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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> April 2009

Is Arlen Specter Safe Now?

The instant reaction to Arlen Specter's decision to switch parties was that it is a sign of GOP weakness. My take is that it is just as much a sign of Arlen Specter's weakness. As I wrote yesterday, I think this decision was due to Specter's problems in the state.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has consistently had a three-to-five point Democratic tilt to it. Yet this did not stop Republican John Heinz from winning reelection in 1982 with 59% of the vote (a great year for Democrats), and then with 66% of the vote in 1988. This is the mark of a senator who has cultivated a good personal relationship with his state. Specter's numbers are much less impressive. He won just 53% of the vote in 2004 - despite outspending his opponent 5-to-1. He had an extremely close call in 1992: after he went after Anita Hill on the Senate Judiciary Committee, he squeaked by Lynn Yeakel with just 49% of the vote. His biggest triumph was in 1998, when he won 61% of the vote. Yet he ran against a candidate who spent just $180,000 - and the best he could do was three in five Pennsylvanians.

Specter has never been a particularly strong candidate - and we can talk about the narrow intolerance of the Republican Party, but the fact is that the GOP money machine has consistently had to kick in tens of thousands of dollars every cycle in case Snarlin' Arlen gets himself into trouble, which he regularly does. So, when we're talking about the GOP's intolerance, we're talking about some ill-defined subset of the party, as those who have supported Specter include Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, George W. Bush, the Pennsylvania Republican Party, the Pennsylvania Republicans who have consistently voted for him in the general election, and so on.

So, let's assume for a moment that this "the GOP is a shrinking, pathetic rump" meme had not already taken hold in the press prior to Specter's departure. What would we infer about his decision? It'd be pretty simple: the guy is a lousy candidate who had finally worn out his welcome with his own side. After 28 years in the GOP, his reputation with the state party is so poor that he has to bail more than one year before his primary. Sure metro Philadelphia has lost a boatload of Republican voters - but isn't it amazing that this is enough to make Specter's position unsustainable? For many Pennsylvania residents who live in the west - like myself - this confirms what we have long suspected, Specter should have been labeled (R - Philadelphia). Clearly, this is a politician who has not cultivated a personal relationship with the broader state.

And not just the state GOP. He barely pulled in 60% of the vote in 1998 against a guy who spent a pittance - which means that a solid majority of the Democratic electorate pulled the lever for a guy they had never heard of, instead of Arlen Specter, who had been serving in the Senate for 20 years by that point. These are now Specter's core constituents. He thinks he stands a better chance with them.

Regarding the title question, I'd answer it in the negative. First of all, I would not underestimate Pat Toomey. He won three terms in PA 15 (Allentown), whose presidential vote is basically a microcosm of the country. He is going to have a lot of money - not just from Club for Growth donors, but angry Republicans nationwide. And Specter has handed him a major valence issue: the senior senator from Pennsylvania is above all interested in the senior senator from Pennsylvania. This has long been the rap on Specter - and on Tuesday he confirmed that in a big way. Money and a message are two crucial ingredients to electoral success - and Toomey will have both. I'd say that Toomey is also going to need an anti-incumbent, pro-Republican national mood to help him next year - as Rick Santorum enjoyed in 1994 - but I would not count him out. There is, when it's all said and done, little love lost between Arlen Specter and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Toomey could exploit this.

This, of course, assumes that Specter wins the nomination of the Democratic Party, whose voters split 71-28 against him in the 2004 election. And again, it is a sign of just how much water Specter has drained out of the pool that he thinks he'll stand a better chance with these voters rather than Republicans, who have consistently supported him at levels greater than 80%.

I'll put it simply: a Democrat with credibility, message, and money could give Specter just as much trouble as Toomey was set to. There is a very straightforward strategy to be pursued: win the Democrats who don't particularly care for Specter, either. By and large, this would be working class white Democrats in the west, upper income white liberals in the east, and African Americans of all income groups and ideological dispositions statewide. These groups have voted against Arlen Specter for nearly 30 years. A Democrat who can unite them under his banner could defeat him.

Can that coalition be created? I think so. A candidate who has money would - like Toomey - also have a great valence issue: why shouldn't the Pennsylvania Democratic Party demand a Democrat? In other words, the fact that Arlen Specter really has no partisan loyalty could conceivably hurt him in the Democratic primary, as it had in the GOP.

It is simply a matter of finding a decent candidate who can raise the cash. And before we assume that the Democratic Party establishment - complete with a popular president and a well-heeled party apparatus - can stop money flowing to opponents of Arlen Specter, we should consider the strange case of...Arlen Specter! Despite George W. Bush and the GOP's best efforts in 2004, Pat Toomey still raised $4.5 million. The party establishment can make sure its preferred candidate is funded - but that does not mean that an insurgent challenger cannot find access to dollars, either. Money in politics is like water flowing downhill. Good luck stopping it.

Ultimately, we'll just have to wait and see. If a big name Democrat tosses his or her hat into the ring - that's a sure sign Specter is going to face a real challenge. And again, it's important to keep in mind the timing. It's a year until the primary. Top-line Democrats have time to mull the decision, thanks to Arlen Specter. Again, just a sign of how weak he was in the GOP - he had to jump to the other side so early that any prospective opponent has time to get his or her ducks in a row.

To that end, this is from PA2010:

With the Democratic Party seemingly lining up behind Senator Arlen Specter at the state and national levels, Congressman Joe Sestak (D-7) has emerged as the most likely candidate to buck party leaders and run against Specter, party insiders and political analysts say.

While Democrats across the state were issuing statements in support of Specter's decision to switch parties Tuesday, Sestak was far more critical. He joined Republicans in lambasting Specter for political opportunism, and would not rule out a campaign of his own. His political profile, his large campaign war chest and his relative lack of ties to the state's Democratic apparatus have made him the odds-on favorite to run.

"Sestak can run to the left [of Specter] because he has military credentials," a House Democratic staffer said of the retired Navy Vice-Admiral.

The staffer added: "There's a lot of Democrats that are angry that [Specter will] be the Democratic nominee, especially since he admitted it was such a political calculation. I think there will be a Democratic primary."

Hmmm...a progressive Democrat with military credentials. It sounds to me like he'd have a leg up with two of those three voting groups: western working class Dems and (mostly eastern) upscale liberals.

Keep an eye on Sestak. Snarlin' Arlen certainly will.

-Jay Cost

Shifting Sands of PA Politics Endangered Specter

A common meme in the press is that Pennsylvania, like the rest of the Northeast, has shifted to the left in the last 20 years. However, matters are more complicated than this. Pennsylvania has exhibited a consistent, three-to-five point Democratic tilt over the last 50 years. That means that if, for instance, a Democrat wins the national vote by five points, we can expect him to win Pennsylvania by eight to ten points. We saw roughly this in 2008. Obama won the national vote by about seven points, and he won Pennsylvania by about ten points, for a three-point tilt. This is right in line with the historical average of the Keystone State.

This statewide consistency masks major changes within the state. There have been two big developments in Pennsylvania's political geography in the last 20 years that have counteracted each other - so that neither party has really gained a net benefit on the presidential level. However, these changes have cut decisively against Arlen Specter. I believe they are key to understanding why he left the GOP.

For the last twenty years or so, metropolitan Philadelphia in the southeast has been moving to the Democratic Party. However, this movement has so far been countered by movement toward the GOP in metro Pittsburgh in particular and the west in general. That, plus the population growth of the strongly Republican, exurban counties of Lancaster and York, means that the state as a whole still votes for President as it has for fifty years.

We can appreciate this in the following map, which shows the shift in presidential voting from 1976 to 2004.

PA Tilt 2004.jpg

I have not updated this map for 2008 - but I can say that metro Philadelphia continued its movement to the left while metro Pittsburgh moved to the right. McCain did better than Bush in five of the seven counties that make up the latter. He did no worse in Allegheny County, where the city of Pittsburgh is located. And he did only a point worse in heavily Republican Butler County, which has voted for the GOP in every election but 1964.

The story of Philadelphia's movement to the left has been well-documented, and I won't repeat it here. What's happened in the west has not gone as noticed - but its political consequence has been significant. It's worth a brief discussion.

This part of the country was staunchly New Deal Democratic for decades following the Great Depression. Ronald Reagan lost every county of metro Pittsburgh save one in 1984. However, in the last twenty years the steel industry has all but disappeared - with only the Edgar Thompson Works and the Steelers insignia as the last vestiges of what used to be. As the industrial jobs have gone overseas, greater Pittsburgh has moved to the right. This is a movement that has also been exhibited in the tri-state area. George W. Bush and John McCain did well in southern and western Ohio, as well as West Virginia. It's not coincidental that John McCain and Sarah Palin made their final stand here in Western PA.

