Polling for the 2016 Presidential Election: What Went Wrong?

mpablog-2016electionpolling

As I write, Donald Trump is less than two weeks from being inaugurated as President of the United States. For political scientists, our “what the…?” moment involves the failure of most public-opinion polls to predict the results of the 2016 election. I joined numerous colleagues in assuming a Hillary Clinton victory. The news media and even Saturday Night Live took Clinton’s victory for granted. I will never in my life forget spending Election Night watching the needle on the New York Times’ prediction meter move from strongly favoring Clinton to 100% Trump.

Comparisons to the classic “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline of 1948 are inevitable, but several differences emerge. Most notably, telephone polling was in its infancy in 1948. The methodological sophistication and advanced computer programs used today were not available. Today, pollsters predict elections based not on a single poll or early returns, but rather on an amalgamation of many polls, plus other data. The methodology is so advanced, so tested, it is completely indestructible—just like the Titanic!  However, in fairness, it should be noted here that Nate Silver, the most popular proponent of this polling-amalgamation strategy, stated repeatedly that Donald Trump has a path to victory. Just before Election Day, however, even Silver’s models leaned toward a Clinton win.

What lessons can we learn from these polling-based collisions with last year’s electoral iceberg?

First, it is worth noting that political scientists were not necessarily part of the horse race frenzy. Quite a few correctly predicted the Republican victory, using various modeling techniques. Most of those who bucked the media’s conventional wisdom have one thing in common—they looked at numbers affecting partisan breakdown, not numbers for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump specifically. The news media’s “horserace” coverage emphasizes polling respondents’ plans to vote for one candidate or another, while political scientists such as Michael Lewis-Beck and Charles Tien, Brad Lockerbie, and Alan Abramowitz, each did what political scientists (as opposed to campaign or media pollsters) usually do—they looked at fundamentals such as the state of the economy, partisan breakdown of the electorate, historical trends, approval of the current President, and voter optimism about the economy, not voters’ opinions of the candidates themselves.

Why were these models so widely ignored? That answer could be summarized as, “but… Donald Trump!” More formally, many commentators (including more than a few who were political scientists or political science-trained) assumed that Donald Trump’s quirky candidacy and high personal negatives meant that the usual partisan-breakdown models used by these political scientists and others simply did not apply this year. In fact, they were onto something. The scholars cited above all predicted a higher popular vote share for the Republican than Trump actually won, while others were even farther off, predicting percentages for the Republican nominee as high as 56% (Trump actually won just 46.1%).

If John McCain or Mitt Romney had been the Republican nominee, he might very well have gotten the 50%+ of the popular vote predicted by these models. So, in fact, the conventional wisdom was not completely wrong. Trump did underperform the expectations of these models, presumably due to his unusual personality, behavior, and candidacy. Yet he is still on the verge of becoming President. The results of another poll, in the very “red” state of Kansas where I research, write, and teach, may offer a clue as to why. According to respondents in the Kansas Speaks survey, Donald Trump was highly unpopular here, scoring particularly low with our respondents on the matters of trustworthiness and “understanding people like me.” Yet Trump won Kansas easily, and the reason is clear: not only is Kansas a heavily Republican state, but Hillary Clinton was even more unpopular here than was Trump. Her worst-scoring categories in Kansas Speaks were the same as Trump’s, and Kansans rated her lower on trustworthiness and “understands people like me” than they did Trump.

In short, outside of California, voters disliked Hillary Clinton more, but they also disliked Donald Trump. The conventional wisdom before the election had this reversed, with commentators assuming that Clinton, not Trump would be perceived as the lesser of the evils. Commentators underestimated the roles of three things: deep party ties (the vast majority of Mitt Romney’s supporters from 2012 backed Trump), the same variables that usually affect elections, such as the state of the economy and optimism about it, and finally, Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity.

While this is conjecture on my part, I cannot resist adding that in the last three elections that have been framed by the conventional wisdom as “a choice between the lesser of two evils”—2000, 2004, and 2016—Republicans have gained the White House each time.  The tiresome “lesser evil” frame appears to be toxic to Democrats, likely because their base is less reliable about turning out to vote if they do not like the candidates.

Still, I have not yet gotten to the problem with the polls themselves. Weren’t they clearly predicting a Clinton victory, not only nationwide (which was correct), but in those Great Lakes “firewall” states that put Donald Trump in the White House?

Here’s a dirty little secret of polling: no poll has a representative sample of those being studied. Polling, like scientific tests of soil or water quality, works by sampling— drawing a subset of thing being studied, testing it, and then drawing an inference (logical leap) from the results for the sample to the likely condition of the whole from which that sample was drawn. We cannot really know what the water quality is in, for example, Lake Michigan, because it is impossible to test all of it. However, water-quality experts often draw and test samples of the water, then draw inferences to the whole.

For this to work, sampling must be done with great care. Likewise, pollsters must take pains not to over-sample certain populations and under-sample others. One classic example pertains to the time, not so far back, when most households had one landline telephone. In mixed-gender households (often married heterosexual couples), the adult woman was usually the one to answer the phone. Had pollsters simply interviewed her, the result would be a sample that was heavily skewed towards women, and under-sampled men, relative to their proportions among the population. Thus, a “randomizing” technique had to be employed, such as asking to speak to the adult in the household with the next birthday.

