Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Is Clinton a weak nominee?

This keeps coming up, particularly from Sanders supporters.  Hillary Clinton's favorability ratings are net-negative, and on the low side for a nominee at this stage.  This feeds into ideas such as "Clinton fatigue" and the general but poorly-specified notion that she is corrupt.  Obviously, a candidate with a clean slate would do better, right?

No.  Time for yet another trip down memory lane.  Remember the 2008 campaign?  Obama cleaned Hillary's clock, but Hillary refused to recognize reality, and kept campaigning based on the faulty premise that the superdelegates would give the nomination to her because she was obviously more electable than Barack Obama.

Santayana's words are ringing in my ears as I type.  (Go look it up, kids).

Anyway, in the strange period between the time that Obama locked up the nomination and Clinton clued into reality, Republicans toyed with the idea that they could convince disaffected Hillary supporters to vote for McCain, if only they stopped accusing her of murder and stuff.  (Vince Foster is famous again!  Yay!)  So, they started talking about how much they loved her grit and determination, and how she was speaking to the disaffected (read: white) voters in a way that Obama couldn't.  Suddenly, Republicans loved Hillary!

That didn't work, but Clinton slid right into the job of Secretary of State, which was perfectly suited to keeping her name in the news, but in a relatively non-partisan context.  That kept her approval ratings quite high, and indeed, higher than Obama's for pretty much his entire first term.

What happened next?  Benghazi.  Sorry, I meant, "BENGHAZI!!!!!"  A group of terrorists attacked the US Embassy in Libya, and since embassies are under the authority of the Secretary of State, this obviously meant that Hillary personally ordered the attack because the Ambassador had uncovered evidence of her involvement in Vince Foster's death.  Also, CHEM-TRAILS!!!

And this gets to the reason that Republican attention shifted to Benghazi.  All of the actual accusations, like the "stand down" order were bullshit, but the event served as a pivot.  The Republicans had spent four years talking up Hillary Clinton, and she was obviously going to be the next Democratic nominee.  They needed to start talking her down.  Hence, BENGHAZI!!!

What's really going on here is what we call elite signaling.  Most voters are relatively uninformed.  Thus, they rely on cues from politicians and media figures whom they trust to tell them how they should orient themselves.  What follows is heavily influenced by a classic book called The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, by John Zaller.  Great book.  Go read it.  After you finish reading this.

If Republicans hear their party leadership, along with everyone else, tell them that Hillary Clinton is wonderful for four years, they will accept those messages evaluate Clinton more favorably because of the uniformity of messages.  Many Republicans would still reject those messages because she is still a Democrat, and there are lots of residual negative cues, but Republicans heard positive signals about Hillary Clinton from their own party for long enough to erode some of the negative evaluations.  That ended in 2012 when the party shifted back towards negative signals.  For the last four years, Republicans, and independents too, have heard a nonstop barrage of negative messages about Hillary Clinton.  Opinion followed.

Was she an intrinsically stronger or more unifying figure in, say, 2010?  No, she just wasn't being attacked.  Right now, opinions of her are just locked into where they would be after a campaign because she has been involved in a campaign for four years.  She starts the campaign with higher negatives than normal candidates because the campaign is basically done.  There is no room left for new messages to affect her status.

Contrast that with Sanders, whom Clinton stopped attacking long ago, and whom Republicans have never bothered to attack in any significant way.  Most voters know nothing about him.  Should we really be surprised that the candidate who hasn't been attacked much at all by the opposing party doesn't have those negative opinions among opposing partisans locked in?

Presidential campaigns are brutally negative.  What political junkies (and I'm certainly one) can easily forget is that while we know a lot about every major candidate in the primaries, most voters aren't paying any attention yet.  If you are reading this blog, there is a high probability that you can tell me a bunch of stuff about Chris Christie.  Most voters can't.  Most voters begin the general election campaign in ignorance of any non-incumbent.  And with a negative campaign, there is nowhere to go but down.  You cannot assume that a candidate would end a general election campaign with public evaluations comparable to what they have before the campaign because the campaign hasn't signaled evaluations yet.

I wrote a while back that this will be the most entertaining but pointless general election campaign ever.  I stand by that.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Good survey questions versus bad survey questions

Continuing on yesterday's theme...

You are going to see a lot of polls.  Most are either worthless or only valuable in one way.  Clinton versus Trump vote intention polls are valuable, but ignore any one poll.  Look at the polling averages.  I just go with RealClearPolitics.  There are fancier versions, but you don't need them.  Everyone reading this knows who Nate Silver is.  Nate Silver has the best "guitar face" of any statistician on the planet.

What's "guitar face?"  Have you ever seen a guitarist contort his or her face while playing something?  It is usually something simple, like a string bend, but the contorted face is intended to convey the impression that the guitarist is doing something difficult.  On the other hand, go watch a youtube video of Django Reinhardt.  Django Reinhardt had two fingers on his left hand mostly paralyzed, so he started playing lead lines using two fingers.  With two fingers, he could do things that I will never be able to do with four.  And he did it with a stone-faced expression, usually with a cigarette dangling calmly from his mouth.  Go watch, listen, and learn.

Nate Silver is a poll aggregator.  He takes an arithmetic mean, adds a bunch of not-very-helpful bells and whistles, and ultimately does what anyone capable of computing an average can do.  But, the bells and whistles convince people who haven't studied statistics that he is accomplishing some grand feat.  If you want to know where the campaign stands, look at the simple polling average.  RealClearPolitics is fine.  Nate Silver is just contorting his face.

So, pay attention to vote intention polls, but only insofar as they affect the polling averages.

Now, the bad survey questions.

1)  Hypothetical questions.  There is no point in asking people what they would do if...  They don't know!  This is particularly prominent now in the hypothetical matchup polls.  You will see, for example, Berniacs claiming that Sanders is more electable because he does better in the hypothetical match-up polls against Trump.  The problem with that question is that nobody but the Democrats are paying attention to Sanders.  If Sanders were the nominee, Republicans would be attacking him rather than Clinton, and those numbers would change.  The guy calls himself a "socialist."  We don't elect those.  Not nationwide, anyway, and the Vermonters are just too stoned off their gourds read about the history of central planning.  But I'm just being unmutual again.

Basic point:  people can't tell you what they would do if...

2)  Why.  Ignore questions that ask people why they believe what they believe, or why they do what they do.  Two problems:  people don't know why, and if they did, they wouldn't tell you.  The most important political fact about a person is that person's party identification.  That tells you more about their political beliefs and voting patterns than any one trait.  And it isn't close.  So, what makes someone a Democrat or a Republican?  We don't really know.  According to a growing body of research started by John Alford, Carolyn Funk & John Hibbing, there's a significant genetic component!  Yes, really!  Will people tell you that?  Of course not.  People don't know why they do what they do, or think what they think.  When they are asked, they will rationalize.

And even if they know, they won't necessarily tell you.  People's motives aren't always pristine, but they don't want to admit it...

So, consider the following question: are you motivated by racism?  Of course not!  Those who know they are racist won't admit it, and many might not even know it!  Consider the phrase, "I'm not racist, but..."  You know what comes next:  something really, really racist.  But, if people grew up watching cross-burnings and lynchings, then even if they just have some negative stereotypes, they will compare themselves to the KKK and think of themselves as "not racist."

So, don't ask people about their motives.

3)  Candidate characteristics.  You can't ask people about the traits they associate with various candidates.  A rational person would assess candidates' characteristics and form an overall evaluation of the candidate on that basis.  But, most people are both stupid and irrational.  (I'm being unmutual again).  They do things ass-backwards.  They start with overall evaluations based on things like party, and then rationalize those evaluations by ascribing positive characteristics to the candidates they like, and negative characteristics to the candidates they don't like.  So, if I don't like a candidate, I am inclined to view that candidate negatively.  Whether I describe that candidate as stupid or dishonest is irrelevant because the specific negative attribute I ascribe is just a rationalization anyway.

Guidelines:  simple, direct, non-hypothetical questions.  Anything more complicated is likely to be misleading.

By the way, this post was prompted by a comment in another thread.  If there is something you want addressed, let me know.  And readership appears to be going up, so keep spreading the word.  The more readers there are, the more willing I am to write.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

A note of caution on the polls these days

Not only do we have nation-wide polls on Clinton vs. Trump already, we are starting to get the usual slew of state-by-state polls.  For right now, ignore the latter.  Opinions and vote intentions don't tend to crystalize until fall, when the campaign crystalizes them.  That doesn't mean we learn nothing by looking at polls, it just means we can't read too much into them yet.  And state-by-state polls are harder to do because of potential turnout differences that wash out in the nationwide averages.  So, as problematic as it is to do a nationwide poll right now, state-level polls are harder.

