Thursday, September 27, 2018

Consequences of a Kavanaugh Confirmation? Yes, in the Long Term

When a political event of any note occurs in the midst of a campaign season—and often when it doesn't—media commentators predictably lapse into extensive speculation about its likely effect on the outcome of the next election. As the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court moves closer to an endgame in the Senate, debates over the impact of a potential confirmation on this fall's midterms have become more frequent. Will one party's supporters become energized and the other demoralized as a result of the vote? Would Democrats benefit in November from a rejection of Kavanaugh's nomination, or does extending the process actually help Republicans rally voters in red states?

I remain skeptical that the Kavanaugh appointment, however it turns out, will exert a measurable effect on the outcome in 2018. The voters who care about the Court and have been following the proceedings closely are also the most likely to already be strong partisans and highly engaged in the election. Kavanaugh is not a popular nominee by historical standards, but views generally fall along existing party lines and about a third of Americans don't know enough about him to have an opinion either way. It's possible that a Kavanaugh confirmation will push Democratic enthusiasm for voting "through the roof," but Democrats (as well as Republicans) are already at historically high levels on that score this year. And we still have six weeks to go before Election Day, with plenty of opportunity for a new issue or crisis to redirect popular attention elsewhere.

But that doesn't mean that the events of this week, and next, won't have important long-term implications. Just as the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings of 1991 helped to inspire a then-record number of women to seek political office the following year, a Senate vote to confirm Kavanaugh despite the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford may turn out to be an important moment in the intersection of gender and party politics. This year has already produced a remarkable surge in the supply of, and demand for, female candidates in the Democratic Party, but a widespread backlash against Kavanaugh might help sustain this unprecedented mobilization of women in 2020 and beyond.

Today's hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee also laid the foundation for another set of potential developments in the future. To the extent that it reflected a calculated strategy, Kavanaugh's combative demeanor toward Democratic senators and angry denunciation of the charges against him as a partisan conspiracy were apparently intended to rally Republicans to his enthusiastic defense—including a president who was reportedly dissatisfied with his nominee's degree of aggressiveness on his own behalf earlier in the week.

But there is a cost to dropping the cloak of non-partisanship and reserved judicial temperament en route to the Supreme Court, just as there is a cost to putting someone accused of sexual assault by multiple women in a position to cast pivotal votes on abortion rights and related subjects. Trump and other Republicans could have avoided these costs by quickly withdrawing Kavanaugh in favor of an equally conservative but less controversial nominee, but they are now in the position of either forcing their own party's moderate members to vote Kavanaugh down or setting him up to be a divisive figure on the bench for years to come. It's even conceivable that John Roberts—sufficiently concerned about the legitimacy of his institution to serve as the surprise swing vote upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act in 2012—will turn out to be less ambitious in charting a new rightward trajectory for the Court if Kavanaugh is confirmed than he would have been alongside a different appointee.

Trump, whatever his other qualities, is not known for being excessively occupied with long-term planning, and the entire Republican Party is now subject to Trump's win-the-day strategic mentality for at least the duration of his tenure as its national leader. That doesn't mean, however, that the rest of us can't take the broader view. If Kavanaugh joins the Court, the consequences may not be immediately visible in the election returns, but they will still stretch on for many years after the 2018 midterms have come and gone.

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.