Today, many Americans have their own cell phones, and landlines are becoming obsolete. Call “screening” is also more popular than ever.  If getting something close to a random sample was hard 20 years ago, today it is nearly impossible. It is very difficult to get proportionate numbers of complete surveys from African-Americans and from people that do not speak English as a first language, for example. Randomizing methods are still used but they are not enough.

When polling results are featured on the news, what you are hearing about are not the raw data from the poll, but rather, poll results that have been “weighted” to account for the impossibility of getting a true representative sample. Imagine that we expect 12% of the voters to be African-American, yet only 5% of the polling sample fit this description. The “weight” of each result from an African-American respondent is thus multiplied to adjust to something more representative. This process often employs “multivariate regression with post-stratification,” or, in a wonderful acronym, “Mr. P.”

Here’s where things went south in 2016. In order to weight the polling results, we have to know ahead of time who is going to vote. If we weighted the data based on a prediction that 12% of the electorate would be African-American, and it turns out that only 10% were, then our predictions were off.  It is, of course, impossible to know who is going to vote until after they have done so, therefore, the composition of the electorate is estimated, often using the composition of the electorate for the last election (in this case, the 2012 Obama-Romney race). In 2012, this worked well—the composition of the electorate was similar to 2008 and the winning candidates were also the same. Notwithstanding unnecessary media “horse race” hype, the predictions of prognosticators in 2012 were pretty much dead-on.

Then it all fell apart in 2016.

Put simply, the composition of the electorate changed. African-American turnout dropped, while Trump, like 1992 third-party candidate Ross Perot, pulled out voters who simply would not have voted at all, had Trump not been in the race. But unlike Perot, Trump also won a major-party nomination, so he was able to put the party’s base together with those infrequent voters and pull off the victory—at least in the electorally-critical states. The pollsters’ estimates of the electorate’s composition were incorrect, therefore, the weighted predictions were wrong as well.

Another possible factor in the polling inaccuracies is the “Bradley effect,”- that is, Trump voters having lied to pollsters about their intentions. This was a popular Election Night speculation.  However, subsequent analysis indicates that the Bradley effect was, at most, only one of a number of factors involved.

Taking stock of all this, it’s not yet time to invoke the famous quip about “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” In fact, many political-science-based models correctly predicted the winner, while polling data such as Kansas Speaks show how Trump could win despite relative unpopularity (because Clinton was even more unpopular). I join fellow MPSA bloggers in calling for the news media to re-orient away from “horse race” coverage. It is underlying dynamics, not the horse race, that usually decide elections—and news consumers deserve more attention and analysis of those dynamics. After all, it is things like the state of the economy and our optimism about the future, not political candidates’ personal idiosyncrasies, which are what truly affect our own lives.

About the author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more on the MPSA blog from Smith and follow him on Twitter.

MPSA Blog: Top 10 Posts from 2016

MPSA Blog: Top 10 Posts from 2016

Regardless of your research interests, your academic (or Alt-Ac) role, or your aspirations for the new year, there is something on this list of MPSA’s most popular blog posts from 2016 that is sure to pique your interest:

MPSA would especially like to thank regular contributors Newly Paul, Adnan Rasool, Michael A. Smith, and Harry Young for sharing their research, political perspectives, and pedagogical insights with us this calendar year. We look forward to highlighting even more NSF-Funded research, conference presentations, and MPSA member interviews in the coming months. If you’re interested in sharing your work with MPSA’s members and the discipline, we’d love to hear from you.

Best wishes for a safe and productive 2017!

Political Science: The Cure for Election Anxiety

Reporters are discovering a new phenomenon this year: election anxiety.  This year’s contests, particularly the one for President, have Americans worried and minds racing.

The cure is right here: political science. It is the key to calming mental chatter, reducing stress, re-centering energy, and living in the now.

According to advocates of mediation and mindfulness, just sitting still and breathing deeply can bring everything from feeling slightly more peaceful to pure joy. As mindfulness advocate Eckhart Tolle would say, there is only the present moment. It’s always now.

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.”

In this particularly bizarre election year, it can be hard to breathe.  Political news (or “news”) can be a major source of angst. Just think of the worries cascading through politically-informed Americans’ heads right now — Tolle could easily use them as examples in his next book. When we’re worried about politics, we’re not living in the present moment.

Did you see the latest polls?  What if the candidate I don’t favor wins the election? Why are voters so angry? What about the latest scandals/revelations/stories/rumors and how will they affect the outcome? How about all those undecided voters? I read some really bad things on the Internet about some of the people supporting my candidate’s opponent. I don’t like any of the candidates–what do I do?

And on, and on, and on.

Tolle writes, “Most people are still completely identified with the incessant stream of mind, of compulsive thinking, most of it repetitive and pointless.” (Tolle, 2005)

Sound familiar, political junkies?

One of political scientists’ favorite pastimes is debunking these racing thoughts. Larry Bartels’ famous takedown of Thomas Frank (of What’s the Matter with Kansas? fame), is a case in point. In 2016, political science offers a reminder that fundamentals generally drive voting behavior, and that is just as true in a year when a politically untested, anger-spewing real-estate developer faces a former First Lady with an e-mail problem, as it would be in a more normal election cycle.