And remember, nearly every time, the electoral college victory will go to the winner of the popular vote.  So, by watching the nationwide polls, we get a sense of where things stand now.  As November approaches, we need to shift to the state-by-state polls, where the fine-grained distinctions can be made, and where they become important.  Popular vote/electoral college splits are rare, but obviously, they do happen.  When?  In close elections!  And this one will be close.

This matters now because if you look at the RealClearPolitics nationwide polling average, you see what is essentially a tie between Clinton and Trump, but the state-by-state polls have Clinton ahead in more battleground states right now, which makes her lead look more solid than it actually is.  Don't trust those.  For now, recognize that the polls themselves are of less value than they will be in a few months.  If you must look at polls right now (and of course, I must), focus on the nationwide polls.  Shift your attention to the state-by-state analysis around September, or August at the earliest.

Or, hell, obsess over every poll you see.  Who am I kidding?  That's what I'll really do, regardless of the advice I give.

I'm not well.  I need help.

If you don't love bluegrass, you hate America

An obvious choice for today...

OK, it's obvious if you are well-versed in obscure, modern bluegrass that traditionalists despise.  Hi, have you met me?

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Process and outcome in political preferences

The Black Knight's, sorry, Bernie Sanders' claim that closed primaries are illegitimate gets at one of the persistent annoyances in political debate.  To what degree do we care about process for its own sake, and to what degree are our preferences over process determined by our preferences over outcomes?  I have already addressed the open/closed primary and Sanders specifically (here), but today, let's take a more general approach.

Electoral rules determine electoral outcomes.  For any set of preferences, you can construct a process that will result in any outcome you want, if you are sufficiently creative and brazen with the rules.  The manipulability of election outcomes is based on what we sometimes call "the chaos theorem" (not theory, but theorem), built on the work of Richard McKelvey.  It's a bunch of math, so I'll spare you the details and just give you the executive summary.  People have complex preferences.  That complexity means that if you set up the choices as A versus B, and the winner faces C, that gives you a different result from A versus C, and the winner faces B.  What McKelvey showed is that if you set up a sequence of choices the right way, you can get pretty much any outcome you want by exploiting the complexity of peoples' preferences.  If you want the math, go read McKelvey.

... which leads us to this guy:

Or, rather, the political scientist who shared his name.  One of his important observations is what we sometimes call "the heritability problem."  Basically, if the process you use determines the outcome, then your preferences over process are determined by your preferences over outcome, and the choice of process is just as fraught as the choice over outcomes.

That's a bunch of jargon, but at the end of the day, what it means is this.  If open primaries benefit Sanders, and closed primaries benefit Clinton, then your preference over primary rules will be influenced by your preferences in the Clinton versus Sanders contest.  Should the Democratic Party be able to determine its own nominee without meddling from Republicans, or should the process be as open as possible so that you don't need to go through the bureaucratic hassle of registering as a Democrat if you decide you would rather vote in the Democratic primary?  That question, in Riker's terms, is indistinguishable from your Clinton/Sanders preference.

We see this all over the place in politics.  Should the federal government or state government set policy on a matter?  For you, that will depend on whether you are more or less likely to get your way at the federal level.  How much should public opinion influence policy?  That depends on whether or not you are in the majority.  Should the courts strike down laws passed by elected officials?  That depends on whether or not you like the law.  This is all the same.

And it's all heritability.  OK, I'm done for the day.  I'm out of here...

If you don't love country, you hate 'mer'ca

Friday, May 27, 2016

One more note on Trump-Sanders

I am still depressed that we won't get to see Sausage-Fight 2016, but here's an interesting twist.  I thought that the Democrats would put pressure on Sanders not to do it.  Trump was the one who pulled out, so to speak.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Trump's persona is his inability to exercise restraint.  There is an old line in politics about punching up, not down.  While it would have been the kind of swipe at Clinton that suits Trump, debating a loser is punching down.  However, Trump is virtually defined by the fact that he can be drawn into a fight with anyone.  Note his continued obsession with Rosie O'Donnell.  Punching down is kind of Trump's thing.

Not this time, though.  Apparently he can learn.  Who knew?

A moment of silence, now, for the event that never was...

If you don't love jazz, you hate America

Alas, the Trump-Sanders debate won't happen.  Now's apparently not the time, but on the subject of birds...

Then again, I was talking about killing birds, so maybe I should have put something up about heroin. Yes, that's cold-blooded.  Have you met me?

Why the Sanders-Trump debate might actually happen

In yesterday's post, I expressed skepticism that the Sanders-Trump debate would happen.  Now, here's the opposing case.

In 2000, Hillary Clinton ran for the vacant Senate seat from New York.  Her original opponent, Rudy "9/11" Giuliani (hat tip to Joe Biden) had to drop out due to health reasons, and former Representative Rick Lazio stepped in, so to speak.  During a debate between Clinton and Lazio, um, this happened...

Yeah, that didn't play well.  Invading your opponent's personal space like that might just look awkward when the candidates are both men.  But, it is a bit more cringe-inducing to have the male candidate invading the female candidate's personal space.  Lazio's stunt has since gone down in history as one of the all-time great blunders in televised debate history.

What does this have to do with a Sanders-Trump debate?  That gender issue.  It could play as very, very bad to have the first female presidential nominee get brushed aside so that her general election opponent can debate one of the candidates she vanquished in the primary as that candidate pretends that he's going to be the nominee.  Would Trump do this to a male opponent?  Certainly.  Just because he is misogynistic doesn't mean he isn't an asshole to men too.  Bernie?  Probably.  He's so wrapped up in his delusions and denial that he isn't capable of rational thought, if he ever was.  So, this isn't really about gender.  But that doesn't mean it won't have the same cringe-inducing optics as the Clinton-Lazio debate.

Why does this make the Sanders-Trump debate plausible rather than completely implausible?  Remember my reasoning from yesterday's post.  I argued that the Democratic Party would burn the Bern to the ground in order to stop the debate.  What if Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and the rest of the party apparatchiks actually want the debate?  If the whole thing turns into a Rick Lazio moment for both Trump and Sanders, it kills two birds with one stone.

Of course, that presumes the birds die.  It could be the kind of thing that hurts Sanders, but if open misogyny can hurt Trump, he's already toast.  Remember this moment?

And then he won the Republican nomination.  Maybe the general electorate will be different, but even if so, it isn't clear that pulling a Rick Lazio will have any effect on Trump's campaign, given what he has already said and done.

If I had to put odds on this, I'd put the chances of the Sanders-Trump debate below 50%.  But this year...

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Sanders-Trump debate? The strangest election ever gets stranger.

The thing about Donald Trump is that you can never predict what he'll do.  There is now noise about a Sanders-Trump debate.  The point for Trump, obviously, is that he wants to brush Clinton aside and treat her as a non-entity.  It's a simple dominance game to him.  The more interesting thing here is Sanders.

Never before has the nominee for one party had a formal debate with a candidate who lost, past tense, the nomination for the other party.  Part of that is that no nominee in history has ever had more chutzpah than Donald Trump, but part of it is that Sanders is approaching some interesting historical territory too.  The obvious points of reference are Clinton's 2008 campaign, and Ted Kennedy's 1980 campaign.  Let's take the second part first.

If you are a Republican, you remember Ted Kennedy as the guy who killed a woman in a drunk-driving accident and then got away with it because Kennedys are above the law.  If you are a Democrat, you are more likely to remember him for this:


Now, that's some powerful oratory.  What was going on behind the scenes, though, was that Kennedy never really got on board with Carter.  Sorry, I couldn't find the youtube clip of him famously, visibly snubbing Carter, but Kennedy was not what we would call a gracious loser.  How much blame does he deserve for Reagan defeating the incumbent that Kennedy only half-heartedly supported in his sulking?  Not much, but Reagan probably owed him a fruit basket.

Then there's Hillary Clinton in 2008.  She deluded herself into thinking she would get the nomination long after all of the primaries were over.  She actually, seriously believed that the "superdelegates" would steal the nomination from Obama on the grounds that he just couldn't win the general election.  But eventually she recognized empirical reality, and did far more to unify the party than Ted Kennedy did in 1980.

Now, Sanders is actually toying with the idea of debating the Republican nominee.  Could he eventually go the way of Hillary Clinton in 2008?  He could, but he is starting to look a lot more like Ted Kennedy in 1980.  In a lot of ways.  He is the liberal challenger to someone who isn't the incumbent, but is closer to being the formal leader.  He is campaigning against someone he sees as too compromised and potentially ineffectual.  And his base is similar.

Debating Trump, though, would go way beyond Kennedy in 1980.

Will the debate happen?  I doubt it.  Right now, most of the Democratic Party is against Sanders, but is trying to treat him with kid gloves so as not to alienate his followers.  If he actually did go through with the debate, that would end.  The full force of the party would come crashing down on him.  With so much opposition from the Democratic Party, the media would be hard-pressed to treat it as anything other than the ridiculous reality show that it would be.  Sanders would go the way of Ralph Nader, who went from left-wing hero to the guy who helped Bush 43 get elected.  His influence within the party would end.

