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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> June 2007

An Incipient Realignment? A Response to Judis and Teixeira, Part 2

Yesterday, I began my critique of John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira's "Back to the Future: The Reemergence of the Emerging Democratic Majority." I indicated that Judis and Teixeira made at least four inferential errors in their article, and I outlined two of them. First, they fail to give a compelling reason to accept - in lieu of subsequent election returns - why 2006 should be understood as a realignment. Second, they engage in special pleading to explain previous elections that are inconsistent with their thesis.

Today, I shall complete my critique by outlining the third and fourth errors I see in their work.


(3) They fail to account for the possibility that the Republicans will adapt to the demographic changes that they cite, and therefore retain their competitiveness.

They do not accept what has become a nearly axiomatic assumption in the study of the contemporary political party. That is, political parties are strategic pursuers of electoral majorities. The goal of the major parties, they should have assumed, is to win elections. Ideologies serve the purpose of electoral victory - not vice-versa. Political parties are not going to endorse ideologies that are guaranteed to induce electoral defeat. Rather, they try to craft issue platforms that they believe will yield victory. Accordingly, Judis and Teixeira should account for the possibility that the GOP might adapt successfully to the political environment. If they wish to argue that there is some reason not to expect the GOP to adapt - as one might argue about the Whigs in the 1850s, the Democrats in the 1890s, or the Republicans in the 1930s - I would be interested in such an argument. But they have to make it to predict the Democratic dominance they envision.

An implicit requirement here is that they must view the parties through a non-ideological lens. This is the case even if they can't stand one party or the other because of the issue positions it takes. A strange kind of "good faith" assumption is needed here. They largely should assume that the parties are not ignorant purveyors of narrow-minded ideologies, or angels sent from on high to deliver the nation from the evil woes of the other party. They should assume that the parties are "crass," that they are goal-oriented (they want electoral victory) and strategic (they take issue positions to achieve this victory).

Judis and Teixiera fail to make these assumptions about the GOP. They offer what seems like reams of demographic data, but no hint of recognition that the Republican Party might be able to adapt to these trends if - in fact - the trends are as they think they are. They write:

American politics became dominated by concerns over national security, an issue on which Republicans had enjoyed voters' confidence since 1980. Some voters who might have supported Democrats were distracted from economic or social concerns that had favored Democrats. They ignored Republicans' religious intolerance and indifference to environmental pollution, rewarding Republicans instead for their presumed success in the war on terror. In 2004 George W. Bush won victories in swing states like Ohio, Iowa, and Florida largely because of these voters' defection.

This is clearly insufficient. It is also unfair and uncharitable. It indicates to me that personal feelings are far too involved in their analytics. Not only do they fail to account for the strategic innovations we should expect - they seem to me to be too inclined to slip into "the-GOP-is-a-force-for-evil" talk. This is a hallmark of polemic, not sound analysis.

What is particularly interesting is that they nevertheless assume that the Democrats can be flexible and strategic.

To win elections, a Democratic candidate for Congress or governor has to maintain the support of the party's base while reaching a sufficient percentage of the swing voters in a given state or district. In Ohio, Iowa, or Indiana, that can mean appealing to white working-class voters in small towns. In Colorado, Arizona, or Montana, that can mean appealing to libertarian independents. In these local and state elections, Democrats can run candidates who reflect the special political mix of their state or congressional district. For example, in Ohio last year, Democrats ran a gubernatorial candidate who opposed gun control and a Senate candidate who campaigned against free trade. In Colorado, Democrats ran a gubernatorial candidate who opposed abortion and gun control. In Pennsylvania, Democrats ran a Senate candidate who was pro-life who appealed to working-class Catholics. And in every one of these cases, the Democratic candidate was elected.

Are Republicans not equally capable of such strategic positioning?

(4) They take rhetorical advantage of their vague terminology. "Realignment" is an inherently vague term, and it needs to be specified as fully as possible. They fail to do this.

Judis and Teixeira argue:

None of this suggests that the Democrats can't win the White House. Indeed, they will enter presidential elections with a slight advantage because of the tilt in the country toward the political center. But whether they can win will depend on how well they can maintain the Democratic base while reaching out to swing voters, and on the strength of the opposition. Republicans, obviously, will face problems of their own in placating their conservative Christian and pro-business base while reaching out to suburban professionals and the white working class in the North and West.

So, this will be a realignment in which the unfavored party can still be expected to win the White House about as often as the favored party? What kind of realignment is that?

They answer:

If the Democrats are limited to incremental reform, what we foresee is a realignment similar to the Republican realignment of the 1980s but different from the massive, dramatic realignment that occurred in the crisis of the 1930s. Democrats will hold Congress and the White House for most, but not all, of this period, and they'll suffer intraparty recriminations (as the Democrats of the 1990s did) from their failure to do better. But if they are able to anchor their majority in landmark legislation, they could achieve the kind of historic realignment that Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democrats enjoyed. At minimum, that would require Democratic politicians to put aside their own differences and mobilize pressure from below. The past record on this is not encouraging, but there's always the chance that today's Democrats will rise to the occasion.

The problem with this analysis is that 2006 is the first indication of a budding electoral realignment - if indeed there is one. 1980, on the other hand, was not.

There were realigning elements to the 1980 election. This is certainly true. The Republicans made significant and lasting gains in the Mountain West and, to a lesser extent, the South. However, 1980 was not a critical realignment. The GOP had slowly been making gains in these areas during the entire postwar period. Thus, 1980 was a punctuation in what has been an ongoing, secular realignment that had been punctuated by a GOP boom in both regions in the mid-60s (and was punctuated again in 1994). So, the roots of what happened in 1980 go very deep.

That is not the case with 2006. The realignment that Judis and Teixeira claim they see now is a critical realignment - one that emerges without electoral precedent. And so, 1980 is not the proper basis of comparison. The only election year in the postwar period that has shown any evidence of that phenomenon - a shift in the voting patterns without much prior indication - was 1958. The Pacific West lurched leftward that year.

Thus, to compare the realignment that Judis and Teixeira see this year to the realignment of 1980 is not a valid comparison. If they had made a more modest argument - perhaps correlating Democratic gains in the Northeast last year as another major step in the secular decline of the GOP in that region - the comparison would have been apt, and I would have probably agreed. But their comparison is not modest, and therefore it does hold up under scrutiny.

This problem is not limited to mere rhetorical imprecision. In lowering their sights about what they mean by "realignment," they lose any basis to justify their prediction of sustained Democratic domination. Grant the similarities between 1980 and 2006, for the sake of argument. As I said, whatever realigning forces that existed in 1980 were relatively modest. Thus, no one could - at the time - make a reasonable argument to expect, based upon demography alone, the political events of the next decade. If you retain the same demographic basis for each party, you can easily envision a different decade after the 1980 election.

To see what I mean by this, try the following though experiments. Extend the 1982 recession by a couple of months, and we would remember our 41st President, Walter Mondale. In 1988, make the aggressive Lee Atwater a little too aggressive, take Michael Dukakis out of the tank and make him think a little bit more about that death penalty question from Bernie Shaw, and we might remember him as our 41st President. In 1994, have the Clinton Administration recognize the implications of the 1992 Perot vote, and have the President govern as the New Democrat he promised to be (didn't he promise a middle class tax cut?) - and we might be celebrating the eighteenth year in Speaker Tom Foley's tenure.

If we are now in a period like the 1980s, Judis and Teixeira cannot make predictions about who will retain the balance of legislative power based solely upon demographic trends. The demography of the 1980s was not a sufficient condition for the political events of that period. Accordingly, they cannot justify their predictions about 2006-2022 by comparing it to 1980-1996.


This last objection is a good indication of my overall take on their argument. I think it is confused. There is a confusion here about what "realignment" is, and what it implies. Judis and Teixeira think that this is a realignment like 1980. But if 2006 is indeed a realigning year as they think it is, it is quite different from 1980. On top of this, if 2006 is as modest a realignment as 1980 was, they really have no business making predictions about the next decade. The political shifts in 1980 were far too modest to have been a sufficient condition for the next 12 to 16 years. So, how are the shifts in 2006 a sufficient condition?

This is the basic problem I see in all four of my objections. They are confused about what kind of data needs to be offered to make their point. They are confused about what should, and what should not, count as data. They are confused about how to view the parties. And, as I said, they are confused about what they mean by "realignment."

Mind you, I am not necessarily rejecting their argument. Their thesis might be true. But the justification for it is so riddled with theoretical and methodological confusion that we have no business accepting their thesis based upon the justification.

This confused article should, I think, serve as a cautionary tale to all and sundry who wish to go off proclaiming incipient realignments. It is a dangerous undertaking - much harder than many obviously think. This is one of those instances where our desire for foreknowledge must give way to the sober realization that our ability to know is limited, and that all the wishing in the world will not change this frustrating fact. There are some things that we just can't know. So, before we start talking realignment, how's about we let the voters vote?

Footnote: Yesterday, I incorrectly credited V.O. Key with the four-fold typology of elections. In fact, the typology I referenced was partially created by Key in his 1955 Journal of Politics article, "A Theory of Critical Elections." Key identified elections as critical or reinforcing. However, it was Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, Warren Miller, and Donald Stokes who noticed that some elections - such as the 1956 presidential election - were deviating elections, while others - like the 1960 presidential election - were reinstating elections. Interested readers can check out their seminal work, The American Voter, or their 1961 article in The American Political Science Review, "Stability and Change in 1960: A Reinstating Election." Also, for anybody who is interested in a recent, and very excellent, review of realignment in the postwar era, I would recommend an article by Charles Bullock, Donna Hoffman, and Keith Gaddie entitled "Regional Variations in the Realignment of American Politics, 1944-2004." It appeared in the September, 2006 edition of the Social Science Quarterly.

-Jay Cost

An Incipient Realignment? A Response to Judis and Teixeira, Part 1

This essay is a response to a fascinating article by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira entitled "Back to the Future: The Re-emergence of the Emerging Democratic Majority." Judis and Teixeira argue that the 2006 election signals a realignment that favors the Democratic Party. I think their theory is underdetermined, and in this essay I shall offer my justification for that position.

First, let me make clear that what follows is a non-partisan critique. I am not going to try to convince you that the facts point toward the opposite of what Judis and Teixeira argue. I'm not going to try to convince you that the GOP is on the rise, and that 2006 was an aberration. I am, rather, going to argue that the epistemological foundation of their entire project is unstable, and - as a consequence - Judis and Teixeira fail to support their hypothesis. Simply stated, this kind of argument is very tricky, and Judis and Teixeira fail to make it.

I shall spread my response over today and tomorrow.


What is a political realignment? To put it succinctly, a realignment is a broad-based, deeply-felt, and long-lasting change in the partisan orientation of a segment or segments of the electorate. Realignments can be one of two types: secular, or slow-moving evolutions in partisan preference that occur over a period of time; critical, or sudden shifts to one party or another that do not have a historical antecedent.

Lots of people like to predict realignments. Every post-election political science conference you attend, you will find at least one panel with at least one person pushing the idea that the last election was a signal that a new realignment might be a-comin'. I avoid those panels. I think that predicting realignments as they are starting to occur, as opposed to identifying them after the dust has largely settled, is exceedingly difficult. I think that you are far too likely to make a major inferential error when you argue for a prospective realignment. Judis and Teixeira make at least four.

(1) The great Harvard political scientist V.O. Key differentiated four types of elections. On the one hand is a realigning election, along the lines of what we just discussed. On the other hand is a set of elections that revolve around realigning elections: reinforcing elections in which the party favored by the alignment maintains its position, deviating elections in which the party not favored by the alignment makes gains without bringing about a new alignment, reinstating elections in which the party favored in the alignment returns to its position after a deviation.

How can you differentiate a realigning election from the rest? A realigning election is, as I said, broad-based, deeply-felt, and long-lasting. All of these imply a temporal distinction. Many voters must make the same kinds of political choices in multiple contests in cycle after cycle. How do we know if a given event was indeed broad-based, deeply-felt and long-lasting? We have to wait and see if large numbers continue to vote the same way over many offices again and again.

How can you do this before you have observed multiple elections? What would a critical test be, right now in 2007, to corroborate the theory that 2006 was a realigning election? I cannot think of one that does not require the assistance of Doc Brown, Marty McFly, and a flux capaciter. Maybe one is possible, but a prospective argument for a realignment is, I think, a dangerous undertaking. Minimally, you have to offer some fairly compelling evidence in lieu of future returns.

Obviously, since Judis and Teixeira think this Democratic majority is "emerging," they see a realignment that is just starting to happen. Of course, they do not have future election returns to offer, so what is their compelling. alternative piece of data? They argue:

We take a different view [than the view that 2006 was an "an event-driven election"]: that this election signals the end of a fleeting Republican revival, prompted by the Bush administration's response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the return to political and demographic trends that were leading to a Democratic and center-left majority in the United States. In 2006 the turn to the Democrats went well beyond those offices directly concerned with the war in Iraq or affected by congressional scandals. While Democrats picked up 30 House seats and six Senate seats, they also won six governorships, netted 321 state legislative seats, and recaptured legislative chambers in eight states. That's the kind of sweep that Republicans enjoyed in 1994, which led to Republican control of Congress and of the nation's statehouses for the remainder of the decade.

This argument is an insufficient way to deal with our lack of knowledge about the future. Just because many seats flipped from one party to another does not mean that they will stay flipped. In 1974, for instance, the GOP took hits nationwide from the top to the bottom of the ballot in every region of the country, but the damage did not last. Extent of damage does not imply permanence.

Even if we assume the effects of 2006 are permanent (which, I expect them to be to an extent), it does not mean that it was induced by long-running "political and demographic trends" that are consistent with realignments. Eventful political years can be significant and long-lasting for a party even if the "political and demographic trends" still favor the other party. There are other features to realignments other than length of effect. They must be broad-based and deeply-felt - which means not only that voters need to vote for the candidates they elected in the first instance of the realignment, they must confirm that decision in other elections as they acquire the opportunity. The fact that officials elected in an electoral "shock" are largely retained in office is not sufficient to claim that a realignment has occurred. For instance, the GOP made slow-but-sure gains in the Mountain West and the South in the postwar period, even though 1958 was a long-lasting setback in the Mountain West and 1974 was a long-lasting setback in the South. Neither of those events were realigning events, even though their effects were long-lasting.

The essential point is that we need to see what happens next. It could largely wash out, as some elections do. It could have a lasting effect that nevertheless does not amount to a realignment. It could be a realignment. We have one data point; to arbitrate between these alternatives, we either need more data points, or a compelling reason why we do not.

Incidentally, Teixeira and Judis are just flat out wrong to argue that we should expect the Bush administration's problems not to trickle down the ballot in a non-realigning year. National politics has that effect all the time. In fact, a party's fortune on one governmental level is highly and positively correlated with its fortunes on other levels. I do not know why they would imply otherwise.

(2) Within the last few cycles, there will be at least one election that does not fit your theory of realignment. That is, the party on the losing end of the supposed realignment will have scored a least one important victory. You must explain this in a way that is not reducible to special pleading. You can do that with all of the critical realignments. You can make a convincing case why 1928 and 1932 were fundamentally different, or why 1852 and 1860 were fundamentally different. You can do it with the secular alignments - noting the slow-but-sure trends in favor of the advantaged party.

Unfortunately, Judis and Teixeira fail to do that. To explain the failure of their hypothesis over the cycles preceding 2006 (remember, they initially offered it in 2002), they invent a psychological concept.

But there was also evidence of another psychological process, which might be called "de-arrangement." The focus on the war on terror not only distracted erstwhile Democrats and independents but appeared to transform, or de-arrange, their political worldview. They temporarily became more sympathetic to a whole range of conservative assumptions and approaches. In the past, voters had trusted Democrats to manage the economy, and in 2002 that preference should have been strongly reinforced by a recession that occurred on Bush's watch.

This is a textbook example of special pleading. To invent a psychological concept to explain data that cannot otherwise be explained is spurious reasoning. I honestly find it incredible that they think this is sufficient to resurrect their theory after the setbacks it suffered in 2002 and 2004. Personally, I would have loved it if I could - in my dissertation work early last year - insert an as-yet-undiscovered psychological concept to explain the vast divergence between my initial theory and what I found in the real world. But, unfortunately for me, those stingy profs wouldn't let me! So, I had to spend six months back at the drawing board. I think that Judis and Teixeira need to try a little harder to reconcile two major falsifying instances with their theory.

Minimally, if they are going to resort to a unique psychological concept, they need to find one that does not undermine the entire premise of their account. If we assume - for the sake of argument - the facts as they present them, and the existence of the psychological concept they create, what is not to say that recent, pro-GOP adjustments in worldviews were not permanent, and the 2006 election was the "de-arrangement?" Also, what is not to say that "de-arrangement" indicates that voters lack core beliefs on many of the basic political divisions of our day, and that recent variations in party support imply this lack of grounding rather than a "coming home?" The concept of "de-arrangement," in other words, is self-immolating. They have proffered an idea that they think serves their argument, but actually burns their idea as much as the idea they are trying to burn.

At a more general level, we should be able to see here the trap that lies in wait for us if we assume that current polling data about core beliefs/values are valid predictors of the partisan preferences that the public exhibits at the ballot box over the next ten years. I think it is highly problematic to assume this. Public opinion is ill-formed in many respects - which in turn means that analysts are highly susceptible to over-reading polling results. Thus, surveys are insufficient substitutes for future election results.

People do not pay much attention to politics, and their political opinions reflect that. Opinions, even on salient issues, are subject to fluctuations and seeming irrationalities that would surprise most political elites. Even if we can identify the public as holding a discrete set of values that seem to us to imply support for the Democratic Party - it does not mean that we can assume this support will be forthcoming. The connection between avowed core values, on the one hand, and issue/candidate preferences, on the other hand, is often quite tenuous.

Multiple problems present themselves when we try to estimate a voter's electoral behavior based upon his espousing a certain "core" value - which is what Judis and Teixeira consistently endeavor to do in this essay. Any decisive values we have identified might not be as central, and therefore not as decisive, to the respondent as we think they are. To assume that they are implicitly applies a kind of psychological value structure to the respondent that might not exist. At the heart of their argument about voter psychology is, I think, an unstated left-right ideological structure that is known not to exist in the mass public. Also, the values we have identified might be in conflict with other values that we have failed to identify. Respondents can hold contradictory values without knowing that they are contradictory (after all, knowledge of the contradiction implies political knowledge, which we know to be generally lacking). Contradictory values can incline a respondent in one direction based upon how an issue is framed - and framing is essentially what the parties try to do. Also, the salience of a respondent's values might wax and wane based upon the political mood - so that they emphasize their Republican set of values when the Republicans are up, and emphasize their Democratic set of values when the Democrats are up. And so on.

Generally, making a connection between a voter psychology that manifests itself only obliquely in survey responses and electoral results over the next two decades is a highly questionable endeavor. Judis and Teixeira seem to be aware of this at least in some regard - hence their sound inclination to be wary of over-reading the pro-Republican survey results of the last few years. But they fail to hold themselves to the same standard when the data favors their side. They thus do not adhere to a key rule that separates sound analysis from polemic: standards must be applied consistently and blindly.

I will have more to say on their argument tomorrow. Stay tuned!

-Jay Cost

The Hill Committees at the Five Month Mark

Recently, the FEC reported the fundraising activities through May 31 of the six national party committees.

The DCCC has raised $26 million, the DNC has raised $25 million, and the DSCC has raised $18 million, for a total of $69 million.

The Republicans have raised $72 million all told. The RNC has pulled in $40 million, the NRCC $23 million, and the NRSC just $9 million.

Once again we see what we saw earlier this month - the NRSC is lagging well behind its Democratic counterpart. Some of this is undoubtedly from the fact that there are 22 Republicans incumbents who are drawing money to themselves and away from the NRSC. But, as I argued, not all of this is explicable by that. In particular, the Senate Republican committee seems to be lagging in individual contributions - pulling in only $6 million. This might be a sign of structural problems at the committee.

While the RNC has out-raised the DNC, pulling the GOP ahead of the Democrats, this is a presidential year - and we thus should not expect as much coordination between the national committees and the two congressional committees. The national committees will be busy working on the presidential election.

This, then, is a sign that the congressional Republicans are - overall - lagging relative to the Democrats. Exactly what does this mean? Over at The Fix, Chris Cillizza argues the thinks that this spells major trouble for the GOP, noting the following:

Remember that all four of the congressional committees are first and foremost about incumbent retention. In order to get members to raise and donate money to the committees, the organizations must show a commitment to defending incumbents no matter the cost. Witness the millions the DCCC poured into four lost cause races in Texas in 2004 -- simply because the races all featured incumbents and it was impossible for the party to walk away from them even though the races were probably unwinnable no matter how much money is spent.

So, while Republicans' financial positioning seems likely to limit their ability to do much beyond protecting their incumbents, Democrats seem on pace to expand the playing field thanks to their financial edge.

I think there is a great deal of truth here. It is fair to say that there is an incumbency "bias" at the Hill committees. Endangered incumbents are given more aid than challengers with similar prospects of victory. The Hill committees are prepared to support incumbents even when all seems lost. Compare the NRCC's response to AZ 08 and IN 08 last cycle. They pulled out of the former the moment that Randy Graf won the nomination, but they supported John Hostettler to the bitter end. Mr. Cillizza makes a great point as to why this is the case. The Hill committees must show loyalty to endangered incumbents so as to enjoy the support of the members of the caucus, who are able to transfer their own campaign cash to them. Incumbents are advantaged in a different way, too. Safe incumbents can count upon a good amount of committee contributions, even if they are not endangered. Challengers who are as likely to lose as incumbents are to win do not get that kind of cash.

However, I do not think this justifies Mr. Cillizza's characterization of the "congressional committees (as) first and foremost about incumbent retention." Recent research has shown that, while there is a slight pro-incumbent bias in the NRCC and DCCC, both are remarkably strategic in their giving patterns.

