No polarizing Democratic President–yet

What is ‘polarization’ in the context of the American political parties and presidential form of government? Was WJ Cllinton an example of a polarizing president? Republican partisans would say so. Is GW Bush such an example? Almost anyone (except perhaps the most core Republican partisans) certainly would say so.

I would argue that there has not, in fact, been a polarizing Democratic president–yet. Maybe 2008 will bring one. But we have not seen one yet, certainly not Clinton.

Just because there was intense opposition to Clinton by the core of the Republican Party did not imply that Clinton’s presidency, per se, was polarizing. Clinton always–at least after the 1994 midterm election and especially after impeachment and continuing through to the end of his term–had strong approval from “independent” voters as well as stronger (or less abysmal!) approval from opposite-party partisans than has been the case for Bush at any time other than in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. These indicators are better proxies for the degree of “polarization” than simply the intensity of opposition by the core of the opposing party (or of support by the president’s own party).

Back in October (yes, this planting was germinating for a long time, but it is now spring, after all), I ran across the following item by Harry Levins in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 1 (found via Lexis-Nexis, so no link). Mr Levins is reviewing Running Alone by James MacGregor Burns (Basic Books, 272 pages, $26).

Older Americans tend to remember John F. Kennedy in nostalgic terms. But political scientist James MacGregor Burns remembers him as the president who pointed his office in a bad direction — away from political parties and toward political expediency.

In “Running Alone,” he weighs the consequences of this loosening of political ties. Mostly, they’ve been bad, especially for the Democrats, says Burns, who acknowledges upfront that he’s an FDR Democrat and proud of it.

His political identification sets him aside from presidential centrists, such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Burns says that like Kennedy, Carter and Clinton used the party when it suited them and otherwise ignored the party, for example, when Clinton pushed NAFTA through Congress, despite the opposition of the FDR Democrats in labor unions.

Those who favor this approach (the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, for example) see it as pragmatic and realistic. Those who oppose it (the various hard liberal blocs in the party) see it as opportunistic and cynical.

Burns says Richard M. Nixon’s Southern Strategy let Ronald Reagan pull the Republican Party to the right, where it remains. In Burns’ view, popular support for this truly conservative GOP is deep but narrow. He thinks a Democratic presidential candidate who could unite his party top to bottom across the remaining segments of society could make up in breadth what this approach lacks in depth.

The more centrist, flexible and non-polarizing presidency on the model of Carter–and, yes, WJ Clinton–is more consonant with what we should expect in a presidential democracy, where parties are organized first and foremost to capture a separately elected, fixed-term presidency. The more explicitly partisan, even ideological, approach represented by GW Bush really is inconsistent with the very structure of presidentialism and the incentives it (normally) gives for presidents to construct a different constituency from that of the legislative majorities.

The question heading into 2008 will be whether the next Democratic candidate builds a more specifically partisan constituency. That is, have the dynamics of the party system and the processes for building a presidential constituency shifted fundamentally, or will the Bush presidency turn out to have been an aberration?

If a partisan, polarizing Democratic candidate were to win, he or she likely would have –given the outcome of the 2006 midterms–the necessary congressional majorities for a more partisan governing strategy to be viable. (It would be highly unlikely that Republicans would take back either chamber of Congress, but especially the House, in 2008 at the same time that a Democrat won the presidency.) I do not think a polarizing, highly partisan Democratic presidency on the GWB Republican model is likely, because the Democratic constituency is not as narrow and cohesive as the Republicans’. (Democratic gains in 2006 in some unlikely places would seem to confirm that.) But such a polarizing Democratic administration has become more likely than it formerly was.

This post was originally inspired not only by the review quoted above, but by a post at PoliBlog. There, Steven Taylor and I debated about whether GW Bush and WJ Clinton both are examples of highly polarizing partisan Presidents. I suggested, no, for the reasons indicated above. I do not have the link to the referenced PoliBlog post. Maybe Steven will stop by and find it for us.