Then again, anybody trying to predict the twists and turns of this campaign has already been burned so many times that we should never write anything off as an impossibility.  So, I'll make sure my popcorn is on-hand, just in case...

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Open primaries, closed primaries and the oddities of Bernie Sanders

I've been comparing Bernie Sanders to the Tea Party, in part because he rejects the legitimacy of his opposition (see here), and the basis of his claim against Clinton is that "closed" primaries are intrinsically illegitimate.  Political science time!

Let's start with the definitions.  A closed primary is one in which only voters registered with a party may vote in that party's primary.  An open primary is one in which you can choose to vote in either party's primary, regardless of your registration.  The motivation for the open primary is that it is supposed to reduce polarization.  The idea is that if Democrats and independents vote in a Republican primary, that pulls Republicans towards the center, just as if Republicans and independents vote in a Democratic primary, that pulls Democrats towards the center.

Does it work?  The jury's out on that one, but the effects are somewhere in the range between small and non-existent.    But here's the irony.  Sanders is the extremist, but he did better in the states with open primaries.  It ain't supposed to work that way!  Why did Sanders do better in the states with open primaries?  We don't know yet.  I'll wait for the academic work on the subject.  At this point, we mostly have speculation and a smattering of poll results that are hard to look at across state lines.

But then there's that legitimacy question.  Imagine that Sanders had done better in the closed primary states, but Clinton won overall.  Would Sanders accept those results because open primaries are better?  You know the answer to that one.  Of course he wouldn't.  Nobody has coherent preferences on this kind of procedural matter.  It is too tempting to evaluate procedures based on whether or not they give us the outcome we want at the time.

So, imagine that Clinton had done better in open primaries, and won overall.  Sanders' argument would go as follows:  Clinton is an illegitimate nominee because she only got the nomination from Republicans meddling in the Democratic contest.  Democrats are the ones who should be picking the Democratic nominee.

In fact, we don't have to imagine this because Sanders has already essentially made that argument.  Sanders tried to dismiss Clinton's victories in Southern states because Southern states are Republican, making those delegates illegitimate.  Of course, Clinton did better in Southern states because the Democrats in Southern states are largely African-American, and Clinton has done better with African-Americans than Sanders.  Sanders' argument was nonsense, obviously, but the fact that he made it demonstrates what he really thinks about open and closed primaries.  The form that is legitimate is the one that helps him.

Are there any coherent arguments on open versus closed primaries?  Only weak ones.  Perhaps that is the subject of another post.  The point here is that we should be puzzled that the extremist did better in the open primary states, and cognizant of the fact that said candidate both complains about the exclusion of independents and Republicans from the closed primary states while also dismissing his opponent's victories in Republican-leaning states.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Bernie Sanders and the potential rise of Democratic primary challenges

Last week, I posted this, arguing that Bernie Sanders is not just the left-wing analog to the Tea Party, but arguably more "Tea Party" than Ted Cruz.  The current political news emphasizes that point, but with a fun twist.

Bernie Sanders is now advocating primary challenges for Democratic Members of Congress.  More than a delusional and futile attempt to wrest the nomination from Hillary at this point, that actually has the potential to move the Democratic Party, and hence maybe policy, to the left.

The logic of the primary challenge is that the voters in a Democratic primary are more liberal than the voters in a general electorate.  If Democratic candidates are moving to the center to try to win the general election, then Sanders and the left-wing Tea Party he wants to build can make it a self-defeating strategy.  Move to the center, and you won't even get the nomination.  Now, Bernie and his followers don't like having it pointed out to them that they are ideologically extreme, but I'm a social scientist, and I deal in facts, not rhetoric (see my comments on the topic here).

This is where the Tea Party comparison becomes truly clear.  Since 2010, the conventional wisdom has been that the Tea Party has pulled the Republican Party to the right because any Republican legislator who fails to go along "gets primaried," and loses the Republican nomination.  How often has this really happened?  Three times total, at the national level.  From every election cycle combined.  And the third case is somewhat questionable.  Yes, that few.  Bob Inglis (formerly a Representative from South Carolina), Dick Lugar (former Senator from Indiana), and maybe Eric Cantor (formerly the House Majority Leader, and Representative from Virginia).  That last case was marginal because Cantor was a pretty hard-line conservative, who just made some rhetorical concessions on immigration.  He also failed to take the challenge from David Brat seriously, and hence failed to campaign.  Still, that is at most three cases.  No, Robert Bennett from Utah doesn't count because he didn't lose a primary.  His party yanked his name from the ballot at a convention in a procedure that only works in the unique process in Utah.

So, Republicans aren't really in any significant danger of losing a primary.  The risk of losing a general election for extremism is far higher.  But, they don't necessarily know that.  Even if the fear of getting primaried is irrational, it can still motivate Republicans in Congress to move to the right.

Which brings us to Bernie Sanders.  He has begun the process of encouraging primary challenges to Democratic incumbents.  With whom is he starting?  Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.  And that tells you something about Sanders.  Former South Carolina Senator and now Heritage Foundation head, Jim DeMint was an early proponent of "primarying" his own colleagues, but he did it on ideological grounds.  DeMint was a purist.  He wanted to purify his party of ideological concessions based on the premise that you move policy to the right by moving a party and hence the national dialog.

Sanders, though, is starting with Wasserman-Schultz.  Where is she, ideologically?  For that, we turn, as ever, to the NOMINATE scores, constructed by Keith Poole & Howard Rosenthal.  These scores put everyone in Congress on a scale from -1 to +1, with negative scores indicating liberalism and positive scores indicating conservatism.  Wasserman-Schultz's score in the 113th Congress?  (That's last term, for the non-Congress-junkies).  -0.363.  That's way right of Sanders, but Sanders is an extremist.  How does Wasserman-Schultz fit within the party as a whole?  Well, the Democratic median in the House that term was -0.383.  Wasserman-Schultz is statistically indistinguishable from the party median.  She ain't no moderate.  Pretty much half the Democratic House caucus is to the right of her.

Why is Sanders going after her?  She is the head of the Democratic National Committee, and a Hillary Clinton supporter.  This isn't about ideology.  This is about Sanders and his insistence that his opposition is intrinsically illegitimate, which is exactly why I equated him with the Tea Party in my previous post.  He refuses to acknowledge that he has simply lost the nomination to Hillary.  Instead, he insists that the nomination has been stolen from him, and for that, he needs someone to blame.  For that, he turns to the head of the DNC.  After all, why else would his attempt to buy the nomination fail?

Note, then, the difference between Sanders and Ron Paul (or Rand).  Ron Paul was only marginally a Republican.  He even ran for president in 1988 as the Libertarian Party nominee.  He then began running for the Republican nomination as a way to pull the Republican Party to the right on economic issues.  For Ron Paul, it was truly an ideological battle.

Sanders could do the same, if he cared as much about policy and the structure of the party as Ron Paul.  The fact that he is going after Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, though, tells you something about his real priorities.  For Sanders, this is personal.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The media's obligation to Bernie Sanders

Is anyone else getting a serious Black Knight kind of vibe from Bernie Sanders?

What's he going to do to Hillary?  Bleed cash all over her?  Apparently so.  But what about the camera?  The camera here focuses on the Black Knight because it's funny.  One can understand, then, why late-night comics might want to keep making jokes about Sanders' state of denial, but what kind of coverage should the responsible press (such as it is) give to Bernie?  This isn't the same as their challenge with respect to Tony Clifton, I mean, Donald Trump, but they are in a bind.

This requires thinking about their professional obligations.  The press have an obligation to provide factual information about the state of the campaign.  The fact is that Bernie Sanders cannot win unless some external event occurs, like a real scandal.  Where this gets more complicated is the territory of the self-fulfilling prophesy.  If the press deny coverage to a candidate, then that candidate cannot win.  Thus, by acting as though a candidate cannot win, the press can...

Thank you, Jean-Luc.  The dilemma is how much of a chance the press has to pretend that Bernie has so as not to write him off completely.

The next problem is one of space.  Or time.  Or... something.  How much coverage should the press give to Sanders relative to other political issues?  In principle, we have virtually unlimited virtual space, so discussion of Sanders and his Black Knight-esque candidacy doesn't mean coverage of other stuff cannot occur.  However, since any one news consumer has limited capacity to consume news, any news they consume about the limbless bleeder crowds out news that could have been about something else.

Journalists understand this.  We talk about politics as though the only presidential candidates are the major ones, but if you actually look at a primary ballot, you'll see lots of names you don't recognize.  Why?  Because strange people manage to get on the ballot, and journalists rightfully ignore them as cranks who just managed to fill out some paperwork.  Probably in crayon.