For instance, in the year that he cites - 2004 - total expenditures (direct contributions, coordinated expenditures, and independent expenditures) by the NRCC for incumbents totaled $13.9 million. The same amount for non-incumbents totaled $36.7 million. Thus, the NRCC spent more on challengers than on incumbents. The story is the same at the DCCC. In 2004, it spent $9.1 million on incumbents, and $27.3 million on non-incumbents. Most of the difference between the two is due to coordinated expenditures and independent expenditures. While many safe House incumbents get a few thousand dollars from the NRCC or the DCCC, each party is much more strategic with its independent expenditures and coordinated expenditures. (Typically, direct contributions only account for a tiny portion of total party spending - just 1.1% in 2004 for each House committee.) What is more - most of the congressional campaign committees' non-financial resources are dedicated to non-incumbents because they are the ones who lack connections to donors, campaign professionals, &c.

Generally, the way I view the congressional campaign committees (the subject of my dissertation) is as Temple University's Robin Kolodny does in her excellent book on the subject, Pursuing Majorities. Their principal goal is to pursue a majority for their caucus. By pooling the "Washington resources" of the caucus party together, they solve a collective action dilemma for each member, who would be made better off to be in a majority but who cannot bear the costs of attaining it. While it is true that there is a not insignificant "incumbency bias" that can skew this goal - this nevertheless is each congressional campaign committees' major goal.

One might say that the congressional campaign committees as strategic pursuers of majorities that are "saddled" with a slightly higher-than-normal aversion to risk. They generally put the money where it will make a difference, but they nevertheless tend to believe that "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" more than most of us do. Thus, they slightly over-fund incumbents with direct contributions.

So, Mr. Cillizza thinks that these fundraising discrepancies mean trouble for the Republicans in their pursuit of majorities. I think he might be on to something, but I think he overstates the point.

Another point. It is important to note that the NRSC is the outfit that is really in trouble. The NRCC is not nearly as worse off. It is inappropriate - in many regards - to lump these two committees together, which Mr. Cillizza does in his piece, and which many are inclined to do as well. The Senate and House Hill committees should be understood as independent entities. They have separate goals. Sometimes they coordinate. Sometimes they do not. Both will occasionally help the other out to maximize contributions or coordinated expenditures to particularly endangered incumbents. Both will also presumably coordinate messages. But each committee is autonomous. And so, I am not sure that lumping the two GOP Hill committees and comparing them to the Democratic committees offers maximum clarity. For, if we separate them out, we see that the NRSC is in much worse shape than the NRCC. The NRCC and the DCCC are about even in that regard for the cycle. This is not a great sign for the NRCC, which historically outraises the DCCC - but there is a great difference between its position vis-a-vis the DCCC and the NRSC's position vis-a-vis the DSCC.

-Jay Cost

McCain-Feingold Takes Another Hit. Or Does It?

Yesterday, in FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life, the Supreme Court struck a blow to the campaign finance regime that has been in place since 2004. Or did it?

The issue in question is whether Wisconsin Right to Life, a non-profit corporation, could run what it claimed to be issue ads within thirty days of the primary with money that came from its general treasury fund. The ads in question called upon viewers to encourage Senators Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold to vote against the filibuster of judicial nominations. They did not advocate that Senator Feingold, who was up for reelection in the fall, be defeated. At the time, the FEC ruled that these advertisements were impermissible under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), a.k.a. McCain-Feingold.

The BCRA prohibits money from corporation and union general treasuries from financing "electioneering communications" (corporations and unions must instead work through PACs). An "electioneering communication" is, according to the BCRA,

Any broadcast, cable, or satellite communication which--
(I) refers to a clearly identified candidate or Federal office;
(II) is made within--
(aa) 60 days before a general, special, or runoff election for the office sought by the candidate; or
(bb) 30 days before a primary or preference election, or a convention or caucus of a political party that has authority to nominate a candidate, for the office sought by the candidate; and
(III) in the case of a communication which refers to a candidate for an office other than President or Vice President, is targeted to the relevant electorate.

This is known as the "blackout" provision because advertisements that are funded via corporation or union money (or money from individuals who have exceeded the BCRA-imposed limits on individual contributions, e.g. George Soros) cannot be aired within thirty days of a primary election or sixty days of a general election. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) determined that the Wisconsin Right to Life ads were indeed electioneering communications, and could not be run.

In Wisconsin Right to Life, the Supreme Court ruled against the FEC. It upheld the blackout provision, but ruled that the ads were nevertheless permissible.

The blackout provision was one of several intended to close a loophole that parties and interest groups began to exploit in 1996. The Democratic National Committee, at the behest of Clinton-Gore '96, started spending large amounts of soft money on "issue ads" that did not expressly endorse one candidate over another, but effectively did. Soon after, the Republicans followed suit.

How could this occur? In 1979 Congress amended the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA) to allow parties to spend "soft" money (i.e. money not raised under the FECA's "hard" limits on who could give and how much they could give) for party building activities. Party building included: (a) the distribution of grassroots, pro-party material that did not expressly promote the election of a federal candidate, (b) slate cards, (c) voter registration, (d) administration and overhead. Individuals could contribute unlimited amounts of soft money to party committees, and corporations and unions were not barred from contributing. In 1996 the parties started dedicating massive amounts of soft money to issue ads that were technically defined as party building, and thus not subject to the hard limits of the FECA, but were effectively expressing advocacy for a candidate's election.

The BCRA forbid parties from raising or spending soft money - and thus did away with soft money issue ads. To prevent non-party organizations from doing what the parties had done, the BCRA also implemented the blackout provision.

This is not the first time the Court has reviewed the blackout provision. In 2003's McConnell v. FEC the Court upheld it in principle, ruling that the FEC could prevent outside groups from funding "electioneering communications" with money collected outside the BCRA limitations. Nevertheless, the Court did indicate that "pure" issue ads would be permissible during the blackout dates. It therefore opened the door to a later challenge. Hence, FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life. The FEC decided that Wisconsin Right to Life's ads were indeed electioneering, and Wisconsin Right to Life argued that they were pure issue ads.

In siding with Wisconsin Right to Life, the Court did not offer a majority opinion as to a justification for the rule. Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justice Alito, argued for a standard to differentiate between "electioneering communications" and "pure issue ads." Chief Justice Roberts wrote:

Because [Wisconsin Right to Life's] ads may reasonably be interpreted as something other than an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate, they are not the functional equivalent of express advocacy, and therefore fall outside McConnell's scope. To safeguard freedom of speech on public issues, the proper standard for an as-applied challenge to [the BCRA] must be objective, focusing on the communication's substance rather than on amorphous considerations of intent and effect...[A] court should find that an ad is the functional equivalent of express advocacy only if the ad is susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate. [Wisconsin Right to Life's] three ads are plainly not the functional equivalent of express advocacy under this test.

What the Chief Justice argued for here is seemingly narrow. He does not wish to overturn the blackout provision cited above. Rather, he rejects the FEC's interpretation of it. He holds that so long as one could reasonably interpret an ad as a genuine issue ad, it does not fall prey to the BCRA's definition of electioneering communication. He thus holds the BCRA to be constitutional, but the FEC's interpretation of it to be unconstitutionally broad.

Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas joined in the ruling with the Chief Justice and Justice Alito. However, they did not join in this opinion. They want the blackout provision overturned altogether.

Thus, the ads are permissible, and the blackout provision is constitutional.

Justices Souter, Stevens, Ginsberg, and Breyer view this as an overturning of the Court's ruling in McConnell, and an effective end to the blackout provision. Justice Souter wrote:

After today, the ban on contributions by corporations and unions and the limitation on their corrosive spending when they enter the political arena are open to easy circumvention, and the possibilities for regulating corporate and union campaign money are unclear. The ban on contributions will mean nothing much, now that companies and unions can save candidates the expense of advertising directly, simply by running "issue ads" without express advocacy, or by funneling the money through an independent corporation like [Wisconsin Right to Life].

Without treading too far into the thorny legal or moral debate, I will say that my intuition is that Justice Souter is being a little hyperbolic. The reason is that the political parties will not be able to participate in this kind of activity. The BCRA ban on soft money has been retained. This will do much to prevent what he fears will happen.

I agree with Souter that the Court has effectively narrowed the BCRA's intended definition of "electioneering communication." I also think that this decision - because it lacks a justification that a majority supports - confuses more than it clarifies. However, to argue that this will once again open the floodgates holding back corporation and union money is to fail to appreciate what induced these organizations to give so much in the past. Their interest in channeling soft money funds to the parties was for access as least as much as it was for electioneering. A big check to the party could get you the ear of a senator if and when you needed it. Will an independently-financed quasi-electioneering ad do the same? I do not think so. I think the latter only influences voters directly, and elected officials indirectly (and I am not sure how much indirect influence it would have over officials - I do not think those "527 organizations" have acquired much influence, despite all of their efforts). Soft money given to parties could influence officials directly.

The key difference is that today, the parties are forbidden from this kind of activity. By locking the parties out of this process - and they still will be locked out - you retain a major impediment to the kind of union- and corporation-driven money that thwarted the old FECA regime. Barring the parties from soft money means impeding corporations and unions from buying access to them. Even if this opens the way for them to participate in electioneering - that is a far cry from what most of us found to be offensive in the wake of the 1996 election. Most of us objected to the direct influence that could be wielded over government officials by massive contributions to their parties.

Where I think this could have an effect is on the role of 527 groups - which in the past have been subjected to the blackout provision. What this might do is allow these groups to engage in their so-called "issue advocacy" further into the campaign season. This is why I agree with the minority that the BCRA has been weakened here, but I do not think it has been weakened by very much. The parties are still barred from receiving soft money, which is what induced this regime in the first place.

But, then again, much depends upon how the FEC deals with this decision. There is no majority-endorsed guideline on how to interpret the blackout rule. All the Court has said here is that the blackout rule does not forbid all ads. If the FEC interprets this ruling narrowly, only a few ads might be aired in the blackout period. In that case, expect to see the Court revisit this issue in the wake of the 2008 cycle.

-Jay Cost

Edwards the Amateur

Last week, I started my analysis of the major presidential candidates - first with a methodological overview, and then a look at Hillary Clinton. Today, I analyze John Edwards.

I think it is highly unlikely that John Edwards will be his party's nominee next year. He is the only major candidate about whom I feel comfotable saying that. I think that his fundamental failing is that he is a poor politician.

This was not always thought to be the case about him. Michael Barone writes the following about Senator Edwards in The 2004 Almanac of American Politics,

[Edwards] was the candidate most feared by the Bush political strategists in 2002 and early 2003; they thought his Southern background, his moderate voting record on many issues and his attractive persona might put into play some Southern and Northern states which would be safe for Bush against other possible nominees.
Edwards, according to Michael Barone, has been running for the presidency since 2001. That is a long time. This makes it all the more strange that - in his fourth year running for the people's house - he built an ungainly, 28,200 square-foot house in rural North Carolina. His house negatively affected many people's perception of him. It affected mine, too - but in a different way. It crystallized for me an intuition I have had for a very long while: despite these many years pursuing the highest office in the land, John Edwards knows very little about how to campaign. In many important respects, he remains an amateur.

What I think Edwards has failed to learn in these six years of campaigning is that running for political office is not perfectly correlated with persuading a jury. There are many similarities, to be sure. You "sell" a jury just as you "sell" an electorate. You sell them both on a narrative that explains why they are where they are, as well as a solution to the problem that has brought them together. However, electoral politics involves more selling than this.

What I think Edwards has failed to understand is that he himself is one of the products placed on the market. A good politician understands this. He convinces the electorate not just of the problem and of the solution, but also that he is the person worthy of the public trust to implement the solution. He thus conforms his public image as closely to his message as possible - so that the voters believe that he will do what he says he will do, and therefore that he is worthy of the office they are about to bestow upon him. This is a major difference from Edwards' previous profession. A trial lawyer must "simply" sell a jury on the problem and the solution. He need not worry about whether the jury believes that he will implement its verdict. That is up to the judge.

What is more, a trial lawyer has the advantage of a controlled environment in which he can sell. This does not exist in politics. If the rules of evidence at a trial are Lockean, the rules in politics are decidedly Hobbesian (the only real prohibitions are the difficult-to-meet standards of slander and libel). Evidence against a politician - in the court of public opinion - is whatever you can turn into evidence. There is no "fair" and "unfair" - there is only what the voters will believe and what they will not believe. [Political elites who decry this, who whine about "under-handed" politics are usually just decrying the fact that they were out-strategized. As if there is some code of manners that they would restrict themselves to at the cost of victory! For every "Swiftboating," there is an equal and opposite "Mediscaring."]

This means that - when you run for political office - you must conform your life to your political message as much as you are able. You must be the embodiment of the message that you are selling. Any small deviation or inconsistency - regardless of how irrelevant it objectively is - gives your opponent the opportunity to characterize you as untrustworthy, and therefore unworthy of the office you seek.

Edwards does not seem to me to understand this. If he did, he would not have built the 28,200 square-foot estate that he built. That mansion sends the wrong message about who he is. It allowed his political opponents to tag him as somebody who does not really believe what he says, and therefore as somebody unworthy of the office.

I personally do not think Edwards is any more of a hypocrite than any of us. Do not count me as one of the many who castigate him for the size of his house. FDR was the model of northeastern elitist patricianism, and he nevertheless made himself into the archetypical Democratic man of the people. I think there is something valid, and quite American, in that transformation. And Lord knows that - if I had tens of millions of dollars at my disposal, a cancer-stricken wife, and two young children who had just endured a two-year presidential campaign with another on the way - I would spoil them similarly.

Edwards' problem is not that he is a hypocrite per se. His problem is his lack of political insight, which allowed him to be tagged as one. He failed to realize that everything about him - including his house - would be subjected to public scrutiny, and that it all must conform to his message because, after all, the voters are judging him as much as his message.

The scuttlebutt now is that Edwards' fundraising for the Second Quarter is going to be weak. This is unsurprising to me. My intuition is that political elites in the Democratic Party are starting to understand that - however valid Edwards' message is, and to whatever extent he might be a true believer in that message - he is not the right messenger.

I think Democrats are well advised to abandon Edwards. The Republicans would decimate an amateur such as he. It would be brutal.

-Jay Cost

Viva Iowa! Viva New Hampshire!

Yesterday's column got me thinking about the new primary regime.

The schedule is definitely different than years past. It is much more intense. The calendar itself is still in flux, but this is what I have been able to piece together.

January 14, 2008: Iowa

January 19, 2008: Nevada

January 22, 2008: New Hampshire, Wyoming (GOP only)

January 29, 2008: Florida, South Carolina (Democrats only)

February 2, 2008: South Carolina (GOP only)

February 3, 2008: Maine (GOP Only)

February 5, 2008: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho (Democrats only), Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico (Democrats only), New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia (Republicans only)

Note: Michigan might be moving its primary forward on both the Democrat and Republican sides.

Many people think that there is a collective irrationality in this schedule. Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz summed up the situation as follows.

In the absence of a rational primary process, we are seeing an ad-hoc national primary take shape...Connecticut didn't start this tidal wave but I cannot stand by and allow our voters to become irrelevant. Ultimately, members of both political parties must come together and enact real reform.
What she thinks we have is a collective action dilemma. It is in the interests of all states to develop a binding, rational nominating scheme. However, it is in no state's interests to choose a primary date that is consistent with collective rationality absent an agreement that forces all other states to do likewise. Each state assesses that the others will take advantage of it if it makes the responsible choice; so, each chooses the collectively irrational date. The outcome is thus inefficient for all.

Is it, though? The prevailing view is that it definitely is. There is something wrong with this schedule. Maybe there is, but I think this schedule has a good bit of utility.

Americans are always tinkering with their democratic inputs. Its one of our most cherished pastimes. Yale's Stephen Skowronek has argued that - before America had a modern government - it had a modern democracy. This is most certainly true. Americans have been thinking about, and improving upon ways to vote since the election of 1800. Of the seventeen amendments we have passed on top of the Bill of Rights, nine of them concern voting [second place in the list of amendment subjects is, of course, beer]. Unsurprisingly, we have tinkered with our presidential nominating process several times. Indeed, today's presidential primary process is the product of a slow evolution that quickened after the debacle that was the 1968 Democratic Convention. For years, reformers decried the plutocratic rule of party bosses who could select the presidential candidates that they preferred. After 1968, Democrats instituted major reforms in the nominating process. Republicans soon followed - and we wound up with the system that we have.

Perhaps because only a few of us lived in a time when presidential nominees were chosen for the people instead of by the people, lots of us now object to this new system. And, we're inclined to tinker again. We replaced the plutocracy of the party bosses with a weird geographical aristocracy - in which a few, unrepresentative states make the choice for all of us.

And so, reformers are up-and-about once again. Thirty years ago, they reformed the manner in which presidential nominees are selected. Now, they want to change the schedule by which they are selected. FairVote summarizes the major reform plans:

Delaware Plan: Under the Delaware Plan, the states would be put into four groups according to population. The smallest 12 states, plus federal territories, would vote first, followed by the next smallest 13 states, then the 13 medium-sized states, and finally the 12 largest states. These four consolidated primaries would occur on the first Tuesday of each month, beginning in March and ending in June.

Regional Primary System: The National Association of Secretaries of State has endorsed the idea of regional primaries, with a series of regional primaries separated by a month and with the order of regions changing in every election cycle.

I'll be honest. I don't prefer either of these plans to the seemingly inane schedule that we have this cycle. I think they would make our nominating system less open.

This might seem counter-intuitive. After all, the more people vote - the more open it is, right? Not necessarily! The more people who are allowed to vote at once, the more pressure there will be on candidates to use television advertisements, therefore to acquire money, and therefore to court big money donors. Just because we give to the public the right to select who shall be the nominee does not mean that we have avoided the plutocratic exercise of power. As I have indicated several times on this blog - the exercise of power can be subtle. The more pressure you place on candidates to acquire big money, the more power you give political elites to set the national agenda. In other words - political elites will effectively narrow the field of choices for all of us in these schemes by supporting, or refusing to support, candidates.

This is why placing Iowa and New Hampshire early in the cycle has a real benefit. This is an opportunity for candidates to build grassroots support via retail politicking. From this activity, they can post some wins and then score some big donors. In this situation you give to Iowa and New Hampshire some of the power to set the agenda. They are empowered to review a whole host of candidates, and decide which are, and which are not, worthy of the broader public's consideration. Of course, the media and the political elites play this role in the current system, too. But, in these alternative schemes, Iowa and New Hampshire would lose what power they have, and essentially all agenda-setting power would accrue to political elites in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles.

The problem in the last few cycles has been not only that Iowa and New Hampshire set the agenda for the rest of the public - they also effectively made the choice for all. This happened in 2004 and 2000 with the Democrats. I think this year's schedule might ameliorate much of this problem [which, recall from yesterday, is overrated - Iowa and New Hampshire have only ever effectively chosen the nominees when they act in tandem]. Iowa and New Hampshire come early, but they are almost immediately followed by a majority of the nation. This separation between the early states and Super Tuesday retains Iowa and New Hampshire's agenda-setting power. They can flag candidates as worthy or unworthy of our attention. Meanwhile, the smallness of the separation means that the race will not end before Super Tuesday happens. With just two weeks between New Hampshire and Super Tuesday - it is unlikely that the competition will fall off because of losses in the Buckeye and Granite States. The public will be able to use the early states as an agenda-setting cue, but will still be able to make a real choice.

Well, you might respond, is it not obvious that this is not going to happen this cycle? Is it not obvious that the political elites are exercising an inordinate share of power this year? Look at all of this "eye-popping cash"! Yes, there is such an influence in this cycle. I would certainly agree. But - as I argued yesterday - I do not think this is caused by the current primary system. Without such celebrity candidates, I think the usual manner of doing business in Iowa and New Hampshire, namely retail politicking, would still apply. What we are interested in is whether a given primary schedule will increase the power of political elites to set the agenda. I think both of these alternatives would increase their capacity to do that. I think that is a bad thing.

There is another idea being touted that some think might diminish the power of the elites. This is again from FairVote:

California Plan: The [California] Plan...features a schedule consisting of 10 two-week intervals, during which randomly selected states may hold their primaries or caucuses, with a gradual increase in the total population of states and territories holding primaries/caucuses. This 20-week schedule is weighted based on each state's number of congressional districts. American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, which also send delegates to both national conventions, are each counted as one district in this system.

In the first interval, a randomly determined combination of states with a combined total of eight congressional districts would hold their primaries, caucuses, or conventions. In the second period--two weeks later--the eligibility number would increase to 16. Every two weeks, the combined size of the contests would grow by eight congressional districts, until a combination of states totaling 80 congressional seats (8 x 10)--nearly one-fifth of the total--would be up for grabs in the tenth and last interval at the end of June. What ordinarily would be the 7th primary date would be switched with the 4th primary date, to give all the big states a chance at having an earlier primary.

This type of schedule could enable candidates to win votes via retail politicking. I think that is precisely its point. However, if the selection of states is random, it is not hard to envision a scenario in which you need lots of money and time simply to fly the jet (Round 1: Delaware, Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii, New Mexico). Thus, this would offer no guarantee of protection for retail politicking. Also, it is naïve to think that retail politicking can happen any where at any time. It takes strong grassroots political institutions - strong local parties, strong civic groups, etc. It also takes a public that is willing to dedicate the time and effort to evaluating these candidates in formats that are more personal than the mass media. In my dissertation, I call this the political economy of the electoral campaign. It varies from locale to locale. To think that we can pick up New Hampshire's method of politics and place it in Mississippi - without creating equally strong political institutions and a culture attuned to retail politics - is not very realistic. What is more, the variable nature of this system will make it so that only rarely will publics be able to engage in retail politics, and therefore no place will be able to retain the political and social institutions necessary for such politics.

Also, I find it hard to imagine a contest lasting past four of these ten rounds. Thus, never more than 24% of the public will essentially decide the nominees. The blindness of the scheme offers justice to all states - but justice is not the same as efficiency. One of the criticisms of the current scheme is that only a small segment of the public ever gets a say. This is inefficient, given that the President is a leader of all of us. This system fails to address this inefficiency.

