name the specific subjects of her interviews, but it's not hard to identify candidates who fit this description. Here are a few examples of Democratic House candidates who have never held elective office but have served in government or as policy activists, all from competitive seats that the Cook Report currently classifies as "Tossup" or "Lean Republican/Democratic" in the coming election:

Katie Hill (California 25): Anti-homelessness non-profit organization executive

Lauren Baer (Florida 18): Former State Department staffer

Lauren Underwood (Illinois 14): Former Heath and Human Services Department staffer

Cindy Axne (Iowa 3): Former state employee and local education activist

Elissa Slotkin (Michigan 8): Former Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense, CIA analyst, and White House national security staffer

Susie Lee (Nevada 3): Education non-profit organization executive

Andy Kim (New Jersey 3): Former White House National Security Council member and State Department staffer

Tom Malinowski (New Jersey 7): Former Assistant Secretary of State and White House National Security Council member

Leslie Cockburn (Virginia 5): Journalist, author, and environmental organizations board member

Abigail Spanberger (Virginia 7): Former CIA operations officer

It appears that even non-traditional congressional candidates get ahead in the Democratic Party by promoting themselves as holding relevant political or governmental experience, even if it's not specifically elective experience. Voters in Republican primaries chiefly demand ideological qualifications, but voters in Democratic primaries also value policy expertise—a natural asymmetry given that Democratic constituencies have a much greater perceived interest in effective government action. (Recall that in the liberal fantasyland of the West Wing TV show, the Democratic president was a Nobel Prize-winning economics professor who also spoke four languages and was an excellent chess player with a mind for trivia.)

Even the non-"career politician" bloc among future House Democrats is therefore likely to have less of a purist, insurgent character than was displayed by the aggressively anti-establishment Republican freshmen of 1994 and 2010. At the same time, the first order of business for newly-elected Democratic members after the November election will be a leadership vote that could well result in a shakeup deposing one or more of the current regime. So while they won't have come to Washington to attack government itself, this potential new generation of first-time legislators may still be in a position to bring immediate change to Capitol Hill.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Democrats Don't Need Unity to Win Elections: New Op-Ed in the New York Times

In every election year that I can remember, media pundits have spent a lot of time worrying (or crowing) that the Democratic Party is sabotaging its chances of victory. And, of course, 2018 is no different. As Matt Grossmann and I write today in the New York Times, Democratic disunity isn't an electoral disadvantage—though the developments of 2018 point toward serious future internal fights over which policy issues should receive top priority once the party regains power in 2020 or beyond.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

In Both Parties, Primary Voters Have Trump On Their Minds

Last Tuesday, Alabama congresswoman Martha Roby was held to 39 percent of the vote in the Republican primary in apparent punishment for her long-ago disavowal of Donald Trump after the Access Hollywood tape surfaced in October 2016. Roby faces a tough July 17 runoff election, where she will need to win an outright majority of votes in order to salvage her congressional career. This Tuesday, fellow House member and ex-governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina lost his own race for renomination to another Republican challenger whose main line of attack against Sanford cited his penchant for criticizing Trump.

Scattered election results don't always add up to a pattern—Sanford, in particular, carries his own personal baggage that long predates Trump's ascendance—but Tuesday brought another revealing set of outcomes in Virginia. Two-term Republican congresswoman Barbara Comstock represents a district that Hillary Clinton carried over Trump in 2016, yet her own party's voters do not appear to have much patience for her attempts to maintain an independent political persona in order to preserve her general-election viability. Without much advance warning, a relative unknown challenger from the right held Comstock to just 61 percent of the vote in the Virginia Republican primary. At the same time, Republican primary voters in northern Virginia provided Corey Stewart, an outspoken defender of the state's Confederate heritage, with the margin he needed to capture the party's U.S. Senate nomination.