The question is, at what point should the press stop treating Bernie Sanders as January-of-2000-John McCain (the insurgent with an outside chance of winning), and start treating him as Vermin Supreme?

For obvious reasons, the press has a bias towards treating a sitting Senator as a serious candidate.  As that happens, Sanders will keep threatening to bite Hillary's knee-caps off.

Those of us who care about objective reality, though, should recognize that the story here is that the press continues to cover Sanders as though he deserves coverage even though he lost the campaign long ago.  As I said earlier, he may be more Tea Party than Ted Cruz.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Bernie Sanders and the mythology of money

One of the fascinating things about the fact that Bernie Sanders has lost (note the conjugation) the Democratic contest is how this fits in with his central political theology.

According to Sanders and his ilk, money controls everything.  All political divisions can be reduced to class differences, class differences translate into political power differentials, and the rich control everything by buying elections with their filthy, filthy, icky money.  Insert some uninformed whining about Citizens United here.

And yet, has anyone noticed that Bernie Sanders is outspending Hillary Clinton?  By, like, a lot?!

There are two lessons here.  First, Bernie Sanders actually believes his nonsense about the influence of campaign spending on electoral outcomes.  Why is Bernie Sanders accepting so much money rather than, say, telling his supporters to give that money to charity?  Because he believes that if he can collect enough money and spend it, then he, too, can buy the presidency.

Yeah, that ain't workin' any better for him than it did for Jeb.  Sorry, Jeb!.  But, that's the second lesson.  Trying to buy a presidential nomination is a fool's errand.  The basic problem is that the biggest thing that advertising can get you is increased name recognition, and Sanders already has that among Democratic primary voters (although independents and Republicans have less specific knowledge about him because they haven't been paying as close attention).

In essence, campaign spending is subject to what we call "diminishing marginal returns."  The more you spend, the less marginal effect each dollar will get you because mostly the money just increases name recognition.

Now, if Sanders were even remotely analytical, he would understand that his loss debunks his own nonsense about campaign spending, but that's why it is so important for Sanders to construct arguments about how the process is rigged in other ways.  He must complain about closed primaries, or any other structure that might plausibly have helped Hillary because the only way he can rescue both his own sense of political efficacy and his dogmatic belief in the power of money is to find another villain.

Yes, the "democratic socialist" whose primary platform is campaign finance reform is out-spending the candidate of big money, and losing anyway.  Let's all take note.

If you don't love bluegrass, you hate America

Today's theme...

Saturday, May 21, 2016

What makes a strong candidate?

In yesterday's post, I addressed the fact that the underlying conditions for the 2016 election make a Republican victory plausible, and possibly outright favored.  Trump's standing in the polls simply reflects that.  But what about the candidates?  Can good candidates outperform the models?  Can weak ones underperform?  And what makes a strong candidate?

At the congressional level, I learned everything I know by reading Gary Jacobson.  Well, not quite, but close enough.  In Jacobson's work, he distinguishes between congressional challengers who have held elected office before, and those who have not.  Experienced candidates, not surprisingly, do a lot better.  They raise more money (which matters a lot for challengers, although probably less so for incumbents), get more attention, and win more votes.  Built into this process is a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy.  Inexperienced candidates are written off as sure losers, so they never get the resources or attention needed to win.  But, the experience matters in and of itself.  If it were just about money, self-funded candidates would do well.  The vast majority lose.  Yes, I know, you are coming up with a list of names in your head of self-funded candidates who won.  Now, try to list the ones who lost.  You can't.  Why not?  Nobody remembers the losers.  Except Jennifer Steen, who wrote the book on self-funded candidates, showing that most lose.  It ain't the money, kids.

What about the presidential level?  Well, the last time we had a presidential nominee with no experience in elected office, it was the guy who beat Hitler.  We don't know what happens with a truly inexperienced presidential candidate like Trump.  At a congressional level, the more experienced candidate tends to win.  Hillary has more governmental experience.  That would favor her.  But maybe it's different for presidential elections.  We need data to know, and currently, we have zero observations.

But let's be realistic.  Candidate strength is more complex.  For a more nuanced view, we turn to the guy who saw Trump's victory coming long before I did-- Jonathan Krasno.  Krasno took issue with Jacobson's simple distinction between inexperienced and experienced candidates, and created a more elaborate point system that distinguished between levels of experience, fame from other sources, and political skill.  That more nuanced view was important in order to explain Senate elections, which was Krasno's goal.

This is where the Hillary/Donald thing gets more complicated.  Fame?  Trump is pretty famous.  But, Krasno was trying to explain Senate elections.  By the end of a Senate election, it is plausible that few voters know who the challenger is.  Let's face it:  when Barack Obama ran for the Senate seat in Illinois in 2004, he was more famous than his opponent, Alan Keyes.  When celebrities of various forms run for office, they start with an advantage that other candidates don't have.

In presidential elections, though, by November, everybody knows both candidates, so it isn't clear how much of an advantage prior fame is.  And Hillary is pretty famous too.

Then there's that difficult-to-conceptualize thing, skill.  Is Hillary Clinton a skilled campaigner?  She is cautious, but I've never seen an indication of great campaign skill.  Trump?  Umm, I don't know.

For yesterday's jazz series, I described Lenny Breau as the greatest guitarist ever.  You've never heard of Lenny Breau before.  Even if you know a bit about jazz, you probably don't know Lenny Breau, who was never as famous as Les Paul, Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass...  And if you don't know jazz, you probably would have said that Jimi Hendrix was the greatest guitarist ever.

Let me explain Lenny Breau to you.  Lenny Breau started playing country music with his family.  At 15, he was better at Chet Atkins' style than Chet Atkins.  And I love Chet Atkins.  Then, he moved to jazz, and by 20, he was playing a unique style that made Wes Montgomery look rudimentary.  And he dabbled in flamenco.  By "dabbled," I mean that he was in a league with Carlos Montoya.  And it was a side-line hobby for him.

Lenny Breau then decided that the guitar, as normally played, was just pointlessly easy.  He had a seven-string guitar specially designed for him (as opposed to the normal 6), and developed a style in which he fretted chords using his index and middle finger, while playing lead lines on top using his ring finger and pinky, matching his right thumb, index and middle finger to pick the underlying chords, and his right ring finger and pinky to pick the lead lines.

But that was too simple.  So sometimes he would fret while using one finger of his right hand to gently touch the string at an even interval to create an artificial harmonic, and a separate right hand finger to pluck that string.  Then he would play a few bars like that.

I like Jimi Hendrix.  I like Chet Atkins.  But Lenny Breau was just on a different level entirely from any other guitarist.

And you've never heard of him.  He died in obscurity in 1984.  No major label recording contracts, drug problems prevented him from regular touring, and he was murdered by a random mugger.

Now let me tell you about some people who were more famous than Lenny Breau.  At some point in the late '90s, I turned on Saturday Night Live for the last time.  What I heard was the most painful, wretched, artistically worthless sound I have ever heard.  The agony still haunts me.  Eventually, someone infected my brain with knowledge of the group's name.  "The Spice Girls."

As far as I can tell, "The Spice Girls" had no musical talent whatsoever.  But they got rich pretending to be musicians, and Lenny Breau never did.  Were "The Spice Girls" talented, or lucky that their offensively bad "music" coincided with popular tastes at the time?

Now, back to Donald Trump.  How much of Donald Trump's schtick has been specifically crafted for the Republican primary electorate, and how much of it is just that his unique braggadocio and extreme rhetoric, which are impulsive rather than strategic, happen to line up with the current tastes of the Republican primary electorate?

The answer matters, because if it is a strategic choice, then Donald Trump is one of the great campaigners of all time, and he can shift his campaign in a way that will appeal to the general electorate.  If it is the lucky coincidence that his persona matches the preferences of the Republican electorate, then Trump is an especially weak general election candidate.

And how much does that distinction matter?  Again, we don't know.  We have never had a presidential nominee this far outside the norm.  Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush, John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, George HW Bush, Michael Dukakis, Ronald Reagan, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, George McGovern, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson, John F Kennedy...  They have more in common with each other than any of them has with Donald Trump.

He could be a weak candidate.  He could be a strong candidate.  Candidate strength might not matter in presidential elections.  What's going to happen?  I have no idea.  So, I default to the political science models that have served me better than any of the crappy models we use for primaries.  The economy is growing tepidly, and the Democrats have won two in a row.  Writing off Trump just because he's Donald Trump?  There isn't a strong case for that.

Trump could win.

If you don't love country, you hate 'mer'ca

On today's theme.

Friday, May 20, 2016

If you don't love jazz, you hate America

Inspired by today's post.  There are so many great versions that I might as well just pick one by the greatest guitarist ever.