It seems to me that if our goals are to diminish the power of political elites to determine who our prospective nominees are, and to open the primary system to as many as possible - a good case can be made for this year's nominating scheme. You have the "retail" states up front - Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina - where you have an opportunity to catch fire, even if the elites do not prefer your candidacy. In other words - you have two paths to get yourself on the greater public's list of viable candidates. On the one hand, you can get elite endorsements, donations, etc. so that you are sufficiently high-profile and well-heeled to compete on National Primary Day. Or you can convince the good folks in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina that you are worthy of their estimation - and they can put you on the national agenda. And then, almost immediately, you have what amounts to a national primary where almost everybody gets a say.

It might be hard to imagine this happening, given this cycle's events. But, as I mentioned earlier in this piece, and as I argued yesterday, the seeming domination of the elites in this cycle and the compressed schedule are not causally related. Envision this schedule minus these celebrity candidates - think of candidates in years like 1976, 1988, 1992, 2004 in this schedule - and I think you will see what I mean.

Remember that simply to give everybody a vote does not necessarily mean that you have created an open system. In a field as large as most presidential fields - somebody is going to have to pare down the number of alternatives to a viable few. Who shall accomplish that task? Right now, Iowa and New Hampshire do much of that work for us. Political elites also do much of the work. The alternatives mentioned above would, I think, place too much of this task in the hands of political elites - large swaths of primaries would require television, and therefore money, and therefore the blessing of the elites. They would thus make for a less open system - for the power to set the agenda is just as important as the power to decide on an agenda item.

Unfortunately, the public as a whole lacks the capacity to set the agenda. As E.E. Schattschneider once noted, the public has a vocabulary that is limited to two words - yes and no - and it can only speak when spoken to. So, if we want to keep a portion of the larger public involved in the process of determining who are viable candidates - and not cede this agenda-setting power entirely to political elites - we must delegate it to a few smaller, non-elite entities. Hence, we have the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. We need to protect their agenda-setting power, but make sure that the final choice is up to the rest of the nation.

I think this year's system might actually do that. This not to say that I would not tinker with it a little. It probably would be inefficient to have all states vote on the first Tuesday in February - so it might be prudent to rotate them in and out. And, anyway, you'd want a not insignificant set of states behind Super Tuesday to break ties. I'd also maybe move it back a few weeks, too. Even then, I would not argue that such a system would be maximally efficient. Iowa and New Hampshire require private payment - namely ethanol and the Northeastern Dairy Compact - for the public service they render. But I think these sorts of inefficiencies would be inevitable whatever you do. Overall, I think this cycle's schedule is not terribly bad. I prefer it to any of the three alternatives being bandied about these days.

-Jay Cost


Since he's back in the news, I thought I would flag my previous essays on his prospects. Here, here, and here.

-Jay Cost

Is the Primary Calendar Diminishing IA and NH?

Many analysts have argued that - thanks to the compressed primary schedule - the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire has been diminished this cycle. Has it? If so, has it been diminished because of the schedule?

I am not sure whether Iowa or New Hampshire will be diminished this cycle. My argument here is that, whatever diminution actually exists, only a little bit of it has been caused by the new calendar.

A key concept in this consideration is "importance." We cannot answer our question until we know exactly how important Iowa and New Hampshire have been in the past. So, let's start thinking about this by considering the previous (non-incumbent) winners, going back to the first year that the primaries and caucuses were fully dominant, 1976:


2004. Iowa: John Kerry / New Hampshire: John Kerry

2000. Iowa: Al Gore / New Hampshire: Al Gore

1992. Iowa: Tom Harkin / New Hampshire: Paul Tsongas

1988. Iowa: Dick Gephardt / New Hampshire: Michael Dukakis

1984. Iowa: Walter Mondale / New Hampshire: Gary Hart

1976. Iowa: Uncommitted / New Hampshire: Jimmy Carter


2000. Iowa: George W. Bush / New Hampshire: John McCain

1996. Iowa: Bob Dole / New Hampshire: Pat Buchanan

1988. Iowa: Bob Dole / New Hampshire: George H.W. Bush

1980. Iowa: George H.W. Bush / New Hampshire: Ronald Reagan

This should make clear that Iowa and New Hampshire have not historically been as critical as many might think. From this list, we might infer three facts about these contests:

1. A win in Iowa is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for success. You can lose Iowa and still win the nomination (Clinton, Dukakis, Carter, Bush, Reagan). You can win Iowa and still lose the nomination (Harkin, Gephardt, Dole, Bush).

2. A win in New Hampshire is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for success. You can lose New Hampshire and still win the nomination (Clinton, Mondale, Bush, Dole). You can win New Hampshire and still lose the nomination (Tsongas, Hart, McCain, Buchanan).

3. A win in Iowa and New Hampshire is not a necessary condition for success. You can lose both states and still win the nomination (Clinton). However, a win in Iowa and New Hampshire is a sufficient condition for success. If you win both states, you win the nomination (Gore, Kerry). [Though note that in 1972 Edmund Muskie won both states, but still lost the nomination to George McGovern. 1972 was the first election subsequent to the Democrats' enactment of the McGovern-Fraser Commission reforms, and so it did feature "open" selection systems and therefore a large number of causes and primaries. So, the fact that this condition holds depends upon the cut-off date.]

Right off the bat - note the limited effect of these early contests. They are only decisive when they act in tandem. If they both favor the same candidate - that candidate is advantaged. Otherwise, their effect is far from decisive. And, depending upon whether we count 1972 as the first year or whether we count 1976 - even this effect might not hold.

So, it is only in the third sense that the prestige of Iowa and New Hampshire might be diminished by this compressed primary. What pundits seem to be thinking is that Mitt Romney might win both Iowa and New Hampshire, and still lose the nomination to a candidate who loses both states. Thus, Iowa and New Hampshire will not matter as much. However, I think this is a hasty presumption. A win in both could indeed "slingshot" him to the nomination, as it did John Kerry. That is clearly his strategy. He is banking upon that third inference being true.

He could be right in this regard, but he could also be wrong. It is interesting to note that the third inference - Iowa and New Hampshire together being sufficient - is predicated upon only two observations. Only twice has a challenger ever won both Iowa and New Hampshire. So, it might not be true that wins in both states are sufficient for the nomination.

A way of answering our larger question (what effect will this calendar have on Iowa and New Hampshire?) is thus starting to emerge. What we first need to ask is whether there is a reasonable way that somebody could lose Iowa and New Hampshire to a single opponent, yet still win the nomination - regardless of whether the primary calendar is compressed or inflated. Second, we need to ask whether such candidates are present in this cycle. If there is a plausible way to win the nomination that includes ceding both states to a single opponent - and if the sorts of candidates who could do that exist in this cycle - it becomes more difficult to argue that the primary schedule has diminished the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire.

So, what would it take to win the nomination despite two losses to a single candidate? I think there are two preconditions for such a trajectory. First, you must have money. If there is no money left in your bank account, you cannot put fuel in the airplane - and your candidacy is effectively finished. Second, you must have a good reason to continue: prestige, ideological differences, a clear electability advantage (despite your recent losses), or something. If there is nothing of significance to separate you from the winner of Iowa and New Hampshire - you have no reason to continue.

Thus, I think the third inference is not necessarily true, even if it might be usually true. Regardless of what you do to the primary schedule, you could see somebody lose both Iowa and New Hampshire to a single candidate, but still win the nomination.

Furthermore, I think such candidates are in plentiful supply this cycle. This year, money abounds. So, many candidates will have the cash to continue after Iowa and New Hampshire. What is more - there are good reasons for candidates to continue campaigning even after they lose in the early states. Within both parties, there are ideological differences; there are also prestigious candidates who can legitimately say, "I am not going anywhere until the nation as a whole says no to me." These candidates - I am thinking of both Clinton and Giuliani, maybe also McCain, Obama, and Thompson - could survive early losses and still win the nomination.

In a certain sense, then, this year's crop of candidates is "larger" than these primaries. Unlike previous cycles, many in this crop seem to possess the capacity to survive losses in both to a single opponent. I think that, given these candidates, this is a year where we could expect an equally strong challenge to the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire regardless of the compressed schedule.

If, for instance, Romney were to win Iowa and New Hampshire against these high-profile candidates, and the schedule was not compressed, it would still be about as reasonable to expect a GOP candidate other than Romney to win as it would given a compressed schedule. Of course, the fact that more primaries are pushed forward might alleviate some of the pressure on a high profile candidate who loses Iowa and New Hampshire to a single candidate (and therefore diminish the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire). It might keep public opinion from "congealing" against his or her favor. But, what we are talking about is four weeks. Super Tuesday has been expanded and moved forward by four weeks. That's it. Celebrity candidates like Giuliani or Clinton are - I think - notable (and well-heeled) enough to survive an extra four weeks should they lose these two states. So, even if Super Tuesday were in March rather than February, they would probably do about as well. If Romney wins Iowa and then wins New Hampshire - Giuliani would still have about as good a shot if Super Tuesday were March 5th as he would if it were February 4th. Ditto for Clinton against a Democratic surprise victor. That's how prestigious these candidates are.

In other words, when we "control" for the candidates in the race, we see that most of the ostensible effect that the calendar has is actually ephemeral. In other words, imagine this set of candidates in a more inflated cycle. We would probably still see the same diminution of Iowa and New Hampshire because these candidates have the capacity to play beyond it.

Meanwhile, when we "control" for the calendar, and alter the candidates in it - we would see whatever diminution of Iowa and New Hampshire we have seen disappear. Imagine a compressed primary cycle like this, but without such celebrity candidates. Imagine a set of candidates akin to the Democrats in 1976 or even in 2000, and ask yourself: are Iowa and New Hampshire diminished in a year like that? I'd answer no - that, in fact, they would become more important when none of the candidates are larger-than-life people like Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Barack Obama, and Fred Thompson. Those "second-tier" candidates would become highly dependent upon wins in Iowa and New Hampshire.

And so at first blush, it seems like it is the calendar affecting the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire - but it just so happens that the calendar was changed in a year with so many high-profile candidates. The seeming causal effect of the calendar is, I think, largely spurious. The candidates are causing most of whatever diminution there actually is. They are different this year. Never have we seen a field so packed with bona fide celebrities. I count six. Six! This is unprecedented in the whole history of American politics. Never have there been six candidates who are essentially household names. They are the kinds of Goliaths who could lose both Iowa and New Hampshire and still win the nomination in any year.

So - two points emerge from these considerations. (a) Iowa and New Hampshire have only ever been important in a limited sense. It has only ever been that a win in both implies the nomination. (b) Their importance this year may or may not be diminished, but little of this is probably due to the compressed calendar. There are candidates with enough money and enough prestige that - should they lose Iowa and New Hampshire to a single opponent - we should not expect their chances to be affected significantly by the primary schedule.

-Jay Cost

A Follow-Up To Today's Column

In response to today's column, a few people have written to point out:

(a) Bill Clinton's job approval was somewhere between 55% and 60% at the end of his term.
(b) George W. Bush lost the popular vote.

Both of these are true. I was aware of both of them - but did not think that they offered fundamental challenges to my point that the public in 2000 was "tired of President Clinton['s mode of representation]."

I think the real issue is whether - when the law mandates that a new person take the office - the public would prefer somebody who acts differently. The fact that it approved of Clinton is not relevant. It is also not surprising, considering how he so consciously tacked to the median. You can enjoy your vacation, but still feel - when it comes to an end - that you are glad to go home. The fact that the public largely voted for his vice-president is not necessarily relevant, either. It might have been that the vice-president was conscious of the public's feelings about the Clinton Administration, and took steps to inoculate himself. Indeed, Gore did precisely that.

You see, the evidence that I had in mind was the actions of the political elites. George W. Bush made the argument that he did in his convention address only because he perceived that it would resonate with the public. Obviously, this perception was predicated upon knowledge that his campaign derived from polling and focus group testing. Meanwhile, Al Gore made essentially the same argument as Bush! Gore - like Bush - felt the need to argue that we need to do something socially positive with all of this prosperity. He chose to run a "populist" campaign rather than a "let's keep the good times a'rollin'" campaign. He could have said, "I'm Clinton minus the sexual indiscretions." But he chose not to.

A parallel I had in mind was the election of 1960. Kennedy did not win just because Nixon was a relatively poor candidate, though Nixon was. Kennedy won in part because he promised that we would do something. His "New Frontier" was a contrast to Eisenhower as much as it was a contrast to Nixon. Thus, even though people loved Ike - the election of 1960 should be viewed, at least in part, as a rejection of Eisenhower's way of governing (which was, in many respects, to do very little). The public embraced change that year, even though they loved and supported the outgoing President.

-Jay Cost

Hillary Clinton is the True Anti-Bush

As I mentioned earlier in the week, my intention with these essays on the presidential candidates is not to handicap them per se. Quite frankly, I do not think that exercise is possible at the moment. Instead, what I would like to do is merely frame these candidates in illuminating ways.

I'll start with Hillary Clinton. The hypothesis I offer is the following. While all of the major candidates present themselves, one way or another, as alternatives to President Bush, Senator Clinton's campaign stands in the greatest contrast to the President.

Consider two items. The first is Senator Clinton's video that accompanies the announcement of her campaign song.

The second is two selections from George W. Bush's acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention.

Little more than a decade ago, the Cold War thawed, and with the leadership of Presidents Reagan and Bush, that wall came down.

But instead of seizing this moment, the Clinton-Gore administration has squandered it. We have seen a steady erosion of American power and an unsteady exercise of American influence. Our military is low on parts, pay and morale. If called on by the commander-in-chief today, two entire divisions of the Army would have to report, "Not ready for duty, sir."

This administration had its moment, they had their chance, they have not led. We will.


I believe great decisions are made with care, made with conviction, not made with polls.

I do not need to take your pulse before I know my own mind. I do not reinvent myself at every turn. I am not running in borrowed clothes.

When I act, you will know my reasons. And when I speak, you will know my heart.

On a methodological level, these two vignettes are very similar: both are excellent examples of political theater. In fact, you could probably call them textbook examples. The Clinton video is very funny. It plays off The Sopranos series finale in a clever way. It is also cute and disarming. It portrays the Clinton family in a sweet, amenable light: Bill wants onion rings, Hillary orders carrot sticks. The Bush vignette is equally effective (I could not find a video clip, so you'll have to trust your memories). It is a fairly harsh critique of the Clinton Administration that does not seem like bitter mud slinging. At the same time, it paints Bush as an alternative to the present administration - but one that recalls previous administrations that had since come to great esteem.

But - on a philosophical level - there are vast differences here. Obviously, the implied political ideologies are different, but that is not what I am on about. What I mean is that these vignettes demonstrate their actors' deeply divergent views on what constitutes the proper relationship between governors and the governed.

The Clinton vignette is understandable in this light if we recall its purpose: to introduce the results of an online poll to select Senator Clinton's campaign song. This is a very specific example of a general view that the Clintons - both of them - have about governing. They are of the people. They embody what has been called the delegate model of representation. They reflect the views, opinions, and preferences of the greater public. The Clintons seem always and everywhere ready to follow the articulated interests of the public at large. The campaign song is a trivial feature of the campaign, but it is still revealing. If you had to choose a song that you would hear at least once a day for the next 450 or so days of your life - would you place its selection up for a vote? The Clintons would. That says a lot.

Indeed, President Clinton's empathetic campaign of 1992 was largely predicated upon his connection to the people: he feels our pain. Senator Clinton does not cut as empathetic a figure as President Clinton - but there are other effective ways for her to convey that she, too, intends to be a delegate of the people. Her most effective is her "listening tours." This speaks to the same essential idea as President Clinton's empathy, and it plays to one of her natural strengths: she seems like she would be a fantastic listener.

George W. Bush would have none of this, of course. His convention speech was, in part, a critique of this method of representation. It leads, he argued, to small minded politics. The alternative he offered might be called a trustee model of representation. His argument in that excerpt is so close to Edmund Burke's that - were campaign speeches to include footnotes - the great philosopher would probably have been mentioned. On the subject of representation, Burke argued:

My worthy colleague says, his will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?

To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience,--these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.

Burke's clear-minded thinking surely makes this mode of representation seem superior, does it not? However, Burke could be countered with the equally sober writings of Madison in his musings on the House of Representatives. [I would quote him here, but my editors have placed strict limits on the number of times I can quote 18th century political philosophers in a given essay - and I have reached the maximum.] Simply stated: how is tyranny, or even just lousy governance, prevented when the trustee is not Edmund Burke, but Warren Harding? In many instances - the public's reason and judgment will be superior to the trustee's. That's when we'll long for the delegate view!

The point is that there is something to be said for and against the delegate model and the trustee model. The delegate model of representation can indeed be taken to the point at which - as Governor Bush said in 2000 - politics becomes small. But it can also be taken to the point at which - as President Bush's critics say today - government exists independent of the public's will, and against the rationality it often embodies. Taken to extremes, both the delegate model and the trustee model are problematic. In practice, I think it is preferable for leaders to represent a mixture of both. Madison, for his part, thought the government as a whole should embody both views - and that policy should be enacted only when practitioners of both views were in agreement. Otherwise, government becomes far too susceptible to small-minded politics on the one hand, or stubbornness on the other.

People on both the left and the right intuit that Bush and the Clintons do not represent such a mixture. President Bush overuses the trustee model, President and Senator Clinton overuse the delegate model.

This is why I think the left wing of the Democratic Party is now largely opposed to Senator Clinton. This is an important point. While our average gives Senator Clinton a 13.2% lead over her closest opponent nationwide, the fact remains that she loses to the collected opposition by almost the same amount, 13.9%. All of her opponents - Mr. Obama, Mr. Edwards, Mr. Gore - come across as principled in a way that she, as an ardent practitioner of the delegate model, does not. I think liberals are rightly worried that she will govern as her husband governed - with an ever-present mindfulness of the preference of the majority. I think that liberals - in a strange way - have come to agree with Governor Bush. The Clintons had an opportunity to lead, and they did not take it. Great opportunities were missed. Do they want to miss them again?

Of course, the opposite criticism can be leveled at President Bush. It is reasonable to expect the President at least occasionally to follow the public's lead. It is reasonable to expect him to recognize that there is often a wisdom expressed by the collectivity, and that wisdom should at least give one pause if one's own judgment digresses from it. The public today is so conscious of the problems of excessive reliance upon the trustee model that no Republican candidate offers anything approaching what Governor Bush offered in 2000. It is no coincidence that Senator Clinton kicked off her 2008 campaign with yet another listening tour. Her message was unequivocal: the vox populi and its wisdom has been ignored for too long, and it is time to pay attention to it.

I think that most would expect a mixture of the trustee and delegate views in their Chief Executive, just as Madison envisioned the government as a whole to operate. Bush and the Clintons, however, seem inclined to offer only one or the other. I think both have been able to "sell" their monotone views of governance by recourse to political brilliance. In fact, if we take away the political sheens that have been applied to those two vignettes, there are stark messages at the bottom of both of them. Senator Clinton does not even feel comfortable choosing her own song. President Bush is not just attacking President Clinton's shallowness for following the popular will, he is attacking the shallowness of the popular will itself. Neither of these impressions comes across obviously in either vignette because of the beautiful political productions that have been applied to the messages. But they are there.

All of this leads me to the following, final question regarding Hillary Clinton's candidacy. Bush and the Clintons stand at polar opposites in their views of the relationship between the governors and the governed. In 2000, the public was so tired of President Clinton and his view that it embraced Governor Bush. Is it now so tired of President Bush's view that it will embrace Senator Clinton, or will it remember how sick of it it was eight years ago, and select an alternative to these philosophies, one that advocates a more balanced mixture of the two?

-Jay Cost

Immigration Reform and the Structure of Congress

It appears that the immigration reform bill is not quite dead. In the last few days - as we all know - there was a deal brokered between Senate Democrats and Republicans to regulate the number of amendments to be offered, and to make way for a final cloture vote. Many pundits expect that the Senate shall pass the bill. Then, it shall head to the House - where it is expected to have a difficult time.

Why is it that House members are less inclined toward the bill? The answer, at least in part, can be found in a review of the intentions of the designers of the upper and lower chambers of Congress.

Initially, the Senate was composed of members selected by the legislatures of the respective states to terms of six years. The Framers thought these stipulations would create a body well disposed to serve the nation in certain regards. After all, they empowered the Senate - and only the Senate - to confirm appointments, ratify treaties, and act on articles of impeachment.

In Federalist 63, Madison writes:

The objects of government may be divided into two general classes: the one depending on measures which have singly an immediate and sensible operation; the other depending on a succession of well-chosen and well-connected measures, which have a gradual and perhaps unobserved operation. The importance of the latter description to the collective and permanent welfare of every country needs no operation. And yet it is evident that an assembly elected for so short a term as to be unable to provide more than one or two links in a chain of measures, on which the general welfare may essentially depend, ought not to be answerable for the final result any more than a steward or tenant, engaged for one year, could be justly made to answer for places or improvements which could not be accomplished in less than half a dozen years.
Madison believed that the Senate would be better qualified to deal with the latter "object of government," i.e. affairs that involve long trains of causes and effects. This is one reason why the minimum age for entry into the Senate is thirty rather than twenty-five (as it is in the House), why terms in the Senate last six years rather than two, why state legislatures rather than voters selected senators. The Senate was designed as an institution where the passions of the public held little sway, where mature and estimable citizens could take time to learn the intricacies of policy without worrying about reelection - and therefore where matters that might be beyond the public's immediate apprehension, and therefore its perceived interests, could be considered calmly and coolly.

What of the House? It was intentionally designed to be the people's legislature, to represent the articulated interests of the public. Writes Madison in Federalist 58:

[T]he House of Representatives is so constituted as to support in the members an habitual recollection of their dependence on the people. Before the sentiments impressed on their minds by the mode of their elevation can be effaced by the exercise of power, they will be compelled to anticipate the moment when their power is to cease, when their exercise of it is to be reviewed, and when they must descend to the level from which they were raised; there forever to remain unless a faithful discharge of their trust have established their title to a renewal of it.
All of this relates to the relatively short terms that House members serve. Unlike senators - they are too deeply connected to their constituents to presume to do that which their publics would abhor.

