ESP champs 2008-2010

Just poking around a bit further in the Electoral Separation of Purpose data, as pictured and explained previously.

I wondered who the “ESP Champs” were of these cycles.

For 2008, I hereby crown Gene Taylor of Mississippi, who won 74.5% in his district on the same day that Obama managed 31.7%. Now that’s separation of purpose!

He still managed 47% even in 2010. Not bad, but not good enough.

In fact, that 2010 result makes Taylor one of only four Democrats to have won, at the midterm, more than 45% of the vote in a district in which Obama had won under 35%. But to be crowned champion for 2010, you should actually have won your race. So the 2010 title belongs to…

Dan Boren of Oklahoma, who won 56.5% in a district in which Obama had won 34.5%. This result still represented a massive adverse swing against Boren, who had 70.5% in 2008. But he held on.

Boren and Taylor, by the way, are both Blue Dogs.

With ESP numbers like these, we can see why some “blue” congressmen in deeply “red” districts were less than keen these past two years in coming to the support of Obama’s policy priorities. (This was a topic that generated considerable discussion in another thread earlier this month.)

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Obama and ESP

When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, the election produced the second lowest value of “Electoral Separation of Purpose” of the preceding five decades.

Electoral Separation of Purpose (ESP) is a concept developed in David J. Samuels and Matthew S. Shugart, Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers (Cambridge, 2010). It starts with the difference between presidential and legislative votes, at the district level, for a given party. It then can be expressed in a summary indicator by the average of the absolute values of all these differences.

For Obama and the Democrats in 2008, ESP=10.45. In the book, we considered 42 observations for the USA (both parties in 21 elections through 2004); the only one lower than what we would see in 2008 was 8.79 for Democrats in 1996, when Bill Clinton won reelection.

That ESP would be relatively low in the Obama era is yet another window on the much talked-about “polarization” of US politics: votes for Congress now tend to be more similar to presidential votes at the (House) district level. In other words, the fates of members of the House are more tied to that of their co-partisan president (or presidential candidate) than used to be the case. Voters apparently do not “want different things” from congress and president as much as they once did (for instance, 1972 and 1974, ESPs of 20.4 and 25.8, respectively).

It is worth putting the 2008 election in comparative perspective, comparing both to other countries and to past US elections. When compared to other countries, a value of 10.45 is not especially low. Even when we eliminate all cases where presidential and legislative votes are “fused” (meaning ticket-splitting is impossible, so ESP=0), we still find that the 2008 Democratic ESP is at about the 60th percentile among 383 party-year observations from around the world. Even with polarization and tied fates, there is still a lot of room for divergence between presidential and congressional vote shares in the USA.

What is interesting is the pattern of this divergence. Below is the graph, where each data point is one of the House districts in 2008. Ignore the distinction between triangles and circles for now; we’ll get to that.

USA ESP Dems 2008

(Click the image for a larger view in a new window)

It is striking that in districts where the Democrat has over 50% of the legislative vote, Obama tends to run behind his co-partisan House candidate. That is, there are notably more points above the equality line for winning House Democratic districts than there are below the diagonal. Districts where he runs ahead of the Democratic House candidate tend to be where the party loses the congressional race. For instance, if Obama won about 60% of the vote in a given district, the Democrat tended to win around two thirds of the House vote. But if Obama won around 45% of the vote, the Democratic House candidate tended to get closer to 35% of the vote.

This pattern, which would be reflected by some sort of S-curve, had I bothered to try to plot it, seems to be a common feature of US elections. The graph for Republicans in 2004 (ESP=10.98) looks very similar (see p. 135 of the book). It is not a prevalent pattern in other countries. I suspect it has something to do with the “personal vote” of Representatives; incumbents run ahead of their party’s presidential candidate because some voters who vote for the presidential candidate of the other party nonetheless support the incumbent. However, I have not yet broken the data down by incumbency. In the losing districts, of course, much of it has to do with the Democrats’ not recruiting high-quality candidates in districts they were not likely to win anyway (but having a “high-quality” presidential candidate). Of course, this is a companion to the personal-vote story, whereby the Republican candidate was stronger and able to keep for the party voters who voted for Obama.