Consider the following insights: calming thoughts offered by political science to calm the endless, often pointless stream of thoughts cascading through our heads as Election Day, 2016 approaches.

1. There are hardly any undecided voters.

If the news media has a favorite theme, it is all the drama, worry, and suspense about undecided voters. Even the normally-sober Economist got into the act at one point, joining the usual suspects in fretting that vast legions of Americans have absolutely no idea whether they will vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton this November, and the election is in their indecisive hands. So much to worry about!

Relax: it’s mostly nonsense. As John Sides points out, there are hardly any true undecideds. Those appearing in polls as undecideds are generally partisans or “independent leaners” who are waiting for the candidate whom they will probably support to close the deal. The Nation’s Jon Wiener notes that the vast majority of Donald Trump’s supporters voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, and the vast majority of Hillary Clinton’s supporters backed Barack Obama that year. Little wonder that Nate Silver’s famously accurate state-by-state predictions now look nearly identical to the 2012 red-and-blue map. For the most part, the same voters are voting the same way in the same places.

Oh — and about those “independent” voters: they’re not really so independent. The vast majority of independents are independent leaners, who vote nearly as partisan as do strong partisans.

The bottom line? There are no vast legions of indecisive, uncommitted voters waiting to sway the election.

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in…

2. This is not the year of the angry white male.

If there’s any truism (besides the undecided voters) that obsesses reporters these days, it’s the angry white males backing Donald Trump. This idea is intuitive. And, for the most part, it is wrong.

On the surface, some voters’ resolve to stick with Trump despite his impulsive statements and raucous supporters seems to support this meme. Easier to forget, is that we have been down this road before. There have been numerous years of the angry Caucasian man before now, going back at least to 1968. A case in point is the first term of the George W. Bush Administration, when journalist David Brooks informed his readers of a major, sociological split between Republican-voting “red” and Democratic “blue” states, regions, and counties — fundamentally different cultural values cleaving the nation. (This year’s angry white male would be analogous to the red-state values identified by Brooks.)

Brooks’ analysis gave his politically-curious readers a treasure trove of speculations — grist for the mill, material to mull. Not all of it stands up to strict scrutiny. Morris Fiorina rebutted many of Brooks’ claims, showing through rigorous data analysis that most Americans are not politically polarized, only political elites are. Most Americans are political centrists even on divisive issues like abortion rights, on which they favor certain restrictions but not a complete ban. Of course, most Americans also hate politics.

Sorry, no “red America” and “blue America” here… and no legions of angry voters, either. Instead we have Democrats, who tend to be urban, younger, more secular, and less likely to be married or white, and Republicans, who tend to be rural or outer-ring suburban, middle-aged or older, white, married, and religious (particularly Evangelicals). Except for political elites (who can make a lot of noise) the two groups are not as far apart on the issues as Brooks may think they are.

Breathing out, I know I am breathing out…

3. Third party candidates are unlikely to swing the election.

Another thing that keeps brains burning all night is the worry that third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will throw the election. In particular, what appears to be lackluster support for Hillary Clinton by former Bernie Sanders supporters has observers wondering. Yet, hard data suggest that the vast majority of voters in both parties’ primaries will support the final nominee, even if they were not that voter’s first choice. Like the vocal elites creating the impression of “red” and “blue” Americas, the handful of angry Bernie supporters walking out of the Democratic National Convention created a lot of heat — but few votes. It does appear that Ralph Nader cost Al Gore Florida and the presidency in 2000, but only due to the absurdly-close margin by which Florida was decided. If the difference between the two candidates is larger than Florida’s 0.009% was in Y2K, third-party candidates are unlikely to throw the election.  As that hyperlinked article above by Herron and Lewis notes, had Nader not been in the race, about 60% of his supporters would have voted for Gore, about 40% for Bush. The difference does produce a number large enough to have tipped the outcome–but not by much.

4. Debates, game changers and gaffes rarely make a difference

Here’s a radical idea: don’t watch the final presidential debate on Wednesday. Presidential debates contain little information and are not true debates.

Political junkies and journalists love to recall the famous “gaffes” of years gone by, particularly those made during Presidential debates. Richard Nixon had a five o’clock shadow. Gerald Ford didn’t think Poland was under Soviet domination. Jimmy Carter let his 13-year-old daughter name the nation’s top foreign policy priority. Michael Dukakis had no emotional reaction to the thought of his own wife being raped and murdered. George H.W. Bush looked at his watch.

It did not matter.

Comprehensive analyses of public opinion data before and after these debates and gaffes shows little long-term shift in public opinion as a result. Gaffes may give the chattering mind something to sink its teeth into, but that’s about all they do. Elections are still determined by fundamentals, particularly deep partisan ties (including those held by independent leaners) and the state of the economy. There aren’t many “game changers.”

So it goes, on and on. We could toss in a few other observations, too, such as noting that vice-presidential nominees have almost nothing to do with election results.

Political science reminds us that this year’s election will be decided by the fundamentals: partisan ties and the economy, just as were previous elections. All the heat and noise that unsettles us, from polls to angry voters to gaffes to vice-presidents, serve primarily to give the chattering class — and chattering minds — something to do instead of living in the now. It is not necessary nor particularly productive to speculate about these things, and we might all be better off just sitting still.

