As the political world obsessively checks every latest poll to see which candidate voters are supporting, whether they’re enthusiastic, if they think the country is moving in the right direction, and on and on I save myself some time. Here’s the “poll” that matters:
(h/t Kevin Drum)
[Of course this metric would really be the best]
There is so much to say about the continuing research into happiness and other indicators of wellbeing. I’m so excited that smart economists like Justin Wolfers and Robert Frank are devoting time to it. Over at the Aspen Ideas Festival they have a must-watch discussion on the latest data. Wolfers collapsed any remaining support for the “Easterlin paradox” and provided completely compelling evidence for a correlation between raising income and rising happiness/life satisfaction. Here’s a graph the New York Times made using Wolfers’ and Stevenson’s research.
Given that high correlation of happiness and rising wealth along with the fairly strong predictive power of the change real disposable income for presidential vote percentage I couldn’t help but wonder if the rate of change in happiness would be even more predictive of presidential elections.
It’s plausible to think that an individual’s change in life satisfaction would be even more highly correlated than income changes since it picks up more factors that might influence someone’s vote. I’m skeptical of any single metric to predict an election, but think my hypothesis has potential to have a higher correlation than many other measures. In contrast, the unemployment rate and change in gross federal debt presumably don’t necessarily have an obvious and direct effect on a particular voter. What could be more direct and encompassing of how issues effect voters than change in subjective wellbeing?
It’s important to look at the change in happiness for voters, not, for example, average happiness. If you look at page 57/figure 20 of Happiness and Income over Time in the United States (average happiness) we see a slightly downward sloping line, but that’s most likely due to the fact that income gains haven’t spread evenly. Similarly, I imagine that’s why GDP growth isn’t as predictive as some might expect.
I don’t have enough data myself to test my hypothesis, but I’d be very curious of the results if any interested political scientist wants a project. Any readers have any thoughts or critiques?
[update: July 18th]: John Sides of The Monkey Cage helpfully clears up some of my questions on this topic. Here’s his email response to me in full:
The challenge is that, as far as I know, there aren’t good indicators of happiness going back very far. A typical economic forecasting model for presidential elections will start in 1952 or so. The Stevenson-Wolfers paper reports on a handful of early studies, but most of the data is much more recent. The General Social Survey goes back to 1972, so encompasses 10 elections — still relatively few on which to base inferences. (This is Silver’s critique of the forecasting models, obviously.)
In general, though, I am sympathetic to the notion that subjective well-being might tap some politically relevant feelings that aren’t captured by GDP or income growth.
I suspected that might be a problem; we’ll have to wait for more data to see if my hypothesis is confirmed. It has some potential though. More frequent measures of subjective satisfaction may be necessary as well.
I strongly recommend everyone to read John Sides and the other contributors at The Monkey Cage - an essential resource for anyone interested in political science.
Once again conventional wisdom is wrong.
The question shouldn’t have an obvious answer. If Andreas Kluth taught me anything it’s that success can be found in failure and failure in success – triumph and disaster are two impostors.
The Republicans definitely won big in the electoral battle. But why did they win so big? Many Democrats and people like myself have argued that it can all be boiled down to “the economy is bad, the Democrats were in power, therefore the Democrats lost a lot of seats.” There are also historical and structural reasons to expect big Democratic loses (e.g. They had a big majority so even a 50/50 partisan vote split would result in many lost seats). Here’s a chart showing midterm changes of House seats for the President’s party.
Although the economy and structural factors played the biggest role it appears the Democrats lost a significant number of seats because they supported policies lots of people in the country don’t like (here and here) – especially healthcare. The political scientists at The Monkey Cage find (with all the appropriate caveats that we bloggers often fail to trade in [that's why I always suggest reading the source]) the big controversial votes (Healthcare/Cap&Trade) may have cost the Democrats around 24 seats and possibly even tipped the scales on who controls the House.
Pundits and politicians who are interpreting the midterms as a referendum on Obama’s agenda, however, would be wise to read the forthcoming book of MIT political scientist, Gabriel Lenz. Lenz convincingly demonstrates that policies subjected to intense public debate rarely become more important determinants of citizens’ vote choices. Instead, voters will more often first pick a candidate based upon partisan and performance factors and then adopt that politician’s views about high-profile policies. So, for example, voters who decided to vote for Republican candidates in the midterms because of the poor economy would also be more likely to embrace that party’s position on health care reform.
I’m not going to pretend I can settle what is essentially a scientific question, but let’s pretend that we know that the Democrats lost the House because of their votes on unpopular policies. It’s not that far-fetched to think voting to cut $500 Billion in medicare would cost somebody an election. What would the lesson be for the Democrats? Should we answer our first question that the Democrats lost?
