Michigan primary: Not proportional

I have generally been keeping away from the circus that is the US Republican Party’s presidential nominating process, 2012.

However, this one is right up the F&V alley.

Michigan is not allocating its delegates proportionally, notwithstanding what various news accounts I have heard and read say.

According to Frontloading HQ, the most reliable source on such matters, Michigan would have had 59 delegates, had it not violated rules on the scheduling of state contests. Those 59 would have been allocated thus:

    42 congressional district delegates (3 in each of the 14 congressional districts in the Great Lakes state): allocated winner-take-all based on the congressional district vote.

    14 at-large delegates: allocated proportionally to candidates surpassing 15% of the statewide vote.

    3 automatic delegates: free to choose whomever.

Due to the national party penalty, the state expects to have only 30:

    28 congressional district delegates (2 per each of the 14 districts): allocated winner-take-all based on the vote in the congressional district.

    2 at-large delegates: allocated winner-take-all.

    0 automatic delegates: Penalized states lose their automatic delegates.

Notwithstanding the 14 (23.7% of the total) statewide delegates that would have been allocated sort-of proportionally ((“Sort of”, because there is nothing proportional about a 15% threshold.)), neither plan could be called a “proportional” allocation.

The contest looks like it is going to be very close between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. If it were really proportional, the two leading candidates might be expected to emerge with about equal numbers of delegates. However, given that it is in fact a system in which the winner of each congressional district will take 2 delegates (and the runner up none), the allocation will come down to the regional distribution of candidates’ support. One of them could get nearly all the delegates, if the regional distribution is relatively even. Or the split could be nearly equal. Or the one with the second highest vote share could even emerge with substantially more delegates than the statewide plurality winner.

A disproportional result is increased in probability by the malapportionment inherent in using plurality allocation in congressional districts. The districts are apportioned based on overall population, yet they would be highly unequal in Republican voters–a quirk that is contained in the primary rules of many states.

The candidate who is stronger among Republicans who live in districts with more Democrats will be advantaged. It is not clear to me which candidate that might be.

What were the strong parties in 18th century Europe?

In an otherwise good piece by a Republican insider about why a Newt Gingrich presidency would be dangerous, Mickey Edwards offers this line:

It is why they argued against creating strong political parties like the ones they had left behind in Europe.

The “it” here is the “confrontational” style of Gingrich that, Edwards says, is more responsible than anything else for the current “dysfunctional” nature of American politics. “They” are the drafters of the US constitution.

No argument here about Gingrich’s dangers, or the incompatibility of strong parties (at least when there are just two) with the US Constitution as it emerged from the Philadelphia Convention. And certainly no argument to be offered here against the dysfunction of the US political system.

I just want to know, because I am not a historian of European parties, what “strong political parties” did the early European settlers of America (neatly conflated here with the constitutional founders) leave behind?

Electoral democracy and disciplined parliamentary parties must have emerged rather earlier than I had been aware previously.

Government shutdowns

So the US government might actually shut down (and not for the first time). A question for all you comparative government types out there: are there other governments where this sort of thing has happened–or even can happen?

I think most democracies have constitutional provisions that make the equivalent of US “continuing resolutions” more or less automatic, creating a “reversion point” of the current spending levels, rather than zero, in the event of no agreement on a funding plan. Some others make the executive proposal the reversion. Obviously these provisions matter a great deal to the bargaining positions of the various actors.

There are, of course, countries that go government-less for long periods of time. Like Belgium. But of course, in these cases of parliamentary systems with “no government” there actually is no real shut down, or lack, of government. There simply is not one that has been formed since the most recent election (or cabinet resignation). There is a caretaker, and current programs remain as authorized.

So just how unusual is the US here? Is this another case of (dubious) American exceptionalism?


(I originally typed the subject of this post with an “i” in place of the “u.” Come to think of it, that might have been appropriate!)

New York minor party changes

The state of New York has an unusual provision whereby minor parties that obtain ballot status may endorse candidates of other parties. A cross-endorsed candidate’s votes from the various ballot lines are added together. This system allows a minor party to demonstrate just how many votes it has contributed to a candidate’s total.

Following the 2010 elections, there are some changes in which parties qualify, and in their order on the ballot, the WSJ reports.