Turn off the TV and the computer.

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in…. breathing out, I know I am breathing out…

About the author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more on the MPSA blog from Smith and follow him on Twitter.

 

 

Bernie Goldwater: What Sanders Supporters Can Learn from Young Americans for Freedom

Supporters were crestfallen, but their resolve was firm.

Their candidate had refused to buckle to the pressure from party elite—the usual pressure from political managers, to move to the political center and tone down strong rhetoric, seeking to enlist the support of middle-of-the-road voters and avoid alienating the power brokers and stakeholders who benefit from the status quo. Instead, the candidate took a stand for what he believed and stuck resolutely to his guns. One of his campaign slogans was, “in your heart, you know he’s right.”

Supporters included many well-organized young people who rejected the values of conformism. Their goal was not to support a candidate who moved to the political center in order to win an election, but one who would take a strong stand and build a movement that would shift the center of gravity underlying American politics, even if it took time.

In the end, they succeeded.

I refer not to this year’s surprisingly tenacious candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, whose dark-horse candidacy gave Hillary Clinton fits through the primary and caucus season. Rather, I refer to the iconic conservative of 1964: Arizona’s Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, who famously accepted his party’s nomination for President by saying “Extremism, in the defense of liberty, is no vice. And let me remind you that moderation, in the pursuit of justice, is no virtue.”

Thanks to Donald Critchlow’s book  “The Conservative Ascendency” (University Press of Kansas: 2011), we know that Goldwater got shellacked by Lyndon Johnson in ’64, but observers at that time may not have appreciated what was happening. Four years later, in the midst of the Vietnam War, LBJ was so unpopular that he did not even seek re-election, and Republicans captured the White House. Goldwater supporters, on the other hand, ascended to power through the 1970s, nearly upsetting the re-nomination of President Ford in 1976 and ultimately catapulting Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980. This did not happen by chance.

In fact, Reagan was one of Goldwater’s enthusiastic supporters. Then a General Electric spokesman and former actor, Reagan gave one of his most famous speeches in support of Goldwater’s small-government crusade. This was a major step forward on Reagan’s path, leading to the California governorship and ultimately the presidency. This speech was officially called “A Time for Choosing,” but it is so well-known among conservatives that many simply call it “The Speech.” (Read the speech transcript.)

Goldwater’s supporters also included many young people, particularly college students that were part of a new group called the Young Americans for Freedom. Organized in Sharon, Connecticut by conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr., the YAF issued its own “Sharon Statement” (avoiding the word “manifesto,” which had a decidedly communist-sounding ring to it), condemning the middle-of-the-road politics of both parties and calling for a renewed commitment to small government, anti-communism, and religious values in public life. As Republicans, they sought a greater differentiation between the two parties, who they thought had clustered together in a political center that accepted too much big government: one that had gone soft in its opposition to communism and secularism alike.

Less than ten years later, galvanized by their opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision affirming abortion rights, conservative activists began to take over the Republican Party. Some of these were veterans of the YAF and the Goldwater campaign. They took on and defeated prominent moderate and liberal Republicans in primary elections, while challenging Democratic dominance in districts once thought unwinnable. In particular, they targeted the West and the South, culturally-conservative areas long accustomed to the Democratic Party by tradition and habit. They used then-novel computer technology to organize donor databases and make fundraising appeals, and fought at the grassroots by targeting church groups, party caucuses, and low-turnout elections such as those for school board and Republican precinct committeeman and –woman. Reagan nearly captured the GOP nomination, almost defeating a sitting incumbent of his own party in the bizarre, post-Watergate political environment of the mid-1970s. More gains came in 1978, with conservatives defeating both liberal Republicans and Democrats for a handful of key Congressional races. Finally, in 1980, the big prize: a President conservatives could call their own, along with a Republican majority in the Senate and a coalition of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats that effectively created a conservative majority in the House as well.

Tax cuts, beefed-up military spending, staunch anti-communist policies in Afghanistan and Central America, conservative social legislation, and deregulation swiftly followed. Sixteen years after Goldwater’s seeming defeat, the values for which he had stumped were victorious. Still a U.S. Senator, Goldwater was able to be a part of the revolution that his candidacy had launched.

Fast-forward to 2016: This year’s most visible young political activists are on the political left. Young people – particularly college students – are Feeling the Bern for tuition-free college, universal health care, regulations that break up huge banks, and other policies at the opposite pole from those once backed by Goldwater, Reagan, and the YAF. Yet I re-tell the story of conservatives’ rise to power because I think it has relevance to Sanders’ young supporters.

Like the YAF, Feel the Bern activists believe their party has sold out to the powers that be. Their argument that Hillary Clinton’s policies are little different from those of a moderate Republican nicely mirror the Sharon Statement’s condemnation of establishment Republicans. Like the YAF, Bernie supporters believe it is more important to be true to one’s values and support a candidate that they believe has integrity, than it is to make the kind of compromises that lead to short-term political victory by winning over moderates and big-money donors. Like the YAF, many Bernie voters are young and have lots of elections in front of them. Winning in 2016 is not as important to them as shifting the political center of gravity. Conservative activists took 16 years to move this center to the right. Will Sanders’ supporters have the same tenacity and patience to move it left?