One might expect that the population of wealthy, well-educated, professional, politically-connected Republicans who reside within the Washington suburbs would render northern Virginia about as promising a place as anywhere in the country to find a GOP electorate that was relatively skeptical of Trump and Trumpism. But there's little trace of such sentiments within the latest primary returns, in Virginia or elsewhere. In fact, it's hard to identify a single consistuency nationwide where Republicans are sufficiently numerous to realistically compete in general elections but where separation from Trump, even in muted form, is devoid of serious political risk for party candidates.

Open criticism of the current president from within the ranks of Republican officials is thus likely to be restricted to the handful of retiring incumbents—Jeff Flake, John McCain, Bob Corker, John Kasich—who no longer fear retribution from their own party's voters. Other Republicans may grumble on background to reporters about the current administration, but the message they hear from their voters these days is, at least in their perception, a demand for unconditional public loyalty. This state of affairs is only likely to change if the conservative media, now acting as the most powerful source of opinion leadership within the Republican Party, sours on Trump—which hardly seems possible in the immediate future.

It's not just Republican voters who are preoccupied with Trump these days. The abrupt surge in the share of women nominated for Congress by Democratic primary electorates that I discussed last month has remained intact through the recent round of primaries, representing an unmistakable response to Trump's election.

As of this week, a majority of states have now held primary elections for the 2018 midterms, and it is safe to say that the number of female House nominees on the Democratic side will set a historical record by a wide margin. In fact, Democrats have nominated 74 non-incumbent women for the House so far, which already exceeds the all-time high number (73) reached by the party in the 2012 election—with 24 states yet to hold primaries this year and several others with unresolved runoffs. Currently, 41 percent of Democratic House nominees are women, including 48 percent of non-incumbent nominees (see below). More than a year into his presidency, the shadow cast by Trump over both sides of American politics seems only to be growing in size.



Monday, June 04, 2018

What the Governor of Massachusetts Tells Us About American Voters

A new WBUR poll of Massachusetts residents confirms that the incumbent governor, Charlie Baker, is overwhelmingly popular and in excellent position to win a second term by a landslide. Baker is viewed favorably by 67 percent of poll respondents (compared to just 9 percent with unfavorable views) and leads each of his two potential general-election opponents by an identical 40-point margin. The 2018 election will feature pivotal and highly competitive governors' races in a number of states from Maine to Nevada, but we Bay Staters appear likely to be deprived of such excitement this fall.

Baker is a Republican running in a normally Democratic state and a pro-Democratic national electoral environment, yet he is not merely favored to win but heavily so. In an era in which it is fashionable to characterize Americans as hopelessly "tribal" in their partisan loyalties, he has managed to become broadly well-liked across party lines (in fact, according to the WBUR data, Baker is slightly more popular with Massachusetts Democrats than among his fellow Republicans). Baker's success thus represents a rare outlying case that allows us to better understand the foundations of contemporary political conflict in the United States. What has allowed him to escape the partisan wars that have scarred so many other politicians?

Part of the answer is Baker's own public persona. He has made efforts to define himself as an ideological moderate by breaking with conservative doctrine on social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and gun control, and he has not proposed deep budget cuts in education or other popular public programs. Baker has also distanced himself from his party's national leadership, refusing to endorse Donald Trump (whose favorability rating in Massachusetts is just 29 percent, according to the WBUR poll) in 2016 and publicly criticizing the president's actions and words on several occasions.

But the behavior of the Democratic opposition is also important. By and large, Democratic leaders in the state legislature and state constitutional offices have taken a cooperative approach to the Baker administration rather than attempting to exacerbate partisan rancor at every turn. Democratic voters who are liable to take cues from their own party officials when forming opinions on political matters thus have little reason to form a critical view of Baker's governorship. Because both of the possible Democratic nominees for governor are relative unknowns with limited fundraising capacity, the 2018 campaign is unlikely to change enough Democrats' minds about the incumbent's job performance to plunge him into electoral danger.

