Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Reappearing American Voter

We're almost at the end of the 2020 campaign season, and there will be plenty to say soon enough about the outcome. But before attention turns to the various winners and losers of this year's election, it's worth pausing to recognize something that's already clear: the national turnout rate is certain to be unusually high, perhaps even to historical levels. And that in itself is a remarkable fact.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a widespread concern about the declining proportion of electoral participation. Scholars and analysts spoke of the "disappearing American voter," connecting this trend to a worrisome decay of community engagement and social ties more generally (as in Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone). Americans had become apathetic and cynical about politics, it was said, withdrawing from meaningful civic life to seek refuge in the comparatively mindless world of mass entertainment.

It's not likely that Americans today are less distrustful, or less obsessed with pop culture, than they were 25 or 30 years ago. But they are certainly voting more often. According to calculations by Michael McDonald of the University of Florida, the national turnout rate in presidential elections hit a modern low point in 1996, when 52 percent of eligible citizens showed up to vote. By the 2008 election of Barack Obama, turnout had risen to 62 percent of eligible citizens, the highest share since 1968. Even the 2016 contest—widely viewed as an uninspiring choice between two unpopular candidates—resulted in a turnout rate of 60 percent, comparable to the rates in the supposedly more civically healthy decades of the 1950s and 1960s.

We have several reasons to believe that turnout will be even higher in 2020. The 2018 midterm elections produced a turnout of 50 percent, the highest rate in a non-presidential year since women were granted the franchise in 1920. Unusually high numbers of respondents are telling pollsters that they are closely following the current election, care about who wins, and intend to vote. And many have already voted: the volume of early and mail-in votes is far above that of any previous year (reflecting pandemic concerns and the promotion of alternative voting procedures by many state election officials), to the point that ballot totals in some states already rival or exceed the number cast four years ago even before Election Day itself. If the national turnout reaches 155 million voters, or 65 percent of the eligible electorate, it will be the highest participation rate in more than a century.

There are several plausible contributing factors to the post-1990s rise in turnout, but one surely is the growing perception that elections are very important—that it really matters to the direction of the country whether one candidate or the other becomes president. As it turned out, then, the cure for fading electoral participation was greater partisan polarization and more divisive candidacies. Perhaps this is a worthwhile reminder that in politics, the perceived problems of one era are often solved by the perceived problems of the next.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Second Presidential Debate Recap: At Long Last, a Conventional Partisan Fight

Thursday's event was the fifth general election debate of Donald Trump's political career. It was, by far, the most ordinary of the five.

Yes, there were some of the usual uniquely Trumpian flourishes—the factual hyperbole, the sarcastic mockery of the opposition, the dubious stories of people being moved to tears in his presence. But the relative lack of interruptions and constant cross-talk this time around exposed the familiarity of the actual substantive terrain over which the candidates fought.

Joe Biden acted very much like a typical Democrat. He came to the debate armed with summaries of specific policy proposals to address specific social problems, along with associated facts and figures: a public option for health care, a climate change bill, an immigration reform initiative. He pledged to protect the interests of specific groups within the Democratic coalition, such as labor unions, African-Americans, and the "middle class" more generally.

Trump, for his part, exercised the usual Republican counterstrategy against such an approach. He conceded ground on many of the specific policies, and even tried to outflank Biden at times (as on criminal justice). At times, his attacks did not target the content of Biden's proposals at all, but instead cited Biden's lack of success at achieving them while he was in office. 

But Trump also described Biden's agenda in a more general sense as ideologically radical, associating Biden with left-wing figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He warned that Biden's election would threaten the future of America as we know it. And he repeatedly cited various stories and claims that circulate in the conservative media but are less well-known outside its regular consumer base.

That Joe Biden is a walking personification of his party is hardly news. But beneath the idiosyncratic exterior, Donald Trump has himself become an increasingly orthodox Republican over the course of his time in politics. In both his rhetoric and his substantive positions, Trump hews more closely to party doctrine today than he did in 2016, and his instincts in the heat of the debate reflect this evolution.