Doing this will take serious organizing skills. This is where Bernie’s veritable army of supporters can learn a lot from the YAF and the Goldwater veterans. If they are in for the challenge, here are a few tips:

  1. Target Low-turnout Elections 

If Sanders and his voters have one signature issue, it is their absolute outrage at the way both political parties have, in their view, caved into the pressure of “the establishment”: wealthy bankers, corporate CEOs and Board members, and their hangers-on who manipulate the political system to their own benefit, avoiding both taxes and accountability while raking in subsidies.

Do these still-young activists realize that this is not purely a federal problem? In state and local governments across the country, generous tax packages are dangled before big businesses in order to get them to locate in one place over another. There is little, if any evidence that Tax Increment Financing and other incentives produce any overall growth to local economies, primarily because they are a zero-sum game in which all local governments are forced to compete. What they do is hollow out the local tax base, forcing communities to rely on residential property assessment and regressive sales taxes to fund schools, police, fire, and other local services. Taking the anti-corporate crusade to state and local government could lead to “truces” among municipalities that would stop the giveaways and safeguard tax bases from further depletion.

As if that weren’t enough, another Bernie priority—the $15-per-hour minimum wage—can also be implemented at the state and local level.  Indeed, some states and localities have already done so.  More gains for progressives in local office means more places with a majority to pass such legislation — not to mention more chances to show, contrary to critics’ worries, that it does not cause widespread job loss.

  1. Run for Office

Now seventy four years old, it is not clear that Bernie is the one who will ultimately ascend to the presidency if the progressive left does triumph. Besides, no one person can make up a grassroots movement. It is time for these liberal young activists to look, not at Bernie, but at themselves—are you ready to seek public office? Our media culture obsesses on the Presidency, but this is not where things start. Bernie’s backers can start their insurrection in the Democratic Party, or as independents, but either way they should seek jobs like precinct committeeman and –woman, getting spots on platform-writing committees, and running for offices like school board, city or county commissioner, and state representative.

Like a “deep bench” in baseball, well-qualified, thoughtful, articulate candidates for offices like these form the ranks from which future members of Congress and even Presidents will be chosen. Many of these elections, including party primaries, have low voter turnout, which tends to reward those who are well-organized and passionate. Sanders did better in caucus states, which reward perseverance and passion, than in primary states, in which voters need only mark a ballot. The energy of these supporters can be tapped to start taking and holding government and party offices from the bottom up. Besides, state and local government is where key decisions are often made, for example the overly-generous tax packages given to business.

  1. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

It may seem odd for Sanders and his activists to take heart from the right-wing Goldwater-Reagan coalition. Yet, it is important to learn from them regarding tactics, if not ideology. Buttressed perhaps by their religious faith, late-twentieth-century conservatives did not fret about the loss of a few seats or one election. They had long-term goals and planned accordingly. Party activists like Newt Gingrich carefully planned out strategies to target districts as they became winnable, and to differentiate themselves from establishment politicians on key wedge issues that would appeal to voters. If they had folded their tent and gone home after 1964, none of this would have happened. They had a twenty year plan and they seized on opportunities as they became available, meeting periodically to track progress. They built a deep bench of state and local officeholders and sought higher offices when they came within reach.

4. Organize, Organize, Organize

In the ‘70s, conservative activists realized that computers could be used to keep track of supporters and target fundraising appeals. These computers might seem museum-quality crude today, but at the time it was revolutionary. Knowing who your voters are, being able to reach them when needed, and raising money by bundling lots of small contributions are all essential skills in today’s politics. Today’s counterpart may be the social media savvy taken for granted by many of Bernie’s younger backers, who cannot remember a time when there was no Internet. Activists in Bernie’s campaign and #BlackLivesMatter have shown us that social media is not a place to rant against one’s political opponents, it is an organizing tool, and they have used it effectively. These skills will come in very handy at bundling small contributions and organizing voters, particularly in low-turnout elections like party primaries.

Bernie Sanders will be 90 years old in 16 years. Many of his supporters will not even be 40.

Who knows? Maybe this year’s Sanders campaign has launched a new generation of activists that will shake up the Democratic Party in the years to come, leading a grassroots revolution that will ultimately elect a President and Congressional majority and make real change to our creaky political status quo.

Someday, maybe they’ll call him Bernie Goldwater.

About the author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more on the MPSA blog from Smith and follow him on Twitter.

 

Sir Edmund and Hillary: A Surprisingly Likely Pair

MPSAblog_Smith_BurkeMainstream political scientists often struggle with the subfield called political theory. Otherwise known as normative theory or political philosophy, theory is the study of history, philosophy, and values. It made up the bulk of political science before the data-driven “behavioral revolution” (.pdf) of the twentieth century. Today’s empirical, or data-based political scientists are often flummoxed by normative theory, preferring instead to simply let it continue in its own world, on a parallel track largely ignored by others in the discipline.

This is a shame, because the insights of these history- and values-based approaches to studying politics can inform not only political science, but contemporary politics as well.