Does the graph shed any light on the electoral debacle suffered by Democrats this week? Not directly, although one can see at a glance the numerous districts in which the Democrat won despite the district having voted for McCain. Now here is where those triangles come in: they represent the districts that the Democrats lost in the 2010 midterm election. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of those in the part of the graph where Obama’s vote is less than 50%. In fact, over half the Democratic losses came in McCain 2008 districts. If that’s not a (mini-)realignment, it certainly is a readjustment.

However, the Democrats lost 29 districts in which Obama had won a majority in 2008. And here is where the pattern of 2008 Democratic House winners frequently having run ahead of Obama becomes so important. They had a “cushion” against an adverse swing against them, stemming from Obama’s unpopularity at the midterm, and they most certainly needed it!

ESP US Dems 2010

In this second graph we see that ESP actually declined further in 2010. At first, it may seem odd that one could go from unified to divided government, yet electoral separation of purpose decreased. But that is what happened. In 2010, ESP for Democrats dropped to 10.00. Note the near disappearance of winning Democrats who are more than about ten percentage points above where Obama was in their district in 2008. In fact, what really stands out here is the extent to which Democrats who won over 50% of their own district vote are concentrated very near, or slightly below, the equality line. That’s a good case of tied fates!

The S-curve pattern is gone, other than a continued bow in losing Democratic districts, where Obama’s 2008 vote is still higher (and often by a bigger margin) than the Democratic House candidate in 2010.

There are still some survivors in McCain districts, and they are about the only ones to still be running well ahead of Obama. If they could survive the great Democratic fall of 2010, they just might survive anything.

Now for the cross-time comparison. The following graph shows the ESP values for the president’s party for every US election since 1956, except for years following reapportionment and redistricting (and 1966, for mysterious reasons).

ESP in the USA since 1956

There is a clear trend in recent elections of declining ESP. No election for which we have data had ESP for the president’s party below 12.0 until 1996. The 1970s, and to a lesser extent the 1980s, were the days of high ESP, with Republicans often winning the presidency but Democrats keeping the House. Even in 1976, when Carter won, ESP was 14.55. Maybe this explains why Carter had so much trouble with his own party: they knew the president was less popular than they were. The graph from that election (not posted; I can’t post everything!) shows a huge bow of the S-curve above the equality line where practically all the Democratic House winners are found.

But note the almost steady downward trend after 1984, when Reagan was reelected. The 1994 midterm, when Democrats lost their House majority under Clinton, showed a downward trend. So 2010 is not unique in being an election that produces a transition to divided government yet sees ESP drop. However, in spite of the decline in ESP, it was still the case then that most Democratic winners in1994 were running ahead of where Clinton had been in 1992. Part of this is owed to the three-way presidential race in 1992. (All these graphs show actual vote percentages, not percentages of the “two-party vote.”) But then Clinton and the Democrats had tightly shared fates in 1996.

After a big upward blip in ESP in 1998, when Democrats had a rare seat gain in a midterm election, we enter the 2000s with ESP hovering in the 10-12 range.^

We really are in uncharted territory by US standards. We have not seen such closely tied presidential and legislative electoral fates at any other point in the last five decades or more.

What this might mean going forward is hard to say. I don’t have that kind of ESP! Or maybe it is not so hard. If Obama is reelected in 2012, it is unlikely to be with a broad personal victory like Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1984, which represent two of the three highest ESP concurrent elections. (The other is 1988, when the senior Bush effectively won Reagan’s “third term.”) But therein lies a ray of good news for Democrats–who are surely looking for such rays about now. Normally, if a President is reelected, he does so without much of a “pull” on the House races. However, we have already seen two incumbent presidents win a second term with a drop in ESP. In addition to Clinton, already mentioned as the lowest US ESP so far, the same happened with G.W. Bush (ESP=12.27 when he, uh, became president in 2000,* and a drop to 10.98 in 2004).

in such a low-ESP environment, with partisan fates so tied, it is entirely plausible that a reelected Obama would carry enough of that cluster of districts near 50% to regain a House majority. If he loses, of course, then so might several more Democratic House members. Such are the perils of governing and campaigning when electoral separation of purpose is tending to run so low, by historic US standards.