While Lenny Breau spent most of his time in Canada, he was actually born in Maine, so I'm stickin' with the America line.

Political Science to Trump Denialists: Drop Dead (Those pesky polls)

I started the Trump to Political Science: Drop Dead series to show all of the ways that Trump's success in the Republican contest upended conventional political science.  Now, as we turn to the general election, it is political science's turn.  You see, we have always had better models to explain general elections.

And this time, the polls are cooperating.

If you head on over to RealClearPolitics, you will see that the two most recent polls, one by Fox and one by Rasmussen, show Trump leading Clinton by small margins.  Hillary still has a narrow lead in the polling average, and you should always pay more attention to the polling averages than to any individual poll.  But, what's going on here?

What's going on here is that for the general election, political science is actually pretty good.  How's the economy doing?  According to Federal Reserve Economic Data, first quarter GDP for 2016 is a 0.5% increase.  Small, but positive.  Add to that the fact that the Democrats have won two elections in a row, and that is the set-up for a very close election, or perhaps one that even leans Republican, depending on how the current quarter plays out.

The basic economic conditions and the sequence of past elections predict a close election, with a possible GOP advantage.  The polls are showing that.

And Trump could easily outperform expectations!  I have written a few posts on that in the past, such as this one on how survey respondents may understate their support for Trump, this about the potential benefits of Trump's malleability, and this about how Trump could turn Republican distrust into a general election advantage.

Regardless, I've been saying it for a while now.  Trump can win the presidency.  All he has to do is not dramatically underperform given the political fundamentals, and he has the potential to overperform.  Then, we turn back to the current version of Abramowitz's "Time for a Change" model, with a variable added to reflect polarization.  Partisan polarization gives any given candidate at a floor below which their numbers cannot reasonably fall.  If the economic and political fundamentals create either a near tie or a Republican advantage, then that floor makes Trump's idiosyncrasies less important.

Trump can win.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again.  Don't write him off just because he is Donald Trump.  That's why political scientists kept denying his chances long after his victory became clear.  If you want to get it right, pay attention to the data.

BIG CAVEAT, SO PAY ATTENTION TO THIS TOO!  The trick right now is that while the Republicans have begun the process of unifying around Trump, Bernie Sanders (the Ted Cruz of the left) is still either deluding himself or lying to his followers about the state of the Democratic contest, delaying the process of the Democrats unifying around the person who has already won-- Hillary.  Hillary did the same thing to Obama in 2008, and the party managed to unify anyway.  Does this presage a failure to unify for the Democrats?  Probably not.  Sanders will enthusiastically endorse Hillary over The Donald.  Once that happens, Democratic voters, who have memories roughly the lifespan of a fruit fly, will unify around Hillary.  If you look at the polls in the intervening period between the unification of one party and the unification of the other, you will get a bias towards the party that has already unified.  How much should we read into two polls that put Trump ahead?  Not a lot, but more than nothing.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Is Bernie Sanders more Tea Party than the Tea Party?

Four years ago, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein published It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How The American Constitutional System Collided With The New Politics Of Extremism.  What was missing from that title was who they blame:  the Republicans.  The key quote that has been circulating around for years is this:

"The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier-- ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."

Despite their past reputations as nonpartisan scholars, the book branded Mann & Ornstein as shills for the Democratic Party.  One can understand Republicans' reaction.  While the book is rather more cautious (it is easier to be cautious when you have space to elaborate on the cautions), the quote paints in pretty broad strokes.

As my students know, I am one of the few people who has a very high opinion of both Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner.  I think that Boehner was a statesman, trying his best to steer policy in a direction that he thought was good for the country, but that he was constrained by a group of people in his caucus whom he called "knuckleheads."  Who were the "knuckleheads?"  Basically, the Tea Party, or as they rebranded themselves in the House of Representatives, the "House Freedom Caucus."  These are the people who wanted to force a default on federal obligations by not raising the debt ceiling, and forced the 2013 government shutdown that Boehner never wanted.  I always compare Boehner to Burgess Meredith's character in the Twilight Zone episode, "Time Enough At Last."  Meredith's character is a bookish man who just wants to be left alone to read.  He climbs into a bank vault for his lunch break to read, and emerges to find that he is the only survivor of a neutron bomb.  He collects his books and plans for the quiet life he always wanted.  Then he breaks his glasses.  Boehner always wanted to be Speaker.  When he finally got there, he was saddled with the Freedom Caucus, forcing a shutdown and preventing him from doing much of anything.

Throughout all of this, Boehner did a remarkable job for which he hasn't received credit.  Mann & Ornstein's criticism is a legitimate criticism of people like Ted Cruz, but not of John Boehner.  Boehner was a statesman.  He watched Newt Gingrich burn things down in 1995, and found his way to a more honorable path.  Yes, I like John Boehner.

Now, let's talk about Bernie Sanders.  He has less of a chance of becoming the Democratic nominee now than Ted Cruz did when he withdrew from the Republican race.  And yet, he's still there, whining about how the game is rigged, and either deluding himself or lying to his followers about whether or not he still has a chance.  Is Bernie Sanders more Tea Party than Ted Cruz?  Let's take the Mann & Ornstein synopsis, point-by-point.

1)  Ideologically extreme.  Yup. I've written before (here) about why Sanders' followers bristle at calling him "extreme," but facts are facts.  The standard political science measure of ideology in Congress is the "NOMINATE" score, available at VoteView, and Sanders is at -.7170 on a -1 to +1 scale.  That's pretty far to the left.  Now, Cruz is more extreme, with a score of .8780, but Sanders is, by any reasonable definition, ideologically extreme.  No, it doesn't matter how mainstream his views would be in Denmark because he isn't running in Denmark.  What matters is where he fits here.

2)  Contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime.  Duh!  He calls himself a "democratic socialist."  He is calling for a political revolution.  His words.  He wants to convert the healthcare sector, which is about 1/6 of the economy, from private to public, break up the large banks and bring about a fundamental transformation of the American political and economic system.  If you agree with Sanders, then you think the system sucks anyway, but there really isn't any arguing on this point.  Sanders wouldn't argue with it.

3)  Scornful of compromise.  Duh!  His central criticism of Hillary is that she is too flexible.  His appeal is to idealism and the premise that you fight hard for what you believe.  He has criticized ObamaCare as insignificant because it retains the private system rather than shifting to single-payer.  Of course, he voted for the ACA, so he isn't as rigid as his current rhetoric suggests, but the basis of his campaign is the idea that the Democrats should stop compromising within the system and change the system so that they no longer need to compromise.  You can have it all, according to Sanders.

4)  Unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science.  Sanders isn't a climate denier, and I've never heard him claim that the earth is six thousand years old, or anything like that.  He's no Jim Inhofe.  But on budgetary policy, I have compared him to Paul Ryan (here), and I stand by that comparison.  His budgetary numbers never add up because he doesn't care about making them add up.  He cares about expanding the "social safety net" for its own sake.  Everything else is of secondary importance at best, so he doesn't care whether or not his numbers work.  Is Sanders as hostile to science as Inhofe?  Obviously not.  But, he is hostile to math.

5)  Dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.  And here we come to the crux of the matter.  Sanders has lost the Democratic race.  He lost long ago.  It's over.  And he is currently whining about how the process is rigged, and the election is being stolen.  According to Sanders, the concept of a closed primary is intrinsically illegitimate, so if Hillary wins by bigger numbers in the closed primary states, then the election was stolen.  He regularly bashes the DNC for its not-so-tacit backing of Hillary.  He whines about the overblown influence of money.  Any time he loses, the process is illegitimate.  Do you want to argue that open primaries are better?  Go for it.  My point is merely that Sanders is claiming that Hillary's victory is illegitimate.  It seems to me that I've read such criticisms somewhere before, but about Republicans.

The basic issue here is that Sanders is unwilling to accept loss.  But accepting loss is the key to "democracy," if such a thing can exist.  As I have written before (here), elections necessarily impose one group's will on another.  If you aren't willing to be imposed upon, then you reject the idea of an election.  Goo-goos, like Sanders, never really understand that point.  A loss means the system was rigged.

So I come back to the observation that Ted Cruz accepted reality and withdrew from the Republican race when he was in a slightly less weak position than Sanders is now.  The Republican Party could have thrown out the rules and screwed Trump out of the nomination at the convention, and since the muckety-mucks hate him, they even had a motivation.  Sanders has no such chance because the superdelegates don't hate Hillary.  And yet, Cruz accepted the reality of his loss before Sanders.  Is Bernie Sanders more Tea Party than the Tea Party.

Flame on!  (Gee, it's too bad nobody ever tried to make a movie about the Fantastic Four...)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Demography is not destiny

In yesterday's post, I addressed the concern within the Republican Party that the growth of the Latino population, combined with their Democratic leanings, can cause enough of a headache for the GOP, and if they become the party of Donald Trump, that could lock in Latinos for the Democrats, making it extraordinarily difficult for the GOP to win nationwide.  I am generally not a fan of this kind of argument.