As a case in point, consider the ideas of Edmund Burke, an eighteenth-century English-Irish statesman whose writings are now considered part of the “canon,” or collection of most-cited authors in the humanities, philosophy, and political theory. Burke’s traditionalist, conservative biographers would likely be horrified to read this, but I keep thinking about Burke whenever I read about Hillary Clinton.

I am not suggesting that Hillary has the same politics as Burke; not at all. What they share instead is a certain attitude. At its best, this attitude is characterized by a skepticism of drastic change and an appreciation for careful deliberation. At its worst, it can be arrogant and aloof.

Burke was a crotchety old-school member of parliament who was known for his opposition to revolution and skepticism of democracy. He is most famous for being aghast at the French Revolution and predicting that it would lead to the rise of a dictator—which it did. He also argued that it was more important for legislators to represent the interest of their districts than to make the right to vote universal, and developed the well-known trustee approach (.pdf) to representation. Unlike the delegate style, trustees do not poll their constituents or hold town hall meetings in order to decide how to vote on key issues. They follow their own judgment, only later returning home to explain their decisions and sit for re-election. In my own research, I once met a trustee legislator who told me,

“My district elects me because of who I am, to come down here and make some decisions. If you’re going to elect somebody that’s going to take a poll, then you don’t need me down here. And so that’s my attitude.”

That’s a good deal less wordy than Burke, but it captures some of the same ideas about representation—the representative knows best, the popular passions are often wrong, and it takes time and deliberation for the truth to emerge. In 1780, Burke told his electors in Bristol:

“I did not obey your instructions: No. I conformed to the instructions of truth and nature, and maintained your interest, against your opinions, with a constancy that became me. I am to look, indeed, to your opinions, but to such opinions as you and I must have five years hence.”

Burke is also known for being haughty and long-winded: a stereotypical British statesman, like something out of a Monty Python skit. Once, when I gave a match-the-quote-to-the-author quiz, one snarky student commented, “It was long, and I didn’t understand it, so it must be Burke.”

The student had marked the correct answer.

Burke was so removed from the affairs of his district that he lost re-election after only a single, elected term in parliament (he served earlier on a Royal appointment). Yet Burke also had powerful insights. In addition to predicting Napoleon’s rise, he also had a strongly compassionate streak, railing against British abuses in Ireland, America, and India. Burke could not get enough people to listen to his concerns on these issues, and as we now know, he was right about all three.

At his best, Burke was a healthy skeptic: deliberative and a good prognosticator. At his worst, he was arrogant, aloof, and not always pro-democratic. In other words, while conservative hagiographers may scoff, Burke was at least a little bit like Hillary.

Clinton is the only major presidential candidate who cannot even plausibly distance herself from this year’s favorite political punching bag: “the establishment.” This is because, far more than Burke was, she is the establishment—part of it, anyway.  She is well-connected to other politicians, non-elected government officials, leaders overseas, and monied interests, and she makes no attempt to hide that. At her best, her policy pronouncements are careful and measured—a stark contrast to the aggressive, change-the-world-in-one-go plans of her opponents on both the left and the right. Hillary is also pragmatic, with a strongly compassionate streak.  At her worst, she appears clueless, for example holding a high-dollar fundraiser with Hollywood celebrities while her opponent Bernie Sanders wins caucus after caucus by attacking her on these very campaign finance issues.

Few question Hillary’s qualifications to be President, but her occasional stumbles into let-them-eat-cake territory bring to mind Burke’s inability to connect with his constituents. Critics of my comparison will call Hillary untrustworthy, which was apparently not a problem for Burke. Yet I question how objective this judgment is—one recent analysis showed that Hillary’s campaign-trail quotes are in fact the most truthful of any presidential candidate. Her trust problem is not dishonesty on the stump, but rather the voters’ uneasy sense that she is entitled, part of an elite club which does not “get” why some of her actions would offend regular people. Of course, some of this is also because of her husband, still a major public figure and a maddening study in contradictions some sixteen years after leaving the White House. Hillary has to earn trust in her own right.

Earnest Barker wrote the following about Burke:

“His normal belief of the union of minds was confined to a narrow circle, and the area of discussion was an area of the elite. He hardly regarded himself as engaged in discussion with the people of Bristol, or the people of Bristol as engaged in discussion with him…”

In my own essay (.pdf), I wrote the following

“In attempting to define representation by doing it, Burke fell short. He did not develop an effective home style grounded in representative-represented interactions.”

As an experienced, qualified candidate, the likely Democratic nominee and quite possibly our next President (and first-ever female President), Hillary and her supporters would do well to take heed of these warnings. Hillary has to convince voters that she can listen and connect at our level. Being a pragmatic centrist is not enough. She has to earn trust as a representative of the people: something with which she still struggles, and which Burke also failed to do successfully.

Learning from Sir Edmund’s mistakes may just help Hillary ascend to the summit of American politics.

About the author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Smith has contributed to multiple media outlets and is also a blogger for the 2016 MPSA conference in Chicago. Follow Smith on Twitter.

 

Will the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election Be a Realigning Election?