Jefferson, Ellison, and the Koran

Various revisions and extensions on 9 January.

This is not exactly a hot news item, but then this was never intended to be a news blog, anyway. Over the last couple of weeks there has been much talk about new Congressman Keith Ellison, an American-born convert to Islam, and some rather depressing “controversy” from elements on the right about his desire to take his oath of office on the holy book of his faith, the Koran. Then there was a further buzz over his decision to use a Koran that had been owned by Thomas Jefferson. (Boker tov, Boulder, posted a nice photo.) Brilliant political counterpunch!, many seemed to say.

What I find ironic in all of this is the context of interactions Jefferson had with Islam. He, like Madison and other founders, read widely and had a vast library of legal, religious, and political volumes from around the world. Thus the very fact that he owned a Koran is not itself as remarkable as the public reaction to Ellison’s decision to use said book implies. However, Jefferson, in his professional-political life, did have encounters with a portion of the Muslim world, and there are reasons to doubt these encounters would be of the sort that Ellison intended to bring back to the surface. (Perhaps luckily for him, the US press rarely misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity to give historical context.)

So, I began perusing the volumes I have that contain selections of Jefferson’s writings. I knew, somewhat vaguely, that he had been President during the Barbary Wars, but that is about it. I am certainly not going to try to summarize the Barbary Wars here. I trust the interested reader can go off searching for information.

The quick summary of what I found in a sample of Jefferson’s writings is that he was quite the hardliner during his stint as Ambassador to France when it came to debates about how the USA should deal with the “pirates” of the Barbary states (Algeria, Tripoli, and other North African polities under the loose rule of the Ottoman Empire). And, of course, as President, Jefferson ordered US forces onto the shores of Tripoli in a non-declared war (police action, limited incursion, or whatever)–America’s first overseas military adventure and first engagement with Islamic fighters.

As I alluded to above, the Barbary connection has scarcely been noted. A Google News search I did today on the word string, Jefferson Koran Barbary, returned six items, none from exactly “mainstream” sources. (By contrast, I got “about 382” by searching on Jefferson Koran.) Google’s Blog Search netted a lot more–almost all from blogs that could be characterized as quite right-wing in their outlook, and that take as the lesson here that Jefferson obtained a Koran because he wanted to understand the religious motivations of his “radical Muslim” enemy. I will not pretend to know if that is correct. I just find this an ironic and fascinating window on how different sides of the American political spectrum draw different lessons from what should never have been controversial in the first place: The decision of a Muslim elected to Congress to swear his oath in the way that he would find most personally binding. That is, after all, the purpose of the oath.

(And to conclude on a somewhat more “core” F&V theme, even more remarkable for me in all this is that there is only one Muslim in the US Congress, and none ever before this week. There are probably over five million Muslims in the USA, or very roughly 1.6% of the population.)

A heartbeat and an act of cronyism away

With Tim Johnson (Democrat, South Dakota) in critical condition after brain surgery, the Republican party is a heartbeat and one act of partisan cronyism away from regaining what the voters stripped it of in November’s election: Control of the United States Senate.

The state’s governor is a Republican, and among the many archaic anti-democratic elements of the US system of government is the rule that permits the governor of a state to appoint a replacement when a US Senator leaves office before the end of a term.

It is long past time to reform the mechanism for filling Senate vacancies. We should require a special election, just as is the case for vacant House seats. (The rule for the Senate is that the appointed replacement serves till the next general election and only then is there a special election. That would be 2008, and in this case the seat would have been up then anyway.) The governor’s nominee in the event Johnson cannot remain in office would require confirmation of the state legislature–controlled by the Republican party.