For all the evidence that Democratic and Republican citizens increasingly disagree over policy issues and view each other in negative personal terms, it's still important to acknowledge the role of messages from elites—politicians, interest group leaders, media figures—in regulating the climate of partisan conflict. The mass public is often portrayed as fatally inattentive to political nuance, but it does seem to notice when party leaders prize collaboration over confrontation (and vice versa). At the national level, however, it has become rare for both sides to view mutual cooperation as serving their interests at the same time—and even if party leaders themselves wish to turn down the partisan temperature, they face increasing pressure to remain maximally combative from ideological media outlets and other powerful actors, especially on the Republican side.

One of the common themes of this blog is that politics is inevitably full of tradeoffs. For Charlie Baker, a moderate and mild-mannered governing style may well guarantee him a second term in office but will almost certainly prevent him from rising in the national Republican Party. For Donald Trump, slash-and-burn politics has succeeded in satisfying conservative activists and media authorities, but at the cost of legislative productivity and an unusually energized Democratic opposition. Yes, Americans are collectively divided these days—but it's important to note that such developments don't happen on their own. Inevitably, there are political leaders, whether in or out of office, who are doing the dividing.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

For Democrats, 2018 Is the Year of the Woman...and 2020 Too?

Opinion polls confirm that Democratic voters don't like Donald Trump any more than Republicans liked his predecessor Barack Obama, but anti-Trump popular activism ("the Resistance") has received a small fraction of the press coverage that the Tea Party movement attracted in 2009 and 2010. There are several reasons for this imbalance: the absence of a liberal counterpart to the powerful conservative media universe; the relative lack of bitter internal conflict within the Democratic Party as compared to the Republicans' persistent battles over ideological purity during the Obama years; and a Trump presidency that has itself produced an overwhelming barrage of daily headlines, making it difficult for any other story to gain sustained notice.

During the rare breaks in the Trump-generated action, media attention has occasionally focused on what has appeared to be a surge in political participation by women, from the well-attended Women's March of January 2017 to reports of an increase in female campaign donors to studies indicating a rise in women-led political organizing efforts. With Tuesday's primaries in Arkansas, Georgia, and Kentucky (plus a primary runoff in Texas) bringing the number of states that have already selected 2018 party nominees to 13, collectively holding 34 percent of the total number of House seats nationwide, it's a good time to examine whether the number of female congressional candidates is in fact historically exceptional, and whether—as one recent story suggested—such a trend is apparent in both parties, not just among the Trump-allergic Democrats.

Calculating the share of women among House nominees, and non-incumbent nominees, within each party in the states that have held primaries so far, and comparing these figures to previous years, yields the chart below. As Susan B. Anthony might say, wowee zowee:



So far in 2018, 43 percent of the Democratic nominees for the U.S. House are women, producing what would be the highest share of female congressional nominees in history for a major party by far if sustained through the remaining two-thirds of the primary calendar (the current record is 29 percent, set by the Democrats in 2016). In the districts with no Democratic incumbent seeking re-election, women actually outnumber men at this point in the nomination season by a margin of 51 seats to 50.

These numbers will shift somewhat in one direction or the other as more states hold their primaries. But it's apparent enough by now that we are witnessing a dramatic and historic change in the gender distribution among Democratic congressional nominees, caused by a rise in the supply of, and demand for, female candidates within the party in the wake of Trump's election (and Hillary Clinton's defeat). It's equally clear that this development is not occurring in parallel on the Republican side. In fact, the GOP is drifting the other way—so far, only 7 percent of the party's House nominees this year are women (compared to 12 percent in 2016), the lowest share for the party since the election of 1988. The proportion of female Republican nominees isn't much bigger when incumbents are excluded (9 percent).

From time to time, I'm asked whom I think the Democrats will nominate for president in 2020. With no obvious heir apparent in the party and a large field of probable candidates, I find it impossible to guess which individual contender is most likely to emerge from the nomination process two years from now. Moreover, the surprises of 2016 have left some of us supposed political experts with an enduring dose of humility that leads us to be wary of forecasting electoral outcomes.