It is not hard, then, to appreciate why immigration reform is favored in the Senate, but not the House. The Senate was designed to facilitate considerations of public affairs that involve a longer time frame. Senators were set free from the vagaries of public opinion to consider solutions to problems of the long run - even if those solutions offend the public. And so, it is not surprising to see Senators supporting this bill, despite the heated opposition of their constituents. Jon Kyl is a case in point. Arizona Republicans are angry at him now, but can they sustain such anger until 2012, the next time that Mr. Kyl is up for reelection? I think not. This means that Mr. Kyl has the luxury of pondering solutions to the great problems, solutions that his constituents might despise. It is here that we can appreciate that the Seventeenth Amendment's provision for the direct election of Senators did not alter the fundamental relationship between the Senate and the people. It moved the Senate closer to the people, but there is still a great distance between the two.

As for the House, one might be inclined to respond that it is the case that - when people are asked about the specific measures in the reform bill - they generally support them. So, one might go on, why should we not expect the House to support the bill as well? There are three related reasons not to expect this - all of which are reducible to the fact that these polls do not figure into House members' calculations as one might think.

First, this bill faces intense opposition from a segment of the public. Polls do not efficiently measure intensity of feeling, which can be of critical importance for House members. Feelings of support for the reform bill seem to me to be lukewarm, while feelings of opposition seem to me to be strong. This matters a great deal. If a majority of the public supports a measure, but does not offer intense support, while a minority opposes a measure intensely - it can be electorally dangerous for the member to vote against the minority. Intensity of feeling does not matter once we start counting votes - but there is a lot of politics that goes into the time before votes are counted, and intensity of feeling can matter a great deal in this lead up. Supporting a bill that a majority of your constituents support only mildly will not incline them to vote for. If a vocal minority of your constituents oppose the bill, you can expect this opposition to be mobilized against you in the next election - where, ironically, they might be able to induce the bill's lukewarm supporters to vote you out!

Second, like most bills - this one delineates a set of winners and losers. Senators have the freedom to support the bill because they think, in the long run, the nation as a whole will win. But House members have to face their constituents in less than 24 months - and so they are forced to think of the immediate consequences. Who are the immediate losers as a result of this bill? Obviously, the right loses. So also does the union left. Hispanic voters probably cannot be considered unequivocal winners. This bill might help those who are of the same ethnicity, but it comes at a cost to these voters - for the bill as it stands severely reduces the practice of "chain" migration, which is a way for them to bring kin to the country. The only unequivocal winners by this bill are a segment of the business community that will benefit from newly legalized labor and currently illegal immigrants who will not be able to vote for a decade or thereabouts. There are many immediate losers and a small number of immediate (voting) winners. This makes it a difficult bill for House members to support.

Third, to argue from nationwide polls that House members should support the bill is to commit the ecological fallacy. Just because the nation as a whole divides in a certain way about the bill does not mean that any given House district does as well. Indeed - there are good reasons to suspect that it will not. The practice of gerrymandering has had the effect of separating different partisans into different districts.

Generally, House members are mindful of the nature of public opinion in a way different than what the polls imply. We should be, too. As a whole, we have seen the public voice opposition to this bill while voicing support for most of its facets. We have seen the public argue that the existing law should be enforced while arguing that illegal immigrants should be given an opportunity to reconcile themselves with the nation. There is a large number in the public whose opinions are incoherent - a sure sign of only mild interest in the subject. House members need not worry about them when it comes time for reelection. They need to worry about which of their particular constituents win and which of their particular constituents lose. Even if only a minority of constituents are losers, this minority could constitute a highly motivated, socially cohesive basis of opposition.

We should be able to appreciate in all of this two fundamental features of Madison's thinking. He anticipated that a healthy republic would be one that takes a middle course between extremes. Sound republican government could not be secured by recourse only to a hotly democratic branch like the House because it might not have the capacity to apprehend the long-term interests of the nation. But it could not be entrusted to a branch like the Senate because it is so far removed from the people that it could become plutocratic. There is more than a hint of the Aristotelian golden mean in Madison's design of balanced powers. Second, and as we have discussed before, there is built into this system a strong status quo bias. The only point at which the system will allow the status quo to be altered is when both the House and the Senate agree. In other words - changes are enacted if and only if those looking out for the voters' immediate interests accept the change, and those looking out for their long-term interests accept the change.

-Jay Cost

Pitfalls of Presidential Punditry

This week I will start offering my thoughts on the major presidential candidates. Before I do that, I need to flag a potential pitfall inherent to the project. As usual, the best way to introduce a cautionary tale is via Monty Python's Flying Circus.

The moral is: be wary of undetermined hypotheses!

What is an underdetermined hypothesis? Wikipedia's definition suffices for an answer:

A theory (or statement or belief) is underdetermined if, given the available evidence, there is a rival theory which is inconsistent with the theory that is at least as consistent with the evidence. Underdetermination is an epistemological issue about the relation of evidence to conclusions.

Return to the Python bit. Archaeologists discover the toe, bring it to the museum, and - based upon that single piece of data - construct a complete, new, exciting explanation...that has absolutely nothing in common with reality! They presumably rejected many different theories just as reasonable as the one they accepted. The hypothesis of the archaeologists in the Python bit is thus undetermined.

This is a lesson for all of us, regardless of whether we work at the Field Museum. People, like cats, are curious. We like to ponder the unexplained, and develop explanations for it. Like cats, this can get us into trouble. We often acquire only a little bit of data; but from that tiny bit, we can still create a comprehensive story that is not the only one amenable to the data. When we develop underdetermined hypotheses, we overuse our data.

This is particularly relevant when analyzing presidential politics. Our desire for comprehensive knowledge on this subject is vast, but our data set is currently limited. We must be careful not to draw underdetermined hypotheses by overusing the data. I find that many pundits do indeed overuse the two main sources of data, namely polling data and financial data.

We are virtually saturated with polling. It facilitates much of the handicapping. Unfortunately, pundits often fail to see the limitations inherent to polling, and they overuse it.

A horse race poll is an attempt to gauge what people will do, not what they think now or what they have done. Thus, the poll is a valid predictor only insofar as (a) people are not expected to change their minds between their answers and the act of voting, (b) the poll itself is a reasonably good mimicry of the act of voting.

Obviously, condition (a) does not hold yet. And, as I discussed previously, condition (b) does not hold - for anybody except Republican voters in the Iowa caucus. Democrats in Iowa do not select a preference at the caucus in a way that resembles any poll. Meanwhile, voters outside of Iowa will have a constrained choice - as presumably candidates will drop out of the race after the Iowa caucus. Some polls offer us some purchase, even in the face of these problems. Both Gallup and RT Strategies, for instance, ask for some second choice preferences. However, this assistance is incomplete. Analysts do not have a full delineation of preferences for individuals, which can make a big difference. It might be the case that some first choices and second choices are correlated - e.g. a first choice preference for John Edwards implies a second choice preference for Barack Obama. In that case, the fact that Hillary Clinton is in the lead might be quite inconsequential - for her lead is predicated upon Edwards being in the race, which - for many people when it comes time to vote - he might not be.

I'm not saying that the inferences we draw from the polls are wrong. I am not saying that they are right. I am just saying that the polls allow for a multiplicity of inferences, all of which are as valid as any other. Is Rudy in the lead? Maybe. Is Romney in the lead because he leads in Iowa and New Hampshire and will be able to "slingshot" his way through Super-Duper Tuesday? Maybe. Is Hillary in the lead? Maybe. Is Obama in the lead because Edwards is not going to finish? Maybe. Is Thompson in the lead because McCain is not going to finish? Maybe! All of these positions are supportable by recourse to the polls. This means that all of these hypotheses are underdetermined. We must be mindful of this, and not use the polls to advocate one hypothesis over another.

The second data point that people use is money. This data is more valid than polls insofar as money today means resources tomorrow, whereas support in a poll today does not mean votes tomorrow. However, pundits still overuse this data.

To appreciate this, recall that by the summer of 1999, George W. Bush was a financial Goliath. He had so much money that he could impose his will upon the rest of the candidates. How much money did George W. Bush raise in the First Quarter of 1999?

$7.6 million. That's it.

So, why do we see stories like this:

Only a few months ago, political operatives were speculating whether Sen. Barack Obama could come close to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's daunting fundraising machine. Now Team Obama is the legend, and the question is whether the junior senator from New York can keep up.

Hilary Clinton raised $26 million in the first quarter of 2007 - that is 342% of Bush's total receipts in the same period. The only way that this - "[Can] the junior senator from New York...keep up"? - is the question is if we have misunderstood the role of money. Is it a necessary condition for electoral success? Yes. Is it a sufficient condition? No. It is a necessary, but insufficient condition. If you don't have enough money, you won't win. But it doesn't mean that if you do have enough money, you will win.

Of course, we should be impressed by Mr. Obama's fundraising abilities - and we should take that as a sign that a large quadrant of the Democratic Party's elite support Obama. But to move from that observation to this question is to fall prey to overusing the data.

The problem is that pundits and analysts have turned the race for dollars into a proxy for the race for votes. This is inappropriate, which is why House incumbents who raise more money are more likely to lose. Incumbents who sense danger draw to themselves as many dollars as they can; but, as dollars cannot achieve victory, the danger remains. Money does not win an election. It just gives the opportunity to win.

By turning the race for dollars into a proxy for the race for votes, pundits implicitly turn fundraising into a sufficient condition, not a necessary one. They see that Obama has raised more than Clinton, and assume that Obama somehow has an advantage. In reality, the question that they should ask from the money is: are these candidates on track to raise enough to compete? And the answer is yes, they are! Obama is on track to raise enough, and so also is Clinton.

What I am suggesting by these points is that we are far too inclined to overuse our data. We want to draw more inferences than the data will allow - so we take them further than we should. The reason is perfectly human. We're all curious about what is going to happen, and we thus jump all over any piece of data that we can find.

Does this mean that we cannot say anything of value about the presidential election? Of course not. So, what should we do?

I think it is prudent first to lower expectations. Let us not expect that we can handicap the race per se. Otherwise, we will be inclined to overuse our data. Accordingly, over the next few days, I will merely offer broad remarks about the major candidates. My intention will not be to handicap, but to frame what I think are the relevant questions about their candidacies. This analytical expectation is more modest, and it will decrease the chance that I will overuse the data.

It is also prudent to be mindful of the limits of any data. This means that we should pause - as we have done here - to think about what constitutes valid, and invalid use. Doing so decreases the chances of accepting an underdetermined hypothesis.

Finally, we should keep an open mind. All arguments vary based upon their finality - and just because an argument is not final does not mean that it is not worthwhile. Only logical proofs are final. Everything else is subject to revision as more facts come to light. We should recognize that it is not just that the state of the race might change, our perceptions might change, too. Thus, we should not be too enamored of our own opinions, and not too inclined to reject the analyses of others.

-Jay Cost

Consensus, Not Courage

I must admit that I am a fan of Joe Klein. His politics and my politics are not really in sync, but he seems to "get" much of the big picture of American politics. I like that.

This was on display in his new Time column. This is what he writes about Bush's second inaugural address.

These days Bush's inaugural oratory seems, at the very least, a tragic overreach. It was foolishly messianic. It didn't reflect the reality on the ground, or even the reality of U.S. policy, which still supports oppressive regimes around the world. It came after years of grandiloquent sloganeering: "the war on terror," "the axis of evil," wanton talk of crusades and evildoers and an ill-conceived war with Iraq. Furthermore, the President's speech was based on a simplistic vision of America's role in the world, one firmly rooted in American infallibility. And finally, there was a fundamental mismatch between the grandness of Bush's oratory and his unwillingness to summon the nation to an actual war footing, in which real sacrifice was required. "I think the American people are sacrificing now," the President said. "I think they're waiting in airport lines longer than they've ever had before."

Still, if Bush's sense of national greatness has been misguided, his impulse is perfectly American: the U.S. has always thought of itself as something special, has always sought new national challenges in order to "form a more perfect union." It is a frontier impulse firmly rooted in the American DNA, subtly essential to the nation's growth. The mere "pursuit of happiness" can never be enough; we must also go to the moon. Ten years ago, the political writer David Brooks decided that there was a need for "national greatness," for larger national goals, but as a conservative, he had trouble responding to a very basic question: What are those goals? "It almost doesn't matter what great task government sets for itself," he wrote, "as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness."

I think there is a lot of truth to this, though the idea of government being the agent that accomplishes this great American thing is a 20th century innovation. Nevertheless, this is what I like about Joe Klein. It is a rare feat among columnists these days to offer some insight that is not reducible to one party or another's talking points. Mr. Klein can do that, which is why I enjoy reading him.

Unfortunately, Mr. Klein makes a major analytical mistake later in the article. He goes on to list several policy initiatives that are at the top of his agenda. When implicitly posed with the question of why our system has not yet accomplished much at all on any of these initiatives, Mr. Klein blames the politicians for their lack of courage. He writes:

None of these goals are impossible; some may even be achievable. All that's required is some political courage, which is not a natural commodity in an election year. Indeed, there is only one sure way to inspire courage in politicians. We must demand it. If they choose to avoid these and other serious issues, we should make it clear that we are going to avoid voting for them.
This is where he loses me. Lots of people like to view politicians through the lens of courage vs. cowardliness. I do not.

Courage is the ability to face danger without backing down. The idea that I think that Mr. Klein is reaching for is that of a great man or woman who leads the nation through these problems without fear of opposition. Somebody who can pick us up, and carry us across to the other side despite the dangers involved in such a rescue operation.

This is a quality that our system usually renders irrelevant.

Regardless of our politics - most of us believe that there are entrenched interests that prevent substantive change for the general good. [The ironic feature of our politics is that the right is convinced that the left is the entrenched interest and the right is out for the general good, and the left is convinced that the right is the entrenched interest and the left is out for the general good!] This is indeed the case. There are entrenched interests - i.e. interests who will have to be overwhelmed if the greater public good is to be accomplished. If they cannot be convinced to pursue the greater good, change will have to come against their wills. This requires courage on the part of our political leaders.

The problem with this narrative is that these entrenched interests possess vetoes. This is what federalism implies. By dispersing power, our system makes it so that you really cannot accomplish much of anything without the assent of most all of the entrenched interests. If you cannot convince enough of these interests that your way is the best course of action, you are not going to accomplish your goal. So, courage is quite irrelevant for success. You can be as courageous as you want; you still are not going to accomplish what you wish to.

What Klein is reaching for here is the "great man" theory of political progress - he wants a great leader who can move us toward a greater good. It was a theory that our Framers explicitly rejected as a basis for sound Republican government. They thought that great men would not always be in steady supply, and that - even when great men are around - they are not always going to succeed. They cannot be relied upon. Thus, the system must be designed with the thought in mind that less-than-great men would possess the mechanisms of power. They instituted a system that effectively thwarts would-be great men from accomplishing what they could accomplish in an action-oriented system.

It is not coincidence that our truly great presidential heroes - Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt - governed at periods when the normal functioning of our system had broken down. Lincoln had a Congress that was essentially bereft of opposition. Roosevelt governed a nation that had, at least for a moment, achieved an unparalleled unity in its demand for systematic change in the relationship between the government and the citizen. Both men could succeed because they governed at what might be called non-Madisonian moments. This is when the courage of great men can be effective - when there is an absence of entrenched oppositions with decisive vetoes.

At the heart of Klein's argument is a fallacy of division. He argues that our inability to accomplish great things is because nobody has the will to accomplish something. While I would agree that our system as a whole lacks this kind of will, it does not follow that no person in this system has such a will. Rather, the lack of a will on a national level speaks to the fact that, on a "sectional" level, there is a multiplicity of conflicting wills. Our system was designed to resolve these differences by making it so that no will trumps another.

This is not an assertion that our government never actually does anything. Not at all. Obviously, our government has done quite a bit. The point is that - if we are interested in accomplishing great things, we need to build consensus. We need to develop some kind of common ground that unites us. Without that, we can expect our system to thwart our efforts, and to sustain the status quo. Consensus, not courage, is the key that ignites our lumbering, awkward, 18th century political system.

-Jay Cost

On the Objectivity of the Press

Regular readers know that I am less than satisfied with our political press. One particular problem I have is its claim of objectivity. The press is not objective. What's more, it offers disguises to conceal its lack of objectivity. Sometimes these disguises are quite poor; when they are, we can see press bias for what it is.

Let me say at the outset that what follows is not a typical, the press-is-a-biased-shill-for-the-GOP story, or the-press-is-a-biased-shill-for-the-Democrats story. I am going to remain agnostic on the issue of ideological bias.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes "objective" in several ways, the most relevant of which is:

Of a person or their judgement: not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts; impartial, detached.
Philosophically, I do not think this quality is attainable. It is naïve to believe that anybody can be wholly free from the influence of personal feelings. I would agree that one can achieve functional objectivity - in which one is still influenced by one's personal situation, but possesses a measure of detachment.

The press is not objective, even in this relatively limited sense. It has its own set of private interests. News stories reflect its attempts to maximize these interests. This implies an absence of objectivity in the sense that I have defined it.

Political activists on both sides accuse the press of ideological bias. In many instances, these critiques frame the question of bias in ways that cause us to miss it in its other forms. After all, left-right ideology is only a single dimension of American political life. It is surely not the case that all interests can be represented on a single dimension. If we put aside the question of ideological bias, we can go on to ask if there are any private interests that the press has, and whether those interests are reflected in its "objective" work.

Like any professional group, the press has an interest in maximizing revenue and minimizing costs. This induces many different biases. For instance, the press has an interest in, and therefore a bias toward, conflict. The public is attracted to conflict, so the press focuses on it excessively. It also has a bias in activity, change, dynamism, whatever you want to call it. Things must be "happening" in a press story because this attracts the attention of the public. It has a bias toward stories with good visuals because the public is attracted to them. As for minimizing costs, the press faces space and time constraints. This induces a bias toward the simple over the complicated, the straightforward over the subtle, consensus of opinion over diversity. Stanford political scientist Shanto Iyengar has argued that the press evinces a bias toward "episodic" framing rather than "thematic" framing. That is, its news stories tend not to place events in their broader contexts, focusing instead on a particular, isolated event. One can appreciate how episodic framing maximizes conflict and dynamism while minimizing the time or space needed to convey it.

Generally, the press has a set of preferences just as any professional group does. Like any group, these interests are narrow in that they are not the interests of the public at large. Just because they do not "fit" on a left-right "line" does not mean that they do not exist.

Personally, none of this upsets me. Private interests are inevitable in all professions. What I object to is that today's press consistently claims that this interestedness does not exist. The claim of objectivity implies exactly this - that the member of the press who has crafted the story is not present in the story, has no interest in what the story ultimately argues, and is reporting matters "as they are." This is not the case, and so I find that the press often makes use of rhetorical disguises to hide the interests it has in a particular story. Sometimes, the disguise of objectivity can be fairly thin. When it is, we can see clearly the motivation of the press in the story.

One of the thinnest disguises I have seen in a long while came in Wednesday's edition of Politico.com - in an article by Kenneth Vogel entitled "Rivals try to deflate F. Thompson's campaign." The entire article should be read for the whole drift to sink in, but I will just quote the first few paragraphs.

Fred Thompson has had a relatively easy ride as he has flirted with a bid for the Republican presidential nomination. His strategists have found traction promoting him as the heir to Ronald Reagan -- and a conservative alternative to the top tier of the GOP field.

But the ride is starting to get a bit bumpy.

Opponents and their researchers have begun working -- mostly behind the scenes -- to highlight perceived soft spots in his conservative bona fides.

And Thompson will have to neutralize questions on the campaign trail and in the media about his centrist votes in the Senate, his stances on litmus test conservative issues including abortion and -- perhaps most significantly -- his work as a lawyer and lobbyist.

Thompson's biggest challenge will likely be cementing his image as a conservative country lawyer fixin' to shake up Washington -- before his opponents brand him as an influence peddler and trial lawyer.

As you read the article, you realize that, in fact, Mr. Thompson's political opponents are not trying to "deflate" Fred Thompson's campaign at all. There is not a single political opponent, or advisor of an opponent, quoted. In fact, the only person quoted is Thompson spokesman Mark Corallo. And so, the article is actually a story of conflict between Thompson and the Politico! The reference to rivals is simply a rhetorical trick to place the attacks in the mouths of others. The fact is that the Politico authored a piece that offered a litany of reasons why Fred Thompson is no good for conservatives, and then allowed Thomspon to respond to each of them. It created a conflict where - at least for now - it does not exist.

What frustrates me here is not that the Politico decided to go after Fred Thompson. Even though the immediate motivation for the piece was presumably narrow, it serves a broader, more noble purpose: Thompson should be thoroughly vetted, just as all of the top tier presidential candidates should be. What frustrates me is the thin disguise that hides the interests of the author. It insults the reader's intelligence. I would not expect the Politico - or any outlet - to go out of its way to declare its personal interests in the story. To frame the story in a way that implies that it is not the Politico's interests that motivates it, but rather the interests of other candidates upon which the Politico is simply reporting, is aggravating to me.

Generally, these sorts of disguises serve as attempts by the press to obscure the fact that it wields significant political power. The press claims merely to be observing, objectively reporting what is happening without interference or participation in the process. But because this is not the case, the press exercises political power.

What political power does the press exercise? It is the same power I have discussed all week, the power to set the agenda. The press exercises power over all of us by influencing us on what subjects we will, and will not, consider; and how we will, and will not, consider them. They do not influence what we believe per se. But they do influence what we are thinking about, and also the way in which we frame current events. This is one reason why conservatives and liberals blast seemingly liberal or conservative newspapers for ignoring certain stories and promoting others, for framing issues in one way and not another way. This is a reaction to the press' role to set the agenda.

We can see in this Politico column the power of the press. Because the press has the ability to decide what we shall and shall not discuss, and because it has an interest in conflict - we are discussing whether Fred Thompson's political record conflicts with the policy preferences of the GOP base.

-Jay Cost

Should We Forget the Second Tier?

If you are as I am, you find yourself annoyed by the unwieldy size of the presidential debates. If so, you might be interested to know that there are two parties we may blame - beyond, of course, the media and its ridiculously liberal policy on who is allowed to participate.

We may also blame Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. It is those two who have induced most of the second and third tier candidates to participate in this process (except a few - Gravel, Kucinich, Paul, Tancredo - who do not seem to be "in it to win it"). They serve as the everlasting inspiration for the second tier challengers - just as Harry S. Truman has been the hope of every seemingly hopeless general election candidate since 1948. Neither Carter nor Clinton held the status of frontrunner when their respective campaigns began. Neither was the party's presumptive nominee, nor the choice of the party elites. Both ran what amounted to insurgent campaigns - and managed to win. It is their successes that have inspired this multitude of would-be chief executives whose bids are long shots.