The big winners were the Green Party, which will be listed on ballots for the next four years, and the Conservative Party, which seized the No. 3 spot on ballots, behind Democrats and Republicans, also for the next four years.

A party needs to tally at least 50,000 votes in the governor’s race to be guaranteed a spot on ballots and avoid having to petition for them.

In 2010, the Greens had their own candidate for Governor, while the Conservatives contributed 232,263 votes to losing Republican candidate Carl Paladino.

The Working Families Party, a left-leaning minor party closely tied to the Democratic Party, also moved up, keeping its spot behind the Conservative Party. Plagued by investigation, the party saved its automatic ballot spot with 154,857 votes. Democratic winner Andrew Cuomo at first didn’t accept the party’s endorsement, then didn’t actively try to bolster it.

The Independence Party slipped to the third highest ballot spot for minor parties, attracting 146,646 votes for Cuomo, its cross-endorsed candidate.

The ballot format has changed, in a way in which the chairman of the Independence Party says will make the position on the ballot less important.

Now, all choices are on a single sheet for a voter to mark a choice, compared to the old mechanical machines, where a voter had to keep looking down a column to see the minor parties.

A Taxpayer’s Party, which Paladino created to help attract “tea party” voters obtained only about 20,000 of them and thus will not have a ballot line. Some others also missed out, inlcuding:

the Rent Too Damn High Party, which got attention for the performance of its candidate, Jimmy McMillan, including being parodied on “Saturday Night Live.” Also barely missing was the Libertarian Party, which attracted 48,386 for its candidate, Warren Redlich, who made a strong impression in the only televised debate.

The article mentions that the Green candidate was also in the debate. Imagine that, debates involving more than two candidates!

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.)

The new House and polarization

Adam Bonica has posted some must-see graphs at Ideological Cartography. The graphs really drive home just how polarized the new US House of Representatives will be. The mean Democrat and mean Republican (and I suppose “mean” has both meanings here!) will be farther apart than any recent House, and the median of the entire House will be much more to the right than any in the past–notably more than the one elected in 1994. This follows the House elected in 2006, which was by far the most left-leaning House we have seen.

Another of Bonica’s graphs shows the extent to which entering Republicans are heavily skewed right. Exiting Democrats were less concentrated at any ideological position within their party, but the ranks of the moderates are going to be notably thinner.

Bonica concludes that “The polarization resulting from the 2010 Midterms is fundamentally different and more worrisome than what had preceded it.” Worrisome indeed.

As for the Senate, he has an animated view of polarization since 1967.

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.

Using power

What William Saletan said:

Politicians have tried and failed for decades to enact universal health care. This time, they succeeded. In 2008, Democrats won the presidency and both houses of Congress, and by the thinnest of margins, they rammed a bill through. They weren’t going to get another opportunity for a very long time. It cost them their majority, and it was worth it.

Yes, I think that is right. So are a couple of his other points: Power is not about simply retaining it at the next election, but using it; and not only will Republicans be unable to repeal the health-care bill in the short run, in years to come the law likely will be popular enough that they won’t want to repeal it.

And, this just in: the country is divided. Forty eight percent of voters said in exit polling that they wanted the health-care law repealed. Sixteen percent like it as it is. Then there are the 31% who want it expanded. So that’s 47% that see it as either good as is or something to build on. Not exactly the repudiation of the policy that is being so widely spun as the voters’ alleged verdict.

Divided government

Given that by tonight we are likely to know that the USA is facing divided government–with a Republican House (if not both houses) and Democratic president–a refresher course on what it means is in order.

John Sides reviews some of the literature, and discusses how it applies to Obama. He rightly notes that it would be a mistake to assume, as some pundits do, that it is somehow good for Obama if Democrats do not retain control of both houses of Congress.

Presidents, not Congress, are held accountable for results, pretty much independent of how much support the president had in Congress.

Obama approval

I am not following US news very closely while out of the country, but what little I glean often gives the impression of some great crisis of confidence in the country’s current leadership.

But if a Fox News Poll finds 47% approve and 45% disapprove, and no significant change in those numbers all year long, forgive me if I fail to see what all the fuss is about.

So where is this center, anyway?