MPSABlog_Smith_RealigningElectionIn his classic book Dynamics of the Party System, James L. Sundquist developed a theory of how party alignments change around new issues. As a winner-take-all system, (also called “first past the post” or FPTP), the U.S. is hard-wired to have only two dominant parties at a time. However, one party can disappear, as did the Whigs when slavery realigned the party system before the Civil War. Alternately, labels and some supporters of the existing parties can remain, but along a new line of separation on a key issue, which Sundquist calls cleavage. For example, the Civil Rights Movement accelerated a shift in the party alignment, with African-Americans and white liberals lining up solidly behind the Democrats instead of being split as before, and white Southerners defecting to the Republican Party.

Sundquist sets forth five criteria for realignment:

  1. Breadth and Depth of the Underlying Grievance
    Trump’s signature issue is immigration, Sanders’ is breaking up big banks. Sanders hits a nerve: the 2009 bank bailout bill passed Congress easily and was supported by both major-party Presidential nominees  despite being massively unpopular with the American people.

    On the other side, Trump’s base is older, working class whites with a high-school education or less. These voters took a terrible beating in the Great Recession. Trump’s appeal seems to pin blame on government officials, other business leaders besides himself, and, most notably, immigrants for colluding to deny American citizens better opportunities.

  2. Capacity to Provoke Resistance
    Here, the case for either Sanders or Trump being agents of realignment is less clear. As Sundquist notes, “The strength and determination of the resistance depend directly, however, not on the grievance but on the remedy proposed.” Will voters warm en masse to Sanders’ democratic-socialist policies including a tax on financial transactions to pay for his proposals? On the other hand, outside the hot-button issue of immigration, Trump’s policy positions are non-ideological and hard to nail down.
  3. Leadership
    Sundquist writes that existing party leaders can head off realignment if they “have the skill and motivation to handle the issue in a way that will check the growth of the polar blocs, and if the issue is the kind that allows such handling…

    Sanders’ opponent Hillary Clinton is working furiously to brand herself as a progressive. If Clinton is the nominee, one of the challenges she and her supporters face is how to incorporate Sanders’ base and their ideas into the party. One such overture is her proposal to more aggressively-enforce the Dodd-Frank law as an alternative to breaking up banks.

    Republicans appear to be in more disarray. With a handful of exceptions, most Republican leaders have no intention of helping Trump if he wins the nomination. The conservative standard-bearing National Review magazine dedicated an entire issue to denouncing Trump.

    Trump’s positions on immigration and Islam are more extreme, but not on the opposite side of most Republicans. Yet Trump also supports bank and auto-industry bailouts, a massively expensive public-works project building a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico (nearly 2000 miles), national health insurance, and a host of other expensive government programs and interventions in the market that could hardly be called conservative. Meanwhile, he ignores other conservative hot-button issues like abortion rights.

    In short, so far the Republican Party has not been successful at co-opting Trump’s issues and his supporters.

  4. Division of the Polar Forces Between Parties
    Democrats are decidedly more pro-immigrant than Republicans. However, there is a minority in each party that disagrees—most notably, 31 percent of Republicans believe immigrants make society better, while, on another dimension, 34 percent of Democrats believe immigrants make the economy worse. There is certainly fodder for a partisan realignment.

    Sanders’ issue with the banks definitely hits a sore nerve. Just 26 percent of Americans express confidence in banks — a huge drop from previous decades and reflective of a general distrust of other institutions. Is this strong enough to drive voter behavior? One problem: as noted above, Americans may split over solutions — Republicans are much more likely to identify government regulations as part of problem, yet Sanders’ proposed solutions involve additional regulations and enforcement. Thus the issue tends to break along existing party lines rather than reshape them.

  5. Strength of Existing Party Attachments
    If Trump and Sanders share one thing, it is their outcry against “the establishment.” Yet, the candidates are hardly mirror images of one another. As Nate Silver points out, Sanders is largely working to push the Democratic Party to the left along the existing left-right spectrum, whereas Trump is “all over the place” on other issues besides immigration. In short, Trump’s supporters are more likely to scramble the existing ideological divide.

In conclusion, here are some key questions for thought:

  • If Hillary Clinton is nominated, how effective will she be at incorporating Bernie Sanders’ issues and supporters into the party?
  • If the Democratic Party moves to the left, either by nominating Bernie Sanders or by co-opting some of his issues, will the “only centrists can win” conventional wisdom prove to be a debunked historical artifact, or the simple-math reality of every election?
  • Will the U.S. party system realign along the issue of immigration?
  • Is Donald Trump’s support idiosyncratic, or is it revealing a deep political cleavage that cuts across existing party lines?
  • If the party system does realign, will pro-immigration Republicans feel comfortable defecting to the Democratic Party, particularly given the push by Sanders supporters to move left on other issues?
  • While third parties are a hard sell in any FPTP system, might the U.S. develop a smaller but potentially tie-breaking third party like the British Liberal Democrats, who also exist under winner-take-all rules? Which party would lose more supporters to the new party? Would the new system mobilize those currently not voting or voting infrequently?
  • Will this year’s raucous caucuses (and primaries) lead to a re-thinking of the direct primary/caucus system, in which a small minority of passionate participants choose party nominees that may be out of step with most voters?

It may be too soon to predict a political realignment, but at the very least, the USA’s current two-party system is certainly experiencing disruptive shocks this year.

About the author: Michael A. Smith is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Smith has contributed to multiple media outlets and is also a blogger for the 2016 MPSA conference in Chicago. Follow Smith on Twitter.