How does this relate to Arlen Specter? He's from eastern Pennsylvania. That's where his political roots are - and that area has been atrophying Republicans. In the last five years, the GOP has lost about 60,000 registered Republicans statewide. In metropolitan Philadelphia alone, it has lost about 100,000. In other words, outside of metro Philly, the GOP has not shed voters. [Although with the growth in the size of the overall electorate, it has lost standing relative to the Democrats inside and outside metro Philadelphia.] Western Pennsylvania voters - while they are now more amenable to and constitute a larger portion of the state GOP - do not have local ties to Specter, tend to be culturally conservative and thus more likely to disagree with him on big issues like abortion, and are generally part of the GOP's rise in a part of the country that has little connection to the old party establishment in the Northeast.

In the 2004 GOP primary every county in metro Pittsburgh voted for Toomey over Specter - and Specter failed to crack 40% in several of them. In the general election that year, Specter ran behind Bush in six of the seven counties in metro Pittsburgh, even though he won the state by almost ten points and Bush lost it by two and a half. In 1992 - the last time Specter faced a tough general election challenge - his opponent, Lynn Yeakel, won six of the seven counties that border Ohio. Additionally, Toomey defeated Specter in York and Lancaster counties in the 2004 primary. Specter's narrow victory in the primary depended entirely on him sweeping Toomey in metropolitan Philadelphia, whose declining importance in the statewide Republican electorate has now made Specter exceedingly vulnerable.

I think the big story - which I do not expect to be emphasized because many Beltway pundits don't know much about Pennsylvania politics, especially west of the Appalachian Mountains - is that the political dynamic in the Keystone State has shifted, not so much against the GOP (at least on the presidential level), but against Arlen Specter, who has - during his twenty eight years in the Senate - failed to develop a durable political connection to Western Pennsylvania. When he entered the Senate, metropolitan Philadelphia, his home base, was also the GOP's base in the state. In 1980 four of the five counties in Philadelphia voted for Reagan while five of the seven counties in metro Pittsburgh voted for Carter. This has basically been inverted in the last quarter century - and while neither party's presidential candidate has been better off statewide for this shift, Arlen Specter has personally been on the losing end.

The interpretation from the wise political sages in Washington, D.C. is inevitably going to be about how the hardened, conservative rump Republican Party is so intolerant of a moderate like Arlen Specter that he had no choice but to bolt. However, this is quite an oversimplification. There is a big geographical component to this story: the west has become more important in party politics, and Specter has long been weak in the west.

One of the great all time books in political science is called Homestyle, by Richard Fenno. Professor Fenno tracked a dozen or so members of Congress in the 1970s to learn how they interacted with their constituents. He noted that incumbents frequently run into trouble when the demographics of their districts shift. If they don't shift with them, they can lose. The demographics of the Pennsylvania GOP have shifted on Arlen Specter - the base of the party has moved away from his home area where his personal ties are strongest. This left him extremely vulnerable heading into the 2010 primary. With Toomey positioned to take advantage - Specter switched sides.

-Jay Cost

Obama the Sophist

This is from the President's remarks at the National Academy of Science:

At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science. That support for research is somehow a luxury at a moment defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been.

Who the hell is saying we cannot afford to invest in science? Isn't the real argument about whether we can spend so much more (fully 3% of GDP) on science, and revitalize the economy, and save the banks, and save the Big Three, and spend more on education, and reform health care, and revolutionize the energy sector all at the same time?

I have heard "there are those who say..." from this President quite a bit in the last three months. I think it's time he start naming names. Who are these people who hold such backward-looking, unacceptable positions? If they are elected members of the government, shouldn't the President tell us who they are so we can vote them out? If they are unelected, how is it they have such power?

Or maybe there are no such people, at least not of such relevance they deserve specific mention by the President. Maybe this is just a rhetorical trick designed to make Mr. Obama's position seem like the only one allowed by common sense.

Also, the following seems a bit demagogic, doesn't it?

And if there was ever a day that reminded us of our shared stake in science and research, it's today.

We are closely monitoring the emerging cases of swine flu in the United States. This is obviously a cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert. But it is not a cause for alarm... But one thing is clear - our capacity to deal with a public health challenge of this sort rests heavily on the work of our scientific and medical community. And this is one more example of why we cannot allow our nation to fall behind.

The swine flu outbreak is a reason to amp up funding for the sciences? This is playing on public fears to advance a political agenda that's only tangentially related to said fears.

And, of course, no presidential address would be complete without a gratuitous shot at his predecessor. Even a speech on science.

And we have watched as scientific integrity has been undermined and scientific research politicized in an effort to advance predetermined ideological agendas.

We know that our country is better than this....

On March 9th, I signed an executive memorandum with a clear message: Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over. Our progress as a nation - and our values as a nation - are rooted in free and open inquiry. To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy.

He doesn't come right out and say it - but he is talking about stem cell research here. Personally, I'm pretty ambivalent on the issue of stem cell research. I view it as a minor skirmish in the broader war on abortion. However, I think this is a gross mischaracterization of the position of those who are opposed to federal funding of stem cell research. Given that this is coming from a President who, as a candidate, campaigned on ending the pattern of gross mischaracterizations in Washington, D.C. - I find this really aggravating.

What is especially annoying to me is that - to win what amounts to a few quick, short-term political points - the President is really hitting below the belt. Those who are opposed to federal funding of stem cell research are somehow un-American: they are against "free and open inquiry," and are willing to undermine "scientific integrity" and "our democracy." Why? In service to "a pre-determined ideological agenda."

Science cannot be separated from "ideology." In fact, the idea that science must be free of ideology is itself an ideological position. That's just simply a matter of definitions. "Ideology," as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary:

The science of ideas; that department of philosophy or psychology which deals with the origin and nature of ideas.

Additionally, science is inseparable from politics or political ideology. Science is often a tool of politics - for instance, when the government directs money to certain scientific endeavors over others for political purposes. Why is it that "we can put a man on the moon, but we can't..."? Ultimately, one reason is that the federal government in the 1960s set about putting a man on the moon for Cold War purposes. What is funded and what is not funded is frequently political. Additionally, science inevitably challenges the core, shared values of a society. When that happens - it becomes a political question of what to do next. See for instance, human cloning. Simply because science can make it happen does not mean that it should. Instead, the political process has intervened to outlaw the development of that line of scientific research. Why? It conflicts with our values.

Like any political question, the role of science in society is complicated, and ironically does not admit of any straightforward, scientific answers. Most all of us oppose human cloning - but there will be other issues (like stem cell research) where the lines are not drawn so lopsidedly. In those instances, it becomes a political issue - and it is very unfortunate that the President has once again chosen to promote his own, valid opinion by arguing that the opinions of those who disagree are somehow invalid.

One reason that I was so interested in candidate Obama in 2007 was that he seemed to have the same broad orientation to politics as I do. The world is a harsh, complicated place in which to live. Ultimately, we're going to have different views on what to do. But politics isn't like math, where there is some unequivocal answer waiting at the bottom of a proof. It's hazy and uncertain. Our policy proposals are more like stabs in the dark than geometric theorems. So ultimately, we should accept as fact that others will disagree - and we should respect those who disagree with us, above all assuming that they're acting in good faith.

In 2007, I thought this is how the President thought about things, too. It has become increasingly clear to me, however, that either he doesn't, or his inner circle doesn't. This speech - as well as many before it - is simply inconsistent with that view of the world.

Consistent with my view on matters: I respect that now is the time for the Democrats to implement policy. I do not share many of their policy preferences - and were I given a vote on them, I would vote no more often than yes. However, they have decisively won two elections, they are honest in their intentions, and they might ultimately be proven to be correct. So, I wish them well.

Yet I am sick and tired of the President's rhetorical sophistry - and if Frank Newport called me up today, I would say that I disapprove of the job he is doing. If Scott Rasmussen's computer called me, I'd say that I strongly disapprove. A President should not be mischaracterizing, and working actively to alienate, as much as 40% of his constituency - especially after he promised he wouldn't.

-Jay Cost

Does Jon Stewart Influence Public Opinion?

As a politics nerd, I have several subscriptions to very nerdy academic journals. One of them is Political Behavior. I like to keep the nerdiness quotient of this blog reasonably low, so it is rare that I actually blog on one of the articles in this journal, or any other for that matter.

But an article in the recent edition of Political Behavior caught my eye. It hooks into an ongoing discussion people have been having about the slant of political coverage, particularly over The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Written by Jonathan Morris of East Carolina State University, the article, entitled "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and Audience Attitude Change During the 2004 Conventions," is worth a discussion.

In recent years, scholars have found that late-night entertainment programs can have political effects - educating viewers and increasing interest in politics among the non-active. In particular, there has been a good bit of research into The Daily Show. Morris says, "Overall, the consensus of this research is that The Daily Show does have the potential to influence political discourse as well as overall attitudes."

Stewart, of course, has made no secret of his leanings toward the left - and others have noted that his show tends to skewer Republicans and conservatives more harshly than Democrats and liberals. Anybody who watches the show will probably see this tendency, but what of it? I never thought it mattered much, personally. Morris does a fair job of summarizing my view:

What if The Daily Show and Jon Stewart are friendlier toward Democrats and more critical of Republicans? Why should such a tendency be considered significant? The program is a half-hour, entertainment-based, talk show that openly mocks its own credibility as "fake news."