Many media commentators opined afterwards that the debate didn't break any new ground. That's a reasonable characterization. But one big reason why is that each candidate adopted the traditional playbook of his own partisan team, playing to its perennial strengths and defending against its weaknesses. In a year stuffed with unprecedented developments, it was a rare moment of political conventionality.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Five Years of Graft

Today, October 14, happens to be the five-year anniversary of the first post published on Honest Graft. (The post drew on a presidential primary debate to argue that the contemporary Democratic Party has very much remade itself in the image of Barack Obama, a point that has become a bit of a hobbyhorse around here ever since.) While blogging about the blog itself is not normally the HG house style, it seems like a milestone worth recognizing with a bit of personal reflection. After all, five years is a pretty long lifespan in blog time.

I started Honest Graft with the self-justification that it would be worthwhile even if almost nobody read the posts. For one thing, I often find that writing about a subject helps me figure out what I think about it. Developing a habit of posting regularly about current events more or less as they occurred would compel me to form a point of view on what was going on. I reasoned that this might help me understand politics better, might spark ideas for research, or at least might leave me an electronic paper trail of contemporary analysis that might be useful later on for recalling what important political moments felt like at the time.

In the fall of 2015, I was also an assistant professor with two book projects in progress but no publishing contracts in hand and no certainty of receiving tenure. Practicing my non-academic thinking and writing skills seemed like a prudent use of my limited spare time, in case my academic career didn't work out and I needed to find another job.

Happily, my professional luck improved soon afterwards. Matt Grossmann and I placed Asymmetric Politics with Oxford University Press that December, and the following spring Cambridge University Press mercifully rescued Red Fighting Blue from indefinite purgatory at another publisher. But I kept the blog going even after my promotion: it was rewarding to do, plus American politics had entered an unusually eventful phase that generated a constant stream of fodder for contemplation.

Blogging is much less fashionable than it used to be, and that's a shame. The social media platforms that have mostly supplanted it are an inferior replacement in many respects except the ability to trade quick interactions with friends in other places. Social media too often encourages hit-and-run hot takes or cheap shots at the expense of developing a nuanced line of thought, it rewards trite pandering to partisan or ideological claques, and it has fostered a distinctively adolescent prevailing culture of behavior that is alienating to anyone who prefers a drier, less dramatic style of expression. As its consciously retro and amateurish visual design scheme symbolizes, Honest Graft is a bit of a throwback, but it's still been a lot of fun. I would recommend blogging to anyone who's considered it—especially academics looking for a way to apply their knowledge and skills to topics of contemporary interest.

Honest Graft has introduced me to many people whom I might never have otherwise gotten the chance to meet. Thank you to everyone who's been a regular or occasional reader, shared a post with friends or followers, or passed along a response or a compliment. I appreciate it all, and you've made the blog a very unexpected success. While too many people to name have been extraordinarily supportive over the years, I want to take the occasion of this anniversary to express my gratitude to two great friends of Honest Graft.

The first is John Sides, the co-founder of the Monkey Cage and a professor at Vanderbilt University. John has been a patron of HG from its inception, reprinting some early posts at the Monkey Cage when I was still new to blogging. The Monkey Cage has stood for years as a monument to the value of public engagement, giving specialist scholars a platform to share their expertise with wider audiences to mutual benefit, and both it and John's own scholarship and analysis have set an exemplary standard for those of us who follow.

And nobody has been a more loyal and enthusiastic benefactor than my good friend Jonathan Bernstein of Bloomberg Opinion. Many readers over the past five years discovered HG from one of his links—which makes me proud, because it means that they were reading a sharp and skillful observer of current events who boasts the rare combination of intellectual mastery and outstanding intuitive political judgment. I'm very grateful for his encouragement and generosity.

Thanks again to all of you for clicking and reading, and let's see where the next five years take us...

Monday, October 12, 2020

The New Electoral Map Isn't Very New, But Biden's Lead Keeps the Battleground From Shrinking

We're now in the home stretch of the 2020 presidential campaign, with millions of ballots already cast via early and mail-in voting. The two candidates and their advisors are now making final decisions about where to allocate resources—ad spending, voter mobilization operations, and travel by the nominees and their running mates, spouses‚ and top surrogates—based on their current appraisals of optimal electoral college strategy.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton actively contested 14 states between them in 2016, collectively casting 32 percent of the nation's electoral votes. In the wake of the last election, however, most analysts expected the geographic scope of electoral competition to shrink in 2020. Trump's comfortable victories in Ohio (by 8 percentage points) and Iowa (by more than 9), along with his unexpected strength across the rest of the Midwest, seemed to signal that these two perennial battleground states were no longer pivotal and might be justifiably conceded to the Republicans in the future, while the pro-Democratic shift evident in sections of the Sun Belt from 2012 to 2016 wasn't clearly strong enough yet to push traditionally "red" bastions like Georgia and Texas into legitimate partisan competitiveness.