To summarize why, consider the following:


Now, how many presidential elections would you have to flip for the sequence of above to be the pattern from 1944 through 2012?

One.  1980.  If the White House had gone to the Democrats in 1980, and everything else stayed the same, we would have had DDRRDDRR from 1944 through 2012.

One party rarely wins three in a row.  That's why Alan Abramowitz forecasts presidential elections with the "time for a change" model, in which one party faces a penalty for having won two in a row.  It can happen.  In 1980, 84 and 88, the GOP won three in a row.  But, that's the only sequence since FDR/Truman.

Now, think of all of the changes that have happened to the population, and the electorate over that time period.  Civil rights, the transformation of the South, reducing the voting age to 18, the starting influx of Latinos, the baby-boomers...  The population and the electorate have changed dramatically from 1944 through 2012 in ways that might have affected the fundamental balance between the parties at the presidential level.

But the balance remained.

Latinos are a large and growing demographic.  They lean heavily Democratic.  It does not follow that the Republicans are DOOMED! DOOMED! DOOMED!  Here are just a few reasons.

1)  Generational shifts.  Children of Cuban immigrants are not as strongly Republican as Cuban immigrants themselves.  Why not?  They don't carry the memories of fleeing the Castro regime, so they don't have a visceral attachment to the Republican Party as the party of anti-communism.  A generation or two can make a world of difference.

2)  Changing definitions of whiteness.  I like to ask my students a trick question.  (Well, lots of trick questions).  How many of my great grandparents were white?  The answer:  none.  When they emigrated here, jews weren't considered white.  Then there was that whole Holocaust thing, and Americans had a choice.  They could either retain the antisemitism that drove the Nazis, or get rid of it.  Well, actually Hitler hated pretty much everyone who wasn't "aryan," so really differentiating ourselves from Nazis would have meant giving up racism, but that was too hard.  So, Americans just moved jews from the "not white" category into the "white" category, and voila!  We're totally not like Nazis!  And then a few decades later, we started letting African-Americans vote, but who's counting?

Anywho, the basic point here is that racial boundaries are absurd social constructions, and that means they can and do change.  Yes, jews are still overwhelmingly Democratic, but that isn't true for Irish-Americans or plenty of other people who didn't used to be considered "white."  As racial boundaries change, their political implications change.  We have a census categorization that permits classification as both "white" and "Hispanic."  As racial boundaries change, politics can change.

3)  White mobilization.  So, I got my Ph.D. at Berkeley.  Do you know which university has the most conservative and Republican student groups in the country?  Berkeley.  Why?  Sociologists call this "counter-mobilization."  When a group feels surrounded and outnumbered, they mobilize.  As the Democratic Party becomes increasingly the party of minorities, white people who feel threatened will mobilize, and they will do so more for the Republicans.  Doesn't this mean a potentially toxic level of racial polarization?  Yup.  But it doesn't mean the Republicans are destined to lose elections.  Fox News is already gearing up...

4)  "Exogenous shocks."  Buzz-word alert!  Buzz-word alert!  OK, this one is a favorite among economists.  "Exogenous" versus "endogenous."  Generated from without versus from within.  Stuff happens outside the control of partisan politics, and parties must respond.  Example?  9/11.  You see, when Elvis and the Roswell aliens planted the explosives in the twin towers to kill the people who were going to blow the whistle on chem-trails, American politics shifted to terrorism, the Middle East, etc.  Since terrorism wasn't a major political issue before 9/11, the parties had to re-orient themselves around it based on expectations of voter responses.  Some people expected long-term consequences, favoring Republicans.  Then, the financial collapse in 2008, brought on by the tri-lateral commission to distract everyone from the autism they were spreading through MMR vaccines, shifted things again.  Exogenous shocks happen.  Parties have to respond.  And these shocks upset whatever long-term patterns may be developing from demography.

Demography is not destiny.  Should Republicans worry about the growing Latino population, their loyalty to Democrats, and Trump's effect on this?  Sure.  Never ignore a potential problem.  But, the system somehow keeps chugging along.  Why, it's almost as if it's a conspiracy, or something...

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

In non-political news...

I have a Saturday music series: If you don't love country, you hate 'mer'ca

Guy Clark died today.

A conservative third-party candidate in 2016

I did a radio interview this morning on recent moves by Mitt Romney and others to recruit a normal, conservative Republican to run for president as a third party candidate, given that Republican voters decided not to nominate one this year.  Kasich has already taken himself out of the running, but Mitt might find somebody.  What's going on here?

Let's start with the obvious.  What chance would a conservative, third-party candidate have of winning?  Zero.  What chance would Hillary have of winning with such a candidate on the ballot?  100%.  So why bother?

1)  Most observers think Trump is a weak general election candidate.  Soon I will revive the "Trump to Political Science: Drop Dead" series with more on why Trump might out-perform our expectations, but let's say that conventional wisdom is right.  If so, then the Republicans have already lost 2016, so there is no cost to a third-party run.

2)  If 2016 is a lost cause, then the question is about the future of the Republican Party.  As a general rule, I am skeptical of demography-as-destiny arguments, but Latinos are a large and growing demographic.  Republicans poll badly with Latinos, and Trump would only make it worse while locking in the demographic for Democrats for who-knows-how-long.  If the party establishment disavows him, perhaps the damage is only short-term.

3)  The American political system, like all electoral systems, is party-based.  Without a party, you've got a real problem trying to get your way on policy.  The conservative movement only works if it is in control of a party.  If Donald Trump is in control of the Republican Party, then the conservative movement is not, and regaining control of the party means wrestling it away from Trump.  This sounds like a job for Dennis Hastert!  Trump has about the right maturity level for him anyway...

4)  Not everything is about ideology.  Remember "valence?"  (See my comments here and here).  What if Romney and the others actually think that Trump is just too dangerous to be trusted with power, but can't bring themselves to vote for Hillary?  The answer is to actively undermine Trump with a third-party run.  It is a way to hand the election to Hillary without acknowledging that this is the goal.  It is worth pointing out Romney's past here.  He is a pragmatist, not an ideologue.  As Governor of Massachusetts, Romney recognized that the politics of the state required him to be a moderate-to-liberal-leaning Republican.  When running for the Republican presidential nomination, he moved right.  Why?  Because that is what he thought the Republican electorate demanded.  While Trump's victory this year undercuts that claim, the pattern indicates a level of pragmatism.  That pragmatism requires a distrust of Trump.

Which, if any of these, are Romney's thoughts?  I don't know.  This year is just weird, and everybody is freaking out.  So, take it away, Frank!

Monday, May 16, 2016

The possibility of a "successful" Trump presidency

As readers may notice (hi, me!), I don't have a lot (read: "any") respect for Donald Trump.  But, I'm also not particularly afraid of him.  I see him mostly as a potential Carter, whose general ineptitude would prevent him from accomplishing much, leaving him largely at the mercy of outside factors.

Carter is remembered as a failed president, but only part of his legacy is the result of his own doing (or lack thereof).  True, he failed to work with Congress, controlled by his own party, in order to enact any significant legislative agenda.  However, the historically unusual combination of high unemployment and high inflation was not his doing.  The doings of OPEC, the 1979 revolution in Iran, the hostages...  None of this was Carter's fault.

Contrast that with the legacy of Bill Clinton.  Clinton, in contrast, is remembered as a relatively successful president.  Legislatively, though, he was a total failure.  His first two years in office, he had a Democratic House and Senate, which passed his 1993 budget, and not much else.  Can we call that an accomplishment?  Sure, but healthcare reform?  Not so much.  His primary legislative legacy is the 1996 welfare reform bill, which was primarily a Republican bill that Clinton supported as a DLC Democrat, alienating liberals.

So why is Clinton remembered as a "successful" president?  He got lucky.  So to speak.  With timing.  Yes, I meant timing.  He spent eight years in the White House after the fall of communism, but before the rise of al Qaeda.  The 1990's economy was more connected to the tech boom than anything Clinton did.  So, he enjoyed a period of economic prosperity that occurred for reasons outside his control, and a brief window of peace due also to external forces.  Francis Fukuyama was wrong about how the fall of the Soviet Union meant "the end of history," but Clinton got to bask in the illusion.

And then, of course, he was impeached, and the backlash against congressional Republicans just burnished Clinton's image even more.

So, Bill Clinton got lucky, whereas Jimmy Carter merely had lust in his heart.  (Google it, kids).

What does any of this mean for Trump?  Mainly, it means whether or not he would be "successful" (note the continued use of quotation marks) depends largely on luck.  Geopolitics and macroeconomic trends are largely outside the direct control of the president.  Can a particularly stupid president blow the world up anyway?  We make jokes about Trump deciding to nuke Portugal because the Prime Minister joked about Trump's hand size, but realistically, it doesn't quite work that way.