This has been my thinking for a while. I didn't think Stewart was particularly fair to Jim Cramer - for instance - but so what? Many who thought that interview was consequential are media types who don't have a good grasp of public opinion. And anyway, they're looking for copy - so invariably they'll make more of something like that than it deserves. In the ocean of American politics, that was just a tiny ripple. Does it really matter all that much?

Morris's analysis has given me some pause. He looks at The Daily Show's coverage of the two political conventions in 2004 to answer two empirical questions:

(a) whether or not The Daily Show's brand of humor during the 2004 party conventions was more sharply pointed at Republicans than at Democrats, and
(b) whether or not The Daily Show's audience during this time became more critical of the Republican nominee for President.

The conventions are a good way to test this hypothesis because there are very few differences between the events. They are scripted party infomercials that have a nearly-identical format.

Morris finds that the number of Daily Show jokes per convention was similar, but their content was different. Specifically:

Humor of a physical nature, which tends to highlight humorous appearance, momentarily odd behavior, incidental errors, or political miscalculation was employed at the Democratic Convention with much greater frequency than the Republican Convention. That is, political awkwardness was a much more common theme during the Democratic Convention. During the Republican Convention, on the other hand, political awkwardness was much less themed in favor of humor that focused on policy and character. Both policy and character shortcomings were exploited for laughs with significantly more frequency during the Republican Convention. [Emphasis Mine]

So, in other words, Democrats were covered in a "more light-hearted fashion," identified as pandering or bumbling. But the humor at the RNC took a "sharper edge," focusing on policy failures and character flaws. Thus, Morris answers his first question in the affirmative - The Daily Show was "more sharply pointed" at the GOP.

To answer his second question, he relies on the National Annenberg Election Study, which interviewed the same respondents before and after the conventions 2004. He examines in particular those who identified The Daily Show as one of their regular viewing choices to see if watching Stewart changed their views. Controlling for basic demographic and political factors (like race and partisanship), Morris finds that favorability toward President Bush after the RNC was negatively correlated with watching The Daily Show. In other words, all else being equal, watching Jon Stewart during the RNC made one less likely to be favorable of Bush. Morris also tested for other late night comics, as well as talk radio, newspaper, cable and network news - and did not find such a correlation anywhere else (though watching Letterman during the DNC was correlated with less favorability toward George W. Bush).

In particular, Daily Show viewers were less likely to say that "Bush is easy to like as a person," "Bush is trustworthy," and "Bush says one thing and does another" after the RNC. [Morris finds a similar result for Letterman: watching Letterman during the RNC made one less trusting of Bush.]

Now, before we go off proclaiming that this is definitive evidence of media bias influencing public opinion, some caveats are in order. First, Morris tested many types of media - the late night comedians, talk radio, cable and network news, and the newspapers. Generally speaking, few of these media had any appreciable effect on views about the candidates. Instead, the two biggest factors were partisanship and the views one had going into the conventions. In other words, the net effect of the conventions was mostly to have one's preexisting views reinforced. Beyond Jon Stewart [and to a lesser extent David Letterman and talk radio], the media had very little influence on its viewers. Broadly speaking, this cuts against the idea that bias in news or entertainment influences public opinion.

Second, we have to be careful not to overestimate the magnitude of Stewart's effect, even if we admit he has one. It's one thing to talk about a news slant having an influence on people. But when we're talking about an influence on people's political choices, we have to keep in mind the appropriate scale. Last week The Daily Show pulled in 1.6 million viewers. That's fewer than Adult Swim on Cartoon Network and just 1.2% of the total number of people who voted for President last November. Additionally, more than half of the core audience for The Daily Show identified itself as Democrat during both conventions in 2004, and only between 20% and 40% labeled themselves Independent, the political group whose votes are most up for grabs. So, we're talking about an even smaller fraction of the total population that might actually be swayed. And, from the looks of it, those who are otherwise inclined to the GOP click away from Comedy Central at 11 PM - meaning that while Stewart might be skewering Republicans most harshly, he is basically preaching to the converted.

So, I think the answer to the title question has to be an extremely qualified yes. Those who consistently view the Daily Show probably can be swayed to the left - but this is a relatively small slice of the public, which means that the effect on political outcomes is probably quite small. On top of that, the audience seems to be pretty self-sorted, anyway. So, the effect in 2004 might have been real on some people, but in the grand scheme of things it was quite modest.

Update: A few weeks ago, Gary Andres also wrote on the Morris article about Jon Stewart for The Weekly Standard online. His analysis is quite good. I encourage you to check it out!

-Jay Cost

Race, Realignment, and the Election of 1948

The following are remarks delivered at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, PA on April 21, 2009. My thanks to Professor Philip Harold for the invitation.

In the last 100 years, there has been a massive shift in which region votes for which party. The historic election of 1896 looked like this:


The election of 2004 looked like this:


As you can see, the two maps are nearly inverses of one another.

There are a lot of reasons why this happened - some of which have to do with Harry Truman and the historic election of 1948.

Today, the Democratic Party is home to more than 90% of African American voters. However, this was not always the case. The Democratic Party's historic heartland was the South - and for nearly a century following the Civil War, the party was not in favor of advancing civil rights. Woodrow Wilson was the first Democrat elected to the presidency in the 20th century. He beat William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt in a three-way race in 1912. A native Virginian - one of his first actions in government was to reinstitute segregation in the federal workforce. This was the lament of W.E.B. Dubois, who had backed Wilson:

Public segregation of civil servants, necessarily involving personal insult and humiliation, has for the first time in history been made the policy of the United States government.

Wilson left office in 1920 - and for the next three electoral cycles, the Democrats were hard pressed to win states outside the South. All of this changed in 1932 - the Great Depression brought Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats to national dominance. Nevertheless, the South still was the backbone of the party's coalition - and Roosevelt was not prepared to rock the boat on civil rights.

For instance, FDR set aside Wilson's discriminatory policies, but he stayed neutral on an anti-lynching bill that was brought to the floor of Congress in 1937. This was his reasoning:

I did not choose the tools with which I must work. Had I been permitted to choose them I would have selected quite different ones. But I've got to get legislation passed to save America. The Southerners by reason of the seniority rule in Congress are chairmen or occupy strategic places in most of the Senate and House committees. If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass...I just can't take that risk.

The conventional wisdom of Roosevelt's presidency holds that his election in 1932 initiated a new liberal government and voting coalition that lasted for 50 years. This is not really true. In fact, Republicans made a giant comeback in 1938, so that the Democratic majority in the House depended entirely on southern Democrats, who were conservative.

This put FDR in a difficult political spot - and the above quotation indicates the choice that he made.

Of course, this should not be taken to imply that the Democratic Party was united in opposition to civil rights. It wasn't. The 1932 election ultimately realigned the parties so that progressives, who had previously been in both parties, were almost exclusively on the Democratic side of the ledger - and they demanded civil rights. Symbolically, this could be seen by Eleanor Roosevelt's stand - she, for instance, resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution in protest of their discriminatory policies.

But by 1940, the looming conflict in Europe took hold of the popular consciousness - and it wasn't until Truman's elevation to the White House, followed by the end of World War Two, that the country began to focus on domestic concerns.

Harry Truman came from a state that had permitted slavery prior to the Civil War - and in many respects he reflected the prejudices of the day. Nevertheless, he had carved out a fairly liberal record on civil rights during his time in the Senate. Truman supported strong anti-lynching legislation. As President, Truman was as liberal as Roosevelt on economic matters, and more liberal on civil rights matters.

Ultimately, there were no landmark pieces of legislation on civil rights in Truman's tenure, which historian Barton Bernstein has called ambiguous on the question of civil rights. Truman issued executive orders against segregation in the armed services and the civil service. In his state of the union address in 1948, Truman made a rhetorical pitch for civil rights:

The United States has always had a deep concern for human rights. Religious freedom, free speech, and freedom of thought are cherished realities in our land. Any denial of human rights is a denial of the basic beliefs of democracy and of our regard for the worth of each individual.

Today, however, some of our citizens are still denied equal opportunity for education, for jobs and economic advancement, and for the expression of their views at the polls. Most serious of all, some are denied equal protection under the laws. Whether discrimination is based on race, or creed, or color, or land of origin, it is utterly contrary to American ideals of democracy.

Taken today, this is pretty conventional. But in 1948, it was an extraordinary statement to make - particularly by a Democratic President looking to be reelected in just ten months.

A few weeks later, Truman made several specific requests to Congress, including:

-Establishing a permanent Commission on Civil Rights
-Strengthening existing civil rights statutes.
-Providing federal protection against lynching.
-Protecting the right to vote.
-Establishing a Fair Employment Practice Commission.
-Prohibiting discrimination in interstate transportation facilities.
-Giving D.C. suffrage and self-determination.