^ The 1998 plot shows a large number of Democratic winners well above where they had been in 1996, and thus also well above where Clinton ran in their districts in his low-ESP reelection in 1996. (This footnote was added a couple of days after initial planting.)

* ESP for Democrats in 2000 was a little higher (13.07), presumably because Gore ran well behind many Democratic incumbents. That the value would be so much higher than it had been for the Clinton-Gore team in 1996 really drives home how much Gore failed to cement the Democratic coalition that swung so tightly behind Clinton in 1996.

Newly elected presidents’ approval

Interesting graphic at 538, about which Nate says, in part:

The highest initial approval rating for a newly elected president… appears to belong to Kennedy, whom Gallup pegged at 72 percent approval shortly after his inauguration

Obama may beat that mark.

I was a bit surprised to see that Reagan’s initial approval was at almost exactly 50%–worse than any new president in the time series, which goes back to Eisenhower.

Presidential election

I completely forgot, but there was a significant presidential election yesterday, in a very large country with a very restricted electorate.

Just 538 voters cast ballots, a tiny fraction of the country’s adult population, but the only citizens constitutionally entitled to vote for the country’s chief executive.

Evidently, someone who was a mere state legislator just four years ago was the choice of this elite class of voters. Intriguing.

(Thanks to Steven for the reminder and inspiration.)

House gets a bit more representative

The House of Representatives doesn’t always live up to its name, thanks to the way it is elected. Representation of women and many ethnic and religious minorities lags. Only in 2006, for example, did it get its first Muslim member. And, as of yesterday’s results in Louisiana, the House finally has its first Vietnamese-American member, who will join the Republican caucus. Congratulations to Anh Cao! (It did not hurt to be running against William Jefferson.)

OK, a puzzle that I hope someone can help with. I thought Louisiana used a top-two runoff system. Clearly most of its House seats were already decided in November. Yet the two “runoffs” Saturday had more than two candidates, and in neither case did the winner break 50%. The combined vote of Jefferson and a Green candidate was greater than Cao’s votes (though if we play that game, we should note also that when the Libertartians’ 0.82% is added to Cao’s total, he is back on top). In the other race, Democrat Paul Carmouche lost to Republican John Fleming by 0.38%, with Fleming barely over 48%.

This is a strange way to run a runoff.

Third-party representation at recounts?

In their ongoing coverage at FiveThirtyEight of the recount in the US Senate race in Minnesota, one off-hand remark caught my attention:

Theoretically, a campaign could also argue that a vote has been counted for the wrong candidate (e.g. Coleman argues that a Franken vote should be a Coleman vote, rather than a no-vote), but I’d guess that these cases are exceptionally rare. One exception may be votes for third-party candidates (e.g. a Barkley vote that Coleman wants counted as a Coleman vote), where a campaign might have a slightly easier time closing the sale since the third-party won’t have representation in the room; […]

Emphasis mine. In a comment, I asked*:

Why are there no representatives of Barkley present? Yes, I know he has no chance of emerging the winner. But I would assume that, as a candidate in a disputed election, he would have a legal right to have agents present as ballots are reviewed. (For instance, to prevent one of the campaigns from tipping the race by converting marginal Barkley ballot marks into votes for their own candidate.)

So, is his absence a matter of law, or just practicality (such as financial constraints, or inability to recruit observers)?

Several subsequent comments address mine, with one stating that there is indeed no legal right to third-party representation in a recount (and seemingly surprised that the question would even arise).

I wonder if anyone reading F&V can confirm that. I suppose I should not be surprised or appalled if this is the case, but I suppose I am, nonetheless.


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* Edited to fix some rather bad syntax in the original.

Georgia stasis

This US Senate runoff campaign in Georgia sure is exciting!

Incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss leads his Democratic challenger, Jim Martin, 50% to 47%, according to a Politico/InsiderAdvantage poll.

In the first round, held concurrent with the presidential election on 4 November, Chambliss won 49.8% to Martin’s 46.8%. (Libertarian Buckley won 3.4% and two other candidates combined for 65 votes.)

The runoff is on 2 December. I am so excited that I am not sure I can stand this suspense for another week!