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Some Thoughts on the Election, 1 Week Out

November 9, 2010 3 comments

Who won?

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.

Keep in mind it is always possible that these votes are rationalized after the fact: (h/t The Daily Dish)

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.

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Crook-ed Logic

I’m a big fan of Clive Crook, his policy instincts and analysis are usually spot on, but his political barometer may be malfunctioning. In his latest Financial Times column he makes the classic pundit mistake of mapping his feelings onto the electorate. Crook wasn’t happy with the way Obama sold his policies. He argues President Obama “should have chosen centrism unreservedly – as many voters believed he had promised during his election campaign. Then he could have championed, as opposed to meekly accepting, centrist bills.” Although Crook acknowledges that the economy is largely to blame for falling approval ratings (political scientists have repeatedly found this to be the case), he thinks Obama’s political loss with independents and centrists is due to his insufficient zeal in talking like a centrist. After all, Crook believes the policies themselves are centrist.


First of all it is not at all clear that independents are moving that fast away from the President. Here is my previous post on the recent steadiness in their support. 

And when you look at more polling from pollster.com any drop in approval coincides with the dismal economic growth, not his legislative battles or perceived non-centrist speeches.

The healthcare bill, which Crook uses as an example, passed in March. Yet, from around the time debate started on the bill to its passage to now, Obama’s approval ratings among independents have moved rather modestly. And who is to say that any of that movement is even attributable to the healthcare bill at all? Polling on the healthcare bill specifically has actually gone up slightly.Trend: Reaction to Congress' Passage of Healthcare Reform Bill
It is also interesting to note that it is actually centrist Democrats who are more likely to lose their seats than more progressive Dems. I’m not sure how that fits into Crook’s picture. What is clear is that the electorate blames whoever is in power for the state of the economy which – except at the margins – is the only thing that really matters. 


Curiously, Crook also believes in further stimulus yet believes listening to the progressive wing (who wanted more and bigger stimulus) would have been a mistake.

The fiscal stimulus, too, was a centrist initiative. It was smaller than the left wanted, and included temporary tax cuts as well as increases in spending. 

[…] 

If Mr Obama had followed the advice of the party’s progressive wing, he would have killed his administration’s electoral prospects – and his own hopes of a second term – stone dead.

It should be obvious by now that if a bigger stimulus had resulted in a better economy, Obama’s and the Democrat’s electoral fortunes would be better right now. If anything capitulation to the centrists has been self-defeating. 


Most people don’t pay enough attention to how politicians sell their plans for it really to affect their votes and when they do most just rationalize it to their bias anyway. Crook should remember voters are irrational and the economy matters more than political salesmanship. He should have stopped writing his column here:

The economy is much to blame, of course. The political effects are direct and indirect. Voters are unhappy, which hurts the party in power. The electorate understands that George W. Bush bequeathed the recession, but if 18 months of remedial action have failed to work as hoped, blame begins to migrate.

Obama and Independents

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.

On Political Independents (i.e. closet partisans)

January 28, 2010 Leave a comment

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.
The media, as the linked post makes clear, needs to stop acting like pure independents are always consequential in elections. I also have a stronger hope that the media will stop fueling the aggressive partisanship (the endless polling doesn’t help) and just report on issues as objectively as possible. The political horse race, football, or whatever analogy you prefer really cheapens our politics. Once our elected officials get to Washington, Beacon Hill, or wherever could really do us a favor and act like responsible representatives and not feed into the partisanship. Yet I worry that with our cynical media and hyper-partisan reinforcing electoral districts we will continue to polarize politically. We all need to make a conscience (however difficult) effort to not play into the partisan story-line. 
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