Of course, a lot of this was political posturing. There was not much expectation that the Congress in 1948 - controlled by Republicans - would act on any of this. And Truman did not actually follow up his message to Congress with specific pieces of legislation. Truman's executive order on military desegregation was implemented quite slowly, due to resistance from the military brass. Much of the desegregation occurred only at the start of the Korean War, when the military had to scramble to build a fighting force of sufficient size.

Instead, the idea in 1948 was to make Truman look as vigorous and forward-thinking as possible, then blast the do-nothing Republican Congress. Additionally, the black vote in the North had moved to the Democrats starting with the New Deal, but Truman's political advisors believed that it would be up for grabs in the upcoming election - and that it could even be the decisive factor in New York, which for more than a century had been the quintessential swing state. The trouble for Truman was that he expected the GOP nominee to be Tom Dewey, governor of New York. His advisors feared that losing New York would mean losing the presidency itself.

Ultimately, the President and his advisers were betting that the South would stay Democratic, despite the President's moves on civil rights. The thinking was that it had nowhere else to go. Republicans were still persona non grata in the South - and Dewey would never be an option for Dixie. So Truman's advisers calculated that he could move to the left on civil rights to pick up the black vote and inspire the party's liberal base in the North.

In July of that year, Truman and his team would learn that they bet wrong. The Democratic Party held their convention in Philadelphia from July 12th to July 14th, and it was the most divisive the party had held since 1896, possibly since 1860 when the Southern and Northern Democrats split in two.

Above all, there was a fight about what the party's platform should say on civil rights. Truman initially endorsed a lukewarm plank on civil rights, similar to the one in the 1944 platform. Liberals, however, wanted something more full-throated, one that endorsed Truman's requests to Congress.

The party leaders initially endorsed the moderate plank - but then Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey (who would be the Democratic Party nominee in 20 years time) gave a historic speech endorsing a stronger plank. He closed with this moving statement:

In these times of the world economic, political and spiritual, above all spiritual crisis, we can not, and we must not, turn from the paths so plainly before us.

That path has already led us through many valleys of the shadow of death, and now is the time to recall those who were left on that path of American freedom. To all of us here, for the millions who have sent us, for the whole two billion members of the human family, our land is now more than ever before the last, best hope on earth. I know that we can, and I know that we shall, begin here the fuller and richer example of that, that promise of a land for all men truly free and equal, and each man uses his freedom and equality wisely and well...

I ask this Convention to say in unmistakable terms that we proudly hail and we courageously support our President and leader, Harry Truman, in his great fight for civil rights in America.

Ultimately, the convention - moved by Humphrey's speech - endorsed the liberal plank. Truman was mightily displeased, worried that the South would walk out, split the party, and hand the election to Dewey and the Republicans.

And walk out they did. A few days later, Southern Democrats assembled a states' rights party - called the Dixiecrats - and nominated South Carolina senator governor Strom Thurmond for President. Even more ominous for the President - the Progressive party nominated FDR's previous vice-president, Henry Wallace. The Democratic Party was thus split into three factions.

Despite this, as we all know, Truman campaigned hard, speaking at whistle stops across the country from the back of his train, and ultimately won the election of 1948. This is what the map looked like on Election Day.


Truman won 303 electoral votes to Dewey's 189 and Thurmond's 39. He pulled in 49.5% of the popular vote. Dewey won 45.1% and Thurmond 2.4%. As it turned out, Wallace was a non-factor, winning no electoral votes and just 0.6% 2.4% of the popular vote.

Truman won without the Deep South, which went for Thurmond. But Thurmond did worse in the South than many had expected, and Truman swept the border states. While Truman lost much of the Northeast, including New York, which went for Dewey (barely) - he still won Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which had been voting Democratic since 1928. He won most of the big cities, by that point the heart of the Democratic coalition, and he also struck at the heart of the GOP's voting bloc. He won the farmers in Wisconsin and Iowa in the Midwest - which FDR had lost four years earlier - he also swept the Mountain West, another historic base of the GOP. FDR had failed to do that in 1940 and 1944.

Scanning the history of Democratic presidential victories to this point, you'd never find a voting coalition that looked quite like the one Give 'em Hell Harry put together in 1948. It was unique.

And significant. For two reasons.

First, Harry Truman was the first Democrat since the Civil War to win the presidency without the unanimous support of the South. So, what we have in 1948 is the first signs of the Democratic Party moving beyond its southern roots and becoming a northern- and western-based party, which is exactly what it is today. Southern conservatives would stay in the Democratic Party for some time - those Dixiecrat states actually voted against Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 - but starting in 1964, they would begin voting Republican. So, a large portion of today's political alignment is due to Harry Truman's victory in 1948. It was one of the first steps in remaking the Democratic Party's voting coalition, and eventually the GOP's, too.

Second, though Truman's administration did not pass landmark legislation on civil rights, the fact that Truman won reelection after his party endorsed a liberal civil rights plank, based on his own policy recommendations, meant a political victory on civil rights. It was a lesson to later Democrats: the Democratic Party could win without the South, and therefore need not be as conciliatory as Franklin Roosevelt was on civil rights.

Lyndon Johnson learned this lesson well - coming into office upon John Kennedy's assassination in 1963, he shepherded the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act to passage. He believed - correctly, as it turned out - that this would doom the Democratic Party in the deep South. But, thanks to the election of 1948, he also knew that the Democratic Party could still win.

In the final analysis, we have to give Harry Truman some credit for these positive developments. Again, his administration is not to be credited for passing landmark legislation on civil rights. His bold pronouncements were intended at least in part for political purposes.

But that's still important. Political scientists assume that politicians are - first and foremost - concerned about securing reelection. It comes before policy. So, even if a policy might be in the best interests of the country, a politician shouldn't be expected to back it if he thinks it will result in him losing reelection. So, while Truman's breakthroughs were political and not policy-oriented, the political victories paved the way to future policy breakthroughs on civil rights.

That's pretty impressive for an "accidental" president.

-Jay Cost

Chasing Down the Kennedy Cool

Stu Rothenberg's column today was an interesting one. He notes:

For the national media, Barack Obama isn't merely the president of the United States. He's so much more than that.

Obama is a celebrity, and he and his family are covered that way. That means there is a heavy focus on the personal, making Obama the first "Entertainment Tonight president."

Rothenberg goes on to compare the White House operation to the HBO show Entourage, even likening Robert Gibbs to Turtle. Ouch.

He notes correctly that the White House is cultivating this celebrity image.

In encouraging all of the celebrity coverage (journalists don't need much encouragement given the public's apparent unquenchable need for gossip), the White House surely is trying to keep Obama's appeal high among those Americans who really don't care a great deal about politics.

Being celebrities gives the Obamas a bigger audience, and probably deeper emotional commitments, than many politicians receive. Even if the economy doesn't recover completely and Obama's policy proposals stir up opposition, he could retain his popularity - and, with it, political clout on Capitol Hill - because of his (and his family's) celebrity coverage and appeal.

Like the title indicates, I think the Obama White House is looking to chase down that elusive Kennedy Cool. For some reason, Democrats can't seem to resist this - despite the fact that Kennedy's domestic agenda was stalled in Congress. Nevertheless, both Bill Clinton and John Kerry actively worked to be Kennedyesque.

Obama has been more successful at it. Whether or not this is a good thing is an open question - one which I am inclined to answer in the negative. I think Rothenberg is stretching when he says that Obama's celebrity marketing could help him retain his popularity if the economy stays in the tank. (More broadly, this shouldn't be taken as a good thing, should it? If he does a bad job, but remains popular because of his many covers on Rolling Stone, isn't that bad for democratic accountability?) I also do not think this marketing strategy is going to generate "deeper emotional commitments." After all, the celebrity culture is fundamentally shallow. Actors, musicians and the miscellaneous "hot messes" who are the focus of it are treated like disposable commodities - the public pays attention until they get bored, then they unsympathetically move on to the next hot mess.

What inclines me to fall on the negative side of the ledger is not the Kennedy mystique/celebrity image per se. It's a political marketing strategy that is as good (and phony) as any other. My objection is that times have changed - and not even somebody as powerful as the President can change it back. There is now a mass market for all things celebrity, which means the President has to inhabit the Cool Space with things that are, I think, a bit beneath the office. See the following picture, which I saw while shopping last night:

Obama In Touch.jpg

The President and the First Lady are sharing cover space with: (a) Brangelina; (b) irresponsible dieting and unattainable body images; (c) Britney. To me, this is at least a few degrees off the Kennedy Cool. Kennedy got the cover of Life magazine. Obama gets to share InTouch with a lady in a bikini. Not as awesome.

Call it the nature of the age. Everybody loved the Kennedy Cool, and the Hollywood Cool, and the Rock 'n' Roll Cool. So it was mass marketed, and the strategic reps of ambitious celebrities intentionally manipulate it, working in collusion with big media corporations looking to maximize circulation and/or viewership. And then you see Mario Lopez on Extra! and you realize...cool jumped the shark a long time ago. These days, Bob Dylan - one of the original cool guys - is wearing a pork pie hat and singing in a bluesy rasp about the great beyond. That should tell us something.