So here's what would have to happen for Trump to get lucky and become a "successful" president.  Obviously, timing.  No major terrorist attacks on US soil, no major attacks on US allies.  Economic growth, particularly towards the end of the term.  A Vice President with a brain, capable of handling the administrative tasks that Trump can't.  Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell not doing anything grotesquely stupid, like breaching the debt ceiling.

Think of it in stock portfolio terms.  The long-term trend in the stock market is up.  Put your money in a passively managed S&P index fund, and you will get around 8 to 10% per year, on average.  "Active managers," who buy and sell individual stocks in order to try to beat the market usually underperform the market.  But, because the long-term trend is up, most will get positive returns anyway.  And in a good year, even an under-performing fund manager can beat 10%.

Trump is an idiot.  But we also have a weak presidency system, and the important stuff is largely out of the president's direct control.  Could Trump be a disaster?  Certainly.  Is he astonishingly stupid?  Yup.  But that doesn't mean he couldn't, like Bill, get lucky.

Trump could win the presidency.  And it might not be a total disaster.

When did I become an optimist?

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Political Science to Trump Denialists: Drop Dead

If you head on over to RealClearPolitics, you'll see that Clinton's lead in the polls is, on average, just shy of 6 points at the moment, and there is even an outlier poll with Trump holding a 2 point lead over HRC.  What's going on here?

I started this blog with the "Trump to Political Science: Drop Dead" series, detailing the ways that Trump's victory in the Republican nomination contest has forced political scientists to eat crow.  This time, it is political science's turn to gloat.

If there is one point I beat into my students' heads, over and over again, it is the centrality of party identification in all things electoral.  Any poll that tells you that "independent" voters are a significant portion of the electorate is done by people who don't read or understand political science.  Most voters who claim to be independent are lying.  They are closet partisans, whose opinions and behavioral patterns are clearly partisan.

In fact, in any given year, between 85% and 90% of all votes cast are just partisans voting with their party.  Republican voters, for the most part, will vote for the Republican on the ballot.

But wait, you'll say, Trump isn't a Republican!  And you'd be right.  Trump has no loyalty to anyone or anything other than Trump.  But that means he's also not a Democrat.

The political scientist whose work is most important here is Alan Abramowitz, who has coined the term, "negative partisanship."  It isn't that Republicans really like the Republican Party.  They just hate Democrats more.  HRC is a Democrat.  Most Republicans will vote for Trump just because he's not a Democrat.

And that means there is very little room for deviation from 50-50 in a presidential election.  And how should we understand that process?

With more from Alan Abramowitz.  Long ago, he built a model of presidential election forecasting called the "time for a change" model.  It did a remarkable job forecasting outcomes using just three variables:  GDP growth, the president's approval rating, and an indicator variable for whether or not one party has won two elections in a row.  After two victories, the other party tends to get a turn.

During the 2008 contest, Abramowitz gave a presentation at the American Political Science Association meeting in which he made fun of people who made ad hoc adjustments to their models, and scoffed at those who thought about changing their predictions because suddenly one nominee was an African-American, etc.  Abramowitz stuck with his old model, and it worked.

Then, he made a change, so to speak.  And it turned out to be at least somewhat justifiable, if a bit hypocritical after his 2008 rant.  He observed that partisan polarization limited the range of potential outcomes in a presidential election.  There is a floor for any candidate, no matter how weird they may seem.  And the floor is pretty high.

Add to that the fact that the Democrats have won two in a row, and a tepidly growing economy, and we really shouldn't be shocked that the election is relatively close.

For 2016, one party has nominated Tony Clifton.  Strangely enough, political science still works.  Our models of general elections were always better than our models for primaries anyway.

This will be a closer election than non-political scientists predict.  And Donald Trump might win.

If you don't love blue(no "gras")s, you hate America

The grass is covered in snow this morning.  So here's some blues.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The burn-it-down theory of reform

Inspired by a comment from a former student, let's talk about the possible effects of a Trump presidency.  A liberal might think that a Trump presidency would be so disastrous that the inevitable consequence would be to push the country to the left.  It took the Great Depression to bring about the New Deal, after all.

This possibility relies on a few factors:

First, Trump would have to be so disastrous that major change to the political system would have to occur in his wake.  I don't talk much about my personal beliefs here, but I have an education.  I can't pretend to respect Trump.  As I have written before, I see him more as a Jimmy Carter than as a Mussolini (also, Tony Clifton).  One might take that as an indication that the League of Assassins theory could work.  (Sorry, "League of Shadows."  C'mon, Nolan...).  Carter's presidency was mediocre at best, resulting in Reagan's sweeping victory, which pushed the country to the right.

Of course, Carter's presidency was also beset by the oil crisis of the time (we seem to have the reverse going on now...), the revolution in Iran, the hostages, stag-flation (the unusual combination of high inflation and high unemployment).  A lot of that was out of Carter's hands, and by the same token, blind luck could make a Trump presidency look "successful."

What would really happen to the country with a President Trump?  Paul Ryan would effectively run the country.  Say what you will about the man, but he's a hell of a lot smarter than Trump.

The other factor that the Ra's al Ghul theory requires is that the effect is to push the Democratic Party to the left.  One could imagine that happening in a disastrous Trump administration, but what else could happen?  My student suggests that liberals should vote for a third party, handing the country to Trump, and using the disaster to sweep in a Democrat further to the left than Hillary in 2020.  Now, think about 2000.  The Naderites claimed that there wasn't "a dime's worth of difference" between Bush and Gore.  Yeah, that was wrong.  So, when the Naderites handed the presidency to Bush 43 (and yes, Nader did give Florida to Bush), that led to some very different policies than a Gore presidency would have pursued.  The most obvious examples are the Iraq War and the 2001 tax cuts.  That is Nader's legacy.

And whether you think those policies were disastrous or not, they did not push the Democratic Party to the left.  Instead, they made Nader a pariah to most Democrats, Kerry ran as a slightly-left-of-DLC Democrat and Obama's healthcare policy was essentially the Republicans' response to HillaryCare from 1994.  The only issue on which the Democrats have moved left since 2000 has been gay marriage, and most of the country has moved left on that.  In fact, Obama was slower than Dick Cheney to move left on that one.

So, if liberals give the White House to Trump by voting Green, that could result in a reverse-Reagan, Ra's al Ghul-style.  Or, it could lead to a bunch of policies that, while liberals dislike, don't plunge the country into a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  And, instead of turning left, the Democrats might turn so strongly against the Greens (or whichever other third party attracts the "Bernie or bust" crowd) out of spite that the effect is to revitalize the DLC (Democratic Leadership Council), which is the center-leaning wing of the party that produced Bill Clinton.  You know, the guy who signed the welfare reform bill and DOMA into law.

What happens with a Trump presidency?  I really don't know.  We've never had a president like that.  My reference point is Carter.  That could push the country to the left, in a reverse-Reagan.

Trump could also get lucky with economic and geopolitical events outside the president's control.

A Trump presidency could fail to turn the Democratic Party to the left, just as Nader handing the White House to Bush 43 failed to turn the party left.

Trump could die or be forced from office, hand the presidency to a VP who is just a normal politician, and the whole system reverts to regular politics.

And then there's the question of what happens to the Republican Party.  Even if Trump is a disastrous president, the Republican Party could decide that the problem is that he wasn't a true conservative.  And they'd be right!  Trump isn't a conservative. That doesn't mean that moving further right is necessarily the best course, but much of the party is primed to react that way anyway.  (See my paper on how Republicans view electoral politics, available here).

Could Trump push the country to the left in a reverse-Reagan scenario?  Maybe, but there are plenty of other possibilities.

If you don't love country, you hate 'mer'ca

Maybe more blues than country, but I'm goin' somewhere with this...

Friday, May 13, 2016

If you don't love jazz, you hate America

Purists will tell you this isn't jazz.  Screw 'em.

A political science blogger lies through his keyboard to cover up being wildly wrong

I started this blog primarily for the "Trump to Political Science: Drop Dead" series.  Political scientists said Trump had no chance.  We were wrong.  We need to understand why.

I have been hardest on a book called The Party Decides (see my original comments here).  The book argued that party elites control the presidential nomination process.  Anyone arguing that at this point, well, nothing can be done for them.

The worst offender in the bunch wasn't even a co-author of the book.  No, I have dubbed Jonathan Bernstein as the "high priest" of The Party Decides for the religious fervor with which he embraced the book.  Bernstein was one of the first political science bloggers, and has done a lot to help educate people about political science.  But on this one, the problem really was that he took a book as absolute, unquestionable gospel truth, handed down from the mountaintop for us mere mortals to read closely, for it is the divine light shining down upon us.