Unfortunately for these candidates, long shot is a bit too charitable of an estimate. This year is not the kind of year that we should expect an insurgent, underdog candidate to "steal" the nomination. Both Carter and Clinton won the Democratic nomination in years when there were no top-tier candidates in the race. This year, there are - by my count - seven top-tier candidates. This makes the path to nomination for these second-tier candidates virtually impossible.

An important fact here is that the two primary electorates are not characterized by a diversity of issue positions on either side. Republican primary voters are surprisingly uniform in their policy preferences. Democratic primary voters are as well. This is one reason why there is never very much disagreement at any of these debates. The primary electorates themselves are essentially in agreement. Thus, we can expect vote-maximizing candidates essentially to agree as they debate. Pundits often bemoan this fact, but they should not. It is actually a good thing that the nation's political parties are not rent by existential divisions.

Uniformity of policy preferences makes breaking through in a year like this very difficult. Assume that the goal of each voter is to get somebody in the White House who reflects his or her views on policy matters as much as possible. To that end, no voter is going to waste his or her vote. This means that each voter will probably be willing to sacrifice a little ideological similitude for the sake of electoral expediency. This makes it difficult for candidates stuck in the second tier to win. When voters are so close together in terms of issue preferences, it is easy for top tier candidates to position themselves with those voters. Thus, it is very hard for second tier candidates to develop a sufficient amount of issue separation between themselves and the top tier candidates so that voters feel like they are sacrificing too much by supporting a top tier candidate.

For instance - the buzz now is that Fred Thompson is pulling Christian conservative voters into his camp. This is trouble for Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee. Both of them are probably closer fits for that voting group than Thompson. However, they are not much closer. The difference between most Christian conservative voters and Thompson is probably fairly small. Indeed, any measurable difference is not reducible to different issue positions, but rhetorical emphasis. Assume you are a conservative Christian voter. What should you do if your goal is to maximize the similarity between the final nominee and you? Should you vote your ideal preference and support somebody who seems to stand no chance of winning, or should you sacrifice that a little bit to vote for somebody still largely acceptable who seems to stand a chance of winning? Obviously, the latter is the utility-maximizing choice.

Well - you might say - if all voters started supporting Brownback or Huckabee instead of Thompson, that would change the dynamic of who is and who is not in the top tier. Indeed, it would. But the problem with that is that we have to estimate what the rational move for every voter is, given the current selection of the other voters. Sure, it would make sense for one Christian conservative Republican to jump to Huckabee or Brownback if others did. But, practically speaking, that voter must make his choice without knowledge of en masse movement to a more conservative candidate. In other words, the choice for Thompson is an equilibrium choice for this voter; given the selections of others, it is the correct, i.e. the utility-maximizing, selection.

This sort of strategic thinking is, as I said, a consequence of relative uniformity among voters and candidates. It is also due to the fact that the nomination is not doled out proportionally. If Sam Brownback gets 3% of the Republican vote, he does not get 3% of the nomination! Our presidential contest - both in its nominating and electing phases - is winner-take-all. This induces voters to make trade-offs between ideological similitude and likelihood of ultimate victory. This is similar to the process that I outlined last week when I discussed Mayor Bloomberg and Duverger's Law. Winner-take-all systems induce this kind of strategic thinking. Duverger called it under-representation and polarization. The fact that individual primaries are often not winner-take-all might diminish the forcefulness of this logic a little, but ultimately the system as a whole is winner-take-all, so we should still expect rational voters essentially to strategize in this manner.

Personally, I am surprised that so many candidates are in the top tier. Right now, our system is sustaining seven candidates. That is a lot. This might be one reason that Giuliani and McCain decided to demure from the Ames straw poll. If this number of candidates is unsustainable - why make it seem like you are the weak link? The smart move is to walk away.

Why, then, were Carter and Clinton successful? It was because their respective fields were bereft of front runners. Carter and Clinton both seemed to stand as good a chance as anybody - and so they did not have to fight concerns that votes for them would be wasted votes.

A final point. The process of who finds himself in the top-tier is decidedly un-Jeffersonian, wouldn't you say? Earlier in the week, I discussed the power to set the agenda, and argued that it is a distinct mode of power. Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz described it thusly in their 1962 article, "The Two Faces of Power,"

Of course power is exercised when A participates in the making of decisions that affect B. But power is also exercised when A devotes his energies to creating or reinforcing the social and political values and institutional practices that limit the scope of the political process to public consideration of only those issues which are comparatively innocuous to A. To the extent that A succeeds in doing this, B is prevented, for all practical purposes, from bringing to the fore any issues that might in their resolution be seriously detrimental to A's set of preferences.

We can see something like this at play here in this nomination saga. Voters as a whole exercise the first mode of power - that is, they are the ones who decide which candidates receive the nomination. They make "the decisions." However, political elites - broadly defined to include Washington power brokers, journalists/pundits, big money donors, and activists - exercise the second mode of power. They set the agenda. In the case of the nominations for both parties, these elites choose who shall and who shall not advance to the top tier through their endorsements, their news stories, their donations, or their enthusiasm. They thus reduce the number of options for strategic voters - who rightly feel constrained to vote for candidates who are in the top tier.

What is more, in most instances, a candidate's elevation to the top tier is not entirely due to qualification for office. Of course, none of the top tier candidates are unqualified. It is just to say that what elevates you to the top tier - as opposed to keeping you in the second tier - is not your additional aptitude for the job. Rather, elevation to the top tier has been based, at least in part, upon factors that are not really germane to the chief executive position. Rudy Giuliani's handling of that dreadful day. Hillary Clinton's husband. Barack Obama's good looks and youthful vigor. John McCain's earnestness. And so on. This is what has given these candidates their additional advantages - and, let's face it, few of these qualities are really all that necessary for the presidency.

Mind you, I am not decrying this process. I have no problem with the fact that the second mode of power exists, and it does not bother me that political elites are the ones who exercise it when they select who shall and who shall not be a competitive, top tier candidate. More importantly, I am highly skeptical that another selection system that is any better could practically be implemented.

I will say that I find the media's open debate policy to be annoying, given the role they play in effectively narrowing the field. You'd think they could do us a favor and narrow it on the debate stage, too. I wish they would not be so wrapped up in that kind of posturing. Political scientists and sociologists have frequently pointed out that the exercise of the second mode of power is much more subtle. Indeed, we can see evidence of that here. Look at the pains that our media outlets take to be as inclusive as possible at the debates. It is only afterwards - when the second tier candidates get ninety seconds at the end of the 11 PM hour of post-debate coverage - that we can see the exercise of the second mode of power.

-Jay Cost

The Newsweek School of Presidential Psychology

This is merely impressionistic, but it seems to me that the writers over at Newsweek really enjoy psycho-analyzing President Bush. The latest comes from Howard Fineman.

Though I've never heard him use the term, my guess is that George W. Bush sees himself as a hacendado, an estate owner in Old Mexico.

That would give him a sense of Southwestern noblesse, duty-bound not just to work "his" people, but to protect them as well.

His advisor, Carlo Rove, has explained that a system called "democracy" now gives peasants something called "the vote." It would be shrewd, Rove said, for hacendados to grant their workers' citizenship.

That's the best explanation I have for why Bush is in the midst of what may be a suicide mission on immigration policy--embarrassing for him and ruinous for his party.

This reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in Arrested Development. Lucille and Oscar are arguing over whether Buster is going to be shipped off to Iraq. Lucille shouts, "You're high!" Oscar responds, "Well - you can win every argument that way, but that doesn't make you right!"

I feel vaguely the same way about Fineman's piece. What good does this kind of armchair psychoanalysis do us? What have we learned from this, beyond what Howard Fineman thinks? Fineman is not - so far as I know - a professionally trained mental health worker. Nor, for that matter, does he have the kind of access to the President to make such psychoanalytic judgments. It makes for good rhetoric - but really, does an assertion like this explicate, clarify, or elucidate anything at all? If not, why is this worth our while?

Amateur psychoanalytical argument is, I think, the second worst explanation for human behavior. If you are a professional mental health worker, then it is a different story. But if you are not, it is just a weak basis for inference. The weakest is, of course, recourse to ill intentions. Q: Why did he do something that puzzles you? A: He is evil. That is the weakest answer I think you can give. The second weakest answer is essentially what Fineman argues. A: He is crazy.

You can win any argument by using either of these answers. But, really, how much do you actually explain?

-Jay Cost

Is There a Third Term Curse?

I like to think that I have two tasks for this blog. The first is to clarify aspects of our politics that are cloudy. The second - which, I must admit, is nearer and dearer to my heart - is to clarify ways of thinking about our politics that are confused. In other words, I have both substantive and methodological goals for the Horse Race Blog.

Many times, methodological mistakes lead to substantive mistakes. Methodological mistakes can be subtle, and often times they are the product of over-enthusiasm. That is, analysts and pundits are so eager to offer something of substance that they commit some kind of methodological error that, in turn, leads to an erroneous conclusion.

One such error that I often see is a kind of correlation-as-causation fallacy. To be a little cheeky, we might call it the fallacy of the historical curse. I often read pundits who cite historical trends and then use those trends as an argument for why something will happen. For instance, last year, pundits, in their attempts to analyze the congressional elections, were wont to offer a litany of reasons to expect the Republicans to do poorly. One of those reasons was something to the effect of, "Parties of the President always do poorly in their sixth years." While it is essentially true that the party of the President does poorly in the second midterm, it is not a reason, or a cause. It is a tendency, or a correlation. Thus, it cannot be in one's litany of reasons. You cannot cite a tendency as a reason. Correlation is not causation. When you treat historical data that way, it is as if you are implying that there is some kind of curse - that is, an unexplained causal factor that can be explicated only by reference to the pattern that the factor creates. Of course, pundits are not actually enthusiasts of the occult. I imagine they are as "modern" and "naturalistic" as the rest of us. The effect, I am sure, is accidental.

This mistake can take several forms. In one form, the past reasons for the pattern might not be in effect in the current time period. This would be most likely to occur in an instance where your only reason to expect an event is the historical pattern. For instance, suppose that all identifiable metrics about last campaign cycle - except the "sixth year" tendency - favored the Republican Party. How wise would it have been still to predict GOP disaster? Not very. The historical pattern has a cause; if you cannot identify a cause to suspect disaster this year, you should not use just the pattern to predict a Democratic victory - though the pattern might inspire you to dig more deeply to see if potential factors might indeed be influencing the election.

In another form of this mistake, you overstate your case. If you give five reasons to expect something to happen, but one of the reasons is a historical trend that was caused by another of the reasons, then you really only have four reasons to expect something. In this instance, you have over-argued, which is not to say that we should divide your conclusion by some factor. It is simply to say that you have offered a bloated, and therefore imprecise, argument. It might still be the case that, when your argument is brought back down to its appropriate weight, you can still argue what you wish to argue. However, because of the imprecision - we cannot know until we have brought forth a clear version of your argument.

This latter error was on display yesterday in an otherwise excellent article by Frank Donatelli at Politico.com. Donatelli writes,

It is the worst of times for Republicans. President George W. Bush's approval ratings barely top 30 percent. Democrats have opened up as much as a 15-point lead in party identification, a gap not seen since the Nixon-Ford days of the 1970s. Key issues such as immigration and Iraq are causing major fissures in the Republican coalition. The GOP suffered a top to bottom defeat in the 2006 midterm elections, a leading political indicator that a change in party control of the White House will follow in 2008.

History also tells us that 2008 should be a Democratic year. Third terms for the in-party in power are notoriously difficult to win. The only nonincumbents since the middle of the 19th century who achieved this -- Republicans William Howard Taft in 1908, Herbert Hoover in 1928 and George H.W. Bush in 1988 -- all succeeded enormously popular presidents.

Let me say at the outset that I essentially agree with Donatelli's thesis. This is going to be a very tough election for the Republicans. I am not critiquing his argument so as to promote some kind of GOP bullishness. I am, rather, trying to make a somewhat more subtle point - methodological errors can reduce our substantive precision. Let me also say that his article is otherwise a sound analysis of what the GOP needs to do to make itself as competitive as possible. I am not suggesting we throw the baby out with the bathwater. Nevertheless, Donatelli does indeed commit the second form of the fallacy that I have described above.

It should be clear here that Donatelli offers a trend as a cause. Anytime you read, "History tells us," you can be near certain that this is what is coming next. Indeed, in his litany of GOP woes, he mentions: low job approval, low GOP party identification, issues that cut against the Republicans, previous electoral disaster, and history.

[N.B. His preferred phrase, "History tells us," is one of those non-sequiturs that is like fingernails on a chalkboard to my ears. History, speaking either literally or metaphorically, does not tell us much at all, at least not anything that was not self-evident to begin with. Unlike Newtonian physics, history does not present to us clean, crisp, and clear laws of human behavior. History is a messy subject. Historical insights are almost always matters of interpretation and disputation, conjecture and refutation.]

Mr. Donatelli offers a bloated list of reasons for Republicans to be dour. He should not include the historical pattern that he references. This can be seen more clearly if we unpack this historical trend - an action which, I believe, has some utility that goes beyond offering a response to this article. It can help us understand the importance of historical patterns in understanding this upcoming election, and it can offer us some general guidelines on how we should - and should not - use history in our analysis.

Mr. Donatelli writes, "The only nonincumbents since the middle of the 19th century who achieved this -- Republicans William Howard Taft in 1908, Herbert Hoover in 1928 and George H.W. Bush in 1988 -- all succeeded enormously popular presidents." First of all, another major sign of approaching correlation-as-causation is when you read a historical trend that sports an arbitrary cutoff date, as he offers here. What is so special about the middle of the 19th century? That seems a little "suspicious." Another "suspicious" element is that he does not factor in FDR, who of course won three terms (four, as a matter of fact!). His initial argument is about the perils of a party winning a third term. FDR was, of course, a member of the same party as FDR. So, he would have to be counted as an exception. Similarly, he fails to factor in TR, who won his party a third term in 1904. Taft's term was actually the Republican's fourth consecutive term.

Indeed, if we go through the whole history of the Republic, we can appreciate just what a limited pattern this is.

Between 1800 and 1824, the Democratic Republicans won seven consecutive presidential elections.

Between 1828 and 1836, the Democrats won three consecutive presidential elections.

Between 1860 and 1880, the Republicans won six consecutive presidential elections.

Between 1896 and 1908, the Republicans won four consecutive presidential elections.

Between 1920 and 1928, the Republicans won three consecutive presidential elections.

Between 1932 and 1948, the Democrats won five consecutive presidential elections.

Between 1980 and 1988, the Republicans won three consecutive presidential elections.

This would be seven successful attempts to win at least a third consecutive term. How many times has one party or the other failed to win a third consecutive term after having won two? Six: 1860, 1920, 1960, 1968, 1976, 2000. It is interesting to note that in three of these five failed attempts - 1960, 1968, and 2000 - only a fraction of the vote separated the two parties.

Take a closer look at those failed attempts. Three of the five came within 20 years of each other - and they all occurred during a turbulent time in American political life. Many have argued that this period was one of a dealignment that was due to the parties' inability to deal with recurring problems of national scope: race, crime, Vietnam, economic stagnation, Communism, and so on. In other words, it was the presence of tough issues that the party in power had failed to resolve that ultimately damaged their capacity to retain office. Interestingly, issues were the Democrats' problem in 1860, when they had failed to resolve the burgeoning sectional crisis; and 1920, when the nation had grown tired of their idea of America's role in the postwar world.

The historical pattern now makes intuitive sense, which is to say that we have now identified a reason for its existence. Why should we expect a party to lose in its quest for the third term? Our system is very hard to govern over a sustained period of time. We can generally expect that a governing coalition might be worn out by the time the opportunity for a third term presents itself. It has already acted on many of the issues that favor it. So, the issues that linger tend to be issues that hurt it and help the other party. A change seems called for - certain issues need to be addressed and the country no longer trusts the ruling party to address them. So, what happens? The party is saddled with declining partisan identification, declining presidential job approval, and a loss in the next election. This is why parties so often lose elections in attempts for their third go-arounds. Issues induce the pattern.

So, we should be able to see clearly now that Donatelli is "double-dipping." By mentioning issues, he has already accounted for what creates the pattern that he mentions. The pattern itself is thus not another reason to be added to the list. It is not an independent reason - it is, rather, a tendency that one of the reasons explains.

Again, let me stress that my point here is not to engage in Republican boosterism. As you should be able to tell by now, I am in general argument with Mr. Donatelli - 2008 looks to be trouble for the Republicans. I actually might be more bearish about Republican prospects than he because I think there is only a very narrow band of opportunities for the GOP to take up his third recommendation - namely, to separate itself from President Bush. What is more, my intention here is not to single out Mr. Donatelli as being the sole perpetrator of this argumentative fallacy. All in all, I thought his article was well written and well argued. And, anyway, I have seen many analysts make this kind of mistake generally - and I have seen a good number make this particular mistake about third terms.

My point here is simply two-fold: (a) on a methodological level, we should be mindful of committing the fallacy of the historical curse; (b) on a substantive level, the historical fact that parties have recently had trouble acquiring a third term is not, in itself, a reason to be bearish about Republican prospects. The reason to be bearish is the cause that induces the pattern seems to be present in this cycle for the GOP.

-Jay Cost

What's Going On at the NRSC?

I would like to comment on the First Quarter numbers that the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) reported a few weeks ago. Many people were surprised at the relatively disappointing take of the GOP's Senate organization. The NRSC pulled in only $9.1 million in the First Quarter of 2007. That is a little less than half of what its Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), raised.

Why the disparity between the two organizations? Many analysts argued that the NRSC's money problem is due to the fact that the GOP is obviously in bad shape in the Senate. This, I think, is at least partially true. However, the exact causal mechanism behind this "bad shape" (for lack of a better term) is a little bit more subtle than many have appraised.

Part of the reason for the disparity might be that potential donors are refusing to donate to Republican candidates for the Senate because they are dispirited. In other words they think the party is doomed to lose in the next cycle, and so they do not feel like pulling out their checkbooks. This, unsurprisingly, was the argument of DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer, who told The Washington Post after the numbers were released, "The support for Democratic candidates and ideas is enormous and is propelling us to a big lead in fundraising." This might be true. However, there is more to it than this.

Another reason for the disparity is that Republican donors are choosing to give money to individual incumbents rather than the NRSC. As of the end of the First Quarter, the Republicans were defending 21 seats in the next election - almost twice as many as the Democrats. What is more, most experts expect 2008 to be a rough year for Republicans. This means that there are a large number of Republican incumbents who are actively worried about reelection. It is they, I suspect, who are partially depressing NRSC fundraising figures because they are crowding the market for dollars. Donors who wish to help the GOP cause in the Senate are more likely to give to incumbent members than they are to give to the NRSC. This is the case for two reasons.

First, it makes sense in our candidate-centered campaign environment. Republican incumbents are qualified candidates who know how to run winning campaigns. While it is true that the NRSC can and does offer assistance to incumbents, it is also true that one can expect an incumbent to know how to spend campaign dollars efficiently. And thus, it is the best use of money to give it to incumbents rather than the organization that will help the incumbents. The only way the party is able to aid candidates without legal limits is through independent expenditures, which are inefficient because the party cannot coordinate with the candidate. Thus, Republicans who wish to help Norm Coleman are better off contributing directly to Norm Coleman than they are contributing to the NRSC, which will spend on his behalf but without his consultation.

Second, Republican incumbents are interested in getting as much money as they can as soon as they can. They are thus actively attracting donors to their organizations. This kind of persuasion should not be understated. Republican incumbents are high profile individuals in the party. They are quite able to attract donors with relative ease. So long as most donors have in their minds a set amount they are inclined to give at any point in time - we can expect that, as they are pulled toward incumbent candidates, so they are pulled from the NRSC.

I do not really expect the NRSC to close the entire gap between the DSCC and itself. The logic of contributing to candidates rather than the CCC remains solid all cycle; endangered incumbents tend to crowd out the market for dollars all cycle. As new donors start to contribute, they will naturally gravitate to Republican incumbents rather than the NRSC - just as current donors are gravitating. So long as the GOP is playing defense in the Senate in 2008 - which I would say is darn close to certain - I imagine the NRSC will be the runt of the CCC litter.

Does this explanation account for the entire gap between the NRSC and the DSCC? No. It accounts for a portion of it, but not all of it. If we add the NRSC's receipts to the receipts of all GOP Senate incumbents, we find that the GOP Senate has raised about $23.6 million. The DSCC plus Democratic Senate incumbents have raised $29.4 million all told (not including the millions John Kerry transferred from his presidential committee). So, we have about a $5.8 million difference - as opposed to the $9.1 million that separates the DSCC and the NRCC. This difference increases to $7.6 million when we include the high profile Democratic challengers who are already in active pursuit of Senate seats, namely Al Franken and Katrina Swett. Thus, we have explained about $1.5 million, or 16.5%, of the total difference between the NRSC and the DSCC in this election cycle.

So, what explains the remaining gap? It might be that Republican donors are, as I like to say, dispirited. They think the party is going to lose, and they do not feel like contributing. This might be true.

Might there also be some "institutional" problems at the NRSC? Maybe. A lot of analysts, myself included, wondered if Elizabeth Dole might have been part of the NRSC's problem in the last election cycle. Is it possibly the case that the organization at the NRSC is inferior, and that even with her out and John Ensign in, it still has some problems? Maybe. I am not privy to any kind of information to allow me to make a determination. I will say that the DSCC has beaten the NRSC in fundraising in the two cycles since soft money was banned. That might be a sign that the DSCC has adapted to the post-soft money environment more efficiently than the NRSC.

One factor that might explain much of the remaining gap is that the DSCC has a large debt that it is endeavoring to retire. At the end of the last cycle, the DSCC had $6.6 million in debt, while the NRSC had only $1.3 million. As of the end of the first quarter of this cycle, the NRSC had paid down its debt and the DSCC had paid down a little over $1 million. It might be that the DSCC's greater debt induced it to begin fundraising earlier.