When a President's job approval is well above 50%, as Obama's currently is, he can do no wrong. Every move he makes is brilliant. Every word he utters is genius. But when that number trends toward 50% or lower - as it inevitably does for every President who serves a full term (unless you're Dwight Eisenhower and won a war!) - the knives come out, as your political opponents, who have not disappeared but are lying in wait, sense an opening. And it seems to me that this is one area where Obama could be vulnerable.

Remember this?

Simply because Obama won the election does not mean that this line of attack is buried forever. Republicans believe - correctly, I think - that this spot damaged the President last summer. A variant of this could be resurrected next cycle. Imagine an ad that blasts the President for posing for his buddy Jann Wenner's Us Weekly instead of working to create jobs. Unfair? Yes. Manipulative? Sure...but more, less, or as manipulative as the Obamas talking "pregnancy news" to a $2.99 grocery store celeb rag?

-Jay Cost

Michael Steele Does So-So

When Michael Steele first started at the job of RNC chairman, I was very skeptical. I saw two big problems with his behavior: (a) it seemed to me like he had a wrong impression of the job of the RNC; (b) his comments, while they might be the tonic the party needs, should not come from the RNC chairman, whose job is to convince Republicans to donate money.

The best way to judge the national committees is by how much they raise. By this metric, we have to conclude that Michael Steele has done so-so to this point. Certainly not great, but not yet cause to sound the alarm bell.

Jim Geraghty has the details:

In January, Steele's first month, the party collected $5.8 million. In February, $5.1 million. Last month, $6.7 million. Including $7 million transferred to the RNC by the McCain-Palin campaign, the committee raised $25.3 million in the first quarter.

By contrast, the DNC raised $5.5 million in March, and transferred $2 million from Organizing for America -- the entity that used to be the Obama campaign. For the quarter, the DNC raised a bit more than $13.8 million.

Geraghty concludes that the concerns some have had about Steele as RNC chairman are looking "increasingly overblown." I think that is conclusion is a bit hasty. The jury is still out on Steele's ability to raise cash.

Let's put this in historical perspective. We're in the first quarter of the midterm election cycle. So, for comparative purposes, that means that January through March of 2005 are the best months for comparison. In that period, the RNC received $34.2 million, of which $32.3 million were contributions (as opposed to transfers, offsets, or other miscellaneous receipts). Meanwhile, the DNC received $16.7 million during that period, of which $14.1 million were contributions.

So, the RNC is not even close to matching the pace it set four years ago, but it is doing a little bit better than the DNC was (then and certainly now). What should we make of this?

On the one hand, it might be setting the bar too high to expect the RNC in 2009 to match its haul in 2005. That was just months after the GOP won a solid victory, and President Bush was still reasonably popular (Gallup had his job approval in the low 50s, high 40s at that point). It was a pretty good time to be a Republican. Factor in the fundraising draw that a sitting president is - and we might not be surprised that the RNC in 2009 is behind where it was four years ago. Also, the RNC raised about $3 million more in the first quarter of 2009 than it did in the first quarter of 2007. I don't think that is the ideal comparison because there were other draws for party dollars at that point. Rudy and Romney had already pulled in some $37 million combined by that point. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning.

On the other hand, historically speaking, fundraising receipts have had an inflationary quality over the past decades. Regardless of campaign context, the party committees seem to raise more and more each year - so that, for instance, John McCain's RNC raised $30 million more than George Bush's RNC, even though Bush won his election by two points while McCain lost his by seven and a half.

Another point - I do not derive too much information from comparing the RNC to the DNC. The DNC had real fundraising problems during Howard Dean's tenure. He did not raise as much money as one should have expected in either 2006 or 2008. Tim Kaine - who is still part time, so long as he is governor of Virginia - might have a real job on his hands in rebuilding the committee's fundraising capacities. That the RNC is beating the DNC does not say much about whether the RNC is where Republicans need it to be. Anyway, the DNC has Barack Obama, who can raise oodles of cash via fundraisers whenever he likes.

All in all, I'd suggest that these numbers are passable, but certainly not extraordinary. Steele underperformed relative to 2005, but that might not be as problematic as it first appears. Nevertheless, these numbers suggest that party regulars should keep a close eye on the RNC.

-Jay Cost

plus ça change...

In politics, it's like the French say: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

There have been big political changes in the last four years. But for as much as things have changed, many things are still pretty much the same as they ever were.

I look to my left, and I see liberals excusing Obama's hyper-partisan moves, the same kind they attacked during the previous administration. Bush is to be condemned for dividing, not uniting. But Obama's failure to transform our tired old politics is merely an artifact of this polarized age - not to mention the pathetic rump that is the contemporary GOP. If extremists like Richard Lugar can't get on board, that's their problem. The President should simply appeal to Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents. That way, he can secure the blessings of the Permanent Democratic Majority®. Never mind the previous election that swung the other way, despite a roughly identical electorate and a hyper-partisan Republican president.

I look to my right, and I see conservatives, one Senate seat short of losing their toehold on power, making moves against Arlen Specter, a Republican who has managed to win five consecutive elections in Pennsylvania, a state that's had a Democratic tilt since the Great Depression. This is despite the fact that Jim Bunning's eccentric behavior has the party hoping he has the good sense to retire. Yet a reader trenchantly notes of Bunning: "[A]s a pitcher, Bunning stuck around untill he was 5-12 -- with a 5.48 ERA -- for the 1971 Phillies. The GOP "elders" won't succeed in pushing him out." So, the party will probably enter 2010 knowing that one seat (and potentially the filibuster) is gone - which makes it the perfect time to spend millions on an internecine battle against an ally with a 5-0 track record in a blue state.

From one perspective, this is all quite a big change from four years ago. But from another, it's the same old same old. Back then, the roles were the same, just cast differently. Republicans, completely in charge, were blaming Democrats for the partisan rancor, and touting their own permanent majority. Today, it's young voters, professionals, and Hispanics. Back then, it was exurbanites, 93 of the 100 fastest growing counties, and...Hispanics! Meanwhile, liberals were plotting against Joe Lieberman, one of their own, who (fortunately for them) was not so alienated that he decided to caucus with the GOP in the 110th Congress.

The secret of partisan politics is that both sides have more in common than they care to admit. It's like Superman and Bizzaro Superman (or, if you prefer, Jerry and Bizzaro Jerry). They're opposites, but they're exact opposites, which means you're bound to see similar patterns. For instance, many on both sides believe theirs is the repository of the good, the right, and the true - and that the other is a narrow clique of hacks or fools. Exactly opposite. So also are their views on what is appropriate political strategy. For liberals, Republicans were being petty and playing too rough from '01 to '07. But now, Democrats are doing what they have to do to get things done for the country. For conservatives, Democrats are being petty and playing too rough now, though back then Republicans were doing what had to be done. Again, exactly opposite.

In other words, when you look beyond the issues, you see two similar groups of people who happen to be set against one another. Take, as the most recent example of the similarities between the two sides, the tea parties. Liberals were dismissing them as the astroturfed efforts of a narrow clique of conservative interest groups, populated by little more than right-wing rabble-rousers. Conservatives were touting them as a genuine expression of popular outrage, a warning to the leaders of the government to heed the voice of the people. This is the exact opposite interpretation of the antiwar protests in the early part of the decade.

And so I "boldly" predict the following. When conservatives return to power, they will declare that the most recent election (but not the one before it!) really, truly settled our 100-year long ideological battle, and that the radical, liberal rump of the Democratic Party has only itself to blame for its alienation from the new, permanent majority. Liberals, meanwhile, will rediscover the virtues of bipartisanship - and take their frustrations out on their own, blaming their moderates for the party's inability to win the middle.

-Jay Cost

It's better to give than to receive!

Obama Taxes.jpg

-Jay Cost

Pressure Mounts on Jim Bunning

On Tuesday I noted that the Republican Party organization is lining up to support Arlen Specter in his battle against Pat Toomey. Meanwhile, it appears to be moving against Jim Bunning.

Our former colleague Reid Wilson has an interesting article at The Hill, which features this little tidbit:

Bunning will face either a rematch with Mongiardo or a battle with state Attorney General Jack Conway (D), who announced his own candidacy last week. Conway is rapidly scooping up support from prominent Kentucky Democrats while Mongiardo has backing from Gov. Steve Beshear (D).

If Bunning leaves the contest, Republican sources close to Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R) say Grayson is prepared to make a bid, and that he would make his announcement within hours of Bunning's own. [Emphasis mine]

I'd take that as a strong signal of the party's intention. Don't let the door hit you on the way out, we'll have a replacement within hours!

The main thrust of this story is that Bunning's first quarter fundraising numbers were dreadful:

Bunning raised just $263,000 in the first quarter, finishing March with $376,000 in the bank. Making matters worse, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, the only Democrat who raised money during the quarter, brought in almost $430,000 after just more than a month of fundraising.