But there is one prediction that I have been making with a great deal of confidence: I think there will be very strong sentiments among many Democratic activists and primary voters to nominate another woman for president in 2020. This doesn't mean a woman will win for sure; the nomination system is complex and multifaceted, and multiple female candidates could easily split popular support among themselves in the pivotal early states to the strategic benefit of a male opponent. But it seems certain that Trump's ascendance will cause gender to be even more salient among active Democrats next time than it was in 2008 and 2016, when the first viable potential female nominee sought the presidency. The primary results of 2018 thus represent both a critical contemporary development and a likely foreshadowing of our political future.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

What We Can Learn From the Demise of Trump's Infrastructure Plan

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed what had already been apparent for months: Congress is not going to enact infrastructure legislation this year. In its early weeks, Trump treated infrastructure investment as a major goal of his presidency; as recently as January's State of the Union address, it served as one of the primary elements of his proposed legislative agenda. But the details of the plan remained vague, enthusiasm among congressional Republicans was palpably limited, and periodic attempts by the White House to talk up the issue always seemed to be derailed by unrelated distractions of its own making.

Even in a conventional administration, "presidential initiative hits dead end in Congress" is hardly an unusual story. But the death of the infrastructure proposal also tells us something about the current state not only of the Trump presidency, but of the wider Republican Party.

Most national political leaders, most of the time, have historically operated under the assumption that they will be rewarded by the electorate for delivering widely popular policies and benefits; in the pithy words of Bill O'Reilly, voters are thought to "want stuff." This inclination tends to provide a brake on ideological extremity, encouraging members of the majority party to resolve their internal differences in order to amass a collective record of productivity and accomplishment. The ability to claim credit for working the system to provide funding for projects in their home states and districts was once seen as a significant advantage for incumbents running for reelection—and even as an explanation for the structure of Congress itself. Previous presidents have likewise habitually advanced policy priorities that were popular with average voters—from Bill Clinton's crime bill and welfare reform to George W. Bush's prescription drug benefits and public education funding—even if they departed at times from party orthodoxy.

But today's ideologically-oriented Republican Party increasingly rejects this logic. Rank-and-file Republicans, increasingly afraid (with good reason) of primary challenges from the right, are reluctant to support centrist or bipartisan legislation regardless of its overall popularity. Legislative leaders, who normally concern themselves with protecting the party's majority by playing to key voters in competitive seats, must now also keep a worried eye on their own right flank. The Senate majority leader has been cast as a sellout to conservatism by members of his own party in several Republican primaries this year, while the speaker of the House is departing from Congress rather than endanger future political ambitions by risking his reputation for ideological fidelity.

The president has found it politically useful to sell himself in public as a get-it-done Mr. Fix-It rather than a conservative thinker—and, indeed, media coverage during the 2016 campaign mostly adopted Trump's own framing of himself as a maverick outsider dedicated to "making deals" rather than upholding philosophical principles. But Trump hasn't placed much emphasis on backing up such pronouncements with action once in office, instead amassing a strongly conservative record in both personnel and policy matters.

Failing to pass an infrastructure bill might deprive Trump and congressional Republicans of a political advantage heading into the 2018 midterm elections. Spending more money on infrastructure is much more popular with the American public than Congress's actual priorities this session: cutting taxes on the wealthy and attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Imagine a President Trump who planned to spend the coming summer touring the country, triumphantly demonstrating his patriotic dedication to rebuilding the nation with each well-televised ribbon-cutting ceremony. Other Republicans, too, would have received tangible benefits to offer voters whose disapproval of Trump's personal behavior might have been tempered by his success in demonstrating effectiveness in office—to the endless frustration of Democratic congressional challengers.