A Republican replacement would result in a 50-49-1 Senate. The one is, of course, independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who has pledged to continue to caucus with the Democrats, despite defeating the Democratic nominee with an electoral coalition in 2006 that was overwhelmingly Republican and independent. Presumably, as was the case in January–May, 2001, if there were fifty Democrats (counting Lieberman) and fifty Republicans (with the appointed South Dakota replacement), the parties would evenly divide the committees and the agenda. But on any legislative matter or confirmation vote on which the GOP caucus was united, the Vice President’s tiebreaker–itself a vestige of bad institutional design–would tip the outcome in the Republicans’ favor.

I do not know if a Democrat would win a special election in South Dakota. Johnson won an extremely close reelection in 2002 (in an election in which a Libertarian had nearly six times the votes as the margin over the Republican) and the other Demcoratic Senator was defeated in 2004. However, 2006 was a very different year politically than in 2002 and 2004 (and particularly so in South Dakota!). Besides, it is the voters, and not partisan state officials, who should determine this critical (or any) seat.

Florida election failure

No, this is not about 2000, thought the sixth anniversary of the coup that “legitimized” the Florida fraud of that year will be upon us soon. Rather, this is about the under-vote rate this year in the the state’s 13th House district (yes, the one formerly held by the Fraud Facilitator herself), which is, at the very least, suspicious.

More at LGM, whose concluding remarks this comparative psephologist most wholeheartedly endorses:

If we keep up the local control fetish and the lack of an effective recount process (which is exacerbated by electronic voting), it’s not a question of if we’ll get another 2000, but when. [emphasis added]

Electoral reform advances in USA

Ballot measures for IRV and STV won in all four jurisdictions in which they were on the ballot in the US midterm elections:

    Oakland, California (IRV for all city offices)
    Davis, California (STV replaces at-large plurality for city offices*)
    Minneapolis, Minnesota (IRV for major offices, STV for some others)
    Pierce County, Washington (IRV for nearly all county offices)

All passed quite easily, with the closest being 54% (Pierce County).


* Advvisory measure.

The US Congress result

Yes, of course, I am very happy. Just too busy celebrating to post. Madison can rest in peace again. Still, the House gains were at the very low end of what I thought possible. The Senate, on the other hand, was the best outcome I could imagine.

No further analysis till the aggregate vote totals are in. The USA is the only (allegedly) advanced democracy in which aggregate national party vote totals are not immediately available. Given that I am one of those few (the only?) psephologists who actually use aggregate national party vote totals to understand US elections, I can’t do any analysis yet. I won’t be able to say for a while whether the House result was closer to my projection based on low responsiveness (225) than to a projection based on the longer-range relationship of votes and seats (245) because of a vote swing lower than could have been expected for such an unpopular president, or if the seat swing was low for the aggregate vote swing that resulted. Fortunately, majority control is a (mostly) binary outcome.

Once I have the time to look at all the completed district results, I can revisit my comparison of this election to 1994 in terms relative seat safety and swing propensity.

So, stay tuned. In the meantime, enjoy checks and balances again. Apparently, the Republican Party is not the PRI and Bush is not Putin, after all.

Protest or research

An additional note has been appended to this post since it first appeared.

Sometimes, my desire to use my vote as an act of protest conflicts with my desire to use the act of voting as a means to conduct research.

San Diego County is using electronic touch-screen voting again (for the first time since its use in the 2003 recall election)–this time with a printed verification of how the machine (supposedly) has registered your vote.

I count myself among those who are at least skeptical about these electronic voting devices. Not in a conspiratorial way, but I just feel more confident about voting on paper. (I also like hand-counted ballots, by the way.) The County allows a voter to request a paper ballot. Presumably, if massive numbers did so, they would not have enough–their running out would only increase the protest value, I suppose, but in any event, it is our right to request a paper ballot at the polling place.* I considered doing so, as a protest against those electronic beasts in the polling room.

On the other hand, I really wanted to see how this newfangled contraption–with the paper record printed beneath a clear plastic window–would work. After all, I actually get paid to think, write, and teach about voting, and it is useful to know how different systems work.