As Reid reports, Mitch McConnell, who is not up for reelection for six years, actually outraised Bunning. That makes me suspect that the party establishment is actually trying to freeze Bunning out. It's impossible to know for sure - frustratingly, all of the really interesting stuff of party politics occurs behind doors that are closed, locked, and flanked by armed guards. But I'd note with interest that Mitch McConnell's Bluegrass PAC contributed to eight Republican senators during the previous filing period: Burr, Specter, Crapo, DeMint, Grassley, Isakson, Shelby, and Thune. It chipped in to the NRSC, the Kentucky GOP, the Coleman recount fund, and even Rob Portman's campaign to replace George Voinovich in Ohio. However, not a dime to Bunning. From the looks of Bunning's recent fundraising report, Republican politicos and money (wo)men are taking the cue from McConnell and company.

Not only is the GOP not helping Bunning out, it's also blasting him for not getting any help (anonymously, of course):

"Given what [Bunning will] need to compete in 2010, this is a disaster," said one Kentucky GOP operative. "The margin for tactical error since his race in 2004 has decreased dramatically, and the amount it takes to win in 2010 has increased dramatically."

Talk about adding insult to injury!

Overall, I find this Bunning story fascinating. The party organization has limited means at its disposal to push incumbent candidates out of a race. None of them are particularly efficient - sometimes they can work, but it is typically messy. So, they are rarely employed. But it looks to me like the party is doing everything it can to push Bunning out. This is a rare occurrence - and one to keep watching if you're interested in how the party actually functions.

-Jay Cost

NRSC Set To Back Specter

This snippet from the Washington Post's overview of Arlen Specter's candidacy stuck out at me:

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has written a letter to fellow Republicans asking them to support Specter.

"While I doubt Arlen could win an election in my home state of Texas, I am certain that I could not get elected in Pennsylvania," Cornyn wrote. "I believe that Senator Specter is our best bet to keep this Senate seat in the GOP column."

In a sign of party support, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell's Bluegrass PAC contributed $10,000 to Specter last month.

This is par for the course. Typically, party committees back their incumbent candidates, even a heterodox like Arlen Specter. In 2004, the NRSC contributed $320,000 in Specter's effort to defeat Toomey, and his fellow senators contributed $83,000 prior to the primary election. In contrast, while Toomey received some aid from outside groups (like Club for Growth) and fellow House members, sitting Senators did not support his cause.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. For instance, in 2002 the NRSC basically withheld support of Bob Smith in New Hampshire, contributing just $15,500 nearly 10 months before the primary. While a few sitting senators endorsed Smith, others endorsed his opponent, John Sununu, who had the endorsement of George H.W. Bush and Andy Card, George W. Bush's chief of staff at the time of the primary. Plenty of incumbent senators tossed in thousands of dollars to help him defeat Smith in the primary.

Clearly, that will not be happening with Arlen Specter this cycle. Instead, look for a move against Jim Bunning. The party right now is doing everything it can to induce him to step aside. If he doesn't, it will be interesting to see if and how the GOP supports his opponent. The reason is best summarized by Richard Shelby's justification of backing Sununu over Smith: "'It was not personal at all, it was strategic." Exactly. The party is in pursuit of a majority, and it is likely to back the candidate most likely to win. In most cases, this is the incumbent.

In my opinion, I think the GOP is making the right move here. While I appreciate that conservatives are aggravated with Arlen Specter and his persistent moderation - not to mention his cantankerous nature - I have trouble seeing how a coldly rational cost-benefit analysis justifies the challenge. The trouble is that Toomey's chance of winning the Senate seat will be substantially lower than Specter's. This decreased probability of victory must be balanced with whatever increased conservatism he might exhibit in the Senate should he win - which makes me think that overall the party will be worse off. And then of course there is the cash that will be spent on the primary alone - as mentioned above, the NRSC alone contributed $320,000 in 2004. That is money that could have gone to help Republicans defeat Democrats.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, the party's support is limited. There are pretty strict rules about how much a party can give directly to a candidate, or even coordinate with a candidate on spending shared dollars. Parties have unlimited capacity to spend independently of candidates - but that means there is no coordination between the two, and thus the prospect of inefficiency and even embarassment.

I suppose you could say that this is the ying to the candidate control yang. Party organizations in our system are quite weak. Just as the party cannot really induce Arlen Specter to be a "better" Republican - it cannot stop Toomey from challenging him, nor can it even contribute a difference-making sum to save the senior senator from Pennsylvania. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, candidates like Specter basically stand on their own.

-Jay Cost

Are American Voters Ideologically Polarized?

I've written recently on this blog about political polarization, noting several factors that point to its rise: (a) there has been an increase in ideological sorting among the parties, with conservatives being more closely identified with the Republican party and liberals more closely identified with the Democratic party; (b) partisan identification is a better predictor of vote choice than it was several decades ago; (c) partisan sentiment for the other side has been turning negative; (d) job approval of recent presidents has fallen more starkly along partisan lines in recent years.

The implication of these considerations is that the electorate is becoming more deeply polarized. However, we have to be careful with how far we take this idea, as recent scholarly work has shown that there might be limits to the polarization hypothesis. The evidence is mixed - and there are competing camps among political scientists. Some, notably Alan Abramowitz of Emory, have argued that polarization along issue and ideological lines has been on the rise. But others, notably Morris Fiorina of Stanford and Samuel Abrams of Harvard, have cautioned against this conclusion, asserting that while the electorate might be closely divided, it is not deeply divided.

Obviously, this is not the forum to arbitrate between these claims, and I am far from qualified to be the final judge. Instead, what I want to do today is highlight the big reasons reasons why some argue against ideological polarization in the mass public. This is the view to which I am partial - and ultimately I wish to show how this position is consistent with the polarization we have seen in voting and presidential approval.

First off, we have to stipulate the following: there is a broad consensus that political elites have become more polarized. Evidence for this abounds. Consider, for instance, the following chart. It uses congressional voting to track the ideology of the median legislator by party and region.

Ideology Since 1893.jpg

Positive scores (0 to 1) imply conservatism, negative scores (-1 to 0) imply liberalism. 0 is moderate, and I've highlighted the 0-line on both charts. So, the farther above zero you see the line rise, the more conservative the legislator is. The lower, the more liberal.

With the onset of the Great Depression, the Republican Party moderated across all four regions of the country. However, beginning around the Great Society, there was a shift to the right in all regions but the Northeast. Republican legislators in the Northeast moved rightward starting with Reagan. On the Democratic side, note that the party outside the South was quite liberal, especially after 1958. The South was the conservative faction for many decades; however, as African Americans finally won the right to vote free of suppression, Southern whites drifted to the GOP, and the "New South" began to attract different types of voters, the Southern part of the caucus has become more liberal, too. Today, thanks to what Vanderbilt's Marc Hetherington calls "the Big Sort," we have two highly polarized congressional parties: big inter-party differences and small intra-party differences.

Meanwhile, candidates for office tend to take polarized positions during the electoral campaign. Systematic evidence of issue-positioning is sparse - but the data that is out there shows that candidates for Congress typically adopt positions more in line with the party, rather than the middle of the electorate, which is where the classic economic theory of voting predicts candidates will converge. Many causes have been hypothesized: income inequality, redistricting, the increasing ideological nature of the congressional electorate, the increase of party power in the legislature, even the closeness of the party division in Congress has been offered as an explanation for legislative polarization. Regardless of the cause, there is consensus that elites have become more polarized.

But those are the elites. What about average voters? Have they become more polarized? Again, if we go only by their voting - they have. But that does not necessarily mean that they have become more ideologically polarized. Let's continue to use the same definition of polarization - tight clustering around two distinct ideological or issue-based poles. Has the public polarized in this fashion?

The critics assert that they have not. They make several arguments.

(1) It's easy to overstate the relationship between social groups and political groups. This has been a hot idea, what with the micro-targeting system for GOTV popularized by Karl Rove and Mark Penn. However, the relationship between the two is far from perfect - and it varies over time. For instance, white Christian evangelicals gave President Obama 26% of the vote in 2008. John Kerry won 21% of this group in 2004, which further indicates that this segment of the population is not uniform in its voting over time.

At issue here is whether social groupings imply political positions in the mass public. Even for a group like evangelical Christians, which is often assumed to have an almost determinative set of political positions based on social identification, the correlation is limited. So, for other groups - like gun owners, who gave Kerry 36% and Obama 37% of the vote - you're bound to find even weaker correlations between social group and political preference.

(2) Ideological self-identification has not changed much, with most voters still in the middle. The National Election Study has been asking respondents since 1972 where they place themselves on a 7-point ideological scale (from extremely liberal to extremely conservative). An analysis conducted by Fiorina and Abrams for the 2008 Annual Review of Political Science found little to no change in the percentage of each subset over the last 30 years. Respondents still cluster in the middle.