Instead, Republicans have made a different choice. Party leaders are desperate to avoid further alienating a skeptical party base that they believe is already dissatisfied by the lack of spending cuts in the March omnibus appropriations bill, and that might treat additional "pork barrel" legislation as an outright ideological betrayal. Most top Republican politicians, including Trump himself, are daily consumers of Fox News and conservative talk radio who worry more about stimulating high turnout among Republican voters than about attracting electoral support from outside the party; as a result, they wish to avoid doing anything that might lead to critical coverage from right-of-center media. Most, Trump presumably excepted, are also themselves committed conservatives whose personal political beliefs would also discourage support for a major federal infrastructure initiative.

The demise of Trump's infrastructure plan thus represents both a revealing window into the current Republican Party and a collective political bet placed by Republican politicians on the smartest strategy for contesting the 2018—and, perhaps, 2020—elections. One notable characteristic of the Trump era is a growing perception that voter support, at least on the right, is best sustained via symbolic appeals rather than policy deliverables. The GOP's adherence to this hypothesis may ultimately risk a fatal backlash led by the rest of the public against a presidency that has so far offered more drama than substantive accomplishment. But it surely holds a natural allure to a president who seems much more inclined to verbal volatility than applied action, and it may prove to be a sufficient way for Republicans to rally their own side in the coming electoral battles with an energized Democratic opposition.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

More on the Conservative Media in the New York Times

Today's New York Times column by Tom Edsall concerns the rising power of conservative media within the Republican Party in the Trump era. It draws on research and analysis by a number of scholars and practitioners, and quotes at length from my latest paper with Matt Grossmann, "Placing Media in Conservative Culture." You can find the column here, and the full version of our paper here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Party Asymmetry in the Trump Era: Op-Ed in the New York Times

Not long ago, I wrote about the lack of a "liberal Tea Party" in the Trump era. In our latest op-ed piece for the New York Times, Matt Grossmann and I delve deeper into this question—and explain why being a member of the anti-Trump "resistance" requires you to keep your weekends free for one protest march after another. As veteran Honest Graft readers will know, this argument draws upon our 2016 book Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Ryan Was an Odd Fit as Speaker, and His Exit Proves It

The retirement of Paul Ryan after only two and a half years as speaker of the House, though rumored for months, was made official on Wednesday morning, setting off a race to succeed him as leader of the House Republicans. I very much recommend this post from Jonathan Bernstein, and have a few additional thoughts of my own.

It's impossible to understand Ryan's speakership without understanding the bizarre circumstances under which he came to power. John Boehner abruptly announced his departure from Congress in the fall of 2015 after anti-Boehner Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus threatened to force a procedural motion to depose him. Boehner's previous lieutenant and heir apparent, Eric Cantor, had unexpectedly been defeated in the Virginia Republican primary the year before, and Cantor's successor Kevin McCarthy, presumed at first to be next in line for the speakership, proved unable to line up enough votes within the Republican conference. (McCarthy, who remained as majority leader, is preparing to take another shot at the top leadership position now that Ryan is leaving, though the voters will decide in November whether or not that position is the speakership.)

Ryan, who was not a member of the party leadership at all in 2015 (he was chairing the Ways and Means Committee at the time), was finally persuaded to stand for speaker by an increasingly desperate Boehner in concert with other senior Republicans, protesting all the while that he was not actively seeking the job and didn't really want it. As it turned out, this wasn't just clever posturing designed to increase his leverage with the Republican conference. From the day he took the speaker's gavel until the present, Ryan has consistently behaved very much like someone who wasn't especially comfortable in the role and whose primary political preoccupation was to avoid suffering the awkward fate—unsentimentally pushed out the door in the midst of a congressional session—that had befallen his immediate predecessor.

It turns out that there are pretty good reasons why the speaker of the House is usually a veteran party "pol" rather than an ideologue or policy specialist—and is usually someone who views the position as the desired culmination of a long-held ambition rather than a potential impediment to his or her even greater future plans. While Boehner, a widely underrated leader, repeatedly put himself on the line politically in order to protect his party, Ryan instead risked his party in order to protect himself—including by the way he announced his retirement.