It is hard to say just much each, if any, of these explanations account for the remainder of the gap. One thing is for sure. Charles Schumer might have been partially correct, but he was also spinning the numbers at least a bit.

-Jay Cost

Defending the Sopranos Finale

I have to admit, I liked the final episode. As several have argued, it fit the idiom of the show very nicely. Matthew Zoller Seitz gives the best analysis I have seen.

I would add that I was very nervous going into last night's show. The reason was that, as far as I was concerned, the show had been adrift in Season Six. There was never a broad point that the show was making, there was never a trajectory toward a final conclusion. Crises and confrontations would pop up, Tony et al. would deal with them, and they would die down. The show was worth watching not because of its broad trajectory, but the engrossing episode-to-episode stories. The problem with Season Six, I thought, was that the show's writers seemed to have run out of ideas. None of the plots were all that interesting. None of the threats all that menacing. Thus, I would have been disappointed if, for instance, Phil Leotardo - of all people! - were to take Tony down. It would not make much "sense" for Tony to have survived conspiratorial machinations from all kinds of parties, including his mother and uncle, except Phil Leotardo. After all, Tony was so much smarter than Phil. Allowing Tony to die, or go to jail, thanks to the efforts of Phil Leotardo would have been consistent with the show's implicit argument that life has no arc, but it would not fit well with the characters as they had been developed.

So, I am glad that the the writers did not allow Tony to succumb to inferior forces for the sake of a splashy finish. A splashy finish would have taken some of the characters out-of-character, and that would have been disappointing. I will say that the final episode was not great, but then again Season Six was pretty mediocre, so there was only so much they could do.

Some people have suggested that the cut to black at the end is an indication that Tony has died. As evidence, they cite his conversation with Bobby at the beginning of the second part of Season 6, who wonders if you don't see the end coming - if it is just cut-to-black and that is it. While I agree that the end of last night's episode was indeed a reference to that conversation, I think the inference that Tony is finished is exactly backward. It is not that Tony is dead. The audience is "dead." The story goes on, but we're no longer a part of it. It just ends for us - without fanfare, without resolution, without narrative satisfaction. Just cut to black, as Bobby imagined it. This is consistent with David Chase's overarching argument in the show. There is no grand narrative or story arc to life, no tragedy as the Greeks would have it. You live. You die. That's it. The timing of your arrival on the scene is arbitrary and meaningless, so also is the timing of your exit from it. Life goes on after you are gone, just as it went on before you arrived. The Sopranos family was alive and well before we started watching in 1999. It will continue now that we're gone. It wasn't Tony's turn to go. It was our turn to go. So, we cut to black. Tony didn't.

The last one "whacked" on the Sopranos was the audience.

-Jay Cost

From a Reader

In response to this morning's post, Seth from Washington writes:

I wanted to pat you on the back for two posts in the past few days - one about why the failure of an immigration bill to pass isn't "a sign that the system doesn't work," and the one today that questions the DC media consensus that decries "partisanship" in favor of broad, vague "bipartisanship."

It's as though Senator A says, "we need to punch Joe in the face 100 times," Senator B says "we shouldn't punch Joe in the face," and the mainstream media's response is to assume that voters wish that those bitter partisans would stop their ideological pandering and pass a reasonable, centrist proposal to punch Joe in the face 50 times.

I imagine we don't agree on much politically, but we can both agree that it serves voters well when candidates and leaders actually take positions about questions of policy and advocate for them. So thanks for sticking up for that weirdly neglected point.

Well said, I think.

-Jay Cost

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Michael Barone, 2007:

Listening to the recent debates among the candidates, monitoring their Websites and reading the poll numbers, one gets the impression that the Republican and Democratic primary electorates are living in two different nations -- or the same nation that faces two very different threats.

The Republicans want to protect us against Islamist terrorists. The Democrats want to protect us against climate change. Each side believes the other's fears are largely imaginary. Rush Limbaugh regularly treats global warming theories as a "hoax." A prominent political scientist dismisses Republican candidates' appeals as sounding "like the day after Sept. 11." When asked about possible new attacks, Democratic candidates -- with the exception of Hillary Clinton -- talk about seeking international support and understanding. Asked about climate change, Republican candidates -- with the exception of John McCain -- talk about getting more information.

V.O. Key, 1952:

To assert that all men who regard themselves as Republicans or as Democrats share a common "interest" would be an absurd oversimplification as well as an attribution of a higher incidence of conscious and rational choice than actually prevails among voters. Yet each of the major parties is erected on a solid foundation of a concert of interests, if not a single interest. That interest is by no means solely economic, although the significance of economic drives in political action is not to be denied. Temperament, status, social inheritance, and every factor that enters into human behavior find their way to the political sphere.

In the America of which Professor Key made such a great study, the division of the interests of the parties was almost entirely sectional. It was so much the case that America did not really exhibit a true two-party system, but rather multiple one-party systems. He writes:

The sectionalism inherent in the American national two-party system almost of necessity dictates that many states shall have no parties for state affairs. Each of the two national parties rests on a foundation of states and districts persistent in their loyalty to its candidates. The Solid South has remained Democratic in its attachments through the party's adversities and through its lush days. Rural north-eastern areas provide the same sort of hard core for the Republican party. The development of predominance in a state by a particular national party has the con-sequence that the state is apt to elect consistently that party's candidates to state and local office

Of course, both parties are essentially competitive nationwide now. I would wager that a Republican or a Democrat could win at least a single office of significance in any state. This is not how it was several decades ago.

One would expect this to diminish the effects that Key outlined. Indeed, I think it has. Partisanship does not serve nearly the same kind of psychological function for the voter that it used to in, say, the late 19th or early 20th century. Political campaigns - especially for Congress - turn more upon voter evaluations of the candidates, and less upon unconditional partisan support, than they used to. The rise of split ticket voting is also a sign that voters are not as slavishly tied to one party or another. What is more, both parties are sufficiently organized in every state to wage a competitive campaign at least when the political winds favor their side, and very often when they do not. The sectionalism that Key outlined is still extant, for sure, but it has been on the wane for some time.

Nevertheless, the implied psychological effect of such a sectional system seems similar to what we often see in some quarters of our class of political elites. As Professor Key implies, Republicanism simply made no sense to Southerners for a very long time. Similarly, following Mr. Barone, many Republicans today see Democrats as being simply crazy; many Democrats feel the same way about Republicans. The partisan passions on both sides seem to me to be as intense as ever.

I can't but think that the segmentation of the media generally, and the rise of cyberspace in particular, has facilitated this phenomenon. Many of our political elites - broadly defined to include those who are activists and high demanders of political information - evince what might be called a cyber-sectionalism. Cyber-communities exist where it is essentially a "no go zone" for the other party. These communities remind me a great deal of the regional sectionalism that Key delineated. If our political elites have not actually become more partisan than voters were during the height of sectionalism, I would wager that they have at least not become less partisan.

Mind you, I'm not passing judgment on any of this. If anything, I endorse it as a sociological phenomenon. For my money, I prefer "hot" partisans on both sides of the aisle. Intense partisans imply parties that take clear issue positions, offer the voters distinct choices in the election, and endeavor to enact their programs once elected. These are all good things. Personally, I would much prefer the messy, "mean-spirited," politics of the late 1940s than the bland, everybody-got-along-but-nothing-got-done-while-problems-festered politics of the 1950s. Intense partisans induce strong political parties, which are - I think - a clear benefit to the American people, even if each side's partisans annoy the hell out of the average voter.

I tend to think that the mushy, why-can't-we-all-just-get-along attitude toward politics that many political elites, usually in the mainstream media, endorse can sometimes be a narrow-minded unionism disguised as a broad-minded nationalism. A world where all partisans are bipartisan is a world where the party label no longer serves as an informational cue for the voter. Guess who in that world becomes the only true mediator of political information? The media!

-Jay Cost

Bush, Congress, and Political Power

Government, as we all know, is about power, which is a multi-faceted and sometimes subtle concept. I have found that many people have a working defintion of power that is not entirely sufficient to yield a full understanding of American politics. Bringing a broader definition of power to bear on recent events in Washington can help us tease out some insights about our current political environment that, I think, have gone largely unnoticed.

A good way to think about power is to imagine two politicians, Bob and Barbara, at a negotiating table. If Bob tells Barbara that she had better agree to the proposal, or else he will refuse to endorse her in the next election - Bob is exercising power over Barbara. Bob has something she wants, and for Barbara to get that, she must give him something he wants.

This is the way most people think about power. But there are other modes in which one can exercise power. For instance, what if Bob decides, before the meeting begins, that he is simply not going to bring up certain disagreements he has with Barbara, and that he is going to bring up other disagreements instead. In this case Bob would have the power to set the agenda. This is a power that is different than the power outlined in the last paragraph, where Bob flat out threatened Barbara. This is a more subtle exercise of power. If flat out threats might be understood as the "first mode" of power, the power to set the agenda might be understood as the "second mode."

Many people do not think of power being exercised in this way, though I am sure the same people - when the subject of setting the agenda is brought up - would recognize that agenda-setting is indeed a powerful activity. It is just it is not on their radars.

It's on my radar, though. As a matter of fact, the second mode of power tends to creep into my thoughts whenever I think about Bush and Congress. For instance, I looked at this immigration debate, and I asked: why was this issue brought up now? I find the answer that many might give - "Well - it is an important, pressing concern." - to be insufficient. After all, there are literally dozens of "important, pressing" concerns, all of which are just as worthy of the public's attention as others. Why this issue?

The answer is...politics! Who chooses to raise some issues and not others? Politicians! Of course, in some instances - for example, 9/11 - issues are raised for politicians, and not by them. But, in most cases, politicians choose to bring certain issues up and not to bring certain other issues up. Politicians set the agenda. Democrats and Republicans alike will know what I am talking about. In 1993, Republicans objected mightily to the "manufactured" crisis in health care that the Clintons had supposedly created. Just last fall, Democrats objected mightily to the "crass politicization" of the issue of Guantanamo that the Republicans undertook after Labor Day. Both sides were coming from the same direction at different points in time - both recognized that the other had acted to set the agenda in a way that was beneficial to the other's interests, and that they could do nothing about it but complain.

Why is the power to set the agenda so important? The parties disagree on most every issue that we discuss in politics. On some issues, the Republicans have the voters with them. On other issues, the Democrats do. The power to set the agenda gives a party the power to allow discussion only on issues that favor their side. Republicans like to talk about taxes and terrorism. Why? They know that, by and large, the public supports Republican ideas on these issues. Democrats, meanwhile, like to talk about education and health care. Why? They know that, by and large, the public supports Democratic ideas on these issues.

This is one reason why political campaigns are not so much discussions between two candidates who disagree, but rather talking-past-one-another sessions. Republicans know better than to engage Democrats on health care because the more health care is discussed, the more the party loses the support of the electorate. So, what do Republicans do? They talk about taxes. Democrats know better than to engage Republicans on taxes for the same reason. So what do they do? They talk about health care.

Ideally speaking, if you have the power to set the agenda, what kind of issue should you raise? The answer is pretty clear. The best kind of issue is one where your allies are united and your opponents are divided, and the public likes your idea and hates your opponents' idea. That makes for the best politics. You can make yourself look like the action-oriented, unified party of the people, and you can make your opponents look like the feckless, divided defenders of the special interests. It is the gift that keeps on giving: you get the policy initiative you want, and you help yourself in advance of the next election.

As evidence of the truth of what I write here, I would point to two news items that crossed through my field of vision in the last few weeks. The first is from Paul Kane and his Capitol Blog on the Washington Post's website on June 1. Kane writes:

House Democrats are voting with such unity that, if continued throughout the 110th Congress, their cohesion would be unparalleled in recent congressional history.

Through the first five months of the year, the average House Democrat has voted with a majority of his/her caucus colleagues on 94 percent of the 425 roll calls. Enjoying their honeymoon period, 110 Democrats -- nearly half of the 232 Democrats -- have sided with a majority of the caucus on at least 98 percent of the votes cast this year.

Now, consider this from the Washington Post from the same day:

On legislation, Republicans have at times shown remarkable disunity.

Last week, Boehner denounced a Democratic bill against energy price gouging as pointless political pandering, only to see it receive 56 Republican votes, including McCotter's. For months, Republican leaders had denounced Democrats for loading an Iraq war spending bill with nonmilitary spending that they called wasteful pork. Then last week, when Democrats separated that spending into another measure, 123 Republicans voted for it -- including House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who had been expected to hold his party off the bill.

Why are these levels of unity and disunity so historic? My guess is that the biggest reason is that the Democrats have been out of legislative power in the House for 12 years. As the GOP controlled the agenda-setting power, the Democrats collected a series of popular, Democrat-unifying, Republican-dividing issues over this period of time - issues that the Republican agenda-setters avoided because they were bad for the GOP. Now that the Democrats have the agenda-setting power, they can finally hold votes on these proposals. A good parallel might be made to George Harrison, whose first post-Beatles effort, All Things Must Pass, is arguably the best of any post-Beatles effort by any of them, even Ringo. George had been smothered by the group dynamic, being limited to only two songs per record. By the time the group split, George had a backlog of songs that was so great that he could fill two full records with some of the best music of the time. So it goes now with the Democrats. They have a backlog of issues that resonate with the public, unify their side, and divide the other side. With the majority in both chambers, they can now set the agenda. And they are using that power to their maximum advantage.

What about immigration reform? This is really an inefficient issue for both sides in Congress. The reason is that it divides everybody (Republicans more than Democrats), and nothing that is comprehensive seems to resonate with the public, which makes it unlikely to pass (and thus more damaging to Democrats than Republicans). If your business is politics, this kind of issue is just bad for business. Nothing gets accomplished, and pundits like Bob Franken and Dan Balz write you off as useless. Who needs that?

So, who brought immigration reform to the table? President Bush, of course. He retains some power in the second mode, even though his party's caucus really does not. It was by his encouragement that the 109th and 110th Congresses undertook this subject. He placed on the agenda an issue that relatively few desired to have placed on the agenda. This is a sign that, at least as of last week, he was not yet a lame duck. He still had some power left to wield. This was power in the second mode.

From the recent Iraq debate, we can also see that Bush still has some power in the first mode left to wield: he was able to induce the Democrats to do what they did not really want to do. Of course, his power in this mode is very limited. The reason Bush was able to wield power on the Iraq issue is because he is protecting the status quo, and our system has a strong status quo bias. We should not expect him to be able to wield such power when he seeks to change the status quo (more on this presently). So, while Bush has some power in the first mode left, it is on the wane.

So also is his power in the second mode. For the only issue that he could place on the table is one that divided his own party. It was also an issue on which there was never anything but a slim chance of legislative success. This is not the sort of issue he ideally wants to place on the table, but he had no other choice. Democrats wouldn't hear any talk of extending his tax cuts, of reforming social security, of reforming the tax code, of generally creating an ownership society. Nuts to all of that, as far as they are concerned. And rightly so, from a political perspective. Why should they allow the President to place issues on the table that might divide them and resonate with the public? The only issues on which they will indulge the President are issues that divide his own party. This is a sign that his power in the second mode, his agenda-setting power, has been on the wane for quite some time.

The failure for Bush on the immigration issue is, I think, fairly telling. He failed not because he lacked power in the second mode. He was indeed able to induce Congress to take up an issue that he wanted it to take up. His failure was really due to an inability to induce legislators to alter current policy as he wants it altered. He no longer can put the "squeeze" on legislators and directly induce them to do what they would not otherwise do, at least when it comes to changing the status quo. Indeed, this was so much the case that - so far as I know - the White House played no significant role in the kind of politicking that Senators Kennedy and Lott did. They did not even make a serious effort to arm twist. His failure on immigration indicates that whatever first mode power he has left, it is really limited to protecting the current course of government.

What's more, I would wager that this was Bush's last exercise of power in the second mode. I cannot think of another issue that he might be able to place upon the table for consideration. He and Democrats disagree too vehemently on essentially every other issue of any importance, and his standing with the public is so low that Democrats will be better off by rejecting his suggestions for the legislative agenda than accepting them.

So - where does that leave the President? Thanks to the Constitution, he still possesses some measure of power in the first mode. Indeed, I think that all the power that is left for Bush to wield is the set of formal authorities granted to him by our founding document. These powers enable him to do little more than stop Congress from altering the status quo. No longer can he use his prestige and authority to place issues on the table for consideration. No longer, further, can he induce legislators to alter the status quo as he prefers to see it altered. I think those days are finished. I think that the failure of immigration reform marks the final stop in Bush's long descent into - to borrow a phrase from presidential scholar Richard Neustadt - a "constitutional clerk." Barring some sort of phenomenal occurrence, I think that Bush is now a president who can do little more than wield the formal powers granted him by Article II to protect the choices he made when he wielded what - I think we can all admit - was a uniquely vast amount of political power. This will make him more than a lame duck, but not by much.

-Jay Cost

More of the Same

In response to his self-righteous screed today in the WaPo, I have a question for Dan Balz: just what country does he think he lives in?

Mr. Balz writes:

The collapse of comprehensive immigration revision in the Senate last night represents a political defeat for President Bush, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the bill's most prominent sponsors. More significantly, it represents a scathing indictment of the political culture of Washington.

The defeat of the legislation can be laid at the doorstep of opponents on the right and left, on congressional leaders who couldn't move their troops and on an increasingly weakened president and his White House team. But together it added up to another example of a polarized political system in which the center could not hold.

The partisan blame game was already at fever pitch as the bill was going down yesterday. But to those far removed from the backrooms of Capitol Hill, what happened will fuel cynicism toward a political system that appears incapable of finding ways to resolve the nation's big challenges.

This is exactly the type of ignorance against which I argued this morning. How is it that somebody who has spent so many years in Washington can write with such shock and disappointment about the defeat of the bill?

Ugh. Where to begin?

Let's start with this "center failing to hold" nonsense. That's as good a place as any. Our system has a super-majority requirement built into it. The "center" never "holds" - if by "center" you mean the middle 33% of the legislature, and by "holds" you mean imposes its legislative preferences on the other 67%. That is not how our system works. Legislation passes if and only if a large majority of legislators supports it.

And, more broadly, what kind of nonsense is it to blame the failure on our "political culture?" This is exactly what I meant when I wrote that we occasionally are overtaken with a strange kind of solipsism. Implicit in Balz's argument is the absurd assertion that this problem is unique to us today. For goodness sake! Supporters of Andrew Jackson accused John Quincy Adams of procuring an underage American prostitute for the Czar of Russia!

And it is indeed ironic that Balz should predict more cynicism. Maybe, just maybe, the public is made more cynical because media elites who have the power to communicate with them fail to understand how our system works, and thus unfairly compare it to an impracticable ideal. Maybe, just maybe, if Balz et al. would write, "Once again our system worked. A sizeable minority strongly opposed this bill, and our system does not pass legislation that alienates so many of our fellow citizens. This is reason to celebrate because this is why, after 200 years, we still have a healthy, fully functioning Republic!" the public would not be made to be more cynical.

So, I'll ask again: just where does Dan Balz think he is? This is America. Our system was intentionally designed to prevent divisive legislative from becoming law. If Mr. Balz wishes to live in a government that demonstrates a capacity for coherent, programmatic, "responsible" legislative activity, over and above the objections of the minority, there are flights to Heathrow every day from both Dulles and Ronald Reagan (or are Washingtonians still calling it Washington National?). Otherwise, he needs to deal with the fact that the "user's manual" to our Constitution is called The Federalist Papers.

And, of course, we cannot have a "the system failed us again" story without reference to the following absurd idea.

The collective failure of the two parties already appears to have stimulated interest in a third-party candidate for president in 2008 whose main promise would be to make Washington work. It is far too early to assess the viability of such a candidate, but it is easy to imagine the immigration impasse finding its way into a television commercial if someone such as New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg decides to run.

Ahhh...yes. This is precisely what we need in Washington. Our two parties cannot get along, so let us bring in a third party! This makes perfect sense. The problem is of course that our political representatives are...too political! Somehow, bringing in a new politician, one who would have no natural allies in Congress, would solve all of our problems! I am sure such a man would be able to force his political opponents to do as he wishes!

What we have here, buried deep within the premise of this story, is a fallacy of composition that our media outlets have made. Just because Mr. Balz knows all about the minute-to-minute events of our government does not mean he understands how our government as a whole operates. He obviously does not.

This fallacy of composition is precisely what justifies our media's burgeoning cadre of "wise elders," the journalist-turned-pundit class that has had bestowed upon it "expert" status by editors and producers. Journalists who cover the day-to-day of American politics have been improperly certified as experts on how our system works, have been rechristened as "pundits," and have been empowered not only to report the news, but to explain its broader significance to us. There is an inferential error at the core of this certification, which is why so many of our political talk shows, which rely increasingly upon said "experts," are little more than forty-two minute collections of the mindless platitudes that these people - who are, in reality, out of their depths - offer.

Thank goodness it's Friday!

-Jay Cost

Mr. Madison Votes Nay

In the wake of the immigration reform bill's defeat, I'd like to make a comment about journalists/pundits analyses of government. I find that, in subtle ways, their misunderstanding of the structure of our politics undermines public confidence in our system. Pundits, and the citizens who listen to them, are far too quick to label legislative defeats - like that which occurred with immigration reform - as "failures," when in fact they are a consequence of a political system that has held us in good stead for quite a long while.

Bob Franken - a veteran journalist for whom I have a great deal of respect - wrote the following on The Hill's pundit blog yesterday:

I'd like to borrow from the debates and ask everyone who thinks the immigration problem is about to be solved to raise his/her hand.

Oh come on: NOBODY? Congratulations, everybody.

But what we're witnessing is not about fixing this problem. It's about politicians trying to finesse the issue ...trying to make as much political capital as they can and then moving on to something else. [SNIP]

But here's the dirty little secret: A lot of our biggest challenges cannot really be overcome. Not really. Healthcare? Give me a break. It's true. Our current system is a grossly unfair mess. But the various one-size-fits-all proposals out there are really one-size-fits-NO ONE. [SNIP]

I am trying to make two points here: First of all, the battle between politics and good government has been won. By politics. And secondly, if you want to see real change in our country, you're going to have to make sacrifices.