(3) The same goes for issue positions. The difficulty for measuring shifts in issue positions is that alterations in question wording can induce apparent changes in opinion, even if no real changes have actually occurred. Additionally, salient issues come and go, which makes it difficult to track slow-moving trends. So, researchers have to utilize a relatively small database of questions that have been asked again and again. Different scholars have drawn different conclusions using the same data. Abramowitz and Colorado State's Kyle Saunders have found increased polarization on issue positions - but, in response, Fiorina and Abrams argue that the American electorate is, "a largely centrist public drifting slightly rightward on some issues, slightly leftward on others, but with only very small declines...in the number of moderates."

(4) There has been evidence of party sorting, but its extent is uncertain. Party sorting is where partisans adopt issue positions consistent with their party's platform. Party sorting has unequivocally occurred over the last few decades - especially among better-informed voters - and there is a strong consensus that it is a consequence of cues from polarized political elites.

However, the core debate is not over if, but how much. Is this sorting limited to the core activist base of both parties, or a broader segment of the population? Results are mixed. For instance, Pew has asked voters their positions on a set of issues for 20 years - between 1987 and 2007 - and the average difference between Republican and Democratic respondents has been slight. Relatedly, the 2004 National Election Study found that 33% of strong Democrats and 41% of strong Republicans are out of step with their party on abortion. That's a high number for an issue where party sorting is thought to be quite pronounced. However, other metrics - including those offered by Abramowitz and Saunders - have found greater sorting. Hetherington recently argued that 40% of the population exhibits "deep party sorting" with another 35% exhibiting at least some. Plus, one's degree of sorting strongly and positively correlates to one's degree of political knowledge, a common finding since the 1960s. All told, the critics accept the idea of party sorting, at least to some degree, but caution against concluding that the mass public is nearly as sorted as the party bases.

So, having reviewed these objections, we can ask: does this non-polarization view square with the highly polarized results we have seen recently for voting and job approval?

Here, it becomes highly consequential that elites are polarized. We have to remember that a vote in our two-party, candidate-centered system is a binary choice between two individuals, whereas a political preference is a multi-faceted opinion about an issue. This can make all the difference in the world. A moderate voter who must choose between two extreme candidates will inevitably make an "extreme" vote choice, if only because there is no moderate in the race. If all we had to go on was his vote choice - we might conclude that he, too, is an extremist, when in fact he is not.

The same goes for job approval. Again, to quote Fiorina and Abrams: "People express approval or disapproval of the president's performance not simply by looking at their own positions, but by comparing what the president has done with what they would have liked him to do." This means that a president who is behaving in an extreme way will have a polarized job approval rating, even if there is little ideological or issue-based polarization in the mass public.

As I noted earlier - there are differences of opinion on this subject. I'm partial to the views expressed principally by Fiorina and Abrams. But Abramowitz and Saunders, on the other hand, are top-notch scholars who disagree. So bear that in mind.

Writing this year in the British Journal of Political Science, Hetherington offers his take:

Contemporary American politics is probably best described as polarized on the elite level and increasingly well sorted in the electorate. In the 109th Congress, Republicans and Democrats in the House achieved complete ideological separating, and the distance between the average Republican and Democratic member reached its highest point in nearly a hundred years. On the mass level, the ideological distance between partisans is now larger, but their attitudes are not clustering towards the poles even if their evaluations of specific polarizing political leaders are often very far apart.

I think this is a sound conclusion.

-Jay Cost

Should Obama Be Faulted for the Lack of Bipartisanship?

I have written quite a bit about polarization in the early Obama presidency. Each time I do, I receive a few emails similar to this one:

[Y]ou maintain that Obama's governing style has been highly partisan. That's simplistic: it takes two to tango and the Republicans have valued total opposition over reasonable compromise. I don't care if Obama rolled the Republicans in the public perception game or not: they're playing in the big leagues and they've been there a long time. They should know how to win that game.

This is a version of a general argument - "The Republicans have been doing it, too" - that merits a response.

To start, I agree with the reader that Republicans do it, too. I've written before on this page that politicians' commitment to bipartisanship is usually situational. They support it when they are in the minority because they want to move the policy needle in their direction. They oppose it when they are in the majority because it would push that needle in the other direction. So, yes - Republican politicians are now talking up bipartisanship in a way that is not necessarily consistent with how they governed. That's not a Republican thing, it's a politician thing.

Additionally, I don't think polarization is necessarily a bad thing. Polarization - as I see it - is where you have small differences within each party, but big differences between the parties. One beneficial consequence of such a situation is that the public, which is not really paying careful attention, stands a better chance of perceiving real differences between the two sides. Ultimately, that can make electoral results more meaningful - as a vote for a party can be better identified with a vote for a governing philosophy.

My gripe with the President is not due to the fact that I endorse bipartisanship, my gripe is that he did. I watched his candidacy very closely, from the moment he declared his campaign in Springfield to the moment he declared victory in Chicago. "Change" was his top-line slogan, and the fine print was change from the same-old, same-old partisan hackery of the past.

I think this was the foundational logic of his candidacy. There were five reasonably qualified Democrats running for the nomination: Clinton, Biden, Richardson, Edwards, and Dodd. All of them had at least as much experience as Jimmy Carter, the least experienced Chief Executive in the modern era. Obama had less experience than all of these competitors, and even less than Carter. So why was he running? The answer was that the old rules no longer applied, that experience was now a liability, and that we need a fresh face to change the way politics works.

So, now Obama is in charge, and as the Python boys might say: bipartisanship is not quite dead, but it's not at all well. The reader has a point, "It takes two to tango." Indeed, it does. Even if we assume that all politicians would be well off with bipartisanship, we're still faced with something like the prisoners' dilemma: if one guy is bipartisan and the other is partisan, the bipartisan guy gets screwed. And actually, I'd argue that, given the ideological bases of both parties, the partisan position is the ideal spot for many members of Congress, which is where all the action is on the domestic front.

My criticism of the President is not that he shares most of the blame. Instead, we should spread the blame for partisan polarization around. Obama gets some. So do Bush, Clinton, the other Bush, Reagan, Carter, and all the way back to John Adams. Pelosi and Reid get their fair share. And of course McConnell, Boehner, and congressional Republicans get just as much. Ultimately, everybody gets some of the blame because heated partisanship is in part a consequence of our electoral system, which only few of us wish to change.

Instead, my criticism of the President is that he promised to be above this. He made that the core pledge of his candidacy, the principal reason he should receive the nomination and ultimately the presidency over the dozen or so other contenders across both parties who had better résumés but had been part of the partisan hackery. It was always going to be damned near impossible to move beyond heated partisanship - given all the structural forces that have been at work since the founding, and the ones that have been increasing in the last half century or so. In my opinion, that excuses President Obama for not moving us beyond it - but it does not excuse candidate Obama from promising that he could. Either he knew better and should not have made that promise (and, by extension, should not have run, given the centrality of this promise) - or he didn't know better and was just naïve. Either way, it is appropriate to hold him to account.

We have since learned that the economy was in deep recession on Election Day. It was contracting in dramatic fashion - with the financial meltdown that began in the Fall. Factor that in with President Bush's job dismal job approval numbers, and it was simply too much for the incumbent party to overcome. With that kind of macro environment, a Democrat was all but destined to win the White House. The question was: which Democrat? Obama clearly lacked something we value - relevant experience - but promised he would make up for it by changing the way politics works. If we had known that he would not or could not, wouldn't we have preferred a "same old, same old" Democrat who had more experience in governing? I surely would have.

-Jay Cost

Should Republicans Support Toomey's Challenge to Specter?

Stuart Rothenberg's column today argues that Chris Dodd, rather than Jim Bunning, is the most vulnerable senator up for reelection in 2010. Rothenberg has a good point, and there is little doubt that both Dodd and Bunning are in trouble. But so also is Arlen Specter, who is headed toward a tough primary battle with former representative Pat Toomey.

Specter is feeling the heat, so much so that he has already released an ad against Toomey, which he subsequently had to walk back. He has good reasons to be nervous. Toomey mounted a robust challenge in 2004, and Specter squeaked out a narrow victory.

Specter's chief problem is that Pennsylvania's primaries are closed, meaning only Republicans can vote. This could make the difference because Republican registration has been falling off. At primary time in 2004, Democrats held a 500k registration edge. Last November, it was 1.3 million, thanks to new registrants and party switchers. Presumably, the voters who have drifted to the Democratic Party are more moderate - and thus more amenable to Specter. So, the remaining Republicans are presumably now more conservative, and more amenable to Toomey.

Pennsylvania is a difficult state to represent because it is so diverse. It's a bit rural, a bit urban, a bit industrial, a bit post-industrial. And then of course there is Philadelphia. Arlen Specter has dealt with this problem by racking up a studiously moderate voting record. His lifetime ideological score is 0.06 (where -1 is entirely liberal, 1 is entirely conservative). This is identical to the score of the late John Heinz, but much more moderate than Rick Santorum, whose 0.349 score made him a darling of conservatives, but a fish in a barrel in 2006.

Specter's persistent political problem is the fact that a not insignificant minority of the state's population is conservative, especially in the central and western portions of the state. This presents an opportunity for an ambitious candidate like Pat Toomey.