Primaries and Caucuses 2016: Experiencing the Energy and Demystifying the Math

Smith_Iowa_Shaw
INDIANOLA, IA – FEBRUARY 1, 2016: Indianola mayor Kelly Shaw (second from right) and Smith’s Emporia State University students at the Iowa caucus. (Photo courtesy: Michael A. Smith)

The 2016 Primary/Caucus season started this week in snowy Iowa, and my students and I were there to see it. Eight Emporia State students and one alumnus joined me for the trip.  Dr. Kelly Shaw, mayor of Indianola and a political scientist at Iowa State University, hosted us for a night observing both Democratic and GOP caucuses on the campus of Simpson College. One group of my students watched the Democrats vote, while another group observed the Republicans.

Students were struck by the differences between the voting procedures. The Republican process opened with a prayer, then featured speeches by advocates for the different candidates. Finally, caucus-goers voted for their preferred candidates on a paper ballot, the votes were tallied, results were announced, and that was that. Marco Rubio was the big winner in Warren County, despite the fact that no one spoke on his behalf beforehand. Afterwards, party stalwarts stayed to choose various, local party officials for the coming year.  We would later learn that Rubio and Ted Cruz each had a good night in Iowa.

The Democrats were more raucous. While the Republicans were seated, the Democrats had chairs only for those with disabilities. Others stood, re-grouping themselves based upon which candidate they were supporting. Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats re-allocated supporters based on a threshold. The candidate (Martin O’Malley) with too few supporters was eliminated and his supporters invited to join either the Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton crowd, with supporters of each cheering and chanting for their side. Undecided caucus-goers were also asked to choose a side between the two candidates who reached the viability threshold. In the end, the precinct we observed had 83 Sanders supporters and 61 for Clinton. Due to rounding, each got two delegates. As with their GOP counterparts downstairs, most caucus-goers left once this was announced, with only the hard-core remaining to vote on local party officials and other matters afterward. The students later elected to go to a Bernie Sanders rally where his supporters cheered, booed, anxiously watched returns, and waited for their candidate to speak.  In the end, it was the closest presidential caucus in Iowa history.

Delegate Selection

The differences in delegate selection between the two parties have real consequences.  Recalling Arrow’s Theorem—roughly summarized as proving that no system of counting votes always assures a fair outcome—the different vote-counting mechanisms can affect who becomes President of the United States. For example, Barack Obama won enough delegates to be the Democratic nominee in 2008 despite Hillary Clinton’s slim edge in the popular vote.  This year, the parties (particularly the Republicans) have changed the process yet again.

On the Democratic side, the process is detailed here. In sum, each state is awarded delegates based upon a formula using the following factors:

  • The votes that the Democratic presidential nominee received in 2004, 2008, and 2012.
  • The state’s electoral votes.
  • Bonus votes for states that hold their primaries or caucuses later in the cycle.
  • Additional bonus votes if neighboring states also hold their primaries or caucuses later.

The Democrats require all states to use the proportional-representation-with-threshold system that my students observed in Iowa. Democrats also have “superdelegates,” who are Democratic elected officials and other DNC members in the states.

The Republican system has changed significantly since 2008. While the GOP has stopped short of directly requiring the use of proportional representation to assign delegates, they have greatly restricted the use of winner-take-all allocation, compared to previous elections. Now, only late-voting (after March 15) states are allowed to use winner-take-all, that is, to allocate all of the state’s delegates to a state’s one highest vote-getter in the primaries. When it comes to allocating the delegates among the states, the GOP process is detailed here. In short, the GOP formula for assigning delegates includes the following:

  • 10 at-large delegates per state, and 6 each for American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Additional delegates based upon how many U.S. House districts are in a state.
  • “Bonus delegates” for GOP elected officials: Governor, U.S. Senate, U.S. House, and majority control in one or both chambers of the state legislature.
  • A penalty for holding primaries or caucuses earlier than called for in the official RNC rules.
  • Instead of “superdelegates,” RNC rules call for their members in the states, including certain elected officials, to be included in a state’s regular delegation to the party convention.

Comparing Party Processes

Political scientists are right in our wheelhouse when it comes to studying how these formulas work. Even a superficial glance at the differences above can be telling. For example, the Republicans penalize states for “jumping” the calendar, while the Democrats instead reward the states which vote later. The end result is that no state has deviated from the calendar in either party. For the Republicans, then, the sanctions do not apply to any state this year. For the Democrats, on the other hand, the extra delegates given for holding primaries or caucuses later may give late-voting states extra sway in choosing the nominee, if the race is not wrapped up by early March. In other words, the difference between the two parties’ rules means that the later-voting states could hold more sway in the Democratic race than in the GOP one.

The “nuts and bolts” of voting are often far more important in determining results than the latest insta-poll or a candidate’s embarrassing gaffe, but fundamentals are often overlooked in superficial media coverage. Political scientists can help those who are ready to go beyond the sensational and see what will really decide the next U.S. President. Is all of this too technical to hold our interest? Not according to my students. One even said, “It was probably one of the best nights of my life.”

About the author:  Michael A. Smith is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Smith has contributed to multiple media outlets and is also a blogger for the 2016 MPSA conference in Chicago.  Follow Smith on Twitter.