Throughout his tenure in office, Ryan acted more like an ideological activist than as the leader of a party or a country. Ideological leaders of the left and right have their place in our political system, but that place is seldom at the head of a congressional caucus. Boehner understood that the greater interests of his members sometimes required him to take heat from conservative insurgents for departing from ideological purity; Ryan instead manuevered to direct blame onto others in order to preserve his own reputation in conservative circles.

Donald Trump's shocking rise to the presidency presented Ryan with a series of challenges that he lacked the political creativity or courage to address effectively. Ryan never had a good plan for protecting the Republican conference in the House from being seriously damaged by Trump's political deficiencies. He neither found a way to publicly distance his electorally vulnerable members from Trump's antics nor advanced a popular set of policies for which they could claim credit in 2018. Ryan's office played a major role in developing the one major legislative achievement of the current Congress—the December 2017 tax reform act—but the bill directed its benefits to such a narrow segment of the population that it turned out to have limited appeal among average voters. By the end of the race in last month's special election in Pennsylvania, Republicans had more or less stopped trumpeting the tax cuts in their campaign advertising, concluding that the issue didn't really help them win support even in a seat carried easily by Trump in 2016.

Ryan could have used his own platform as speaker to send Trump signals that certain presidential behavior would have negative consequences—or to reassure the electorate that a Republican Congress could be counted upon to serve as at least an intermittent check on the chief executive. Instead, Ryan tended to treat reporters' questions about Trump as hostile "gotchas" designed to embarrass him personally, and he declined to act when the House Intelligence Committee, one of the last vestiges of bipartisanship and institutional independence on Capitol Hill, devolved into pettiness and rancor over the Trump-Russia issue. In general, Ryan was less inclined than previous speakers to talk or act like an officer of the United States government rather than merely the leader of a partisan majority, even though Trump's ascendance arguably made such a responsibility even more important in his case.

Finally, Ryan's own departure from Congress has occurred in a manner that puts his own career ahead of other Republicans' interests. Had he left last year, he could have plausibly argued that the electoral climate in 2018 was not yet clear; had he waited until after this fall's election, he could have avoided sending the message during the campaign that Republicans were likely to lose control of the House and would have delayed an open leadership fight within the Republican conference that will now play out over the course of the election season. But Ryan, who at 48 can dream of a long political future beyond the speaker's office, did not wish to risk associating himself with what may turn out to be a devastating electoral defeat. He may be the captain of the House Republican Party, but he has no intention of going down with the ship.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Why The "Liberal Tea Party" Doesn't Exist (And Why Some People Think It Does)

As we head into the 2018 primary election season, some reporters and pundits have raised the question of whether Democratic nomination contests will turn into activist-fueled ideological purity tests—in other words, a liberal version of the Tea Party movement that has so famously roiled the Republican Party over the past decade. But it's hard to sustain the case that the Democrats are about to undergo a leftward lurch driven by a demanding party base. Conor Lamb, the newest member of the House Democratic caucus, just won a special election in Pennsylvania after running a campaign in which he opposed gun control and pledged not to support Nancy Pelosi for party leader. Last night, the socially conservative, anti-ACA incumbent Dan Lipinski narrowly won renomination from a safely Democratic district in the Chicago area. In the Senate, meanwhile, 17 Democrats recently joined Republicans to support a banking deregulation bill strongly opposed by Elizabeth Warren and other economic liberals in the party. If a partywide leftist purge is indeed imminent, it's quite well-disguised.

Matt Grossmann and I explained in Asymmetric Politics why the Democrats are much less vulnerable to ideological purification campaigns than Republicans are, and we summarized our argument in this piece for Vox Polyarchy. Part of the story is that the American left simply lacks much of the institutional infrastructure that promoted and sustained the Tea Party rebellion on the right, such as powerful ideologically-driven media sources, interest groups, and financial donors. (The number of politically active leftist billionaires is....not large.) But it's also true that many Democratic voters simply don't think of politics in ideological terms or prize doctrinal fidelity over other qualities—such as perceived electability, group identity, or ability to deliver concrete policy achievements—when making their choice of candidate.