However, is it good for the party for Toomey to challenge? Obviously, it is good for Toomey - and many conservatives have become frustrated with Specter over the years. So, they'd like to see him go. But frustration is more an emotional response than a rational one. Specter's lifetime voting record has been moderate, but he can win the state - and he has never failed to side with the GOP on the all-important question of organizing the chamber. Toomey's record would be more conservative, but his chances of victory are much lower. Additionally, a tough, negative primary battle might damage both of them.

I want to put some hard numbers to this - or more specifically, allow you to do that. I have configured the following spreadsheet. It calculates the expected ideological score of the next U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, whether it be Arlen Specter, Pat Toomey or somebody else.

To do that, it weighs seven relevant factors against one another. The first three we hold constant:

(a) The expected ideological score of Specter. We'll hold this constant at 0.06, his lifetime score.

(b) The expected ideological score of Toomey. He had a very conservative 0.694 score when he was in the House. However, he'd have to moderate in the Senate. Let's assume that he would be as conservative as Santorum, which would put him at 0.349.

(c) The expected ideological score of the the Democratic challenger. Let's assume he would be as liberal as Bob Casey, Jr., which would put him at -.304.

The final four statistics are yours to manipulate, though I have put some baseline numbers in to get you started:

(d) Specter's chance of defeating Toomey in the primary.

(e) Specter's chance of winning the general if Toomey challenges Specter.

(f) Specter's chance of winning the general if Toomey does not challenge Specter.

(g) Toomey's chance of winning the general.

[Disclaimer: the baseline figures are not my actual estimates. They're just there to get you started.]

As mentioned above, the ideological scores here go from -1 (perfectly liberal) to 1 (perfectly conservative). They're based on the DW-Nominate methodology that is a mainstay of political science research.

The goal is to find reasonable numbers so that (a) Toomey challenges Specter and (b) the Senate is made more conservative as a consequence. I tried my hand at this for half an hour or so, and the only reasonable situations I could find where the Senate shifts to the right are where Specter's chances of defeating Toomey increase.

Final word. As you noodle with this, remember that in 2004 Toomey and Specter spent a total of $20 million between the primary and the general election. That number presumably will be higher next year - so whatever movement to the right you can generate is purchased at a very high price, with dollars that could go to help other Republican candidates.

-Jay Cost

Obama's Polarized America

The recent Pew poll has found that President Obama's job approval is the most polarized for any new President in forty years:

Pew Poll Data.gif

I have been critical of the President on this page for failing (so far) to live up to his promise of bipartisanship (see here, here, here, here, and here). It might be that Republicans have also noted this disconnection, and are disapproving accordingly.

However, this highly polarized evaluation of the President has deep roots. Pew notes:

The growing partisan divide in presidential approval ratings is part of a long-term trend. Going back in time, partisanship was far less evident in the early job approval ratings for both Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon. In fact, a majority of Republicans (56%) approved of Carter's job performance in late March 1977, and a majority of Democrats (55%) approved of Nixon's performance at a comparable point in his first term.

Polarization has been on the rise in other ways as well. For instance, in my first post-election wrap-up, I noted that statewide voting for president was becoming more polarized:

Polarized States.jpg

This polarization has also manifested itself in individual-level survey data. The following chart tracks the number of Democrat and Republican defectors in presidential elections.

Partisan Defectors.jpg

As we can see, Republican defectors have held roughly constant over the years - the only exceptions occurring in 1964 and 1992 (when most of the defectors went for Perot). Meanwhile, the number of Democratic defectors has declined over the last forty years, hitting its lowest point in 2004. It ticked back up in 2008, in large measure because of Obama's weakness among white Southern Democrats.

Generally, the same trend has been evident in congressional elections. In 1988, 17% of voters who backed their Republican candidate for Congress supported Michael Dukakis in the presidential election. In 2008, just 9% of those who voted GOP for Congress supported Obama. In other words, partisanship is not only doing a better job of predicting one's presidential vote, it's doing better with the congressional vote, too.

Meanwhile, there has been a rise in negative feelings toward the opposition. The following chart tracks how Republicans feel about the Democratic Party and Democrats feel about the Republican Party. A score of 100 implies completely positive feelings; 0 implies completely negative feelings; 50 implies neutrality.

Partisan Feelings.jpg

Partisans generally had negative feelings about the opposition in 1978, but since then they have become more so.

Unsurprisingly, this enhanced partisanship has manifested itself in the Congress, too. There has been increased ideological polarization, especially in the House - which the following graph tracks.

Ideology in the House.jpg

Much of the movement on the Democratic side has been due to the leftward shift of Southern Democrats, who are now almost as liberal as their Northern colleagues.

So, the bottom line is that party polarization has been on the rise - since before this President was even born. Of course, these Pew numbers show the greatest degree of polarization yet, which might be an indication that Republicans have noted the President's highly partisan approach, either his hard-knuckle tactics in dealing with the opposition or his policy proposals which have attracted precious few Republicans.

This governing style has drawbacks - not necessarily in the short-term, but over the long course of a presidency. From an institutional perspective, polarization can be a political winner for members of Congress - but it is often a loser for the President. After all, he is the one whose constitutional role is to represent all the people. This is a very difficult job because it is often the case that the people disagree with one another so deeply that the President cannot reflect their views and promote a policy agenda at the same time. Nevertheless, alienating a large faction of his constituency can eventually mean political trouble. A conservative congressman from Kansas can rail against big city liberals without fear of losing his job because he has no big city liberals in his district. But everybody is in the President's district, which means that highly partisan presidents can upset a sizable minority or their constituents, who might eventually create greater political trouble for him.

Polarization was quite high during the Clinton and Bush 43 years - and both of these men had very contentious tenures. President Clinton had to deal with a resurgent Republican Party that wanted significant changes in government, especially with the 1995 budget. Congressional Republicans eventually impeached him. President Bush alienated Democrats relatively early in his tenure, and by the end of his time in government he was isolated and ineffective. Ultimately, both men paid a political price for contributing to the rancor.

President Obama is also running this risk - not simply because his governing style has been highly partisan to date, but also because he explicitly promised during the campaign that it would not be. These Pew numbers are an early warning of his slide among Republicans. Obama is losing them now, just as Bush lost the Democrats early in his term. But Bush didn't just lose the Democrats - he alienated and even enraged them. Eventually, the political winds shifted against him, the permanent Republican majority turned out to be temporary, and resurgent Democrats backed him into a corner for the remainder of his term.

-Jay Cost

NY 20: A Referendum on Obama?

That's what TNR's John Judis thinks, and he concludes the tie is good news for the President.

Special elections in the first year of a new president are important because the parties turn them into national referenda. And this election was no exception. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden campaigned for Murphy in the closing weeks; Murphy, who was relatively unknown in the district, based his campaign largely on his support for and Tedesco's opposition to Obama's stimulus plan...

Murphy's election night edge doesn't suggest that the Democrats will romp in 2010. Too many things can happen in the meantime. But if Murphy had lost by a significant margin--say 56 to 44 percent--it would have shown that within a district that Obama carried in 2008, there was a significant undercurrent of discontent with his presidency and his policies. That would have emboldened Obama's opponents.

So, is it?

Answer: not necessarily.

In an article written in 1999 for Legislative Studies Quarterly, Keith Gaddie, Charles Bullock, and Scott Buchanan ask "What is so special about special elections?"

They look at special elections over a 26 year period, 1973 to 1997. They try to predict the outcome of special elections based on six distinct factors:

(a) Presidential job approval
(b) Whether the candidates held previous elective office
(c) How much money each candidate spent
(d) The racial and ethnic composition of the electorate
(e) The normal partisan vote in the district (i.e. the average GOP presidential vote in the last two cycles)
(f) Time

They run the same model for special elections and open seat, regularly scheduled elections - and they find that presidential job approval is not a statistically significant factor in special election outcomes. Generally, they conclude:

In the context of congressional elections in general, special elections are as vulnerable to the constituency characteristics and candidate-specific attributes that structure other open-seat outcomes. In that respect, then, special-election outcomes that change partisan control can be viewed as the product of normal electoral circumstances and not referenda on the administration.

This conclusion is similar to the one that Frank Feigert and Pippa Norris draw in their 1990 study of special elections (also in LSQ) in the U.S., Britain, Canada, and Australia. Like Gaddie et al., they infer that candidate-specific factors are more in play.

Now, this doesn't mean we can draw a firm and final conclusion. There are reasons why presidential job approval might not have been a factor in the Gaddie/Bullock/Buchanan model but actually mattered in NY-20. The insignificance of presidential job approval in their model might be a statistical blip. Additionally, special elections have not received much scholarly study - so our conclusions must remain tentative. Also, the nature of these special elections might have changed since 1997, making them more "national" and a kind of referendum on the President. This election in particular might have been a referendum because of the salience of national news at this point (the bank bailout, the recession, etc).

However, these findings should give us pause before we go along with Judis's conclusion. There is evidence that special elections, while generally mimicking the factors that influence open seat contests, are not referenda on the President.

-Jay Cost