In the end, my “research” curiosity won out. And it was easy and fun. Did my vote count? Who knows. Then again, I am in fully safe districts for everything I voted on (unless one or more of the measures proves to be close), so it hardly matters–except in the sense of performing the most important duty any citizen of a democracy can perform; and in the research value. (And luckily, I could still protest, as well, in my selection of mostly third-party candidates, just like always.)

* There was a little controversy here overnight, with a judge rejecting a lawsuit aimed at forcing the election authorities both to provide more paper ballots and to count them tonight (when they count the machines), rather than on Thursday (as the official intend). Is there any fairness issue here? I must admit that I do not see it. While I would prefer that my vote be counted the same, regardless of how I cast it (with the obvious exception of late-arriving absentee or provisional ballots), I can’t see what difference it actually makes. They all get added together, and if the race is close enough, we’ll just have to wait till the paper ballots (and others left outstanding tonight) are counted.

The House for Swingers

Note: I posted some additional data breakdowns in a comment (7 Nov.)

With the US congressional midterm elections almost upon us, I wanted to put the playing field of 2006 into the context of 1994, the last time the party in control of the House of Representatives swung.

In 1994, fifty six seats held by Democrats swung to the Republican party (four seats swung the other direction). Here is how those seats broke down by Democratic vote in the previous election, 1992. In the following paired lines the first line is a range of votes percentages (of the 2-party vote) for the Democratic candidate in 1992, while the second line is the number of such districts, followed by the number of those districts that swung (and the percentage that these swingers represented out of that group).

    21 11 (52.4)

    26 11 (42.3)

    44 18 (40.9)

    40 10 (25.0)

    45 4 (8.9)

    46 2 (4.4)

Interpreting these numbers, we can say that more than half the districts that the Democratic party had won with less than 52% of the two-party vote in 1992 were seats that swung. (That is somewhat surprisingly low; nearly half of the seats that were won so narrowly in 1992 did not swing, even in a year with a huge national votes swing against their party.) Not surprisingly, as the 1992 margin grows, the share of seats that swung declines. Nonetheless, the Republicans even picked up six seats in which the Democratic incumbent won more than 65% of the vote in 1992 (five of these six were open seats; the incumbent was retiring).

So, what if we compare the 2006 playing field; that is, let’s look at how many seats fit into each of these categories based on their 2004 Republican vote. Again, we have two lines, with the grouping by percentages of the Republican candidate’s vote in the first line and the number of districts in that group on the second line. In addition, I have replicated, in parentheses, the number of districts in this category going into 1994 (for the party then in control, the D’s).

    6 (21)

    10 (26)

    19 (44)

    38 (40)

    49 (45)

    60 (46)

Notice how many fewer close races there were in 2004 compared to 1992. If the Democrats were to have exactly the same “harvest rate” in each group of seats (i.e. 52.4% of the seats the Republican won with under 52%, 42.3% of those won with 52% to 55%, etc.), they would gain about 32 seats. And that is right within the range of current projections–actually, a bit below.

Finally, let’s look at the seats Rothenberg rated late last week as most likely to swing. I have simply taken his categories of seats that are toss-ups or “tilt” or “lean” one way or the other and indicated the vote from 2004. (In this case, the votes indicated are the Democratic sharae of the two-party vote; in some cases, my data are missing.)

    PURE TOSS-UP (20 R, 0 D)
    Dem % vote, 2004
    * CA 11 (Pombo, R) 39.7
    * CT 2 (Simmons, R) —
    * CT 4 (Shays, R) 47.6
    * FL 16 (Open; Foley, R) 32
    * FL 22 (Shaw, R) 36
    * IL 6 (Open; Hyde, R) 44.2
    * KS 2 (Ryun, R) 42.4
    * MN 1 (Gutknecht, R) 37.3
    * MN 6 (Open; Kennedy, R) 46.0
    * NM 1 (Wilson, R) 45.6
    * NY 20 (Sweeney, R) 33.9
    * NY 26 (Reynolds, R) 44.4
    * OH 1 (Chabot, R) 40.1
    * OH 2 (Schmidt, R) 28.3
    * PA 4 (Hart, R) 36.3
    * PA 6 (Gerlach, R) 49
    * PA 8 (Fitzpatrick, R) 43.9
    * TX 22 (Open; DeLay, R) 42.7
    * VA 2 (Drake, R) 44.9
    * WI 8 (Open; Green, R) 29.8