Mr. Franken is correct in identifying the "dirty little secret" of American politics: it is very difficult to achieve legislative success. But he misidentifies the reasons for this secret truth. The desire of our politicians to be reelected and the interestedness of the Republic's citizens are insufficient, dispiriting explanations for the difficultly of passing programmatic legislation. Oh sure, if you change either of them, you could pass legislation. But, think for a moment about what that means. Franken essentially says that we could get things done if we all agree on matters, and if our politicians did not have to worry about reelection. That's about as helpful as saying we would not need the police if everybody was decent to one another.

Let us try to understand this phenomenon without recourse to comparing our system to an ideal that has never been nor ever will be. Let us take people as they are, and not as we would like them to be. It is only then that we start to think the same way that our governmental designers thought, and thus it is only then that we may start to understand the strangely consistent result that our political process yields, and yielded again just yesterday: little-to-no substantive output on matters of import.

Here's a question to get us started on this project: at what point in our nation's history has - to borrow's Franken's language - "politics" not systematically defeated "good policy?" I can count only three real instances - the Civil War Congresses, the Congresses of the 1890s, and the Great Depression Congresses. And what characterized the political landscapes in all periods? They were periods of realignment. Beyond instances like that, our system has not really allowed long-lasting, coherent alterations of the direction of our ship of state.

It amazes me that our politics can "fail" us again and again, and yet we still find ourselves blaming the politicians. One would think that after all of the hundreds of politicians we have trucked into and out of Washington over the centuries, we would have found more than three crews who could actually get stuff done. More generally, I think our quickness to declare that our politics have gone off the rails belies a strange kind of solipsism in which we all indulge from time to time. It is as if good-minded reformers have not run into the same problems again and again since the Republic itself was founded. It is as if the system has just now "broken down," as if it had been functioning just ducky up until the time we who live now became politically aware.

So, let us move beyond this solipsism, and ponder the Big Picture. Maybe it is the system itself that prevents great changes from happening - and that it is only under exceptional circumstances that policy reform can break through the barriers that the system itself creates. This is why I have placed scare quotes around "politics," "good policy," and "fail." These are all characterizations that obscure, rather than clarify, the defining features of our system. So, let us bring in our fourth President (my personal favorite) to shed some light.

What was James Madison's fear? Factionalism. This, he worried, could destroy our great republican experiment. In Federalist 10, he writes,

By faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse or passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

Madison took factionalism to be inevitable. Again, here is Federalist 10:
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society.

And so, wherever men possess liberty, they will also become factionalists. Can good men - those who have a conception of, and are motivated by, the public good - avoid the pitfalls of factionalism? No. Mr. Madison continues,

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.

For a free society to survive, the government must not become the tool of a faction. Rather, it must promote truly public policy. Blithe reliance upon larger-than-life statesmen is an unsatisfactory answer, and so also is limiting liberty. What to do?

Mr. Madison thought that a large republic would be a bulwark against this kind of sectionalism. It would filter the public's natural tendency to subdivide by forcing its will to be expressed only through periodically elected representatives; it would also make it so that representatives have more constituents than in a smaller republic, thus preventing them from promoting exceedingly small-minded interests.

Furthermore, Mr. Madison thought that a well-designed republic would be one characterized by the separation of power. The majoritarian principle could be relied upon to prevent small factions from acting in their narrow interests, but it would not stop large factions from acting against the general good. Federalism, he thought, would be a way to prevent factions of any size from profiting at the expense of the public good. Separating power makes it more difficult to accomplish any objective, but particularly factional objectives. The reason is that, in a federated system, it is unlikely that a factional coalition - even one of majority size - could acquire all of the dispersed mechanisms of power needed to institute its agenda. Thus, legislative success is achievable only when a majority coalition that represents the whole nation supports the proposal.

It is in this context that Mr. Madison expressed faith in democracy: when a majority representing the whole, and not merely a faction, of the people supports a course of action, it is likely that the course of action is good and right. In Federalist 51, he argues,

In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good; whilst there being thus less danger to a minor from the will of a major party, there must be less pretext, also, to provide for the security of the former, by introducing into the government a will not dependent on the latter, or, in other words, a will independent of the society itself. It is no less certain than it is important, notwithstanding the contrary opinions which have been entertained, that the larger the society, provided it lie within a practicable sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government. And happily for the republican cause, the practicable sphere may be carried to a very great extent by a judicious modification and mixture of the federal principle.

In our system, then, change comes about slowly, laboriously, and only with the aid of a majority of the whole nation. Thus, factionalism is avoided. But this avoidance comes at a cost. In practice, separating power has the effect of giving lots of governmental agents vetoes. It makes it easy to prevent change, very hard to enact it: for change to happen, all of those agents who have the opportunity to exercise a veto must demure from its exercise. This, of course, is exactly what did not happen with the immigration bill. Byron Dorgan - a single senator from one of the least populous states in the Union - effectively vetoed it.

We should see, then, the choice that our founders made. They chose governmental "gridlock" and "failure" over programmatic efficiency and "success." Why? They feared that programmatic efficiency would enable one faction to railroad another, thus endangering true republican government. If no faction has control over another, true republican government is possible. The price we must pay is programmatic efficiency. You cannot really achieve programmatic efficiency - except in those aforementioned exceptional, realigning circumstances - when you need a majority, national coalition to get anything done. Our country is too large and too diverse to admit of federalism and programmatic efficiency. The founders chose the former because their primary goal was to create a sustainable, free, republican system of government.

I must admit that I find myself disappointed when journalists with years of experience covering Washington watch our system stultify efforts to alter the status quo, and then declare - in so many words - that a failure has occurred. There was no failure here. A sole senator from North Dakota effectively vetoed it. This was an archetypical Madisonian moment! This was a sign that our system is functioning well - regardless of whether the bill's policy prescription was an objectively prudent course of action to take. It was a divisive bill whose supporters constituted only a faction of the public. Even if the faction was the so-called "moderate," "sensible," "middle" - this bill's coalition was never anything more than a faction within the whole. Thus, their bill was effectively vetoed.

The proclamations of failure from journalists like Mr. Franken discourage me because they engender in the public a sense that our system is not working as it should when, in fact, it is working exactly as it should. Our governing system is extremely complicated, our education system gives short shrift to civics training, and so there is a wide divergence between what the average citizen thinks our system was intended to do, and what it was actually intended to do. Misguided criticisms from journalists who look fondly upon those halcyon days of programmatic efficiency that never existed only exacerbate this disconnection.

When there is a nationwide consensus of significant size on the issue of immigration, then there will be reform. In the meantime, let's stop implying that our system has failed us. It hasn't. This "failure" is actually all part and parcel of the Madisonian system. Learn it, love it, live it. Believe me, you have no other choice. It's not like you can change it.

-Jay Cost

A Challenge to My Methodology

As I wrote in the introduction to myself on the blog, my intention here is to analyze and not to boost. However, as I indicated, the line between the two can sometimes get blurry.

I failed to mention one instance where maintaining said distinction might be downright impossible. This is from The Politico's Congress blog earlier in the week:

A Swann for the House?

Following his unsuccessful run last fall for governor of Pennsylvania, former NFL great Lynn Swann is now considering a bid for the House seat held by freshman Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire.

According to GOP aides, Swann huddled Tuesday in the Capitol with a number of House Republican leaders to gauge their support, including Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, Minority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole of Oklahoma.

None of the leaders endorsed Swann, the aides said, but they did encourage him to seek the seat. Swann could not be reached for comment.

A Steeler...in Congress? Be still my black-and-gold heart!

Also, Tom Rooney - son of Steelers owner Dan Rooney (and, of course, grandson of the Chief) - is running for Florida's 16th congressional district. You know what that means? There might very well be a Congressional Steelers Caucus in the 111th Congress! This, of course, would be the first congressional caucus with a fight song:

Marcy Kaptur, Dennis Kucinich, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Betty Sutton. and Steve LaTourette had all better look out. You too, Steve Chabot! The Steelers might comin' to Congress!

-Jay Cost

The Crazy Iowa Caucus

Since we have been talking about Iowa a bit here, I thought it might be worthwhile to offer a quick review of how the caucus functions. You might be surprised by its...uniqueness.

The GOP caucus is pretty straightforward in that everybody votes by secret ballot. The Democratic caucus, however, is not at all straightforward. Wikipedia does a sufficiently good job of summarizing the process:

Caucus-goers form into "preference groups," where their candidate preferences become public. For roughly 30 minutes, attendees try to convince their neighbors to support their candidates. Participants indicate their support for a particular candidate by standing in a designated area of the caucus site.

After 30 minutes, the electioneering is temporarily halted and the number of votes for each candidate is counted. The supporters of any candidate who doesn't have enough supporters to be "viable" will then have to find a viable candidate to support or simply choose to abstain. Depending on the number of county delegates to be elected, the "viability threshold" can be anywhere from 15% to 25% of caucus attendees. For a candidate to receive any delegates from a particular precinct, he or she must have the support of at least that many caucus participants in that precinct.

From here, the caucus-goers have roughly another 30 minutes to support one of the remaining candidates or choose to abstain. When the voting is closed, a final head count is conducted, and each precinct proportionally apportions county delegates for each candidate. These numbers are reported to the state party, which calculates their overall state value and reports that to the media.

What is interesting about this is that candidates with supporters whose preferences are weak are punished. This is unique in American elections. Normally, it does not matter how strongly you support your first choice: he is the guy in first so he gets your vote. Here, the guy (or, in this case, the gal) whom you prefer when you walk into the caucus will only get your vote after you have resisted social pressure to switch. Social pressure is costly. Personally, I have paid more than a few dollars to avoid it [e.g. If I am browsing in a store for a long time and receiving assistance from a clerk, I feel pressure to buy something regardless of whether I want an item or not]. So, to stay with your preferred candidate, that candidate must be worth more to you than the cost of being cajoled by the organizers from one of the other campaigns. Thus, the caucus awards strong preferences.

It also favors the popular. Candidates are severely punished in a caucus if their number of supporters is small. That "viability threshold" is harsh. If your candidate does not meet the threshold, you must select a new candidate. So, presumably, you move to your second choice.

However, there is a catch - you again must withstand the social pressure of the caucus to select your second choice. When you get to your second and third choices - it is probably more likely that your marginal benefit from choosing the highest candidate still on the list decreases. Thus, you become more susceptible to social pressure. Suppose, for instance, that your first choice gets tagged as not viable, and you must then select your second choice. But your second choice candidate does not have a very good organization, while your third choice candidate does. This organization is now applying pressure upon you, cajoling you to join with them. What do you do? Is the marginal benefit you get from your second choice, rather than your third choice, so great that it is worth putting up with this harassment? Do you feel a strong distinction between your #2 and #3 candidates? Maybe, maybe not. My guess is that a lot of people would be almost indifferent between their #2 and #3 candidates; they are therefore more susceptible to social pressure. Thus, the caucus awards strong organization.

The key to success in Iowa is therefore a loyal following of sufficient size, and a strong organization. A loyal following means that your supporters are not going to be swayed by the social pressure applied to them by other candidate organizations. A strong organization not only induces people to come to the caucus, it also applies social pressure upon people to change their votes at the caucus.

N.B. I think that this means that I was incorrect earlier in the week when I argued that our primary polls are efficient only in Iowa. They clearly are not for the Democrats. The polls do not repoll everybody based upon a "viability threshold." And, what is more, they do not do a sufficient job of gauging strength of preferences. Basically, all they do is tell us who is in the lead when people walk into the caucus. If people were walking into a voting booth, where they have no pressure, and they can freely support anybody - the polls would be good enough. But that is not how a caucus works. There is a great deal of pressure, and halfway through all but a handful of the candidates are excised from consideration.

-Jay Cost

An Ames Footnote

The conventional wisdom about McCain and Giuliani's exit from the Ames straw poll is that it hurts Romney, who was probably going to win, anyway. It takes the luster off the whole affair. Yesterday, I disagreed that it hurts Romney. Overall, I think he is at least as well off because he can save his money; however, I ceded the point that at least some of the luster will be taken off.

Now I am not as sure that the victory will be any less lustrous. Even without McCain and Giuliani, Romney can still pit himself against some tough competetion. And no - I don't mean Jim Gilmore! Just like the 1978 Steelers - Romney can compete against history, and win at Ames like nobody else has.

Last night I did a Google search on the Ames straw poll, and I found this article from 1999.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush won the Iowa Republican straw poll Saturday, capturing 7,418 votes and possibly taking his first big step toward becoming the 2000 GOP presidential nominee. [SNIP]

The number of votes Bush received was a record, but his winning percentage was not. The percentage was bested by Bush's father, former President George Bush, in the 1979 straw poll (35.7 percent) and by Pat Robertson in the 1987 straw poll (34 percent).

The highest that any candidate has managed to win at Ames is only 35.7%. Without McCain or Giuliani there, Romney should be able to beat that. My guess is that he can also beat George W. Bush's record of 7,418 votes. If he does, he would be the Ames record holder on both fronts. That would return some luster to the victory, I think.

-Jay Cost

The Billionaire's Dementia

It is probably the case that, at least at this point, a Bloomberg candidacy in itself does not deserve the attention I have been giving it. However, I have found my time thinking about it worthwhile because it elucidates some key features of our two party system, many of which are rarely noted because they are constants. It is not hard to notice something when it disappears and comes back again. But if something is always there, you can find yourself taking it for granted. And when you take something for granted, it is easy to misunderstand it.

When it comes to the two parties, its permanence makes it easy for us to fail to appreciate its deep roots in the American system, and we might start deluding ourselves that a little focus, effort, good faith, and - of course - cold, hard cash could break through it. We might call this the billionaire's dementia. Ross Perot developed it 15 years ago, and Michael Bloomberg looks like he's about to catch it, too.

Late last month, he appeared on CNN and made some sly statements about whether he would run for President. Reported The Politico's David Kuhn:

Michael Bloomberg's appearance on CNN Tuesday was ostensibly to detail his announcement that all 13,000 New York City taxis will be hybrids in five years.

When the topic - inevitably - shifted to his possible third-party candidacy for the White House, Bloomberg waved off the idea.

But then he added: "There's nothing magical about two," referring to the typical number of nominees in the general election.

There's nothing magical about two?

Yes there is!

Well, it is not magic per se. However, the fact that we have only two major parties - not to mention only two viable nominees per election - is a caused phenomenon, and the cause is the structure of our electoral system.

This is the argument of Maurice Duverger, a French sociologist who, in his 1951 work, The Political Parties, offered what has since come to be called Duverger's Law. Essentially, Duverger's Law states that the number of major parties is dependent upon the voting system. Our system is what might be called a single member district plurality system. That is, one representative represents a given geographical district after he or she has acquired a plurality of that district's votes.

Duverger argues:

The brutal finality of a majority vote on a single ballot forces parties with similar tendencies to regroup their forces at the risk of being overwhelmingly defeated. Let us assume an election district in which 100,000 voters with moderate views are opposed by 80,000 communist voters. If the moderates are divided into two parties, the communist candidate may well win the election; should one of his opponents receive more than 20,000 votes, the other will be left with less than 80,000, thereby insuring the election of the communist. In the following election, the two parties with moderate views will naturally tend to unite. Should they fail to do so, the weaker party would gradually be eliminated as a dual consequence of "under-representation" and "polarization."

In other words, over time three parties will merge into two. The two parties that are ideologically similar recognize that they will be better off by unifying so as to oppose the third more efficiently. Consider the election of 1912. The Republicans were split between Roosevelt and Taft. As a consequence, Wilson won. The Taft and TR factions gained nothing at all, despite the fact that each of them carried more than 20% of the vote. Wilson won everything despite the fact that he only carried about 40% of the vote. Thus, the Taft and TR factions had an incentive to resolve their differences in advance of the next election, which they essentially did (most Bull Moosers returned to the GOP fold after TR - who recognized that a third party would again swing the election to Wilson - refused the nomination). Sure, there were divergences of opinion between them. However, both sides recognized that if they compromised with each other, they could win, and each side could get a little something. If they did not compromise, they would lose and get nothing.

In addition to this process is a phenomenon that Duverger calls "under-representation and polarization." Under-representation is what happens when you win more votes in the election than you eventually win seats in government. If you are over-represented, you have more seats than you do votes. He argues that the weakest-performing party always tends to be the most under-represented. Duverger asserts that voters are aware of this phenomenon, apprehending that a vote for the third party is literally a wasted vote. Thus, they will be less likely to support the third party even if it best reflects their issue preferences. Duverger calls this "polarization."

Duverger offers this metaphor:

The exact role of the electoral system seems, in the last analysis, to be that of an accelerator or that of a brake. An election by a majority vote on a single ballot has a dual effect: first, it poses an obstacle to the appearance of a new party, although this obstacle is not insurmountable (the role of a brake); secondly, it tends to eliminate the weakest party (or parties) if there are more than two (the role of an accelerator).

There are exceptions to Duverger's Law. Most of them involve polities with strong divergences between sections. They can support third parties because the differences between the parties are so great. Our polity, at least at this point, really lacks such a divisive sectionalism. In the past, sectional divisions have induced the presence of three significant parties at once. But these never last - as one party is either subsumed by one of the major parties (e.g. the Populist Party), both of the major parties (e.g. the Progressive Party), or is replaced by the new party (e.g. the Whig Party).

What does this logic imply for Bloomberg? It might indeed be possible for a one-off "non-party" candidate to purchase entry to the White House. Duverger's Law does not necessarily preclude the possibility. The main thrust of Duverger's argument is not about one-off candidates, but about parties over time. Obviously, the GOP and the Democrats are not going to join forces to defeat Bloomberg.

Nevertheless, it is very likely the case that Bloomberg will suffer from the problem of under-representation/polarization. It is indeed true that voters are skeptical about wasting their votes on third party candidates, and they thus will be skeptical about voting for Bloomberg even if they agree with him. The two major parties will probably be able to exploit that to great effect - in both hard ways (e.g. advertising and mailers) and soft ways (e.g. Republican and Democratic votes convincing their friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, etc. not to "waste" their votes). This aspect of Duverger's Law should damage even a one-off third party candidate like Bloomberg.

There is another way Duverger's Law might hurt Bloomberg. Recall what I argued last week. A three way race in which Bloomberg does well will almost assuredly be decided by the House of Representatives, which is exclusively Republican and Democratic. So here we might say that Duverger's Law, even if its effect is weakened by the one-off nature of a Bloomberg candidacy, will still damage him because it is why there are only two parties in the House, where a three-way contest will almost assuredly be decided.

So indeed, there is something "magical about two."

There are other problems for Bloomberg that stem from the fact that there is no serious third party that he may co-opt. The absence of a third party implies that Bloomberg has no natural talent base from which he can draw. There are literally tens of thousands of Republican and Democratic activists all across the nation who are ready, willing, and able to do the work of their parties next year. I am talking about both hard and soft voter mobilization - from sophisticated GOTV tactics like the Republicans' "72 Hour Program," to the true believers who remind sympathetic coworkers to be sure to vote on the way home. Some of them get paid, most of them do not; taken together, they are a low-cost, socially integrated labor force that is highly motivated and exceedingly loyal. Bloomberg has no such labor force.

This is a major problem for him. Democracy is one big collective action dilemma. That is, the benefits that people acquire from voting are outweighed by the costs they suffer from voting. So, how do you get people to vote? There are multiple ways, but one important way is the political party. The parties mobilize voters. That is, they induce them to vote. Bloomberg - as a "no party" candidate - will have to find another way solve the collective action dilemma that he faces.

All in all, parties are useful entities for politicians. This is why they continue to associate with them! Our system is designed in a way that induces two - not three, not four, not twelve - major parties. Bloomberg seems to want electoral victory without the aid of a political party, and seems to be prepared to spend his way to that goal. Can he? Does he have enough resources to get around under-representation/polarization, around the bias he would face in the House, around a massive collective action dilemma? I doubt it.

Under what conditions might a Bloomberg candidacy be successful? I would say that to stand a chance of victory, Bloomberg needs a breakdown of our two party system. By this I do not mean the kind of breakdown where moderate voters grow tied of the manner in which our politics is conducted, as happened in 1992. The two parties are historically very capable of absorbing such disaffected voters - as evidenced by the fact that, ultimately, it was the Democrats (in 1992) and then the Republicans (in 1994) who benefited from this public frustration.

What I mean is that a sizeable portion of the electorate must begin to believe that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats represents their views on an ontological level. This is when there are typically breakthroughs for a third-party candidate in the Electoral College. This is what happened in 1892, 1948, and 1968. Even 1912 featured a split of similar proportions; it just happened not to have been strictly regional. These were all elections with three-way divisions induced by the fact that large groups of voters did not find either party representing them on their most salient beliefs about politics.

Without such a breakdown, what you have is a situation in which almost all voters - while not being full-blown partisans - find themselves comfortably represented by one of the parties, or even both of them. They might not like either of the parties all that much, but the parties generally do not take issue positions that alienate them. So, why should they vote for Bloomberg? He would offer three angles in a candidacy: (a) Side with the GOP on certain fiscal issues; (b) Side with the Democrats on certain social issues; (c) Emphasize managerial competence. This might appeal to a lot of voters; however, if they apprehend that there is no way he could win, thanks to an expectation of under-representation in both the Electoral College and the House, they will not vote for him. Even though he might be a good fit for many voters, they will not want to waste their votes, and they will find another candidate sufficiently close to their issue preferences with a chance of success.

Ultimately, that is Bloomberg's problem. His candidacy would be a candidacy of dividing and conquering: take the best of the Republican Party's ideas and the best of the Democratic Party's ideas, and pick off that middle 33% of the electorate. That would be a great strategy - except that voters (correctly) sense that third party candidates who try to do that never win. Being rational agents, they choose not to waste their votes; thus, they vote with one of the two major parties, even if the third fella is the best fit for them. What Bloomberg needs is what he will not find - a large bloc of voters (preferably located near one another) who feel that, unless Bloomberg wins, they will get nothing out of the election. He needs a set of people who think, "Bloomberg or Bust." In other words, he needs a breakdown in the two party system. Voter frustration over that system is just not enough.