If the Democrats had known ahead of time that not passing any of their policies would have allowed them to maintain control of the House and they had therefore not passed any of their signature legislation that’s possibly the definition of success as an impostor. If I may borrow some more from Andreas, the Democrats could go from success to success, winning election after election as Hannibal won battle after battle in Italy. Yet, the purpose of winning battles is to win the war; Italy never completely fell and Hannibal’s Carthage was “razed it to the ground so thoroughly that modern archeologists had quite a time just locating the site.” The purpose of winning elections is to pass legislation.
David Frum tried to warn Republicans.
Republicans may gain political benefit, but Democrats get the policy. In this exchange, it is the Democrats who gain the better end of the deal. Congressional majorities come and go. Entitlement programs last forever.
History is on his side; today we have the GOP scaring seniors because the Democrats are cutting entitlements. There should be no doubt that given enough passage of time this new healthcare entitlement will be seen as just as fundamentally unchallengeable as social security and medicare.
There is plenty to criticize about the Democrats’ policies, but you might not want to argue that they caused the Republicans to “win.” The Republicans won the battle, but the Democrats’ legislative architecture remains. Historians may be just as mystified about major Republican policies as they are about Carthaginian columns.
I don’t usually cover pure political material but I’ve heard so much about Obama’s approval ratings with independents from pundits, friends, and colleagues I need to set the record straight. Over at The Monkey Cage, a blog devoted to political science, readers get a dose of reality. Here’s a graph of Obama’s souring approval rating with independents.
Quite a roller coaster ride, eh? Yes, ladies and gentlemen, watch in amazement as independents “sour” on Obama during the health care debate. The percent who approved of him at the beginning of September 2009 was 46%. During the week he signed the bill it was…45%!
And how about that oil spill? Since the oil spill, Obama’s approval among independents is down by a whopping 4 points. Sour, indeed!
I recommend The Monkey Cage for sane and empirical coverage of politics. The overall message: most of political analysis and reporting is utter b.s.
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.” – Woody Allen
Forget reincarnation, immortality may be reached through reanimation! This line of research has amazing promise – I hope you enjoyed Mark Roth’s stunning TED talk.
(HT: Sam Harris)
Both pundits and scholars have blamed increasing levels of partisan conflict and polarization in Congress on the effects of partisan gerrymandering. We assess whether there is a strong causal relationship between congressional districting and polarization. We find very little evidence for such a link. First, we show that congressional polarization is primarily a function of the differences in how Democrats and Republicans represent the same districts rather than a function of which districts each party represents or the distribution of constituency preferences. Second, we conduct simulations to gauge the level of polarization under various “neutral” districting procedures. We find that the actual levels of polarization are not much higher than those produced by the simulations. We do find that gerrymandering has increased the Republican seat share in the House; this increase is not an important source of polarization.
[update]: I found a better link to that paper.
So I might have been wrong about redistricting’s effect on political polarization but I appear to be vindicated about my concern over its effect on electoral competition.
And redistricting does appear to have a negative impact on electoral competition. There are many reasons to do something about gerrymandering. But reducing polarization is not one of them.
Of course, I want to look more into this. Another paper which I haven’t been able to access yet seems to suggest that redistricting has modest effect on polarization.
Our results show that although there is an overall trend of increasing polarization, districts that have undergone significant changes as a result of redistricting have become even more polarized. Although the effect is relatively modest, it suggests that redistricting is one among other factors that produce party polarization in the House and may help to explain the elevated levels of polarization in the House relative to the Senate.
Either way it seems redistricting – no matter how unseemly – isn’t the main culprit behind our polarized politics.
Few things aggravate me more than pure partisanship. People who only side with the Democrats or Republicans make politics into a football match rather than a governing process to best serve the interests of the nation. However the reality is that even among self-identified “independents” astonishingly few actually are independent. Other than about 10% of the US population most “independents” really act just like partisans. A blog post at The Monkey Cage fills us in on what political scientists have known for decades.
The number of pure independents is actually quite small — perhaps 10% or so of the population. And this number has been decreasing, not increasing, since the mid-1970s.
Again, there is really no difference between partisans of either stripe and independent leaners. As far as their views of Obama are concerned, it doesn’t really matter whether you say you’re a Democrat or an independent who leans Democrats, and the same is true on the other side of the aisle. Only “pure” independent appear to have evenly divided attitudes as of November, but, as above, these people are only a very small part of the sample — 7% overall.