    * AZ 1 (Renzi, R) 38.2 (48.2 in 2002)
    * CA 4 (Doolittle, R) 34.6
    * CO 4 (Musgrave, R) 46.7
    * ID 1 (Open; Otter, R) 30.5
    * KY 3 (Northup, R) 38.5
    * KY 4 (Davis, R) 44.7
    * NV 3 (Porter, R) 42.6
    * NY 25 (Walsh, R) —
    * NY 29 (Kuhl, R) 44.6
    * WA 8 (Reichert, R) 47.6


    * AZ 5 (Hayworth, R) 39.1
    * CT 5 (Johnson, R) 39.0
    * FL 13 (Open; Harris, R) 44.7
    * GA 8 (Marshall, D) 24.4
    * GA 12 (Barrow, D) —
    * IL 8 (Bean, D) —
    * IN 9 (Sodrel, R) 49.7
    * NH 2 (Bass, R) 39.6
    * NY 24 (Open; Boehlert, R) 37.3
    * NC 11 (Taylor, R) 45.1


    * NJ 7 (Ferguson, R) 42.3
    * OH 12 (Tiberi, R) 38
    * TX 23 (Bonilla, R) 29.8


    * IA 1 (Open; Nussle, R) 44
    * IA 3 (Boswell, D) —
    * IN 2 (Chocola, R) 45.1
    * OH 15 (Pryce, R) 40
    * OH 18 (Open; Ney, R) 33.8
    * PA 7 (Weldon, R) 40.7
    * PA 10 (Sherwood, R) —

That’s a lot of seats in play that were not all that close in 2004, which is good news for Democrats, given how few really close races there were in 2004. By my count, there are eight seats in Rothenberg’s toss-ups in which the Democratic party won under 40% of the vote in 2004. There are five such seats among the tilt-D, and one among the lean-D seats. That’s nineteen of the 147 seats the incumbent of the party currently controlling the House won with from 60% to 80% of the two-party vote in 2004. Seats in that category heading into 1994 swung at a rate of only about 12%. If 12% of the current 147 such seats swung this time, that would be seventeen (of the nineteen such seats Rothenberg identifies as toss-up or lean). In other words, while it may seem unlikely that so many seats that looked “safe” after 2004 could really be in jeopardy, the lesson of 1994 is that when there is a strong tide of change, lots of seemingly “safe” seats do indeed fall. It is not only the obvous “marginals” that fall. (Remember, barely half of the seats won by the Democrat in 1992 with under 52% of the vote swung in 1994.)

We will know soon how many of these seats really do swing.

US House and Senate: Rothenberg’s updates

On the House, Stuart Rothenberg says:

the most likely outcome in the House of Representatives is a Democratic gain of 34 to 40 seats, with slightly larger gains not impossible.

Back when I first started looking at methods of estimating the connection between generic polling, the actual aggregate votes for real candidates of the major parties, and the translation of those votes into seats, I suggested Democrats could wind up with as many as 245 seats (at what I considered the high end), which would be a net gain of 42.* At the time, no one else was projecting even close to that much. If Rothenberg’s district-by-district analysis turns out to be correct, was my aggregate method of estimation prescient or lucky? I don’t know. We’ll try it again in 2008. And 2010…

As for the Senate, Rothernberg says control is in doubt, but:

we do not think the two sides have an equal chance of winning a majority in the Senate. Instead, we believe that state and national dynamics favor Democrats netting six seats and winning control of the United States Senate.

* That was when the generic lead was 15 points; the latest estimate from Charles Franklin’s compilation of polls is 17 points.