I've been wondering for a while how Pope Jonathan I would begin to deal with Trump's victory.  The answer?  To lie.  Egregiously.

Today, Pope Jonathan I posted this.  Towards the end, he says that we need to figure out whether or not the Party Decides model "will still be a useful framework."  The problem is that word, "still."  The answer here is pretty clear.  It never was a useful framework.  But that's not where His Holiness really crosses the line into flat-out lying.

The lie is buried in the middle.  "Of course, no one ever believed that armies of voters simply did whatever their leaders told them to do."  LIE!  LIE, LIE, LIE!  You know who did believe that?  Jonathan Bernstein!  And he said it over, and over, and over again!

As recently as last month, he posted a piece called Why Parties, Not Voters, Choose Their Nominees. Of course, it was mostly about the Democratic side...

But, the text of the article doesn't quite say what the title does.  But he's said it elsewhere. Here's one from last year.  What's the first sentence?  "Those of us who argue that political parties, rather than the American voters, are decisive in choosing presidential nominees are being challenged."  There is no plausible interpretation of this sentence other than that Bernstein counts himself among those who say that voters aren't even really part of the process.  It's all about the leaders.  You can go over to his blog, and find plenty of examples like that.

Go through Bernstein's writing and try to find a line that attributes real agency to voters in the nomination process.  Go on, try.  I've never heard or read of him attributing agency or independent thought to voters such that they can over-ride party leaders' decisions.

Now, I know Jonathan Bernstein.  We've talked about this face-to-face.  As recently as last April, we spent an hour or so at a bar during a convention arguing about The Party Decides.  At one point, I said that he sounded like he believed that The Party Decides is just "proven" beyond doubt, and settled science.  He nodded enthusiastically and un-ironically.

Over and over again, Jonathan Bernstein has characterized the presidential nomination process as one in which voters don't even really participate in any meaningful way because they just mindlessly rubber-stamp the elites' choices since they are incapable of anything else.  Elites decide, signal their choice to voters, and voters do as their told.

That is pretty obviously bullshit now.  Those who took The Party Decides as gospel need to reckon both with the debunking of that model, and their own past statements.

I understand that Bernstein dug himself a deep, deep hole here.  But, at some point, intellectual integrity requires recognizing that.

What can we learn about Trump from elections in other countries?

For those paying attention to news outside 'mer'ca, it won't be a shock to say that Donald Trump is not entirely unique in the world.  Terrified liberals complain that he is Hitler, Mussolini, or some combination thereof, but they're pretty much afraid of their own shadows anyway.  In contrast, I have compared him more to Jimmy Carter.  Personality-wise, Trump is nothing like Carter, although I wouldn't be surprised if he were terrified of a bunny-wunny.  The newly-elected Filipino president, though?  The similarities aren't difficult to see there.

What do Trump-like candidates in other countries tell us about the US?  That's hard to say.  There are two areas in which US elections are difficult to compare to the rest of the world:  the structure of the system, and the voters themselves.

Structurally, a few things stand out about the US system.  First, we have a "plurality rule" electoral system.  Whoever gets the most votes wins.  Yes, we have complicated methods of aggregating votes, like the electoral college, but the basic principles are generally plurality rule.  That reduces the number of parties to two (we call this principle "Duverger's law," after Maurice Duverger).  Second, we have a weak party system.  In other countries, parties have much more control over who gets on the ballot.  Third, we have a lot of elections.  Like, really a lot.  More frequent than just about anywhere else.  That reduces turnout through voter fatigue.  Fourth, our executives are elected independently rather than chosen by the legislature (we have a "presidential" rather than a "parliamentary" system).

Those are just the biggies.  Not many other countries share these characteristics, which makes it hard to find analogs around the world.  Most of these factors work against Tony Clifton-like candidates.  Systems with more than two parties can have smaller parties led by weirdos.  Strong parties don't let Tony Clifton rise through the ranks to leadership positions.  Turnout isn't much of a factor-- the electorate and the non-voting public have similar preferences, with the former just having stronger preferences.  That's why they vote.  Legislatures pick executives from their own ranks rather than from the ranks of reality tv rosters.

All of these factors, though, work through the nomination stage.  Trump blew those rules to smithereens.  He exploited the weakness of the party system and post-1968 party reform, as I have written previously.  But there is nothing structural about general elections that works either for or against Trump since the turnout factor is far weaker than whiny, little goo-goos assert.*

Thus, when we see Trump-like candidates win general elections in other countries, the question is whether American voters resemble the voters in those countries.  This brings me back to policy and valence, which I addressed in two recent posts (here and here).  Are voters capable of formulating, recognizing and voting on the basis of policy preferences?  If so, do those policy preferences resemble those of voters in other countries?  Do voters in this country assess traits like competence and honesty in the same way as voters in other countries?

Trump's primary appeal is to nationalist impulses and to policy associated with nationalism, and you probably won't be surprised to know that cross-national polling does not indicate lower levels of nationalism in the US than in other countries.

But what about the valence side of the equation?  Are voters in the US more or less capable of recognizing Tony Clifton than voters in other countries?

That remains to be seen because our nomination system has generally stopped Tony Clifton-like characters from getting to this stage.  So how much do other countries' elections tell us about Trump's chances?  We don't know.  We are unmoored from history here.

*Goo-goo:  one who believes that all political ills can be cured by changing some political rule, like redistricting reform, campaign finance reform, mandatory voting, etc.  They are obnoxious and uninformed children who should be treated as such.  I, on the other hand, am obnoxious and informed.  See, that's totally different.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Paul Ryan, the PUMAs and the neverTrumpers

Paul Ryan is the Speaker of the House.  He is the highest-ranking elected Republican in the country, third in line for the Presidency.  He occupies that position because he is the only unifying figure in the Republican Party today.  When former Speaker John Boehner was forced to step down, Paul Ryan said "no" to the job.  He was cajoled into taking the position because he was, quite literally, the only person who could get 218 votes in the House of Representatives.  The "establishment" wing of the party trusts him to govern intelligently, meaning not to breach the debt ceiling or do anything comparably stupid.  The "tea party" wing trusts him as a true believer-- aside from "repealing Obamacare," the only policy that the party can truly rally around these days is informally known as "the Paul Ryan budget," since it codifies the party's future goals on fiscal policy.  Paul Ryan is the Republican Party's golden boy.

And he still can't endorse the party's presidential nominee, Tony Clifton, I mean, Donald Trump.

The reason should be obvious.  Ryan has his detractors, but few would question his intelligence.  Ryan sees Donald Trump as a fraud, an unprincipled megalomaniac, a grossly uninformed and incompetent caricature of the worst stereotypes that Democrats have of Republicans, and a potential electoral disaster capable of dragging down an entire party in an election that Republicans should probably win, based on the fact that one party rarely wins three presidential elections in a row.

Like I said, Paul Ryan is a smart guy.  It is worth taking some time to note, then, how weird it is for the true leader of his party to refuse, repeatedly and pointedly, to endorse his party's presidential nominee.

History time!

In 1980, Ted Kennedy lost a brutal primary challenge to Jimmy Carter, and never got on board with the Carter re-nomination.  Carter then lost to Reagan.  In social science terms, there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here.  Did the party fail to unify because the underlying economic circumstances that handed the election to Reagan kept the party in tatters, or did the tattered party lead to Carter's loss?  Or did they have nothing to do with each other?  That's hard to say, but it is worth pointing out that the Democrats dissatisfied with Carter were both dissatisfied with the state of the country and the fact that their chosen candidate didn't win.

In 2008, we had the "PUMAs," or, "party unity, my ass" crowd.  These were the Hillary supporters who claimed they could never get on board with Obama.  What motivated them?  Well, there was this lady...

It's hard to say how representative she was of the PUMAs (most of whom did get on board with Obama in the end), but regardless, the PUMAs were angry because their chosen candidate didn't win.

Back to Paul Ryan.  Paul Ryan didn't have a chosen candidate, and most of the neverTrumpers weren't as viscerally attached to a chosen candidate as the PUMA in the video above.  The neverTrumpers just hate Donald Trump and can't bring themselves to vote for somebody who is basically Tony Clifton.  This is weird, and we need to take some time to appreciate it.

The irony is that nobody has more to lose by preventing the Republicans from unifying around Trump.  If Republican voters are either demoralized enough to abstain, or motivated to vote for a third party candidate, Hillary wins.  Paul Ryan then needs to raise the debt ceiling.  Hillary will give him nothing in exchange for it.  Paul Ryan will cave.  Tea partiers will revolt.  Ryan will lose their support, and with it, the speakership.  It will be John Boehner all over again.

What's his plan?  I have some thoughts, which I will save for a future post.

So keep reading!  And spread the word, if you enjoy reading this little blog.  The more readers I get, the more willing I am to write.