These expectations were all perfectly reasonable extrapolations from the 2016 results. But they rested on assumptions of another tight contest in 2020, rather than the clear and consistent Democratic lead—now flirting with double digits in the national popular vote—that actually emerged. Joe Biden's overall advantage has allowed him to remain viable in Ohio and Iowa despite their recent Republican leanings while also mounting an incursion into Georgia and Texas, both uncontested by Democratic presidential candidates since the 1990s. The only two states to drop out of the battleground category between 2016 and 2020 were Virginia and Colorado, both already swiftly moving in a Democratic direction but put altogether out of reach for the Republicans by a poor national climate for the party this year.

Contrary to previous suggestions of a shrinking battleground map, then, the presidential campaigns are once again contesting 14 states in 2020 (plus the single electoral vote awarded to the winner of Nebraska's 2nd congressional district). The replacement of Virginia and Colorado with the more populous states of Texas and Georgia means that the candidates are actually fighting over more presidential electors than last time—in fact, as the figure below demonstrates, the battleground this year is the largest in terms of electoral votes since the 2000 election:

Figure adapted from Red Fighting Blue: 

It's often hard in the moment to separate short-term variation from long-term trends, to distinguish changes that are harbingers of the future from those that are merely temporary deviations from the norm. The assumption that 2016 foreshadowed a more permanent fading of Democratic fortunes in the Great Lakes states as the party built a new regional base in the metropolitan South and Southwest was reasonable enough, but may well turn out to be at least a bit premature. Predictions that the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee would perform better in Arizona (carried once by the party in the last 17 presidential elections) than Wisconsin (carried seven times in the past eight elections) aren't consistent with the polls so far; as of today, the FiveThirtyEight polling average shows Biden leading Trump by 8 points in Wisconsin and 4 points in Arizona. 

Polls so far indicate a fairly uniform swing between 2016 and 2020. Biden seems to be improving on Clinton's performance by a roughly comparable margin pretty much everywhere, though it wouldn't be surprising if this shift turned out to be a bit bigger in the Midwest than the Sun Belt given that he is apparently doing a better job winning back senior citizens and non-college whites from Trump than he is in outperforming Clinton's showing among young voters and racial minorities.

At the same time, it's a legitimately important development that Arizona, Texas, and Georgia are all potentially competitive states in federal elections, even if (at least for now) it requires a 10-point national popular vote margin (and a record-breaking fundraising haul) for Democrats to put all three in contention. The changing partisan alignments of a few individual states should be understood in the proper context of what is overall a historically stable electoral map. But in an era of closely-matched and highly polarized national parties, even small shifts in geographic coalitions can have big consequences for the outcome of elections and the governance of the nation.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Vice Presidential Debate Recap: Nothing Interesting Happened...Thankfully

The vice presidential debate Wednesday night between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris was such a crucial ritual of American democracy—so precious to our electoral process that it had to be held in person despite an active national epidemic—that many leading figures in American journalism found their attention repeatedly distracted by a fly that landed on Pence's head partway through the evening.

Both participants are classic pols with well-crafted classic pol personas that don't compel them to answer questions they don't find it advisable to answer, and the vice presidential debate is always a slightly unnatural format because it mostly involves attacking or defending two other people who aren't in the room. The relative discipline and polish of both Pence and Harris compared to this year's presidential nominees makes it easier for the strategic calculations of both campaigns to come through: Democrats want the election to turn on COVID-19 and health care, while Republicans would rather talk about China and the Green New Deal.

The lower rhetorical temperature compared to last week's presidential faceoff was nominally praised by commentators, but the consensus media judgment that "no minds would be changed" as a result, as well as the fixation on the fly, betrayed a certain general boredom with the proceedings. But because debates are a lousy basis on which to choose a candidate—especially vice presidential debates—this was actually a good sign. There's really nothing wrong with a boring debate, after all. There are worse things in politics than prosaic adequacy.