Six Senate seats now lean Democratic

Democrats need a net gain of six seats to win the majority in the US Senate. According to Stuart Rothenberg’s latest projections, there are now six seats that are either “likely takeover” or “lean takeover.” In addition, there is one “toss-up” that leans their way, though there is also one current Democratic seat that is rated toss-up.


* DeWine (R-OH)
* Santorum (R-PA)


* Allen (R-VA)
* Burns, (R-MT)
* Chafee, (R-RI)
* Talent (R-MO)

TOSS-UP (1 R, 1 D)

* TN Open (Frist, R)
* Menendez (D-NJ)


* Kyl (R-AZ)
* MD Open (D-Sarbanes)

Midterm election projections

Ed Fitzgerald has a very useful compilation of various midterm-election projections. The mean and median estimates (of over thirty different projects) are 223-204 Democratic majority in the House and 49-49 in the Senate (with eight House and two Senate seats, on average, deemed by the forecasters as too close to call).

Ed also has a graph of generic partisan-preference polling for the House that includes the undecideds. It is striking how flat the Republican preference has been since September, 2005, while the decline in undecided has been almost entirely to the benefit of the Democratic party.

Candidate quality isn’t everything

Back when I first started posting about the relationship between generic party preference and likely actual performance of real candidates in the 2006 US midterm election, I referred to the truism of US congressional elections: The personal vote matters a lot in the USA, and we can’t assume that party preference translates into preference for actual living, breathing candidates of the preferred party; voters may vote for the more qualified individual candidate instead.

However, as Stuart Rothenberg notes, this election is shaping up to be one of those rare cases in which candidate quality may not matter all that much. Surveying the races, including many that are surprisingly competitive, Rothenberg notes:

it is remarkable how similar this group of Democratic candidates is to the GOP class of 1994, when, by my count, 37 freshmen were elected without having held a previous elective office.

How the Dems would organize the House

(Very carefully!)

There is a very good article in the Washngton Post about how Democrats could be expected to organize the House if they win the majority.

The basic summary is that likely Speaker Nancy Pelosi intends to respect seniority in determining committee chairs, but to keep them on a short leash.

This is, of course, about balancing the demands of the Black Caucus (currently 43 members, including many with long tenure) and the conservative Blue Dogs (currently 37 members, with at least a dozen of their endorsed candidates among the most likely challengers to beat Republican incumbents).

Interesting, Republicans are using the prospect of some of the likely chairs (Hastings, Dingell, Rangel) as campaign issues in some races.

A question to ponder (and I do not have an answer) is whether a narrow win or a huge win means more influence for the high-seniority (and often farthest left ideologically) chairs. More seats in the Democratic caucus means more victories in usually safe Republican districts that would be lost quickly by a liberal overreach, but it also potentially means more vindication for the left of the caucus, which will claim a “mandate.” Either way, Pelosi has her work cut out for her (if her party indeed wins).

Thanks, MW, for the tip on this article!

22 seats?

Rodger Payne reminds me that I should actually open up that issue of PS that came in the mail recently.

The latest issue of PS includes two different political science studies, using different methodologies, which conclude that the Democrats will pick up 22 seats in the House.

He then adds:

Apparently, the latest polling also suggests a solid Democratic victory — though it seems premature to talk of a “landslide.”

Back in mid-August when the generic polling lead that the Democrats held was 14.65 percentage points, a twenty-two-seat pickup was at the low end of my very different estimation methodology. I suggested it could be as high as 42 (but was more likely to be near the lower end, owing to the diminshed responsiveness of the House electoral system in recent times).

Charles Franklin‘s current (10 Oct.) estimate of the Democratic polling advantage is slightly lower, at 12.8 (although when I eyeball the graph, it looks higher to me than it would have been two months ago, despite a temporary dip in the interim).

As Rodger notes, there is still time for the Republicans to gin up the fear factor: It’s us or the terrorists. They’ll try it, but can it work yet again?