-Jay Cost

That Was Subtle, John

I guess the senior senator from Arizona was looking for a chance to extricate himself from Ames, which he did shortly after Giuliani withdrew. Was that more subtle, less subtle, or as subtle as Hillary Clinton's vote on the Iraq supplemental last month?

Well - now we know that it must be Romney that both Giuliani and McCain are afraid of in Iowa.

This will diminish the value of an Ames victory, which now will now almost assuredly go to Romney. But I would disagree with Chris Cillizza, who argues on The Fix:

With three out of the four frontrunning candidates likely bypassing the straw poll (only former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney remains committed to it), the ultimate results will carry nearly no significance. It also sets up a break with tradition, as no candidate in the past three decades who has skipped the straw poll has gone on to win the Iowa caucuses.

The test of Ames is a test of organization, right? So, if McCain and Giuliani are dropping out, what does that imply? It implies that they do not expect to have the organization to compete with Romney in advance of Ames. Thus, Romney wins Ames - and reaps its principal benefit, proof of organizational supremacy - regardless of whether Giuliani and McCain actually compete. His win might not mean as much insofar as it will not be as splashy when it actually happens, and it will not give him as much of a boost in the polls (was Ames going to do that, anyway?). However, the message sent to political elites and Iowans alike is precisely the same: Romney is ready to compete with his opponents, and his opponents are not yet ready to compete with him. There are still a lot of benefits accruing to Romney, even if they are not as plentiful as they otherwise would have been.

And, what is more, if his benefits have diminished, his costs have diminished at least as much. Think of it: Romney gets the advantage of strutting his organizational stuff without spending nearly as much money to do it. So, the benefits are a little less, for sure. But so also are the costs. I think this might net out on the positive side for Romney.

The real losers are the second-tier candidates, none of whom will have an opportunity to finish ahead of one of the first tier candidates (assuming that nobody beats Romney). Too bad for them.

Like I said, I am feeling bullish about Romney of late. He leads our polling averages for both New Hampshire and Iowa. If he wins both of those primaries, and finishes at least in second in Nevada, the whole nation will have a week to sit and stew on these developments before Florida. I have been a skeptic, but there is something about his campaign that both the Giuliani and McCain campaigns seem to lack.

-Jay Cost

Rudy, Hillary, and Iowa

Two news stories from today indicate why this race is still wide open.

The first comes from the Des Moines Register:

Democrat Hillary Clinton's shake-up of her Iowa campaign reflects an acknowledgement that she needs to make a serious effort in the leadoff caucuses, aides said Tuesday.

Clinton named longtime Iowa campaign operative and national party organizer Teresa Vilmain as the campaign's Iowa director, replacing JoDee Winterhof.

The move comes as the U.S. senator from New York leads the Democratic presidential field in most national polls but has consistently come in second or third in polls of Iowa caucusgoers.

This, of course, is just a few weeks after Clinton was encouraged to skip the Iowa caucus altogether. This is a sign of struggle in the Clinton camp, a sign that her campaign has not yet established the organizational fundamentals to get past Edwards (or, worse, to stay ahead of Obama). I think Iowa could be trouble for her. The Clinton candidacy has a larger-than-life feel to it, and I worry for her that a loss in Iowa would be like a pin-prick is to a balloon. And God help her if she finishes third. The good news for her: she is aware of a problem, and is endeavoring to make positive steps in the Hawkeye State. And, of course, it is better to do this in June than in November.

The second news item regards the GOP field. It comes from Jonathan Martin's blog on Politico.com:

Rudy Giuliani will not participate in the Ames Straw Poll in August, a traditional test of strength in the GOP presidential contest.

Rudy's Iowa and national campaign broke the news to the Des Moines Register's Tom Beaumont this morning and will hold a conference call with all media to discuss the matter at Noon.

Giuliani campaign manager Mike DuHaime sought to lessen the sting to Iowa GOP activists by couching the decision as part of a broader decision to forgo all straw polls this year. He also reiterated that they were "100 percent committed to winning the Iowa caucuses." They'll add more staff there this month and the candidate will return to the state in a few weeks, per Beaumont.

If Rudy is not running at Ames, it means he is afraid that he is not going to do well there, which does not surprise me. He probably has assessed that he cannot finish first at Ames, and he is worried that he might finish third or fourth. His decision about Ames might be a sign that he will skip Iowa altogether. While I think Rudy can suffer a second place finish in Iowa, I doubt that he could finish third in the caucus without some major damage.

This is where Iowa can play spoiler. If the two front runners do worse than expected in the state, it might damage them elsewhere. Iowa voters serve as a cue to voters in the rest of the primaries. Giuliani and Clinton might have nationwide leads right now, but if Iowa puts them both in third, their respective positions will be damaged. This is, of course, exactly what happened to Howard Dean.

And so, we can see that these two are frontrunners*. They both have potential weaknesses such that several of their opponents have reasonable paths to the nomination. And, ultimately, we do ourselves a disservice by focusing too intently on the national polls, which - as I argued yesterday - are not really apt. I think that these polls inflate the difference between Giuliani and the rest of the GOP field, and Clinton and the rest of the Democratic field.

Starting next week (hopefully), I am going to offer evaluations of the leaders for each party's nomination. I think I will have something unique to say about each of them. I'll quote Mr. Martin again just to offer a little hint of what I'll argue about Mitt Romney:

While it remains to be seen whether Fred Thompson participates -- and signs would indicate that he doesn't intend to -- the absence of the national frontrunner will lessen the value of the event. It also may ratchet up the pressure on the lesser known candidates to drop out of the race. If, for example, Giuliani and Thompson both skip the event and still finish among the top spots (keep in mind that their names will still likely be on the ballot) ahead of candidates who spent considerable time and money on Ames it will make their back-of-the-pack finishes all the more crushing.

I believe it will be a good summer for Mr. Romney. We have him in first in our poll average for Iowa, and one, maybe two, of his biggest rivals will be skipping the Ames straw poll. This presents him with an excellent opportunity. This is yet another reason why I am becoming more bullish about his prospects.

-Jay Cost

Can the State Parties Pressure GOP Senators on Immigration?

This is a question one might be inclined to ask after reading this article. Though the query is not explicitly raised, it came to my mind after this lead:

President Bush's immigration bill is hurting fundraising by the Republican National Committee, but fierce grass-roots opposition to the legislation is helping several state Republican parties.

Tina Benkiser, chairwoman of the Republican Party in the president's home state of Texas, says raising money has been successful "in large part to our principled stance against illegal immigration." Since the beginning of 2006, when substantial immigration debate began, she says, "the Republican Party of Texas has experienced an exponential increase in direct-mail donations from supporters statewide.

So, can the state Republican parties force the GOP caucus to change its mind?

The answer is: probably not.

The state party might be able to exercise a soft power over senators insofar as it is a good barometer of the mood of the party-in-the-electorate. This can matter. Obviously, senators do not want to alienate their bases in such a way that they lose their support in the next election. However, one of the best things about being in the Senate is that you can legislate without being too worried about the public mood. This is by design. Remember that initially state legislators selected senators. The 17th amendment brought some democratic accountability to the upper chamber of Congress, but senators are still comfortably removed from the whims of the public.

Beyond this soft power, which will be muted by the six-year term of senators, the state party really has little-to-no influence on incumbent federal legislators. The state party's role is really one of limited and unconditional support for incumbent federal partisans. To the extent that it expends resources on behalf of federal candidates, there really are few strings attached. A state party could - in theory at least - influence senators by threatening to recruit and endorse a primary challenger. But I can think of no instances in recent history where that has happened. This is unsurprising. Defeating an incumbent senator in a primary would probably be tantamount to handing the seat over to the other side. Thus, so long as your incumbent demonstrates some appreciable difference between him/herself and the other party, supporting him/her is still the rational choice.

No - the state party really has little influence over senators. Its relationship is really characterized by service - it helps its senators win reelection. While this article seconds what we already knew - the GOP grassroots is mightily agitated over this bill - I cannot imagine a single senator worrying about some kind of retribution from his or her state party.

-Jay Cost

The Vagaries of the Primary System

Our nation's primary process is a strange, variegated system. In the next few months, I intend to take a closer look at not only the primary system itself, but also the nominating process in general.

In that vein, Jon from Pasadena sent me this very insightful commentary about polling in the primary. I'll quote it in full with the general comment that it underscores, and expands upon, the basic hypothesis from my earlier post on the subject: our primary polls are inefficient estimators of our primary votes.

Pay particular attention to Jon's last paragraph. I have been noodling with similar thoughts for a while now. Hopefully, in the next few weeks - I'll have something of substance to say on the matter of the Super-Duper-Double-Dip Tuesday that will be 2/05/08. In the meantime, I need to do some more research on the vagaries of the primary system.

But Jon seems to know his stuff, so I'll let him take it from here:

Your blog on the inadequacies of the framework most pollsters use was insightful.

But I think the situation is even more complicated than you present, due to the impact of the proportional representation system adopted by most state parties.

As you note, our November general elections are basically winner take all -- the top vote-getter receives all the electoral votes from each state he or she wins. However, in the Democratic nominating process, all caucuses and primaries work in a system of proportional representation -- even if you come in second, you still get a good number of delegates. I believe many Republican state parties have moved, or are moving, toward proportional representation as well.

But there is a hidden kicker in this system. A candidate must gain a minimum number of votes -- usually 15% -- to get any delegates at all. If the candidate polls under 15% (which is where many candidates now stand in the polls), he or she is essentially dropped out of the calculation entirely, and those candidates getting more than 15% of the vote split up all the delegates (both those directly elected and those chosen "at-large" later in the process).

The interesting question, in relation to your discussion of relative preferences, is whether knowledge of this threshold will then alter voter behavior, especially among those favoring candidates doing less well.

For example, I was a Dean delegate in 2004, yet Howard Dean garnered less than 15% of the vote in my Congressional District so Dean didn't get any delegates at all and I got to stay home that summer. By the time California had its primary, it was clear that Dean's support had diminished substantially. Knowing that, did many Dean supporters skip their first choice and move down their preference order to vote for their number 2 or 3 candidate?

The national and state polling will be widely distributed next January and February. Voters will be well aware of who is really in contention and who is not. And at least some of the primary voters (who already represent a selected subset, presumably the more committed, interested and aware) will likely be exposed to pundits' explanations of the intricacies of primary rules and the likelihood that votes for lesser candidates (Richardson, Dodd, Biden, Brownback, Huckabee, Tancredo, Hunter) will be "wasted" votes.

So it would seem that pollsters should be attentive not only to preference ranking, but to levels of commitment to top-ranked underdogs and voters' willingness to abandon preferred candidates to avoid "wasting" their votes.

For candidates polling in the 10% to 20% range, this presents a fascinating range of possibilities: does one attack Edwards just enough to keep him under 15%, but not enough to alienate his supporters irreparably? Does one support minor candidates, hoping they will draw votes from a front-runner but will, in the end, still be under 15% so the votes will be wasted? Should the minimum threshold be reduced in earlier primaries, or perhaps all primaries, or should it be dependent upon the number of candidates (the more candidates, the lower the threshold for getting at least a few delegates)?

Lastly, many pundits are assuming that front-loading the primary calendar will result in a relatively quick resolution of the primary process. I fear they may be underestimating the complications that proportional representation introduces; we could very well end up with two or three front-runners, none of whom have a clear majority. In the Democratic primary process, about 15% of all delegates are "super-delegates", who become delegates by virtue of their position (national committee members, governors, other elected or senior party officials) independent of their commitment to any candidate. Could it be that those super-delegates might end up controlling the nominating process?

-Jay Cost

Will Bush Pardon Libby?

Will he? I honestly do not know. The actions of this White House are becoming increasingly difficult for me to predict.

But I would say that, as a purely political matter, Bush should not pardon Libby. The reason is that pardoning Libby would not bring Bush any benefits, and it would reinforce the perception among many that this White House is insular and inept. This could be costly for him.

If this were the end of the Bush term, a pardon would be politically costless. However, this is not the end of the term. Bush is not even a lame duck, despite his low poll numbers. He still has a major political battle forthcoming in the Fall, i.e. the issue of funding the Iraq War. Bush needs to position himself as well as he is able to induce the Congress to adopt his preferred course of action. It will not just be a matter of General Petraeus reporting good news (if he indeed reports good news). Bush will also have to sell this news. Pardoning Libby would, I think anyway, diminish his capacity to do this. After all, the Libby affair is part-and-parcel of the national Iraq debate; his political opponents argue that it is a metaphor for how this administration initiated and prosecuted this war. Pardoning Libby would give them a fresh way to rephrase their argument - just in time for the next fight over the war. Thus, it would diminish his capacity to market his policy preferences on Iraq.

Well - one might say - this does not matter. The people who are convinced that Bush is hopelessly mired in cronyism will oppose him, anyway. This is true, but it does not mean that there are not moderate Democrats and Republicans who are on the fence about Iraq, who are indeed troubled by the run-up to and the prosecution of this war, but who could be persuaded to come along in the Fall. These are the legislators who can see the difference between the war in itself and Bush's prosecution of it.

This differentiation is difficult for many to make, and so the "equlibirum" of these legislators is not incredibly stable. It seems to me that it is possible that they could become so disenchanted with Bush that they abandon the war effort altogether. This is what has happened already with a large number of legislators, mostly in the Democratic caucus. But - as we have seen in this session of Congress - there are still enough legislators left who can see a difference, and who can therefore be induced to support the President. Pardoning Libby runs the risk of alienating this group of legislators. These legislators are deeply disappointed with Bush's prosecution of the war; if he gives them more reasons to be disappointed, that may tip them to Bush's opponents, regardless of what Petraeus reports.

I am not saying that this is what will happen if Bush pardons Libby. I am not saying that pardoning Libby will dissolve Bush's coalition. I am saying that it could damage the fragile, and shrinking, congressional bloc that Bush has left. And so, my point: why risk it? Because I. Scooter Libby may have been dealt an injustice that may eventually be identified and corrected by the courts? Is that worth the risk?

-Jay Cost

Why I Love Gallup

With all due respect to the other great pollsters out there, this is why Gallup is the poll I look to first.

This is from their new poll.

4. (Asked of Democrats and independents who lean to the Democratic Party)I'm going to read a list of people who may be running in the Democratic primary for president in the next election. After I read all the names, please tell me which of those candidates you would be most likely to support for the Democratic nomination for President in the year 2008, or if you would support someone else.

5.(Asked of Democrats and independents who lean to the Democratic Party who named a candidate they support for the Democratic nomination in 2008) Who would be your second choice?

This is not exactly what I argued for earlier today. I would like to see everybody's preference ordering from 1 to 8 (in the case of the Democrats) and be able to see the raw data so I could run correlations to find out if there is a relationship between your first choice and your second choice - but this is a step in the right direction.

So also is this question:

6.(Asked of Democrats and independents who lean to the Democratic Party)Suppose the choice for the Democratic presidential nomination narrows down to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Which one would you prefer the Democratic Party nominate for president -- (ROTATED:) Hillary Clinton (or) Barack Obama?

Again, not exactly what I would like. But a step in the right direction.

[N.B. Actually, I was just being rhetorical when I said that this is why I love Gallup. They are indeed my favorite poll, but that is because they offer polls on congressional politics that go as far back to 1946. There are a whole host of polls today that are as good as Gallup. But Gallup's history gives me a large number of observations to test hypotheses. One hypothesis that I hope to test pretty soon is that congressional job approval is positively correlated with presidential job approval, regardless of whether the government is divided. This would mean that the 110th Congress's marks are low because Bush's marks are low [as opposed to the idea that Nancy Pelosi et al. are pissing voters off, which I honestly doubt]. I wold not be able to test this if it were not for Gallup, which is why I love them. Well - that and because George Gallup all but said Harry Truman should give up in 1948, and yet the firm still managed to build a reputation for reliability. You have to respect that kind of comeback!]

-Jay Cost

The Poll I Would Like To See

One of the problems with media polling in the primary campaign is that it uses the same format as in the general campaign. That is, all of the candidates are set against one another, and the respondents are asked to select only their first choices. The "winner" of the poll is the one who has the most people register him or her as their first choices.

This type of polling is efficient for the general election because that is essentially what happens on that fabled Tuesday in November. We vote for our first choices, and our first choices only. Whoever is the first choice of the most people is the winner. Thus, the poll is an efficient way to gauge public opinion in advance of the election. The poll and the election are so similar.

However, in the primary season, this type of polling becomes inefficient. This is because most voters do not get to make the choice in the voting booth that respondents make in a poll. Primary voting is staggered. Some of us vote after others. This is important because candidates drop out. In reality, Iowans are the only people who make a selection for the presidential nomination the way respondents answer polls. The rest of us have to choose from a smaller field. So, this format of polling does not capture the reality of the primary election.

Well, Jay, you might say - that may be true. But aren't you just being unnecessarily technical here? After all, just how problematic could this possibly be? Maybe it is the case that the polls do not give us an absolute sense of the race, but they at least give us a relative sense of the race. We know who is beating whom, even if we do not know by how much. For instance, if Clinton is ahead of Obama in the polls - we know that, as a whole, the electorate prefers her to him, regardless of who else is running. So, at least we have some "purchase" on the state of the race.

Not true!

This argument runs afoul of the fallacy of composition. I would certainly agree that every individual has what might be called a rational "preference ordering." That is, every individual could arrange his or her choice for the Democratic nomination in a way like the following:

Clinton > Obama > Gore > Edwards


Gore > Obama > Edwards > Clinton

For either of these individuals, if you eliminate Edwards from the contest, you are not going to change how either person feels about Clinton in relation to Obama. You would still see:

Clinton > Obama > Gore


Gore > Obama > Clinton

This is called the "indepndence of irrelevant alternatives." Your preference about Edwards has no bearing upon whether you prefer Clinton over Obama, or Obama over Clinton. This is part and parcel of basic human rationality. We expect every mentally sound person to exhibit this kind of behavior. At Thanksgiving dinner, you would expect your aunt to prefer mashed potatoes over scalloped potatoes regardless of what else is served. If she changes her preference between the two of them because you serve asparagus instead of peas - you will start to worry about her!

On the other hand, it is often the case that, as a society, we collectively fail to exhibit this "rationality." That is, when we aggregate the preferences of everybody together, we can sometimes wind up with a result where the presence or absence of peas changes our mind about the better potato.

The following is a good example. Suppose that the Democratic primary electorate is composed of four people who exhibit the following preference ordering:

Voter 1: Clinton > Obama > Edwards > Gore

Voter 2: Edwards > Obama > Clinton > Gore

Voter 3: Obama > Clinton > Gore > Edwards

Voter 4: Clinton > Edwards > Obama > Gore

Let us suppose that, to determine what the group prefers, we give each candidate a score between 1 and 4 depending upon where they end up with each voter. Whoever has the highest score is the group's preferred choice. In this case, Clinton would get 13. Obama would get 12. Edwards would get 10. Gore would get 5. Thus, we could say that the group prefers:

Group: Clinton > Obama > Edwards > Gore

And, in an election, Clinton would win with 50% of the vote.

But what if Edwards were to drop out? We would see the following preferences from our four voters:

Voter 1: Clinton > Obama > Gore

Voter 2: Obama > Clinton > Gore

Voter 3: Obama > Clinton > Gore

Voter 4: Clinton > Obama > Gore

If we reassign scores for each candidate between 1 and 3 depending upon where they end up for each voter, we get: Clinton with 10, Obama with 10, Gore with 4. Thus, the group would then prefer:

Group: Clinton = Obama > Gore

And, in an election, there would be a tie between Obama and Clinton.

See the "irrationality" here? In the four-way race, the group as a whole preferred Clinton to Obama. If the group was acting "rationally," Edwards's exit from the race should have no effect on how the group views Clinton in relation to Obama. And yet, it did! An "irrelevant alternative" was eliminated, and yet the relationship between Clinton and Obama was not "independent" of the elimination.

This is an example of a general problem with all voting systems. Regardless of how you design a social choice mechanism - be it winner-take-all, two-stage voting, open primary voting, whatever - you can always arrange the preferences of the voters in such a way that you can wind up with an "irrational" result such as this.

Of course, these "irrationalities" are not actually irrationalities. Rationality is something the characterizes a person. It is a fallacy of composition to think that just because a person can be characterized as rational or irrational, a group of persons can be, too. A group is neither rational or irrational.

This is important. If we say that a group is irrational, it might be that we cannot predict its behavior. But we are not saying that; all we are saying is that rationality/irrationality is not a dichotomy that applies to groups. So it is indeed possible to predict group behavior. If we know what everybody's preferences are, and we know the voting system, and we know the changes in the race, we could predict what would happen, just as we could predict that - in the above example - Obama would tie Clinton if Edwards were to leave.

Unfortunately for us, we know the voting system, we know the changes in the race, but we do not know everybody's preference orderings. Why? Because media polls do not tell us.

I'll wager not only that candidate-sponsored polls ask voters to rank the candidates in the above manner, but also that some candidates have strategies to knock out other candidates. It seems intuitive - to me, anyway - that if Edwards were indeed to exit the race, Obama would be aided. I am guessing that the people who place Edwards above Clinton also place Obama above Clinton. Just a hunch. So, Obama has an incentive to knock Edwards down, Clinton has an incentive to prop him up.

My intuition is that there is something similar going on with the Republicans, too. Giuliani is in the lead right now, but it seems to me that this might not hold if candidates start exiting the race. In other words, like Clinton, he has an interest in keeping the field as large as possible. Others, namely McCain and Romney, might have an incentive to attack one another if they suspect they would win in a smaller field.

If it were the case that everybody voted at the same time, the media's polling method would be ideal. But that is not the way it is. So, the poll I would like to see is a query of primary voters that asks them to rank the candidates from worst to first, and let us view the raw data. Maybe then we could get a sense of what will happen.

One final point. This phenomenon works just the same when you add an alternative as when you subtract one. When we ask, "Fred Thompson is in, whom does he hurt?" we are implicitly acknowledging this point. Even though the presence or absence of Fred Thompson has no effect on whether an individual prefers Giuliani to McCain, it might be the case that it changes how a group relates Giuliani to McCain.

Yep - primary polling is inefficient. No doubt about it. It would be nice if it were altered to better reflect the reality of the primary voting season.

-Jay Cost