This week’s Economist (not yet on-line) has as one of its lead articles an ardent plea for President Barack Obama to respond to the past week’s special-election Senate defeat by moving to the center. Or, actually, it says the centre, but I am pretty sure these are the same place. The problem is, I can’t tell where this place might be.

The focus of the article is, of course, principally on the health-care reform bill (though a wide range of policies is mentioned). But if the notion of a centrist course in policy reform is to mean anything, I fail to see how the health bills thus far can be meaningfully anything but centrist. Policy reform that consists mainly of compensating (one might say “buying off”) incumbent interests–e.g. increasing the market for insurance policies and medical services–for various new restrictions imposed upon them (e.g. addressing the “pre-existing conditions” problem) is a centrist course.

If a policy reform were ideologically of the left (or, for that matter, the right), it would entail not compensating incumbent interests, but rolling them. Ideologically drive reform implies making incumbent interests pay the costs of new benefits distributed to the constituents of the governing party (or more broadly). Manifestly, this is not what Obama or his party has even attempted to do.

So, it simply is not clear where this center to which The Economist wants Obama to move is located. It would seem to look a lot like the status quo. And therein lies the rub: one can’t be an agent of “change” at the same time as one governs from the “center”–except perhaps in the most incremental fashion. Yet it is not clear that even incrementalism could command any support from the now marginally expanded veto block in the Senate. This contradiction seems lost on those proffering “centripetal” advice to a president who is evidently deeply beleaguered now that his party holds a mere 59% of the seats in the Senate.

More for the charge sheet: a pivotal special senate election

I can’t claim to know who will win the special election for the US Senate seat from Massachusetts formerly held by Ted Kennedy. However, I do know one thing: It is yet another item in the “charge sheet” against the American way of politics and policy-making that a government that, along with its legislative majorities, was endorsed by substantial majorities of the electorate could have its entire agenda pivot on the outcome of a special election for one seat in one house in one state just one year into its tenure.

It is worth noting that the current government is the first government in the USA to have popular majorities backing both it and its legislative majorities in quite some time (since 1976, I believe; no Republican Senate majority in at least five decades has been backed by a popular majority and Clinton never won over 50% of the vote). But that does not matter. One might think that elections should matter–that is, national elections–and that governments endorsed by majorities might be generally able to implement their programs. Well, at least that is what one might think if one were a committed small-d democrat.

That the Democratic Party is in such a fight for this seat–in Massachusetts!–is also a new item for the charge sheet against the party. How can it have missed the boat so badly with its policy agenda that it is struggling to hold a Senate seat in a state so reliably Democratic, till now, in Senate elections?

One item from the Globe and Mail suggests one reason why Republican Scott Brown is putting up such a challenge: He says that health care is a state issue. That is a defensible position–personally, I think it’s wrong, but it is defensible. The interesting twist is that various elements of the Democratic proposals resemble the healthcare policy put in place already in Massachusetts. That healthcare program was signed by a Republican governor (Mitt Romney, and that fact won’t help him with the national Republican primary electorate in 2012). So, in a sense, at least some swing voters in Massachusetts may be voting to protect what they already have from feared federal intrusion by a national policy. Ironically, that is how the Senate is supposed to work: as a forum for protecting state interests. Here we have a state that is seriously under-represented in terms of population per Senator, given that severe malapportionment of the institution. But in this one election, it will be seriously over-represented, as a relative few swing voters in one state essentially decide the fate of the governing party program, by bringing its majority below 60% in one house.

On the contest itself, Republicans chose for themselves about as good a candidate as they could have: Brown is very liberal for a Republican–even in the context of Massachusetts, where Republicans are in general about as liberal as they can be and still be Republicans. (Both points are made by Boris Shor, in a graph posted by Andrew Gelman at 538.)

On the other hand, evidently Democrat Martha Coakley is no exactly an exciting candidate, or one in touch with her voters–she evidently does not even know that Curt Schiling is something of a Massachusetts legend, suggesting he was a Yankees fan. If Coakley loses, there will be debate about how much candidate effects mattered and how much it really was a referendum on Obama’s policies, especially healthcare. But there is little doubting the impact. And, whatever one’s opinion of the policies or the current government, that just shows what an odd way we run this system known as American democracy.