So if there isn't much evidence of a "liberal Tea Party," why is anybody talking about it? One reason is that the assumption of party symmetry is deeply entrenched in the minds of many political observers, who expect any trends on one partisan side to inevitably appear in comparable form on the other. Another is the well-documented tendency of media coverage to frame stories in ways that emphasize conflict, or at least the possibility of conflict ("if it bleeds, it leads"); for example, this recent Politico article does its best to hype the existence of a "Democratic civil war" exacerbated by Lamb's victory even though there's nothing in the actual piece that justifies using such hyperbolic language.

A third is that Republicans, facing a poor electoral climate this year, have adopted the talking point that their fortunes will be salvaged by a raft of extremist opponents nominated by far-left Democratic primary electorates. House Speaker Paul Ryan brushed off Lamb's victory last week by claiming that "this is something that you're not going to see repeated, because they didn't have a primary [referring to Lamb's selection by a local Democratic committee to compete in the special election]. They were able to pick a candidate who could run as a conservative."

But there's something else at work here as well. Purist leftism, to the extent it exists in America, is especially concentrated in the circles—metropolitan, well-educated, highly internet-active—in which many media members themselves travel. Based on their own anecdotal experiences, or at least their social media feeds, it's easy for them to start thinking that left-of-center politics is consumed with protests of ideologically unpalatable campus speakers, debates over whether Bruno Mars is guilty of cultural appropriation or whether RuPaul is prejudiced against the transgender community, and endless relitigation of the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders presidential race as a proxy for the direction of the American left as a whole. (In reality, as my research shows, Clinton and Sanders supporters in 2016 were split much more by age, race, and party identification than they were by ideology.)

Put simply, the online left is not representative of the Democratic Party. Visitors to local Democratic caucus or committee meetings in most parts of America will find that the public employees, union officials, trial lawyers, nonprofit association administrators, and African-American church ladies who actually constitute the party's activist backbone are, by and large, neither preoccupied with ideological purity nor in a state of rebellion against its current leadership. And though the election of Donald Trump has surely angered and energized the Democratic base, there's no particular reason to think that anti-Trump sentiment will lead to an internal ideological transformation. 

The scholars Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol, who are studying the citizens—especially the women—newly mobilizing against the Trump-led GOP, report that a strong sense of pragmatism prevails among their subjects. "This is not a leftist Tea Party," they explain. "It is not a Sanders versus Clinton redux [or] Occupy Wall Street-type questioning of liberal democracy . . . [T]he metropolitan advocates to whom the national media turn . . . at times exaggerate the left-progressive focus of the activism underway and overestimate their own importance in coordinating it." Instead, Putnam and Skocpol find a lot of middle-aged suburban professionals moved to act by their horror of Trump and determined to work strategically to oppose him. "At the current pace," they predict, "it seems likely that the pop-up leaders and grassroots groups of 2017 will, by 2019, have repopulated the local layer of the Democratic Party in much of the country."

The logic of Asymmetric Politics doesn't imply that one party is inherently in better shape than the other, but rather that each side has its own distinctive set of problems. The Democratic Party is suffering from a number of contemporary weaknesses, made undeniable by its inability to defeat a deeply flawed Trump candidacy in 2016. But Democrats remain well-positioned to avoid the specific pathologies that have recently plagued the Republican opposition: endless primary challenges to veteran incumbents, Freedom Caucus-style legislative rebellions, the elevation of cable news hosts into positions of power over elected officials. Jettisoning the assumption that one party is simply a mirror image of the other would not sacrifice the balance and objectivity of news media coverage, but it would greatly improve its accuracy.